Originally published at https://www.mensjournal.com on December 3, 2021.
Tales from the Trail Part 2: Update on Mike Sarraille’s Mt. Everest Skydiving Mission
When we last left off with retired Navy SEAL Mike Sarraille and the Complete Parachute Solutions Expedition Team led by former Navy SEAL Fred Williams, they were six days into their Mt. Everest Skydiving Mission and had just arrived at Namche Bazaar. Tales from the Trail #1 can be read here.
Sarraille has documented the expedition in Nepal and gave Men’s Journal an exclusive early look at his journal. The excerpts from his travel journal provide a detailed look into his journey through Nepal and exclusive insight into how the team prepares for their initial jumps. Stay tuned for more updates about Mike and the CPS crew, including their efforts to raise money for the Special Operations Warrior Foundation in honor of the men of Extortion 17.
Mike Sarraille: “As we awoke on Day 7 of the expedition in Namche Bazaar, the world’s highest city, we were rocked by the tragic news that Tom Noonan, a Skydiving Icon and former United States Parachute Association National Director, had died during a 41,000 ft. Tandem Skydive in Tennessee. It was Tom Noonan who pioneered the Mt. Everest High-Altitude Skydiving Jumps. Before I left on the expedition, Tom had sent an email to a small group wishing me well on what he guaranteed would be a life-changing experience. He couldn’t be more accurate. (I’ve included an excerpt from his email at the bottom of the article, with the pictures he attached from his Mt. Everest Skydiving Trip).
Tom Noonan was teaming up with me, Nick Kush (retired Navy EOD operator and renowned skydiver), and Andy Stumpf (retired Navy SEAL and host of the ‘Cleared Hot Podcast’) to coordinate a record-setting skydiving attempt in early 2023. With his tragic departure, two of Tom’s long-time friends and members of the CPS expedition team, Fred Williams (former Navy SEAL and President of CPS) and Dr. Ryan Jackson (TopOut Aero Co-Founder and the UK based ER Doctor), have volunteered to help us carry out what was one of Tom’s dreams. I’ll leave the details of that record-setting attempt for late 2022.
Day 7: Syangboche Airstrip familiarization and Puja Ceremony
After receiving the news about Tom Noonan and taking some time to process the information, we knew we had a mission to carry out and that Tom would want us to continue. The trip has added meaning to honoring our fallen, which now includes Tom.
After breakfast, we conducted the one-hour uphill trek to Syangboche Airstrip, the first of three jump locations, where we will be jumping for the next three days. Syangboche is a small, unimproved dirt strip at 12,500 ft MSL––a narrow drop zone for our first few jumps. Fred Williams and Ryan Jackson walk us around the airstrip, identifying key landmarks to utilize as reference points during a jumper’s landing approach, potential ‘outs’ (areas to land if a jumper will miss the drop zone), and hazardous obstacles to avoid on landing.
Following the airstrip familiarization, we hold a second Puja, this time led by Buddhist Monks, who bless our parachutes and skydiving equipment through an offering to the Mountain Gods. Fred Williams bestowed a gift of a Buddhist prayer-wheel necklace, which each expedition member wore during all the jumps. We trekked back down the mountain to prepare for the next day and our first of several jumps to come.
Day 8: Weather Cancel – Rain Day
On day eight, the weather prevented us from moving up to Syangboche for the jumps and delayed our arrival at the Everest Sherpa Resort––a lone tea house on a hilltop that provides a 360-degree panoramic view of the Khumbu region.
Most of the group takes in Namche, hitting a few local bars for some Barahsinghe craft beer, which has been declared the unofficial beer of our expedition. The group frequented the Sherpa Barista Café––a required stop for all tourists, trekkers, and expedition members when traveling through Namche. The pizzas at the Café were the first taste of home and quite frankly rival any pizza joint in Austin, Texas.
By mid-day, the skies cleared and allowed us to trek back up the mountain to spend the night at the Everest Sherpa Resort.
The day wasn’t a waste, but rather an opportunity to get to know our fellow expedition team members – to learn their ‘why’ for the trip, as well as learning about their unique paths, families, and hopes for the future.
Day 9: The First Day of Jumps – An Introduction to the Dangerous Beauty of the Everest Region
We wake to sunny skies and the certain guarantee of our first jumps. In the early morning, the 360-degree panoramic view is beyond anything I’ve seen before––the first of many overwhelming glimpses of the Everest region’s immense beauty. The terrain and mountains can’t help but make a human feel small and insignificant. A humbling realization that we are small yet an essential part of this Earth and her story. It’s almost an invitation to do more, live better, help more people, and set aside time to breathe and take in Earth’s vast beauty.
We head down the hill to Syangboche to set up our first jumps. The first helicopter load would consist of three of the most experienced jumpers – Dr. Ryan Jackson and Dakota and Hunter Williams. After a few static rehearsals exiting the helicopter, the first load dons their parachutes and TopOut Aero Multi-Purpose Tactical Oxygen Systems (MTOS). Oxygen systems are required for high-altitude jumps, especially those over 18,000 ft MSL. Keep in mind that the drop zone altitude is 12,500 ft, and the exits for most of the jumps will be above 20,000 ft MSL. The three jumpers board the AS 350 B3 helicopters and fly off into the mountain range. The entire group is filled with excitement as this moment was what we had been preparing for over the last couple of months, some for their entire careers.
