Columbia skydivers are first to jump over Mt. McKinley

Saturday, June 27, 2009 | 1:47 p.m. CDT; updated 9:15 a.m. CDT, Monday, June 29, 2009
(Top row) Tandem master Ben Crowell, jumper Tom Smith, jump staff leader Kevin Holbrook, jumper Robert Kimpling and tandem master Jim Horak, along with jump master Neagle Ledet (bottom row), prepare to skydive June 22, 2009, over Mt. McKinley in Alaska.

Alaskan locals gave their salute, and the sound of airplanes flying over could be heard through the phone Thursday afternoon.

“We did it,” said Tom Smith, owner of Flat Branch Pub and Brewing.

At about 10 a.m. Alaskan time Thursday, Smith and a group of nine others became the first to skydive in Denali Park, near North America’s highest peak, Mt. McKinley.

“It was just an incredible experience,” Smith said.

Smith was joined by fellow Columbia resident Jim Lee, operating partner of Sirius Hospitality/HuHot Mongolian Grill; F. James Smith, Tom Smith’s brother from St. Louis; and Rob Kimpling of St. Charles.  

Tom Smith, who turned 50 this year, described the motivation for attempting the feat as a “bucket list type of thing.”

Smith said this is the most extreme adventure he has been on. But he and lifelong best friend, Rob Kimpling, have been knocking items off the bucket list for the last three decades.

“We kind of made a vow to each other to try and connect and do something interesting or major together on our birthdays and especially every 10 years,” Smith said. “The intensity has gone up a bit since we’ve gotten older.”

At age 30, Smith and Kimpling went to Alaska for their first adventure to go salmon fishing. When they turned 40, they went to Belize to go scuba diving. And through the years they’ve been night diving in Hawaii with manta rays and Smith also went solo scuba diving in Honduras. Smith and his friends have gone on zero-gravity flights in Las Vegas, mountain trekking in Rwanda and most recently, in February for Smith’s birthday, they traveled to the British Virgin Islands for a five-day escapade and were surprisingly joined for dinner on the last night by billionaire owner of one of the islands, Richard Branson.

“I can’t do this stuff forever,” Smith said. "I’ve just been fortunate to have these opportunities, and I’ve really tried to take advantage of them.”

Before the real jump Thursday, the team found a window of opportunity to do a test jump Wednesday afternoon from about 12,000 feet altitude. The jump provided some difficulties, but it didn’t faze Smith.  

“The canopy (parachute) got twisted up, and we got turned around a little bit and had to cut it off and go to the reserve canopy,” Smith said. “The worst part though was getting thrown off course from the mishap and landing in an area full of mosquitoes.”

Lance Wood, general manager of Flat Branch, landed awkwardly and injured his ankle in the test jump and was unable to take part in the  jump Thursday.  

“We all had a blast, but we’re disappointed that Lance couldn’t be up there and experience it with us,” Smith said.  

Mt. McKinley is 20,320 feet high, but the group performed a military-style tandem-high altitude jump from 23,000 feet, opened canopy almost immediately and landed near the Spinks River in the state park. The estimated temperature once they opened parachute was at a frigid 60 degrees below zero, and they were required to wear oxygen masks. The reason for the military style was because the Denali National Park, where the mountain is located, wouldn’t allow the group a license to land within the park boundaries.  

Smith learned how to skydive in Sullivan in 2000 and has been on seven sky diving adventures before this one.

“I was amazingly calm throughout the process and really just relaxed and enjoyed the scenery,” Smith said. “I think my experience coming into this jump and the professionals that were involved really made it a very smooth process and allowed us to really enjoy it.”

This adventure isn’t the end for Smith; he is set to go on another journey to Costa Rica in August to go hammerhead and sea turtle tagging.

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