STANDING A FEW miles above the Earth’s surface, I stared down at the glaciers and ridges of New Zealand’s Southern Alps and gulped. My legs were dangling out of an airplane, and in a few seconds it would be time for me to jump.
I suffer from what the French call l’appel du vide, or “the call of the void.” (The closest English equivalent might be “death wish.”) It’s an urge, when you reach the edge of a high drop, to throw yourself into the great beyond. It has called to me at the edges of cliffs, on the observation deck of the Empire State Building and even at the top of stepladders when I’ve been changing light bulbs. It’s a feeling that starts in the pit of my stomach—and it has engendered in me a profound terror of heights.
A harness resembling a giant BabyBjörn tethered me to jumping instructor Zack Yusaf, my back to his chest. He rocked back and forth, gathering momentum for our jump. We were about to leap from 19,500 feet, making one of the highest commercial sky-dives in the world that doesn’t require customized planes and breathing equipment.
Far, far below me, the country’s highest mountain, Mount Cook, reared up, looking distant yet strangely clear, as if in a Google Earth image. I could see Franz Josef Glacier, one of only two glaciers in the world to pass through rain forests, grinding its way from the mountains to the lush, temperate jungle along the shore.
We’d taken off from near Franz Josef, a township of about 330 whose economy revolves around the glacier of the same name. Companies offer adventure travelers the opportunity to hike the glacier, helicopter over it or jump out of planes above it. In fact, up and down the country’s west side, outfitters crowd pretty little mountain burgs, peddling the chance to confront one’s fear, breathlessly selling the region as the “adventure capital of the world.”
“The impact on your life that the act you are now contemplating will have cannot be overstated,” one brochure gravely (if awkwardly) asserted. “You must choose.”
And choose I did—an outfitter called Skydive Franz. At the time, the company advertised its 18,000-foot tandem jump as the highest in New Zealand. But the owner, James Meldrum, offered to let me try his upcoming offering: 19,500 feet, roughly 1,000 feet short of the summit of Mount McKinley, North America’s tallest peak. In a bid to seize the, ahem, high ground against the competition, Mr. Meldrum plans to introduce the option on June 1.
Leading up to the jump, I’d had to wait for three frustrating days for the cloud cover coming from the Tasman Sea to clear—clouds not only spoil the view, but prevent jumpers from spotting their landing zones. We finally got crystalline skies with barely a wisp of cloud.
The airfield and jump zone are about 5 miles outside town, surrounded by green cow pastures. A couple of small sheds held jump suits, a coffee maker and a computer for editing videos of jumps. In a third shed, three dread-locked dudes were in a parachute-packing frenzy, folding silk and winding up cords. A Pilatus PC-6 Porter, a Swiss-made, single-engine turboprop plane, was being fueled up nearby.
With me were two Kiwis, also height averse and making their first jumps. We quietly donned bright red jump suits. Just before we climbed into the Porter, Mr. Yusaf explained how to sit on the edge of the plane once the hatch was open and showed me how to tuck my feet underneath the fuselage. On the count of three, he said, we would just roll out into the cold, clear air. “It’s going to be awesome,” he said.
There were nine of us in the Porter: three jumpers, three instructors, two photographers and Mr. Meldrum, who was piloting. There were no seats, and we sat on the floor in a tight bunch while Mr. Yusaf pointed out some of the higher mountains through the window. As we climbed, he would occasionally show us the altimeter strapped to his wrist.
When we hit 10,000 feet, the instructors passed out oxygen lines and we slipped the masks over our noses and mouths. I started to feel a tingle in my fingers that indicated I was nearly hyperventilating. In a fit of denial, I decided to chalk it up to altitude rather than fear.
At 19,500 feet, Mr. Yusaf slid open the Porter’s metal hatch. The icy wind slapped me in the face, and he yelled into my ear to swing my legs out. Puffing heavily and squeezing shut my eyes, I did so, acutely aware that nothing lay between me and a 3.7-mile fall. Mr. Yusaf began rocking. As instructed, I gripped the harness’s shoulder straps. One rock, two rocks, three—and we were in the sky.[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]‘Then, a funny thing happened: I didn’t hit the ground.’[/pullquote]
Glaciers and mountains, lakes and green fields tumbled past my eyes as I spun and flipped in the air, the wind tearing a wild, guttural scream from my throat.
But after a few moments, a funny thing happened: I didn’t hit the ground.
Mr. Yusaf tapped my shoulder—the signal that I could loosen my death grip on the harness—and I began to relax. The earth wasn’t rushing up at us; instead we seemed to float above it. The 125 mile-per-hour wind filled my eyes and mouth, but I found it almost refreshing. We spun, effortlessly; I had no sense of my own weight. We clowned with Rhys Kempen, the director and chief safety officer for Skydive Franz, who had jumped seconds before and was photographing us. It was actually…fun.
And then, after a too-short 85 seconds, Mr. Yusaf popped our parachute. I had expected a vertebrae-jarring snap, but this was almost gentle. Pulling the control lines, he steered us in a loop down to a cow pasture near the runway. Just before our landing, he pulled down hard on both lines, filling the ‘chute with air and slowing us down. We lifted our legs and slid across the grass on our derrières.
Afterward, I was drunk on thrill. I pumped the air and swore a lot. My fear of heights lay quivering at my feet, defeated—for now. Whether I was a complete person, as some of the adventure brochures suggested I would become, was open to debate. But ultimately, everyone has their own reason for jumping, Mr. Kempen said.
“Some people see it as a rite of passage,” he said. “People don’t want to go through life being boring.”
“And,” he added, “you can’t get views like that without going up there.”
The Lowdown: Franz Josef, New Zealand
Getting There: Franz Josef Township is about a five-hour bus ride from Queenstown, New Zealand.
Staying There: Lodging options range from the charmingly low-budget Chateau Franz hostel (from around $80 for double studios, chateaufranz.co.nz ) to the luxurious Te Waonui Forest Retreat, a rough-sawn cedar resort. From $580 per night, tewaonui.co.nz
Skydiving There: Skydive Franz offers tandem jumps from heights of 12,000 to 19,500 feet, starting at about $250. The higher the jump, the higher the price.
Other Activities: You can take guided tours of the glacier with Franz Josef Glacier Guides (franzjosefglacier.com ), buzz the glaciers by air with Air Safaris (airsafaris.co.nz) or just take nature walks that provide fantastic views of the landscape. (Mind the warning signs about unstable ice.) After a long day of exploring, relax in the Glacier Hot Pools. About $19 for a day in the public pools, $65 for 45 minutes in a private pool for two, glacierhotpools.co.nz
Originally published in The Wall Street Journal