|THE TRIP GETS OFF to an apropos start. We're lumbering across the prairie in search of a tiny airstrip in eastern Colorado, listening to Taj Mahal croak “She Caught the Katy (And Left Me a Mule to Ride),” when Dan, who's driving the truck, suddenly hits the brakes, steps out, and pukes. You might think this is because we'd been up till 2 a.m. drinking, or you might think it was brought on by a fear of leaping into emptiness thousands of feet above Mother Earth, but you don't know Dan. It's the stomach flu. I suggest we call it all off, but he just shakes his head and climbs back in like some Jim Harrison hero.
An hour later we are inside a remote hangar and Woodford is explaining the parts of a parachute.
“Risers, the straps that rise above your shoulders. Control lines, the lines that control the canopy. Steering toggles, the toggles that you use to steer. We sky divers are a simple lot, aren't we?”
Parachutes aren't what they used to be. The old, round, ungovernable army-surplus chutes—the ones that sent people drifting into trees and breaking both legs—are gone. The modern parachute, called a ram-air canopy, is nothing less than an inflatable wing, rectangular and double-layered. As the chute drops through the sky, air is rammed inside nine connected nylon tubes, inflating the canopy like a gigantic air mattress above your head. With judicious use of your steering toggles, you can guide your flight as precisely as a pilot guides a plane. Assuming, of course, that the chute opens.
“Now for malfunctions.” Woodford has finished detailing the equipment and how it works, and has moved on to how it doesn't.
He pushes in another video. This time a cross-eyed man, apparently a man who takes his fashion inspiration from Charles Manson, describes the different ways in which a chute doesn't open. Bag lock—the chute is pulled from the pack but not from its case. Broken lines—the lines connecting your falling body to the life-saving quilt have snapped. Line knots—said lines are tangled and the chute is little more than a fluttering lump. The footage of fouled-up chutes is mesmerizing. When Manson starts to talk about the difference between a partial and a complete malfunction, Woodford pulls out the tape.
“Forget that,” he says. “You look up and see your chute doing any of that crap, cut away and pull your reserve. There's one thing and only one thing you absolutely must do in skydiving: Put a chute above you.”
We will get a chance to practice this two-step maneuver, but first Woodford must address another hazard: obstacles.
“Trees, buildings, power lines.”
He demonstrates the proper body positions for crashing down through trees and landing on top of buildings.
“But power lines you don't hit, period. Do whatever it takes, turn any direction, hit anything else.”
I look down along the table at my three brothers. They all know well the cost of cracking up. Years ago we realized that if we combined all our accidents, there was hardly a bone in the human skeleton we hadn't broken. You pay to be a participant. The outdoor life is the physical life. We've each had our share of trips to the ER and the OR, and that's just the physical damage. Some things heal, some don't, we help one another through. At present, we're all in line for the operating table.
Chris needs surgery on his bottom front teeth. They were snapped out and then pounded back in after getting caught on the wires of a hang glider during a crash landing. Dan needs surgery on his knee after a spectacular snowboarding endo. Steve needs surgery on his left shoulder and left knee, the former because of an old gymnastics wreck, the latter from a 360 on cross-country skis. Last year I dislocated my right shoulder and tore my rotator cuff on a 5.11 off-width.
We move out to a wooden scaffold from which hang parachute harnesses and take turns pulling rip cords for over an hour, constantly giving one another shit.
“Arch one thousand, two one thousand, I can't hear you!” bellows Woodford. “Three one thousand. Four one thousand. Five one thousand. Look up. Bag o' shit. Look down. Punch-right-punch-left!”
We're counting to give our chutes a chance to open. We look up to see if the chute is “square.” If it's not, if it's a tangled, mortal mess, you look down, grab the red cutaway handle with your right hand, grab the metal reserve handle with your left, take your time, punch-right-punch-left.
Of the thousands of first-time jumpers Woodford has instructed, only two have ever had to pull their reserve. “Both did it just fine,” he says.
But what if you screw up? What if you cut away your main but, in the madness of fear, fail to pull your reserve?
“That's what the RSL is for: reserve static line.” Woodford shows us a wire that connects the cutaway handle to the reserve chute. “As long as you pull the cutaway handle, the reserve will deploy.”
But what if your main chute doesn't open and you're so freaked out you forget everything, go stiff, freeze?
“AAD. Automatic activation device.” Woodford shows us a little metal box attached to our harness. It measures how fast we're falling. If it's too fast—that is, chutelessly fast at 2,000 feet above the deck—the AAD will automatically deploy the reserve chute.