The Sky’s The Limit
The biggest natural high on the planet
Wendy Smith liked to ride her horse to school in New Zealand. Then she got into motorbikes at the age of eight. By 11, she fell in love with helicopters and by the age of 17, she was skydiving. Today she jumps out of aircrafts and helicopters for a living.
Smith does stunts, makes aerial films and is particularly fond of taking people skydiving over Mount Everest. “It’s stunning,” she says of the experience. “Unbelievably stunning. With temperatures that can reach minus-45 degrees Celsius at altitude, you are 29,500 feet above the Earth, and you can see Mount Everest and the incredible Himalaya chain of mountains.
“What is sublime is to be so close to the mountain peaks, flying in their space. You think the mountains will swallow you. You become part of the landscape in a way that’s beyond belief.”
And then there is the speed. Everest skydivers free fall for about 90 seconds, reaching speeds of up to 200km/h—50 metres every second—before their parachutes open. This extreme rush is then followed by an unforgettable five minutes of “canopy flight time”, floating down to the mountain drop zone landing area.
Smith was one of the first jumpers to skydive over the 29,029-foot peak in 2008, an experience that instantly earned her a place in the record books. “Initially, I was recruited as part of a highly technical team to offer skydiving trips over Everest for the first time. It had taken years to work out the logistics and get the approvals to start, so it was a privilege to be part of the first team.
“Growing up in New Zealand, I always had my hero Sir Edmund Hillary. I’ve always carried a New Zealand five-dollar note featuring a picture of his face for good luck. Even when I was a child, I thought I would visit this place that he loved so much. But I never thought I’d become one of the first skydivers in the world to free fall over Everest.”
Since that life-defining moment, Smith has been sharing the experience with others and capturing it on film as chief coordinator and camera flyer for Everest Skydive. For those who want to join her this year, a solo skydive over Everest with the company costs just US$22,000; a tandem jump, where you are attached to an instructor, will set you back US$25,000; and friends and family can tag along to the landing area for US$5,000.
Just Do It
Just what type of person pays to skydive over Everest? Everyone, says Smith—from millionaires and “thrill-ionaires” to people who have been saving for years to skydive over something special. Recent clients have included a 72-year-old tandem skydiver who had never skydived before; a father-and-son team from the US who had come over to celebrate dad’s 60th birthday; and 29-year-old Holly Budge, an extreme sports fan with 2,500 jumps under her belt.
“It was amazing,” Budge told journalists after her Everest jump. “Just spectacular. We had a minute of free fall and while we were above the clouds, you could see Everest and the other mountains popping out of the top. I did this jump to challenge myself, to take myself out of my comfort zone.”
In 2013, Frenchman Marc Kopp, who has multiple sclerosis, became the first disabled person to skydive over Everest. Describing himself as “probably a little crazy”, Kopp said his jump was designed to convey a “message of hope to other people with the disease”.
Scottish skydiver Jane Dougall’s message was more prosaic after her experience. “Would I do it again? Absolutely not. It was the most phenomenal chance of a lifetime, but I’m a coward. I’m scared and I don’t think I’d like to do it again.”
There are other challenges besides overcoming fear. “It takes time for the body to acclimatise at this height—eating, drinking or sleeping—everything is completely different,” says Smith. “So, first we fly clients up to 9,000 feet and then trek to the drop zone at 12,500 feet. This is actually the height from which you normally exit an aircraft and skydive.”
Each skydiver wears adapted neoprene underwear with thermal suits for the extreme cold while special helmets and oxygen masks are used to stop lungs collapsing at high altitudes. Parachutes are specially customised and over-sized.
In addition to specialised equipment for parachuting, there is a team of mountaineering specialists, medical doctors, meteorologists, high-altitude parachute drop pilots, oxygen experts and the world’s best skydivers. Chief tandem instructor Tom Noonan, for example, is a professional skydiving instructor from the United States who has made 4,000 skydives and has, like Smith, been skydiving over Everest since 2008.
Giving It All
“I was brought up by open-minded farming pioneers in New Zealand,” says Smith when asked how she became such a high-profile figure in such an extreme sport. “Looking down from the sky fascinated me,” she adds. “The one privilege of boarding school was (being able) to choose a hobby session every Wednesday afternoon, so I started taking flying lessons. When I was 17 and at nursing college, I skydived for the first time. And that was it. I became obsessed with it—every spare minute, every weekend.”
Smith rapidly worked her way through skydiving qualifications and started competing at international competitions while honing her skills as instructor, safety officer and professional camera person. Transferring her passion to the UK at the age of 21, she found herself in demand as an aerial photographer travelling the world to leap over some of its most astonishing landscapes—from volcanoes and tundra to Pacific islands and Roman ruins.
Staying at the cutting edge of skydiving, however, requires a staggering amount of dedication and single-mindedness. “I have sacrificed everything for the life I lead, but I don’t regret it,” she says. “When I was young, I had a very romantic idea of a husband, children and loads of animals. I still do, but I’ve had to focus on my passion.”
During her career, Smith has won Emmy awards for her camera work, achieved world records in speed skydiving and formation skydiving, produced skydiving films, co-produced the book Eyes in the Sky, and acted as a skydiving film stunt double. Inevitably there have been times when she was in serious danger. “Out of almost 20,000 jumps, my chute has not opened four times. That’s not a bad average,” she says. “You act instinctively and activate your reserve. I’m very experienced and that experience kicks in naturally. These days, there are automated reserves and computers to help, but I never take anything for granted. It’s my life at stake.”
So what does the future hold for Wendy? “Do you mean how long can I continue?” she laughs. “I’m in good shape. I think I can stay in the skydiving game until I am at least 75.”