Tales from the Trail Part 3: Update on Mike Sarraille’s Mt. Everest Skydiving Mission
This article is an installment of The Everyday Warrior series, a recurring column by retired Navy SEAL, best-selling author, and founder/CEO of ATTA, Mike Sarraille and edited by Jack Haworth, featuring advice, key interviews, and tips to live a life of impact, growth, and continual learning.
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 finally completed their first high-altitude skydiving jump at Syangboche in Nepal.
Sarraille has been documenting the expedition and gave Men’s Journal an exclusive look at his journal. The excerpts provide a detailed look into his journey through Nepal, as well as 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.
Day 10: 2nd Day of Skydiving at Syangboche Airstrip (12,500 ft drop zone)
With a jump in the Everest region under everyone’s belt, nerves had eased amongst the group. We were eager to depart the Everest Sherpa Lodge and head to the airfield to knock out our second jump at Syangboche and conduct a helicopter movement to Ama Dablam base camp. After one last look at the 360-degree panorama of the towering mountains in the region, our group trekked down the hill to prep equipment and await the arrival of the helicopters. The major objective of the second jump was to tighten everyone’s landings on the confined DZ (drop zone) at Syangboche, to prep for the much smaller drop zone at Ama Dablam, the smallest drop zone on this trip.
With confidence built from the first jumps, every one was able to take in more of the awe-inspiring terrain while under canopy. Visiting the Everest region is an amazing experience, but jumping from above the terrain is something completely different. Though the temperatures at altitude are frigid, the jumpers barely pay attention. The warmth of the once-in-a-lifetime view alone is worth every second. As the jumpers land, you can sense the grin on their faces behind their oxygen masks. The entire team lands in close proximity to the drop zone marker and Fred is comfortable progressing the entire team to Ama Dablam. Our success is a testament to the training conducted by the Complete Parachute Solution instructor team in Buena Vista and Leadville, Colorado.
Prior to departing to Ama Dablam, a puja ceremony is held in honor of Tom Noonan, a skydiving icon and former United States Parachute Association National Director, who died during a 41,000-foot tandem skydive in Tennessee. Tom pioneered the Mt. Everest High-Altitude Skydiving jumps and he would be with us in spirit throughout the remainder of the trip.
The helicopter movement from Syangboche to Ama Dablam base camp is nothing short of amazing and provides an appreciation for the increasing severity of the terrain, as we move farther into the heart of the Sagarmatha National Park. Ama Dablam (6,812 meters or 22,349 feet) is one of the more technical mountains in the region. As our helicopter approaches our camp, not one jumper can take their eyes off the peak.
We settle into our new home for the remainder of the trip. Both the jumps into Gorakshep and the West Col will be staged and launched from Ama Dablam base camp. Fred Williams and Dr. Ryan Jackson walk the entire group through the small drop zone, which is a small area between all the camps, and again points out obstacles, reference points, and potential ‘outs’ (areas for jumpers to land if they’re going to miss the drop zone). Proving the difficulty of the Ama Dablam drop zone at 15,000 feet, there are very few outs. The group spends much of the day, both as a group or individually, walking the DZ and rehearsing the next day’s jump.
After waking up in the middle of the night, I look up at the peak of Ama Dablam. It’s lit up by the full moon, with not a cloud in the sky. I grab my phone and set the camera on time-lapse, snapping a photo I won’t soon forget. Looking up at that peaks, I know I’m extremely fortunate for this opportunity.
Day 11: 1st Day of jumps at the Ama Dablam Drop Zone
As we wake up, we’re again blessed with gorgeous weather. The group prepares our equipment as we wait for the helicopters to arrive. Once the helicopters reach Ama Dablam, we conduct a flight brief with the pilots and the first group—Dakota, Hunter, and Dr. Jackson—who proceed to load up. The aircraft route on final approach for the jump will take the group directly across the face of Ama Dablam. Dakota, Hunter, and Dr. Jackson make the jump look easy. The second group, my group, was fired up and ready to load the heli once they landed, but first conducted a quick debrief with any last-minute tips they learned from their jump.
