Tuesday, July 28, 2009

jump, you say? how high? how about 10,500?

There's something about hanging out at the dropzone from before when my coffee even kicks in until the hunger pains that signal dinnertime that makes it hard to return to everything else. There's a rhythm there that is easy to settle into, and an energy that makes it difficult to leave.

I went up early Sunday morning knowing I was going to spend all day, and spend all day I did. We were set with upwards of a dozen tandems, which means that our little Cessna 182 gets a workout. Also the main packer gets a workout, but that's another story. :) Packing tandems will get you strong and VERY good at sleeping bag and tent packing. Heck, packing canopies at all will get you good at those things.

Midmorning I had a lovely talk laying under the non-running plane in the back with one of the instructors. We talked about life and work and jumping and relationships and family, and I only got up once it started to ache to be in the same place for so long. Some hullaballo commenced, mostly headstands and dangerous maneuvers of that sort, chatting a little with the occasional talkative tandem. I like talking to tandems because it wasn't that long ago I was there.

I have an appreciation for the rhythm of the loads, because it seems to fall right into how I prefer my attention be broken up. It takes about 20 minutes to complete a cycle, which factors in the climb up to altitude, the jump & then flying a canopy down to the ground. I'm pretty consistently able to focus on an activity in about 20-minute chunks. Works out nicely, don't you think?

Come about 2 or 3 in the afternoon we were able to figure out how I'd fit my jumps. The tandems were all gone for the day and then it was time for AFF jumpers (of whom there were two--me and one other) and up jumpers to get some altitude. The other student would do his level 4, then I'd do my level 3 and if that went well I could do my level 4.

Level 3 is a stability jump. The idea is by this point you're supposed to be learning to control your body on your own in freefall, and for this level you essentially just have to hold steady without anyone holding onto you. It can go really well or it can be where you get stuck repeating a level. If you pass, you graduate to one instructor instead of two. On all the other levels, you have a myriad of objectives to complete, a series of sequences, but on this jump it's all about preventing turns or bobbles or wiggles. Which is harder than it sounds! A knee dropped by an inch is all it takes to throw off your entire body and send you turning! But bodies are cool things because if you let them do what they're supposed to and stop THINKING so hard, they figure it out. You just DO it. You know, like Nike.

So somehow my body figured out how to skydive in there somewhere and while it was nowhere near a perfect jump, it was a great jump and I learned a LOT about flying. Then it was time for level 4, at which you learn to turn and fly forward to dock (read: connect) with your instructor. My level 4 jump was also a fun load because I got to go up with two of my favorite jumpers! We're kind of the “new generation” at our dz, so it's fun to hang out with them. I took them climbing last week which was a total blast. S is currently the only other girl on the dz, so I like spending time with her. We'll have a couple more come fall, which'll be good too! J was the other jumper on my load, and he took video. I was worried about being distracted, but because of the nature of the dive I didn't even really notice him. And it was nice to have the video to review on the ground later. (No, I didn't keep it. What for?)

On the level 4 I completely screwed up one of the turns but I learned from it and figured it out for the second one. It's really insane what you can learn in 30 seconds of freefall, and how many hours of contemplation it feeds in the days following. I literally woke up this morning and involuntarily my brain switched to skydiving. From the exit to the landing pattern it's all a learning experience in which you can be nowhere else. I can't fit in my brain thoughts of anything BUT the immediate moment while jumping. And I like that.

I got to go off-radio (you wear a 2-way for under canopy until your instructor decides you don't need it I guess) for jump 4, which was a little nervy. But really, I didn't need it. At that point I had shown I could safely--not perfectly--land a parachute and understand what I was doing. I dread the day I have any kind of malfunction and have to troubleshoot, but that's part of it, and I'll take that risk.

After the last jump I watched S pack a student rig and my instructor offered to let me finish packing his wingsuit rig. Um, no pressure right? It's not like he'd like to keep his almost-20-years-without-a-cutaway record. I finished the pack job with HEAVY supervision. I like packing though. I like the idea of having an understanding and control of more variables of the jump.

After the last load of the day we packed up and headed out to eat Mexican food...yum. And for one of the first times in my life I wan't the only goofy one at the table, willing to be silly and loud and imaginative and happy. I have yet to meet a skydiver with a pervasively negative disposition. Yes, people get frustrated at the dz. Bad jumps happen, whatever. But at the end of the day, we jumped. We lived and played and learned.

And I am learning so much about myself...what motivates me, what worries me, what teaches me. I leave the dz at the end of the day WORKED. I wake up the next day WORKED (I swear it, skydiving is great for the thigh/butt/lower back muscles). My poor bank account even gets worked. :) I love it all, though. It's funny, I have a hard time spending time with groups of friends who aren't jumpers after being with jumpers all day. I can't settle. I feel out of place and simultaneously exhausted and revved up.

