Bucket List: Jumping Out of a Plane Over Yosemite Valley

The small plane climbed to 14,000 feet, the door opened and, while clipped to the tandem skydive instructor, I jumped out. The next few minutes – with views of El Capitan, Half Dome, and the rest of Yosemite Valley – were truly unbelievable.

Penning this piece now, a few feet from the landing zone at the Mariposa-Yosemite Airport, I’m overloaded with excitement. A few minutes ago, I made my first skydive, ever. Mild nausea and trembling hands make it challenging to type these words.

Left to right: Paul Wignall, owner of Skydive Yosemite next to Mike “Mr. El Cap” Corbett. Corbett treated himself to his first skydive on his 65th birthday. Photo: Chris Van Leuven

I’ve spent the past week at this airport, watching others jump (some tourists, some locals) and listened to their stories. The first ones I saw, a couple out of the UK, said they jumped because it was a way to be away from the tourists in Yosemite while still getting the full experience. In years past, these thrill seekers had bungee jumped and zip lined, but, like me, they’d never jumped out a plane. “Ever consider rock climbing?” I asked them. “No,” one of them replied. “Too dangerous.”

I observed them right after they landed, as adrenaline overwhelmed them. They were brimming ear to ear with smiles. “I’ve wanted to do a parachute jump all my life, and now I’ve done one, I’m done,” one said before they hopped in their car and drove off to their next adventure.

This morning, I met with Mike “Mr. El Cap” Corbett – who was celebrating his 65th birthday – and who made his first tandem skydive jump hours before mine. Corbett, who has climbed El Capitan more than 50 times (and ascended the formation with paraplegic Mark Wellman, in an act that got him invited the White House), told me after his jump this morning: “You’ll love it, Chris. It’s like 10 El Cap routes, man!”

“I was telling myself before doing this, just call the [skydive company’s] number and do it,” he said. Later, after he landed he told me, “I feel like I just got off a ride. I’ll do it again. It was so clear you could see 30 to 40 miles. El Cap sticks out like a sore thumb from up there.”

The views of Yosemite Valley from a small plane are absolutely incredible. Photo: Courtesy of Skydive Yosemite

Then it was my turn. I crawled into the Cessna 182 facing the back as owner of Skydive Yosemite, Paul Wignall, sat behind and clipped himself to me. I have zero experience jumping out of a plane – I’ve always stuck to tamer sports like big wall climbing and bouldering – but I trusted Wignall and did whatever he told me. He gave brief directions: “When we step off the plane tuck your legs behind mine. Grab your shoulder straps. When I double tap you, push your head up and put your arms up.”

We slowly climbed to 14,000 feet, the pilot and co-pilot keeping their eyes on the instrument gauges as Wignall (once the Number 3 male model in the world) pointed out the landscape. Minutes before we reached max altitude Yosemite Valley came into full view: Half Dome, El Capitan and a multitude of granite domes and distant peaks. Then Wignall pried the door open and scooted us toward the exit.

To keep my nerves from exploding and overwhelming the experience, I dropped expletives excitedly – “F-yeah, f-yeah!” – letting excitement drown out any last-minute jitters. His left foot stood on the platform under the wing … Then his right. Then we dropped away and the wind blew so hard in my face that my mouth filled with air as we dropped. Fast.

With my safety rig cinched tight and clipped securely to my instructor, I simply went with the ride. I focused on controlling the nausea that I’d gotten during the flight, caused by the plane dipping to the left and right before Wignall and I jumped out. “Don’t puke,” I kept telling myself.

Mid flight Paul Wignall handed me the reins so I could control the parachute on the way down. Photo: Courtesy of Skydive Yosemite

The freefall – I’ve never experienced anything like it – which was loud and otherworldly, was interrupted when Wignall released the chute some 45 seconds after we leaped. Then everything was still. The rushing wind past my ears was replaced with silence. We exchanged a few words, with me repeating that this was the coolest thing I’d ever done. Surfing in Baja, my first time up El Cap … nothing quite compared to the immediate rush that skydiving provided.

The final moments under canopy had me feeling like a bird as we gently lost altitude. Wignall offered me the controls and I dipped us a few times, which turned my stomach, and then we got back to flying straight. As we neared the ground he gave me final instructions: “Tuck your knees in and point your legs forward.”

We touched down softly in the gravel. Wignall unclipped me and our crew walked toward us, exchanging hugs and capturing the moments on their smart-phones.

Looking towards Yosemite and the Sierra High Country from the cockpit. Photo: Chris Van Leuven

Right now, after considering everything that led up to the jump: the plane ride, the door opening (and the moment of truth that came with it) when Wignall and I stepped out, and everything that happened after, only one thought remains: I can’t wait to go again.

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