Mike Ortiz, Tom Short, and I load up and fly into the mouth of the valley. As the helicopter climbs to altitude, we cross close to several peaks, a tactic used by the pilots to gain lift from the anabatic winds (upslope winds driven by warmer surface temperatures). We turn into the final heading and are staring right at Ama Dablam, as if we can reach out and touch the climbers on their final ascent. The door is opened and I step onto the skid, waiting for the release from Mike Ortiz. Once given, I step off and pull within six seconds. The view is even more amazing than Syangboche. All three of us land on the drop zone, excited yet disappointed it’s over. The group completes a successful day of jumps, which fuels our conversation for hours.
With plenty of daylight left, a group hikes toward the mouth of the valley for a little sightseeing and hopes of a cellular signal. After an hour of hiking, we sit on the side of a slope, surfing the internet and trying to get a text or email back to our loved ones or business partners. On the trek back, we come across a small lake with the clearest water we’ve ever seen. I look at one of the expedition team members, a former 75th Ranger Regiment operator and American badass—as most Ranger regiment soldiers are—and say, “Let’s do this.” The cameras come out as we strip down to our boxers and leap into the cold, unforgiving waters. The group laughs as we both gasp for air. After a minute in the water, we jump out laughing and throw our clothes back on to get moving and regain warmth. In retrospect, it was a natural ice bath that felt damn good on the joints.
Day 12: 2nd Day of Jumps at the Ama Dablam Drop Zone and Gorakshep DZ Familiarization
For day two of jumps at Ama Dablam, Fred Williams shifts the drop zone 50 meters closer to a finger running off Ama Dablam. The small linear DZ will serve as a confidence builder for the next day’s jumps at Gorakshep (17,500 foot drop zone). The entire team completes their jumps and similar to the last day at Syangboche, the group tightens their landings. Fred makes the decision to progress all jumpers to Gorakshep.
About mid-day, groups of two to three expedition members take turns flying to Gorakshep to conduct a visual familiarization of the next day’s culminating drop zone. The pilot asks our group if we would like to have fun on the flight. We answer affirmatively. The aviation company supporting our trip employs some of the most skilled heli pilots in the world, trained by some of the toughest flying conditions in the world. Our pilot conducts a nap-of-the-earth, a type of very low-altitude flight most commonly used by military pilots to avoid enemy detection. The flight is reminiscent of my military days flying with the TF-160th SOAR, the most skilled special operations pilots in the world.
We land on top of a ridge above Gorak Shep. Fred talks us through the drop zone in preparation for the next day and we quickly load the helicopter for another exhilarating flight.
The group conducts a debrief of the day’s jumps at Ama Dablam and reviews the plan for the following day of jumps at Gorakshep. Dakota Williams and I will be the first helicopter load and first jumpers into Gorakshep. Due to the elevation gain, the jump loads are cut from three people down to two, so the helicopter can gain the necessary elevation for the jumps.
Day 13: The Gorakshep Drop Zone – The Culmination Jump
As dawn hits, the group understands this is the culmination jump, the last jump, for most of us—a bittersweet feeling. As we prepare and don our equipment, the helicopters shuttle a load of drop zone support personnel to Gorakshep to set up the DZ. When the first heli returns, Dakota and I load up and depart. While the flight is scenic, Dakota and I focus on our respective mental checklists, preparing to execute a successful jump.
After 10 minutes, the helicopter is at altitude and turns on the final approach. Dakota opens the heli door and I step out onto the skid, awaiting his release. Once I get it, I step off the skid and pull after four seconds. The canopy opens and I turn towards Everest, knowing this will be my last jump. After 15 seconds of soaking in the view of Everest, feeling humble and fortunate for the opportunity, I turn and head toward the holding area. I maneuver into my final pattern and prepare to land. At about 15 meters from the DZ marker, I misjudge the depth of snow. My feet catch, causing me to face plant. Despite the rough landing, the snow was soft, and I stand up laughing. Dakota and I gather up our equipment and head to the helicopter landing zone for the ride back to Ama Dablam. As we wait, I break down for a second in tears of joy.
