The first and last time I jumped out of an airplane, I was 17 years old.
It was my mom who nearly died of fright. She had to sign a waiver that listed in gruesome detail all the ways her underage, unlucky son could die or sustain serious injury from skydiving. True to the odds, nothing went wrong. After four hours of “training,” the actual skydive, from Geronimo! to hard landing, lasted just a few minutes. My weekend parachute was an adrenaline rush, but hardly death-defying or life changing.
In contrast, the extreme adventurers in Mary Coffey's fascinating book “Explorers of the Infinite” push themselves physically and psychologically to the breaking point. Skydiver Cheryl Sterns jumped from an airplane 352 times in 24 hours, setting a Guinness World Record. Tanya Streeter free dove without oxygen to a depth of 525 feet below the ocean, holding her breath for almost three and a half minutes, her heart rate plummeting to five beats a minute, before resurfacing. Cyclist Jure Robic pedaled for 3,042 miles across the continental U.S. in 8 days, 19 hours and 33 minutes.
Such super-athletes suffer mind-numbing exhaustion, unbearable pain, intense solitude, sudden terror, and narrow escapes from death – conditions which parapsychologists know can generate paranormal experiences. And the heroes of this book have a journal’s worth, experiencing time distortions, altered states of consciousness, telepathic communications, out-of body experiences, precognition, premonitions of death, and visions of the dead.
I’ve investigated and written about these baffling phenomena for some time. So the reading pleasure for me came less from the garden-variety paranormal experiences these crazies report than from the god-awful, insane exploits which trigger them.
Fifty-five year old ultra-marathoner Marshall Ulrich had a classic out-of-body experience running the Badwater, a 135-mile, non-stop foot race across Death Valley in July when daytime temperatures can hit 129 degrees Fahrenheit. He’s done it 13 times, won it four times. Insanely, he once did it four times back and forth, non-stop, for over 77 hours, while pulling a modified baby jogger loaded with 200 pounds of water, ice and spare clothes. In 1993, while trying to break his own record, he suddenly stepped out of his body. From above, he watched himself running along, “like watching myself on a movie screen.” He remained out of body all night, until the next morning when he realized that “dawn was coming, the sun was about to rise. I knew it was time to go back into my body.” (Skydiver Sterns experienced a similar, extended OBE during her non-stop jumping.)
“Many mountaineers have sensed unexplainable presences in the high mountains,” notes Coffey. American climber Lou Whittaker in 1989 was guiding the first American assault on 28,169-foot high Kanchenjunga in the Himalayas, the third tallest mountain in the world. At his base camp, he kept sensing the presence of a middle-aged, friendly Tibetan woman spirit who communicated with him mentally, telling him everything would go OK. His wife Ingrid arrived at the base camp shortly after Lou had departed for the summit, but her ascent to 16,000 feet was so fast she suffered severe altitude sickness. She spent three days in agony in Lou’s tent, ministered to by the same Tibetan spirit. “She was wearing a headscarf and a long dress. She was shadowy and two-dimensional, like a silhouette.” The spirit would put her hand on Ingrid’s forehead, very comforting, and help her to roll over. She didn’t speak; the two women communicated telepathically. Two months later, after they had returned to the States, Ingrid finally told Lou about her strange helper. Stunned, he admitted seeing her too. They’re convinced it wasn’t a hallucination, since both sensed the same apparition. Coffee notes similar “spirit friends” assisted and comforted many well-known adventurers in their perils, including Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton during his desperate 36-hour trek across frigid South Georgia Island; aviator Charles “Lucky” Lindbergh on his record-breaking, non-stop transatlantic flight to Europe in 1927; and mariner Joshua Slocum, the first man to sail solo around the globe.
In 1997, Tony Bullimore was attempting to duplicate Slocum’s feat, competing in the around-the-world Vendee Globe single-handed yacht race. Two months into the race, a fierce storm in the Southern Ocean rolled his boat, trapping him upside down in his watertight cabin for almost five days. Race officials informed his wife Lalel his upturned boat had been spotted in huge seas; he was presumed dead. That night, kneeling by her bed, she received a telepathic message from him. He was alive, he had food and water, but he was exhausted and had to sleep. The following day, he mentally spoke to her again. “Oh Lal, I’m in a mess. It’s wet. The boat won’t stop rolling. I’m cold.” She told him to keep fighting. Back in his watery tomb, shivering and staring into darkness, he suddenly had a vision. He saw an Australian warship steaming for him, a boat was lowered, sailors started banging on the hull, and he watched himself swim to the surface where he was rescued. Twenty-four hours later, everything happened exactly as his vision had foretold.
Coffey presents dozens of such puzzling experiences while pondering their reality and meaning. For an outdoor adventure writer, she demonstrates a surprising familiarity with parapsychological literature, referencing among others Rupert Sheldrake’s ESP research; Montague Ullman’s dream lab investigations; NDE studies by Raymond Moody and Sam Parnia; plus conventional counter-explanations from popular skeptics like Susan Blackmore and Robert Persinger. Her references are understandably brief and occasionally incorrect – for example, her assertion that scientists know very little about the out-of-body phenomenon. Psychologists, physicians and investigators such as Charles Tart, Stuart Twemlow and D. Scott Rogo mapped the phenomenon several decades ago, and recent NDE research has advanced our understanding. We know a lot about them; it’s just that, like so many other paranormal phenomena, we can’t agree on where they fit in our current model of reality.
But Coffey can be forgiven for not penning a dry parapsychology book few would read. She offers enough science to ground her stories, but wisely focuses on the sense of surprise and wonder her eclectic community of daredevils find in their unexpected brushes with the infinite. As British BASE jumper Shaun Ellison puts it, “There’s so much out there that we don’t understand.”
(Note: this review also appears in the Journal of Scientific Exploration)