Winter Is Coming
Winter comes for all of us, whether you’re of the Great House of Chicagoland or the Great House of Perris. While the season’s arrival clearly hits the Lords of the North hardest, every skydiver in the 50 Kingdoms needs to maintain at least some awareness of cold-season strategy.
For wisdom, we turned to one of the sport’s northernmost seers: Bo Babovic. Bo has taught skydiving for 30 years and logged well over 13,000 jumps; outside of that, his credentials include a stint as an officer in the U.S. Army Special Forces, international-level formation skydiving competition bona fides, a psychology degree and certifications as a Federal Aviation Administration Master Parachute Rigger and Certified Aircraft Mechanic (with inspection authorization). Most importantly for our purposes here, Babovic is the DZO and S&TA (as well as an instructor examiner and commercial pilot) at Wisconsin Skydiving Center in Jefferson—which is pretty much as close to The Wall as an American drop zone can get. Suffice it to say, pretty much nobody in the sport knows winter as well as Babovic does.
How does cold affect a skydive?
“Cold is sneaky. On a functional level, it’s not just uncomfortable. Especially when you’re a newer or less-current jumper, cold measurably affects the way you manage your emotions. It affects your decision-making process. It impairs your ability to think, to clearly assess your situation. It actually exacerbates your baseline level of fear and puts you in a place where you’re not physically able to be as safe.
“The other problem that cold weather presents is the fact that you have to bundle up in bulky clothes: gloves, layers. That means that your movement is restricted. The restriction of movement increases your anxiety and leaves you maladjusted to the environment. Obviously, if you have thousands of jumps, that might not be an issue—but it still might be. Check your ego.
“There’s the other problem, too: gear. Skydiving gear often goes out of date in the winter, and jumpers borrow gear to keep jumping. Beyond that, our equipment often simply doesn’t function as well—or at all—when it’s freezing outside. GPS systems seize up; electronics go on the fritz; snow gets into your canopy and melts and refreezes. Sometimes things work fine in the winter and sometimes they don’t, but all of these points of friction create an environment of having to respond to a bunch of little mishaps, emergencies and unexpected events that happen in the winter but not in the summer. Often, jumpers go to unfamiliar DZs because they are open in the winter, and that carries its own set of problems.
“These factors compound each other, and a dangerous chain starts to form.”
Should jumpers commit to staying current through the winter months?
“Let’s start by saying this: My drop zone is not open during the winter months. In total honesty, I would actually encourage people not to jump in cold weather. That’s not the most popular opinion, perhaps, but there are many, many reasons I believe the best strategy is to wait.
“To understand why, let’s look at the reasons that people use to justify winter jumping. First, there’s currency. Jumpers often insist that they want to stay current through the winter. Right? Well: Let’s say you make one jump every 30 days to stay current. In my opinion, that baseline doesn’t represent true currency, so you’re putting yourself through a miserable experience and exposing yourself to added risk in exchange for very little gain. In my experience—unless you’re able to dedicate [yourself] to taking regular trips to warmer places during the cold months—it’s better to stop jumping altogether and then go through the correct procedures to become current again and continue jumping.
“I think it’s vital that people understand the difference between currency and proficiency. They’re two different things. You can be current, but if you are not proficient, ‘current’ doesn’t mean anything. Proficiency gives you a level of familiarity that’s high enough to allow you to know when you’re maladjusted. It gives you the mental space to be truly aware of your situation. When you’re proficient, you’re carefully thinking things through; you are seeking coaching and advice and help. You’re not just jumping to get through it. When you are proficient, you are inside of your comfort zone.”
That said: If a jumper is determined to jump across the wintertime, what’s your best advice for them?
“We’re a small, family drop zone, so I generally call a meeting in the late fall to go over strategy. Once everybody is gathered together, the first thing I do is to explain to everybody how important it is to keep a wintertime skydive simple. If you reduce the variables and design the jump so that each person is given a clear, straightforward responsibility for the jump that is well within their current skill level, then cold-weather factors will influence the skydive much less.
“It’s also important to note that winter jumps—when you are not proficient—require better planning, especially if you’re jumping at an unfamiliar place. I myself remember getting lost once, years ago, because the ground was covered in snow. How embarrassing that was!
“At the end of the day, knowing how cold is too cold for you is a personal decision. You might be comfortable jumping at the Ranch [in Gardiner, New York] in November or you might not be able to handle Skydive Elsinore [in California] in February. I preach proficiency, preparedness and self-awareness—skills that are as important when the sun is shining as they are when you’ve got icicles growing on your eyebrows. Raise those standards and you’ll be a better, safer jumper at any time of year.”
