Travel: A falling out between friends 

What skydiving does to the human heart

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For about 20 minutes last weekend, dressed in a jumpsuit with a parachute strapped to his back, Merlin Cormier became my new best friend. It happened about 9,000 feet in the air, just below cloud canopy, when I, clipped via harness to him, shook with fear while seated at the mouth of an open airplane door. Meanwhile he, rippling with far more experience than me, calmly reassured my nerves, then coaxed them out of the plane and into the wide open sky, from which we both fell at great speeds.

Whistler Skydive has been up and running for most of the summer. Steve Smith is the owner. A long time pilot, his head shaved and eyes friendly, Smith fell in love with the dreamlike absurdity of skydiving about eight years ago.

“I did my first tandem in Switzerland,” he said, arms propped up on the patio railing of the outfit’s Pemberton airport digs. “That night in the bar, I was sitting with the instructor and my brother, and I said, ‘I have to figure out a way to do this for the rest of my life.’”

Come 2005, a business agenda began to take shape. Over the next three years, working closely with his brother, Whistler Skydive would make it from paper to reality. Asides from Cormier, with his 4,000 jumps and competitor’s stature, there’s also Kane Gray, the New Zealander with 4,500 jumps. He’s also thrown himself to the terra for competitive reasons.

While all this should be reassuring — and it is, if you let it soak in — there’s little comfort to be had when you’re about to hurl your body out of a plane. The whole concept seems so intensely inappropriate, so arrogantly unnatural. But maybe that’s the allure.

Most recently, skydiving made the news in a rather bombastic way with Michel Fourneir. The 64-year-old Frenchman planned to float from North Battleford, Saskatchewan, all the way up into the stratosphere, then jump the 130,000 feet back to earth. It was late May of this year, a Monday, but he had to postpone because of weather. The following day, he gave it another go, only to have his hot air balloon come untethered and make the stratospheric journey without him. A bummer, no doubt.

But people have jumped from the stratosphere before, no biggy. In 1960, Joe Kittinger sailed a balloon over 30 km into the air. Then, styling some fancy pressure suit, he simply jumped out, returning to earth some 14 minutes later. Undertaken by the United States Air Force, it was called Project Excelsior, and, after a failed attempt in which he passed out in 1959, Kittinger found himself earthbound at 988 km/h for 4.5 minutes before pulling the chute, all in the name of professionalism. Clearly, that is ridiculous beyond description. Imagine Kittinger trying to have a good jog later, maybe watch a movie with the wife — how completely dull and uninspiring. I bet he drank.

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