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She mortgaged her house to jump off a cliff

Last updated on: October 28, 2011 17:01 IST

She mortgaged her house to jump off a cliff

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Abhishek Mande

Meet Archana Sardana, India's first woman BASE jumper and what it cost her to get there

Standing atop a span four hundred feet above the ground, Archana Sardana looked down and felt a shiver down her spine.

"That's strange," she thought to herself.

It wasn't like she was scared of heights. Heck she'd stared down at earth from way beyond this height. And jumped!

As a matter of fact, before this Sardana had completed 225 skydiving attempts successfully from an average height of 13,000 feet above the earth's surface.

The BASE jump, her first at a school in Salt Lake City in Utah, USA from a bridge a few hundred feet high shouldn't have scared her at all. Yet the 38-year-old skydiver knew better than anyone else how difficult BASE jumping can be.

"For one, during a BASE jump, your reaction time is about six seconds at best," she tells me over the phone from Dubai where she has been skydiving, "During a skydive you have about 55 seconds to a minute before you open your chute."

Then of course there's the apprehension and moment of fear before doing something for the first time. "It was really scary," Sardana recollects.

So Archana Sardana did what she did best. She closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. Then she pushed herself from the bridge span towards the earth.

Within the next few moments, Sardana was falling at about 10 feet per second. About five seconds and a little over 50 feet later, she opened her parachute and glided mid-air before making a perfect landing.

With this jump, the 38-year-old Archana Sardana became the country's first civilian woman BASE jumper.


Image: Archana Sardana

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BASE jumping as an adventure sport isn't very popular in India for the lack of infrastructure and interest. The few enthusiasts that do exist must travel overseas to get trained and fulfil their passions.

Unlike skydiving, BASE jumping takes place from far lower altitudes. BASE stands for Buildings, Antennas, Spans and Earth and jumpers use these points to jump off.

BASE jumpers will tell you about the rush they feel and the indescribable experience during a free fall. Archana Sardana though tells me that the one thing going through her mind once she's off a plane or a cliff is that the jump should be perfect.

It is this pursuit for perfection and the need to do something out of the ordinary that has led Sardana from country to country jumping from the tallest structures made by man and nature.

She tells me that BASE jumping doesn't require any licence but one needs to have completed 200 skydiving jumps before one can even train for a BASE jump.

Sardana's interest in skydiving began a few years ago when she met up with a few of her husband Commander Rajiv Sardana's skydiver friends.

Rajiv is a submariner with the Indian Navy and an adventure sports enthusiast.

Sooner rather than later, Archana Sardana who had by now been introduced to mountaineering and river rafting among other extreme sports found her calling.



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In October 2007 the mother of two left for California to train earn a skydiver's licence.

"India doesn't offer any skydiving courses for civilians. To train and get a licence, you have to go abroad. I did a course in Accelerated Free-fall Training at the Perris Valley Skydiving School in California. The course comprises eight levels and it lasts as long as it takes for you to clear those levels. It took me about a month (the average time it takes to pass the course).

My first jump was on October 18, 2007. It was a trial jump with the two instructors holding me on either side," she recollects.

When I ask her to describe her first free fall, Archana Sardana confesses that her mind wasn't entirely on the jump.

"I had arrived the previous evening to Salt Lake City and was under the impression that I would have a room to myself."

Much to Sardana's horror though, she was sharing a dormitory with the rest of the coursemates, most of them young men.

"I wasn't very comfortable (with the idea). All the while that I was in the plane and even the time when I jumped I kept dreading the idea of going back to the dormitory!"

Soon after she landed on her feet about five to six minutes after she jumped, Sardana walked up to the course co-ordinator and requested if she could get a separate accommodation. Eventually she did but for all her life, Archana Sardana probably has to live with the fact that during that one life-changing moment somewhere between the earth and the sky the only thing she was thinking was what she would do when she landed.

A month later and 51 jumps later, she graduated from the skydiving school and returned with a B licence. (More than 25 jumps earns you an A licence, more than 50 earns you a B, more than 200, a C and over 500 gives you a D.) Archana Sardana currently holds a C licence from the United States Parachute Association.

This has however come with a price.



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She mortgaged her house to jump off a cliff

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The training, followed by the many skydiving and BASE jumping trips she undertook, is said to have cost her over Rs 15 lakh. And since the time she started, Sardana has mortgaged her apartment in Panchkula, her wedding jewellery and her car to help finance her passion.

Needless to say she doesn't regret it a bit. If at all, she wonders sometimes why she started off so late in life.

Yet in a way that was the point she was trying to make when she did start out by jumping off airplanes and cliffs.

"Nothing can stop an Indian woman from achieving what she dreams if she wants to," she says. Surely, she may not be conventionally successful but Sardana points out that there probably is no comparison for the rush and excitement she experiences.

Archana Sardana wasn't always like this. In another lifetime, she grew up in a conservative family in Jammu and Kashmir. As the youngest of four children -- she has two brothers and a sister -- Sardana led a very protected life where adventure sports had no place. In fact the one time she did go trekking, she hated it.

She went to a convent school in Srinagar and completed her BSc followed by a diploma in Interior Designing and Computers.

Then like most other girls by the time she was 24, she was married off to Rajiv, who was then posted in Visakhapatnam.



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After marriage, life took a turn in a way she never expected. The adventure sport-loving navy officer egged her on to join him for a trek in Uttaranchal. Since the day almost 18 years ago, Archana Sardana hasn't looked back.

Eventually she even completed courses from Mountaineering Institute, Darjeeling and Nehru Institute of Mountaineering in Uttarkashi.

Skydiving followed as did BASE jumping.

I ask her if the thought of death never crosses her mind when she is jumping.

There is a long pause on the other end of the phone.

"No not really," she tells me, "There have been many occasions when I have seen people die before me and I've been shaken up for a long time after that. But when you're jumping you cannot think about these things. When you jump, you jump and you make sure it is done well."

There have been accidents too. The most recent BASE jump saw Sardana getting injured after a fall after her parachute got stuck in a tree.

"I landed on my legs so I didn't injure myself much but I couldn't walk for three days."

On the fourth day though Sardana was back to doing what she loved best.



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Being the first Indian woman BASE jumper comes with its downsides too.

"There isn't a single place in India where I can BASE jump or skydive. Even if I want to jump once, I have to travel abroad -- mostly to the US. There aren't any great drop zones in India though I hear of a couple of them coming up. But having said that a little support from the government could go a long way to help popularise this sport."

Sardana is currently in Dubai, which she recently discovered has a lot of drop zones. Her husband Rajiv doesn't often travel with her. He's currently in New Delhi where he's posted and doesn't at all mind playing the man behind the successful woman, something Archana doesn't stop talking about.

He's supported her through the years not just financially but in every possible way. He'll take calls for her, co-ordinate interviews such as this one and play the loving father to the two sons when they come back from the boarding school in Shimla.

Then Archana Sardana will return from Dubai, a few dozen jumps older, still recovering from the head rush, walk into their cozy armed forces accommodation and settle down for a quiet Diwali with the family.



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