Your Polar-Bear Jump Checklist
If the weather outside is frightful(ly cold) but you’re still determined to hurl yourself into it, there’s plenty you’ll need to do to prepare. Here’s an eight-point checklist (courtesy of DZO and S&TA Mary Bauer at Skydive Wissota/Indianhead Sport Parachute Club in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin) to get you started:
1. Rule number one: No exposed skin.
Here’s the litmus test for your winter jumping gear: If someone put you through a touchless car wash that sprayed paint, would any of it end up on your bare skin? If so, cover that part right up.
2. Bundle the heck up from the neck up.
No matter what, you’ll need a five-star neck warmer for this situation. Start there.
Open-face helmet? You need to worry about a frozen nose (and your cheeks, to boot). You’ll need a tight-fitting face mask with one large hole for your eyes—not a “bank-robber” mask with three holes for eyes and mouth, which is too open for these purposes.
With a full-face helmet, you’ll be fighting frost and fogging. Practice breathing through the exhalation hole, and keep your helmet off your head in the aircraft to prevent moisture build-up. (Yes. Brrrr.)
Whether you’ll be using goggles or a full-face, have a plan for visibility loss due to frost or fogging. Before you jump, make a decision: If you lose visibility, will you pull your full-face helmet up (or your goggles off) and risk the loss of your equipment or contact lenses, or will you land with restricted visibility? Remember: The latter puts you at exaggerated risk of a canopy collision or improper flare.
3. Protect your paws.
Frozen fingers ding dexterity, so you’ll need to invest in a great pair of wind-cutting gloves. You can expect to spend around $50 for a pair. Wear glove liners underneath.
Keep in mind: Bulky winter glove setups are much more likely to get snagged on the door and under other jumpers’ hands. Practice operating your gear with your hands fully gloved up: popping open your helmet, if yours is full-face; pulling off your goggles, if not; fitting your gloved hands into your D-ring, if you have one; and, of course, finding and getting a good grip on your pilot chute. On the ground, you won’t be able to practice working your slider or booties with your gloves on, but you must remember not to fight with them in the sky.
4. Watch your step.
The skydiving world is a lot more slippery when it’s wet and cold. Be prepared to Bambi your way around the ladder, the aircraft, the steps and the landing area. Wear winter-weight wool socks under shoes with good traction, but don’t wear boots with hooks.
Bring a dry pair of shoes and socks to change into at the end of the day and be conscientious: Don’t track snow into the plane or the hangar.
5. Don’t be the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.
Bulk is a bad thing. Wear the warmest-rated base layer you can find, then add tight layers of fleece with a close-fitting nylon shell. Don’t choose hooded pieces. Ideally, use a jumpsuit to contain your layers and ensure that your handle access is not compromised in any way.
Your fall rate is going to change. Be ready to be surprised by just how much.
6. Stop your spinning.
Freezing temperatures often inspire jumpers to spin wildly down to get out of the cold, which is quite obviously a terrible idea. Your lifeline is to get canopy separation immediately upon opening and guard that vertical separation with everything you’ve got.
Another note on toggles: Keep your hands in them, no matter how cold they are.
7. Be ready for an alternate-universe landing.
Things look different when they’re dressed all in white. The snow hides hazards: fences, furrows, rocks, holes. It renders familiar landmarks unfamiliar, and it significantly impedes depth perception. Partial melts, refreezes and fresh snow make the landscape much more dynamic than you’re used to.
Make no mistake: Landing on refrozen snow is like landing on concrete. Margin for error quickly disappears when the ground gets hard, so PLFs in deep-winter conditions should be the rule not the exception.
8. Square up to the fact that there’s plenty you don’t know.
If a winter jump sounds like a straightforward affair to you, you may rest assured: It is not. Water landings have a significantly increased potential to be fatal. Runway conditions are likely to be wet and sloppy. Aircraft visibility will likely be impeded, as well. Winter upper winds tend to be much stronger than they are in the warmer months. Interestingly, there’s also an increased chance of an aircraft engine fire on the ground during the winter.
If you go into this chilly little adventure geared up correctly and firmly in possession of a beginner’s mind, your 2-way with Jack Frost just might leave you with happy memories and a post-jump cocoa instead of a cast.
About the Author
Annette O'Neil, D-33263, is a multidisciplinary air sports athlete: skydiver, BASE jumper, paraglider and speed-wing pilot. Location-independent, she travels the world full-time as a freelance writer and producer. In her spare time, she loves flopping around on a yoga mat and carpetbombing Facebook from Instagram.