The funny thing is, I get the feeling that from the outside looking in, the perception of all of this is an amalgamation of people thinking I'm nuts and being inspired, two things I didn't anticipate. For ONCE I have chosen activities that make me unspeakably excited and happy and I have a hard time caring what someone else thinks. Yeah, skydiving sounds all well and good and everyone wants to do the quintessential tandem dive on their “To Do Before I Die” list but if you do it over and over? People think you've got a screw loose. Maybe I have got a screw loose, but that's besides the point. I'm still a baby skydiver anyways. Still just a student. Maybe I'll have more to say when I've got more jumps, but by then you'll all be tired of my rambling about jumping anyways. :)

Suffice it to say, I really love to jump. It scares the bejeezus out of me but it is uniquely wonderful. I can't wait for the next one.

Monday, July 20, 2009

there's no such thing as a perfectly good airplane

Can you find me in the photo?

Couldn't keep myself outta the sky. I decided to head on up to the dropzone for AFF Level 2 on Saturday afternoon. I dragged my ever-so-patient "person" (Grey's Anatomy reference) up with me. I can count on my hand the people I could bring anywhere (because they can blaze their own friendships and be comfortable in any new place without needing me by their side the whole time) and she's one of them.

It already feels like a little family there for me. Hugs, hellos, more hugs...I could get used to that. I had called on my way to the dz, and my instructor had answered, saying they'd figure out a way to fit me in around the multiple tandems scheduled for the afternoon. Helps to be a favorite student. ;)

Now, before I launch into much else, I'll have you know that the temperature, by my measurements, was approximately oh, seventy-eleven-billion-and-a-half. Hot by anyone's standards. So any kind of activity is pretty much miserable. Solution: get up to 10,500. It's a little cooler up there.

This lesson was muuuuuuuuch shorter, and consisted of learning some turns and how to fly forward in freefall. To turn, you look over a shoulder and tilt your upper torso ever so slightly, and then recover the turn. To fly forward, arms go back a little, legs straighten, and then you're like superman! Conceptually, I understood, and after some practice on the ground I was ready for some altitude.

We ended up having to wait a while for space on a load, since our little plane only holds four besides the pilot, and until level 4, I have to fly with two instructors. I think we finally suited up around 3 and let me tell you that putting on that jumpsuit in 100+ degree heat was vaguely unpleasant. Add 40 lbs of student rig, and you not only look like a ninja turtle (I flew in Green Bean, the lucky green jumpsuit) but you feel kinda weighed down.

Greg showed me how to do a gear check, and then let me put on my rig myself. Soon enough, it was go time.

We climbed onto the little Cessna and started the ascent to altitude. It takes about 20 minutes to climb to 10,500, so there's plenty of time to visualize everything, and plenty of time to get nervous. The first time, you don't know exactly what to expect, but the second time you remember. And it's kinda scarier!

Greg made me review everything for him, from the exit to the landing, and we practiced hand signals. At altitude, we climbed out (Dave was on my left...he hadn't been on my Level 1 and he's the dz owner, so I wanted to do well...). Hotel check, prop, up, down, arch thousand two thousand three thousand...

And this time I found the horizon pretty easily, checked my altitude, did a quick practice touch and started my turns. Right turn: textbook. So unexpectedly textbook that I didn't feel like I did anything. Left turn: botched. Tried to think about it and ended up totally screwing it up, the realization of which made me lose my arch a little. No bueno. Checked altitude and had enough time to try flying forward, which was pretty easy. Checked altitude again, and...pull time.

Pulled, turn right, turn left, flare...all was in working order. I found my play area and stayed there, then went in for my landing pattern, which I had a little more trouble with than last time and almost ended up short. I flared (braked) about eight feet too high, but still managed to stand it up. Woo-hoo!!

Sarah came out and helped me gather my canopy, and we went on back to the hangar. Greg and I debriefed, and he actually made me feel a little better about the whole dive. I definitely fixated on that left turn waaaaaay too much, so it was good to see it all a little more objectively. And I passed, which means I get to move on to level 3.

Skydiving is teaching me to control anxiousness in light of ambition, something I definitely could use practice in. I want to fly by myself. I want to wingsuit someday. I want to fly more and more and more. But I have to be patient, and I have to pace myself and focus on where I am right now. This minute, this place, this day.

Friday, July 17, 2009

explanation of why I have been so tired this week...

Part 1: Learning to Fly Solo

My first day of jump school (which refers to the many hours you have to spend with an instructor learning the basics of skydiving) was many hours long. I woke up bright and early to make my 8 a.m. appointment at the dropzone—which is 40+ minutes away—and was still a little late. No harm done, as my instructor pulled up ten minutes after I did.
We got going right away, and Greg (the instructor) wasted no time.

