Road Trip South Island: Skydiving Over Fox Glacier

I went skydiving! I was going to try to write about Glacier Country first and then casually bring up the skydiving, but let’s be honest, there is no casually bringing up skydiving. And it’s way more accurate to my emotions if I just blurt it out up front.

I knew I wanted to skydive in New Zealand from the early stages of planning this trip, it was just a matter of when and where. Frank, on the other hand, had no such plan until he met me. Again, you’re welcome Frank. I had seen advertisements and gotten recommendations from friends about where to go – Glenorchy, Wanaka, Queenstown, Franz Josef Glacier – but it was the receptionist at our hostel in Hokitika that convinced us to skydive over Fox Glacier. A sport diver who has done over 2,000 jumps, when he started talking about skydiving we all got giddy with excitement. His enthusiasm was contagious and we were all ready to jump that minute; we almost had Josi convinced to skydive too. This guy has jumped all over the place but thinks Fox is the best there is, and he’s not alone.

Fox is rated #2 in the world for locations to skydive; the first is Mount Everest, which is $35,000 for a tandem dive, so I think this makes Fox the #1 place realistically speaking. As I mentioned before, weather on the West Coast is pretty terrible, so our new friend in Hokitika checked the radar and saw that Tuesday morning would be our best bet; it looked like there would be a pocket of clear skies. He knew the guys there so he offered to call and book it for us in the morning. This meant we had the night to decided between 12,000 ft and 16,000 ft (and between NZ$299 and NZ$399 – this was not a cheap adventure).

The next morning we called and booked a 16,000 ft jump for Tuesday morning at 10:00 am. Which was the next day. 24 hours later. Go big or go home.

What do you do the night before your first skydive? We didn’t know either, so after checking in at our hostel in Franz Josef we just hung out in our room with a beer each and tried to calm our nerves. Josi was no help with her constant countdown: “Just 12 hours till you jump out of a plane!” It’s a miracle I got any sleep that night.

It’s hard to describe the nervous stages before, during and after the jump. At first I felt calm, surprised at how not nervous I was. Arriving, gearing up, watching the first group take off in the plane, it all felt fairly matter-of-fact. Then the bus came back to pick us up (the landing site was a few minute drive away) and the nerves kicked in. Mauro, the cheery Argentinan who was responsible for making sure I lived, ran up to me and without giving me any time to think led me right to the plane, snapped a quick picture, and on we went. Frank and Chelsea quickly followed. It was at this point that I realized I would be the last to jump; I was sitting furthest away from the door. Shit. I was hoping to go first. Within seconds the plane took off. No turning back now.

Mauro talked me through harnessing us together and pointed out the sites around us – Mount Cook, Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers, the mountain range halfway across the island – which was helpfully distracting. Because we were going to spend a decent amount of time climbing above 10,000 ft we had to wear oxygen masks for a part of the flight. When the mask came off I went silent; when I get that nervous I just don’t talk. As I write this my heart is racing.

The door opened and Chelsea was gone. Peak nervousness. A few seconds later and Frank was gone. “Oh my god oh my god oh my god.” I was now dangling out of the plane. Hold the harness, head back, legs back. Mauro: “Ready, set…”

Freefall. LOUD SCREAM. I felt Mauro tap tap tap on my shoulder and I moved into the banana formation – arms back, look straight ahead. There was nothing above us but the plane; we were even above Mount Cook, the highest peak in NZ. To my right were snow-covered mountains, to my left was ocean, and for the entire 65 seconds of freefall I was smiling the biggest shit-eating grin you’ve ever seen (and not just because my face was a little frozen from falling through some ice). That view. Beyond words.

A quick hand-motion countdown and Mauro pulled the parachute. Time to ease our way back down to earth. We played around a bit, twirling to see the view before it was time to land. A few minutes later and it was all over, I had done my first skydive.

Safely back on the ground I ran and jumped on Frank. We were alive! And the adrenaline running through both of us was insane. Even Josi, who filmed our take-off and landing (thank you!), was so excited. When Mauro was detached from the chute I gave him a big hug and he picked me up and spun me around.

After getting my pictures (Mauro had a GoPro strapped to his hand the whole time) we went straight to a bar. Celebratory beers and shots for all. The rest of the day and for days after I would replay the dive in my mind, hoping to not totally forget it. The excitement of being in the plane, the fear of falling out of it, the happiness looking at the view, the playful landing.

I was able to pick out the most nerve-racking parts of the experience: 1) when the van came back and I realized it was my turn to go; 2) when the door opened and Chelsea disappeared; 3) the initial freefall, when your mind can still grasp that you just left safety and before the amazement at the view takes over; and 4) the instant the parachute was pulled and the only time I thought, “this could snap and I could fall to my death.” Those moments still make my heart skip, but then they remind me of the incredible experience it all was. As soon as it was over I immediately wanted to go again; that feeling has worn off a bit, but I would bet that I’ll skydive again in my life.

I can’t think of a better place for my first skydive than Fox Glacier. The view is unbeatable, and at 16,000 ft there was enough time to take it all in. We got so lucky with the weather too; by the afternoon the clouds came in and rain was back by nightfall. So thanks universe for making sure there was a clear moment so that I could have this incredible experience. New Zealand, you’re awesome.

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