Small Steps, Giant Leaps—Five Jumpers Make Parachuting History
By Shannon Pilcher
On Sunday, October 27, five parachutists safely landed at 20,200 feet MSL (with a density altitude of 22,700 feet MSL) on the West Col in the Nepali Himalayas. They matched the feat of Paul-Henry DeBaere, who landed on the Col earlier in the year, setting an unofficial world record for highest recorded parachute landing. The jumpers were O.J. Anderson, Kevin Duke and Gregory Tomas of Complete Parachute Solutions, Bob Harward of Lockheed Martin and Ryan Jackson of Topout Aero.
Executing an expedition of this complexity (and this level of risk) requires wisdom, which comes primarily from experience. CPS (a consortium of the parachute-equipment manufacturers Performance Designs, Sun Path Products and United Parachute Technologies, which together develop cutting-edge technologies primarily for military use) cultivated this experience over nearly a decade and delivered a carefully planned skydiving expedition that challenged and fulfilled the daring adventurers.
Records aside, over the two weeks of the expedition, these jumpers tested and validated the use of three new pieces of CPS equipment, each at progressively higher altitudes. In conjunction with testing its new equipment, CPS also used its vast experience to safely chaperone two paying customers— Harward (who participated in the 20,200-foot landing jumps) and Todd Wilcox (who made a landing at 17,000 feet) —through their first Himalayan parachuting experiences.
While CPS has discovered that the flight characteristics of parachutes in thin atmospheres are better than expected, the fact is, each foot higher is a foot farther into the unknown. And with that uncertainty comes anxiety. CPS’ instructors have each made thousands of jumps, many from similar altitudes as in the Himalayas, but their landings were at much lower elevations.
Of course, ascending into the inhospitable vastness of the Himalayas would not be possible without the support of a dedicated Sherpa team. Asian Trekking paved the way on this expedition. Dawa Stevens Sherpa and his father, Ang Tshering Sherpa, proprietors of AT, have been guiding Himalayan expeditions for nearly 40 years. From Kathmandu all the way to Ama Dablam base camp at 15,000 feet, AT looked after the expedition’s every need, making sure the participants had fresh meals and warm beds at every stage. AT also coordinated the helicopters used for all the jumps, the transport of cargo and generally all logistics.The Place
As with any kind of mountaineering expedition, the participants’ ability to ascend to higher altitudes was only possible if they properly acclimatized: that is, if they gave their lungs and bodies adequate time to adjust to less oxygen at those higher altitudes. The general climbers’ rule is, “climb high, sleep low.” So, from the trek’s starting point of Lukla (9,383 feet)—home of the Tenzing-Hillary Airport, considered one of the world’s most dangerous airports—the team descended to Phakding (8,562 feet) to sleep for the night. Then came the fabled Namche steps, an aggressively steep, 2,300-foot ascent to Namche Bazaar.
The Himalayas are majestic. But adding to the breathtaking scenery were the remarkable people who make up the Nepal mountain culture. The Nepal locals are warm and kind. Local porters, mostly young men, haul massive loads up and down the steep trails all day long. Yaks help with the heavier loads. Without them, almost nothing manmade would exist in the mountains.
The expedition’s plan was to gradually work its way up the mountain to progressively higher landing zones, culminating at the West Col at 20,200 feet. Because everyone needed to acclimatize, it meant the expedition spent a few days at each LZ. That played in their favor, because besides acclimatizing, it allowed each person to face internal anxieties and remind themselves of their skill and experience, especially because the conditions were so unfamiliar. This is crucial yet mostly goes unspoken. No matter how many times one has jumped in the mountains, and especially in the Himalayas, the fact is, it was not anyone’s routine jumping environment. And even if it had been, the other truth is that the weather can change rapidly, meaning that on any jump they could have found themselves under canopy in different conditions than expected. In the worst case, they would be unable to fly back to the intended LZ, and since there were few (if any) alternative LZs, this would mean almost certain injury or death. The pressure was on. They had to plan and execute with precision.
Arriving into Ama Dablam base camp—the final staging location for the expedition and their home for nearly a week—the expeditionaries were immediately confronted with an unusually large volume of trekkers and climbers who had flooded the massive camp site with their tents. After careful consideration, the organizers identified a couple of narrow lanes for the jumpers’ final approaches for these initial jumps. Anderson, Duke and Tomas of CPS led the way. Sunny skies and a moderate breeze prevailed, giving all the jumpers at least one landing at 15,000 feet.
With the Ama Dablam base camp landings firmly under their belts, they set their sights on Gorak Shep, elevation 16,942 feet. Once again, the CPS crew of Anderson, Duke and Tomas led the way. Only this time, because the subsequent jumpers were staging at base camp, they were unable to see the CPS approaches or learn anything firsthand about the actual conditions. While the winds were favorable and the landing area rather large, Gorak Shep sits high atop a plateau and is surrounded by obstacles. Flying out of the wind cone, for example, would result in certain injury or death, and that is no exaggeration.
All jumpers landed perfectly on target.
Clouds, snow and rain kept the group firmly grounded for two days as they waited to assault the Col. They awoke the third morning to clear skies … skies unfortunately made clearer by high winds that quickly halted jumping efforts. With some team members waiting on the Col and others at Baruntse base camp (just below the Col at 17,224 feet), they waited.
The only way onto the West Col is either by climbing, helicopter or parachute. Because it is so high, (20,000 feet) and because the weather can change so rapidly, the team prepared for the worst-case scenario: someone getting stranded indefinitely under inclement conditions. The team carried equipment to descend the intimidating ice wall of the Col by their own means should a helicopter be unable to reach them in a timely manner. That equipment included extra oxygen, extra layers, water, food, climbing boots, crampons, harnesses, hardware and a mindset that embraced these realities and more.
Finally, by mid-afternoon, the wind suddenly died. In a dizzying scramble of people, parachutes and helicopters, the team was back in business. Three loads, five jumpers and less than two hours later, their mission of making the highest known parachute landing in the Himalayas was complete, and they evacuated the mountain.
While it happened fast, it wasn’t rushed. More accurately, it was a testament to the preparedness of everyone involved—the CPS Everest Expedition team, the Asian Trekking team and the Simrik Air helicopter team.
About the Author
Shannon Pilcher, D-18803, is a founding member of the Performance Designs Factory Team. He has more than 27 years in the sport and has made more than 19,000 jumps. He attended the Everest skydiving expedition as a journalist.