“Why do you want to skydive?” he asked me straightaway. My answer essentially came down to the fact that up there in the sky, I can only be there and nowhere else, and that is a realization I LOVE. I live a noisy, busy life, and so the places where I can pare that down to only the moment (climbing, jumping) are precious to me.

We then watched a short video, talked some more, and then stepped outside to start learning exit procedures (i.e. “what you do when it’s time to get out of the darn plane”). Over and over we practiced, adding more and more steps until it was all I could do to remember my own name. I walked around all day throwing my arms up and around like a crazy person, mouthing my sequence to make it second nature. I must have looked a sight.

All day was one-on-one, so I had plenty of opportunity to work through my fears and doubts and mistakes before hitting the skies. The hardest part for me was learning to keep going when I messed up. My perfectionist tendencies, which I’d like to think are pretty mild, came out in full force as I’d stop and hesitate upon realizing a mistake. This was something I had to get over—and fast. There is no room for hesitating up there, just identifying mistakes and fixing them. What a great lesson for me…

I was given about twenty minutes to myself pre-jump to practice/eat/settle my nerves. I did a couple sun salutations and a few more mock exits, and then it was time. Come jump time, we suited up (my jumpsuit was a lovely pink…that tidbit was for you, @unredacted & @cupcakemafia) and climbed in the little bitty plane.

I was NERVOUS. This was it. I kept meeting Greg’s eyes looking for something that would help settle me down, and he offered quite a bit of confidence in me, which helped. My other jumpmaster, Aldo, who I’d exchanged quips with throughout the day expressed confidence as well. We practiced some hand signals, took some deep breaths, and soon enough we were at altitude.

The door opened and we climbed out.

Check in. Check out. Prop. Up, down (let go)…arch thousand, two thousand, three thousand…and we’re flying. Flanked on either side, I easily found a good body position and started practice touches (reaching behind me to touch my parachute’s pull cord), checking altitudes until 5500. The wave off (a process by which I announce my intentions to pull my cord and open my canopy) and…it all slows down. Suddenly I’m by myself, surrounded by silent air five thousand feet up with just radio contact to keep me company.

I followed the directions given me from the ground, turning and stopping when asked, and pretty easily located my “play area” and landing zone. I played (“hey Katie, pull right—HARD…okay okay, stop the spin…”—which later I would find out solidified my already developing reputation for being a “try anything”-type, given that I felt comfortable with it) and the landing went allllllmost perfectly. I turned at all the prescribed altitudes, then flared at exactly the right height…touched down…surfed the field for a second…and ate it. Darn if I couldn’t walk it out and stand up that blasted landing.

I could tell it went well as soon as Greg came out to help me gather my canopy. He met me with a hug and congratulations and perhaps the greatest compliment of the day (from a self-described “hard-ass”): that was the best first jump I’ve seen in at least two years. I was shaking with all the excitement and smiling from one ear on up to the other. We walked on in to the hangar and debriefed. We talked about what went well and what went okay and decided my strength was in freefall, where I’d experienced hardly a wobble, and that my canopy work wasn’t too bad either. There were definitely a few improvements to be made, though. (Next jump!)

I was instructed first to leave my jumpsuit on the couch, but then Greg changed his mind, saying “nevermind that! you’re one of us…go hang it up!”. I was flattered, and probably retorted back with some snarky comment as I walked over to the closet. I sat down with Aldo and had a good long talk about why he jumps and why I want to. What a wonderful teddy-bear/kind-uncle of a person. Just good good good feelings from/about him.

I spent a little more time socializing, then headed home to watch the kids for the rest of the evening—and let me tell you, I was so tired come then I could barely stand up. I can’t wait to go back for level two…maybe this weekend or next?

Part 2: Climbing in Yosemite (or On Becoming a Trad Girl)

Without missing a beat (I did, however, miss more sleep than I should have) I got up well before the sun on Sunday for the drive up to Yosemite to meet @RikRay for my first day of trad climbing (wiki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Traditional_climbing). I had been up far too late the night before making a list of what to pack for the two-day climbing trip, laying it all out on a towel in the hallway, and finishing laundry. Thusly, I started the day tired. However, as any climbing day (or rather, ANY day, for that matter) requires coffee or its derivatives to begin properly, I felt much better after caffeinating and fueling. I filled my tank, bought some groceries, and set off for the Valley.
The drive up was pleasant, and I made sure to call my parents just to let them know I was going to be gallivanting around a few hundred feet up off the beaten path and that I’d check in in a couple of days.