Dakota and I return to Ama Dablam and help the remaining jump loads prepare. As Fred Williams returns from his jump, he realizes there’s only one jumper on the last load and offers a second jump to whoever will take it. I quickly raise my hand and he says, ‘Get it on.’ I run back to my tent to grab my helmet, altimeter, warmies, and throw a parachute and oxygen system on. The second jump is icing on the cake, beyond how I imagined ending the day.
When the entire group returns, Fred opens an opportunity for Elia Saikaly, myself, and Tom Short to fly off the mountain and return to Kathmandu, to ensure we caught our flights home. Elia, Tom, and I packed up and waited for the helicopters to return. I walk over to a shrine for all the fallen climbers on Ama Dablam and rip an Extortion 17 memorial patch off my helmet. Though I only have one patch, I dig a hole, bury the patch in memory of the boys, thank them for their sacrifice, and return to camp to await our flight. Better the patch forever be a part of the mountain than sitting on a helmet in my office in Austin.
Tom, Elia, and I spend the night in Lukula waiting for a flight back to Kathmandu the next day. A select few jumpers remain at Ama Dablam to attempt a jump into the West Col, sitting at over 20,000 feet.
Day 14: The West Col and our Return to Kathmandu
Elia, Tom, and I get the full benefit of a twin otter departure from Lukla, the world’s most dangerous airport. The twin otter has bench seating like a bus and a duct tape curtain between the main fuselage and the cockpit—not exactly a confidence builder. The twin otter positions itself at the end of the runway, brakes on, and slowly throttles the engines to full power. As it releases the brakes, it rips down the runway as Tom and I laugh at each other. It lifts off the runway shortly before the runway ends and the cliff drops off. After an hour flight, we touch down at Kathmandu.
Throughout the day, we text the group over WhatsApp for updates on the West Col attempt. Dakota, Hunter, Fred Williams, Dr. Jackson, and one other jumper successfully complete the West Col jump. Tom, Elia, and I, though jealous, couldn’t be happier for our brothers. In fact, the title ‘King of the Col’ is bestowed upon one of the jumpers for landing exactly on the DZ marker. I refuse to call that jumper the ‘King of the Col’ to this day out of principle alone—he’s former Army Special Operations. Naturally, I’m kidding and deeply respect the man, an absolute stud, true warrior, and a brother-in-arms. I couldn’t be happier for him and wouldn’t have expected anything less than hitting the X.
Elia, Tom, and I rush to pack for our flights the next day, completing a rapid COVID test and shopping for gifts for our loved ones. We meet for one last dinner, filled mostly with talk about work and the next year of adventures for each of us.
Day 14-15: Departing Kathmandu and the Return to Civilization
After goodbyes with Tom and Elia, I depart for the airport and the long trek home. I spent most of the flights between Doha, Qatar and Dallas reflecting on my journey, but I will save those reflections for an article on what I learned during my expedition to the Everest region.
Despite the once-in-a-lifetime experience and the inspiring terrain of Everest, the greatest personal return from the trip was the lifelong relationships I built with each of the Expedition team members. I often talk about tribe in my Everyday Warrior articles, and this tribe is no different. “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” – Proverbs 27:17.
When you undergo hardship with your fellow man, bonds are formed that can never be broken. I am better for the time I spent with these men, each of whom I deeply respect and admire.
Arriving two days ahead for my scheduled return, I land in Austin, pick up my Dutch Shepherd, Bane, and drive over to my wife’s work to surprise her. Bane led the way to confuse her but once she saw me, she ran into my arms with tears. I couldn’t think of a better way to finish my trip.
I don’t think I will ever truly articulate the impact of this expedition, but maybe that’s the point. Some things can’t be explained, and some things are better left unsaid. All I can hope is that I helped keep the memory of our fallen bothers alive and will continue to do so. Fundraising for the Special Operations Warrior Foundation will be ongoing in the name of the Everest trip. On to the next journey, the 777 Skydiving Expedition, but as I mentioned in Tales of the Trail #2, we’ll keep those details under wraps for a few more months.