Fred Williams, the expedition leader, and Hugh Funk, the DZSO (drop zone safety officer), closely monitor the weather and communicate with the helicopter pilot as he gains altitude and prepares to approach the HARP (high-altitude release point). The weather is clear, Fred and Hugh give the approval to release the jumpers––a seemingly obvious and correct call. The group’s gaze is toward the sky as the jumpers exit the aircraft. We quickly count three good parachutes, a reference that all jumpers are under a good canopy. What happened next is a testament to the violent power of the Everest region.
A low-level cloud layer moving at 25+ knots climbed up over the ridge of the mountain and quickly overtook the drop zone, covering the entire 400-meter airstrip, leaving the three jumpers with no visual reference of the drop zone or where to land. The jumpers would have to travel through the cloud layer which can cause disorientation or worse, vertigo. Fred and Hugh quickly assign the ground personnel to look in different directions to help identify the jumpers’ positions when they emerge from the cloud layer.
The first jumper, Dr. Jackson, emerged with only 300 feet of elevation left and was perfectly aligned to make the landing area. The second jumper, Hunter Williams, emerged north of the drop zone. He immediately identified one of the references (landmarks), a white temple on an adjacent hilltop that Fred mentioned during the familiarization. He made a hard 90-degree turn toward the drop zone, barely but successfully reaching it. The third jumper, Dakota, exited the cloud layer and immediately realized he wouldn’t be able to make the drop zone. He quickly performed a flat turn and identified an ‘out’ near the Everest Sherpa Resort––a tricky landing on a hillside. An experienced jumper and one of the lead CPS instructors, Dakota made the difficult and potentially injury-causing landing look easy, signaling an ‘okay’ to the group to ease everyone’s tension.
No jumper was injured, and the group learned a valuable welcome lesson from Everest herself––conditions change quickly in one of the world’s harshest environments.
After a weather hold for an hour and a group debrief following the first jumps, the layer dissolved and the skies cleared. The second group––Tom Short, Mike Ortiz, and I––donned our gear and loaded into the helicopter. Given the outcomes of the first jump, there was palpable anxiousness and nervousness amongst our group as the helicopter climbed. Mike Ortiz, with almost 20,000 jumps, uses non-verbal hand gestures signaling us to breathe and providing reassurance that we will execute a safe jump. I close my eyes and visualize each stage of my jump as if going through a mental checklist––a skill taught to me by mentors in the SEAL Teams and Marine Recon community.
As the helicopter approached the HARP, Mike Ortiz opened the door and signaled for me to position on the helicopter skid to prepare for the jump. Holding on to the skin of the aircraft, I checked my altimeter which indicated we were 7500 feet above the drop zone or 20,000 feet above mean sea level. I focused on Mike, awaiting my cue to release. I got my signal and took a sidestep off the rail facing into the wind. With my arms and legs wide, I held an arch position as I fell from the helicopter, building up speed so that I could fly my body. After I stabilized and checked my altimeter, I conducted a 360-degree turn and faced back into the wind.
One more check of my altimeter confirmed I was ready to signal (wave-off) that I was deploying my parachute at my assigned altitude. I had a good opening and was quickly under the canopy. After going through my initial canopy controllability checks and securing the slider, I did a 360 to get a visual of Mike and Tom. Once under the canopy, we moved to the holding area and took in as much of the terrain as we could. While the view at that altitude is clearly breathtaking, our 100% focus was on landing safely and accurately in the drop zone. All three of us landed in the drop zone and immediately smiled. The remaining two loads would also conduct their jumps with accuracy––a safe and successful day of jumping was complete.
We moved back to the Everest Sherpa Resort, where the group gathered for an After-Action Review (AAR), a military practice of candidly reviewing both team and individual performances. The AAR identified lessons learned, both good and bad practices, as well as steps that could be taken to improve overall performance. This is the mechanism through which professionals excel at their craft. Reviewing video footage from personal GoPro cameras reinforced the senior jumpers/instructors’ critiques and suggestions on improving performance. Getting feedback from such experienced jumpers was invaluable, considering that we were moving to more difficult drop zones later in the expedition. Fred also put countermeasures in place to avoid a similar weather incident that had occurred on the first jump.
Following dinner, most of the group called it a night, no surprise given the adrenaline dump we all experienced. The next day held more jumps for us at Syangboche, with helicopter movement to Ama Dablam Base Camp (15,000 ft MSL).
In honor of Tom Noonan (1974 – 2021):
(An Excerpt from Tom Noonan’s email to Nick Kush, Andy Stumpf, and I – October 6, 2021)
………..You are in for an adventure in Nepal, Mike, it’s an awe-inspiring location and life-changing experience. Looking forward to hearing about your trip when you get back.
[These photos] are my three most memorable jumps from the trips. The solo canopy is landing on Kala Pattar beneath Mount Everest, the solo freefall is exiting over Ama Dablam, and the tandem is over Syangboche.