Upon arriving in the Valley, I promptly got lost (which only happened because I felt comfortable enough with the place to not look up directions for our meetup point) and was 40 minutes late meeting @RikRay. Thankfully, he turned out to be exceptionally forgiving and unconcerned. Pretty much immediately we set off for the base of Manure Pile Buttress to head up After Six, a six-pitch trad climb and my first time climbing either multiple pitches OR trad. I asked the usual multitude of questions and we roped up. I followed, cleaning (or “pulling out”) gear (or “those funny-looking things climbers stick in the cracks in the rock”), managing to drop one and only one piece, and on the first pitch.

The whole climb took only a couple hours, even as slow as we were moving, stopping to talk about all aspects of the climb. I had a lot of time to myself while climbing (and well-within my ability as far as difficulty) to think about my fear of exposure and heights and deal with that. I think that primarily gym climbers have to deal moreso with the transition to trusting gear and rope—something you learn through experience if you start and spend a lot of time outside. Indoors, I climb a pretty consistent 5.10, but outdoors I got all kinds of sketched out on even 5.7 and I didn’t even lead! (Didn’t let on too much, did I @RikRay?)

We scrambled the descent talking about our fellow twitter friends and their blogs, and decided upon reaching the base that we’d take a break as it would soon be the hottest part of the day. We made our way over to the El Cap meadow and bridge, where we met Holly. Holly had taken a nasty beating on the second pitch of her latest El Cap experience and two-and-a-half weeks later still looked like hell. But smiling and willing to talk about El Cap with any and every person who stopped to look through the telescopes at the climbers on the wall.

@RikRay and I then headed for Jamcrack, where he led one last pitch and I followed. Had we had more daylight, I would have likely tried to lead it, but as it was we were able to set up a toprope on Bummer and Bum Fingers, both 5.10s! I fell a couple times but fought my way up the cuticle chewing finger crack, feeling pretty good about the day.

After that, we drove back over to my car out at the bridge, bid our farewells and I headed off for Tuolumne to meet up with @rockgrrl and her posse of climber friends. The drive (I had never been to Tuolumne!) was pleasantly gorgeous and I managed not to get lost this time, arriving just after sunset to welcoming hugs and a warm fire, plus some dinner on top of that! I got situated and soon another friend pulled up. The four of us (me, @rockgrrl, Jamie, & Peter) set up a night slackline which none of us did well on and stayed up late talking about our climbing histories and the next day’s plans.

I slept moderately well, getting particularly cold just before sunrise. I managed to doze until just after 7, when @rockgrrl woke up and we talked before extracting ourselves from the little two-person tent she graciously shared with me. Oatmeal ensued, complete with bananas and, in my case, coffee. Then it was time to assemble ourselves to head to Medlicott Dome.

We found our way to the dome, after a 45-minute detour at the wrong trailhead before we realized the approach was FAR easier than the guidebook had noted. True to the book, the actual approach was terrible and tested my capacity both to withstand incessant mosquitos and to fend off an asthma attack. I stopped often, making sure I could get a full breath before continuing. The last thing I needed, as the new climber on this trip, was to have an issue with breathing and worry everyone and cause a hullaballo.

FINALLY we arrived at the base of D’oh, where we assembled the necessary gear. The boys took more, since they were headed up three pitches and us girls would only do one and then toprope some nearby climbs. The boys set off and @rockgrrl and I waited, talking more about twitter and climbing and really anything that struck our fancies. (Not that we’re fancy, at least I know I’M not fancy…) I followed her up the pitch, managing to leave a little skin behind in the sharp crystal-y crack. We set up our toprope and by that time the boys were on their rappel. I was absolutely wiped from the weekend’s festivities, but Jamie and @rockgrrl managed to convince me to try the 10a toprope, which proved to be easier than I thought it would. I cut my teeth, so to speak, on glassy, sweaty slabs near my town and so the features there seemed juggy by comparison.

Jamie did the topropes, and then we broke down the setup and headed home, happily tired and stinky and hungry. I ate a quick dinner, packed up, and reluctantly said my goodbyes. By the time I got on the road, it was just after 7. The drive home was decidedly boring and took entirely longer than I expected on account of the fact that they decided to do late-night road construction on my route home. I arrived home dirty, scraped up, slightly sunburned, mosquito-bitten, and ready for bed. I took a mildly painful shower and crawled happily into my queen size pillowtop.
I slept well Monday night, and had to wake up way too early for my taste, but as usual, with a little bit of coffee I was able to make do. And here I am, still a little beat up but restlessly anticipating my next adventure…

Thanks to all parties involved for the great weekend and for being such wonderful people...I can't wait to meet more climber tweeps and convert some of you to jumping. :)