Paragliding Days 83 Through 100, or… Back From The Dirt

The past two weeks have seen multiple milestones in my paragliding epic.

A couple of weeks ago I had an awesome time partaking of my first SIV training with Brad Gunnuscio…

… during which I should note that James Lewis’ expert captaining of the tow-boat saved my ass on at least a couple of marginal launches…

On Thursday I experienced my first mountain flying at The V with an excellent site intro by Joey Jarrell…

… and just yesterday my log reached its 100th day. Nonetheless I would be remiss not to mention that this bright spot comes after a very dark and difficult period in my paragliding journey, the echoes of which still prove a challenge every time I strap into my gear.

On 22 March I suffered a low altitude asymmetric deflation while ridge soaring an eastward track toward the East end of the Southside of POTM. The causes may have been manifold: wind intensity stronger than the bulk of my experience, wind direction suddenly shifting from SSE to SE causing a gully to begin throwing off nasty rotor, the down portion of a thermal adding pressure to the top of my wing, a nearby pilot doing aggressive wingovers generating problematic wake turbulence, insufficient nuance and/or attentiveness to brake pressure, inadequate appreciation for the evolving conditions during a long and very enjoyable flight.

With the right/outside half of my wing gone I experienced an initial wobble followed by a violent 180+ degree rightward turn presumably owing to an under-correction that sent me spiraling toward the hill. I leaned left and pulled hard to avoid impact, but doubtless far too much, now proceeding to over-correction and whipping 180+ degrees leftward, a combination of my penduluming body and a surging wing creating the terrifying arrangement of my wing being fully ninety degrees in front of me. I brake-checked like my life depended on it only to have the rising curtain reveal that I was now hurtling toward the nearside berm of the gully. Some part of my brain screamed that it wanted to throw the reserve parachute but another part knew this would be fruitless defeatism and so I instead leaned and pulled hard to the right. I avoided a full-speed/bad-angle impact with the berm by just a few feet and immediately flew to the bottom.

You might say that I was lucky to get away unscathed, and in one sense you would be right, but only in the physical one. This terrifying experience doubtless had a profound psychological impact on me and my subsequent flying. I found myself living in constant fear of catastrophic deflation. With hindsight I can say with clarity that I was over-correcting. With hindsight I can see that my problems with over-correction are fractal.

The day after this scare, at Janica’s suggestion, I signed up for the September session of Cody Mittanck’s SIV course in which she had recently enrolled, and convinced Joe Hastings to do same. September seemed like an eternity to wait for this plus-up in safety, however, so when Joey Jarrell mentioned that Brad Gunnuscio had opened up a May session for his SIV course I jumped on that as well. Sadly even that would not prove soon enough.

On the morning of 10 April around 0930, again ridge soaring at Southside with maybe ~25-50 feet of altitude above hilltop, this time on a westward track toward the far west end, I was hit by a strong updraft. Instead of giving the wing what it wanted I had a fear response that led to premature and excessive brake input. I heard an explosive crinkling and looked up to see a wing that was already progressing from stall to independent spin.

Throughout my whole life I have always experienced “time warp” during high pressure situations where milliseconds count. In this case, however, my personal memory between incident initiation on a westward track and the moment before ground strike on an eastward track is blank, as is my memory between ground strike and finishing a violent tumble. I am left to piece together what happened by interpolating between the points I do remember and integrating various third party accounts (thanks, Austin Shultz, for recording and later sharing your notes on what you saw).

As best I can fathom — the wing stalls, some residual/asymmetric brake pressure causes it spin toward the hill, I am momentarily in free fall still on a westward track, I go hands-up and the wing re-inflates facing eastward, I am in back-fly with a riser half-twist the unwinding of which has my body rotate toward the hill, the wing surges in a way I fail to adequately check owing either to the riser twist or extreme disorientation, and as my last act I blessedly somehow find a way to tumble versus pancake on impact so the energy can dissipate relatively gradually. I remember getting up with just enough presence of mind to know that I urgently needed to reel in lines to prevent involuntary re-launch but then I “teleported” to sitting in a sheriff’s truck waiting for an ambulance to arrive.

Doubtless this teleportation was greatly aided by Mark Malouin beelining to me and Jordan Porter simultaneously sprinting to my wing. Depowering your wing in strong wind with a head injury near a cliff is not a game you want to play if instead you can have friends short-circuit that tenuous affair. Do yourself a favor and never fly alone.

Enroute to IMC’s trauma clinic by ambulance, strapped to a gurney and stabilized with a cervical collar, an EMT commended me for my excellent choice in helmet if not my choice in hobbies. “MIPS”, he said, giving me a thumbs up. It certainly it earned its keep that day.

“Sweet beard, man”, remarked one of the people getting me into the CT scanner. I can guess at who keyed in my pseudonym upon arrival.

Lying in a hospital bed, still waiting for radiology to clear the removal of the C-collar, I looked at my phone and found a message from Ben White asking me how I was doing. “I guess I am some combination of lucky and durable”, I replied, noting that a full body’s worth of CT scans had failed to find any notable issues apart from the slings and arrows of earlier outrageous fate. Shortly before my discharge, after a quick visit of just three hours, one of the attending doctors expressed astonishment at how relatively unscathed I was given what I had endured, remarking that I was probably the most intact paraglider who had ever paid the clinic a visit. Apart from an unreasonable amount of luck perhaps the rest of the credit goes to performing hundreds (or is it thousands?) of semi-controlled falls as a passable soccer goalie and a mediocre skier as well as always sporting a fully-integrated certified-organic cervical collar purchased with regular deadlifts, shoulder shrugs, and pull-ups.

At around 1330 I got out of the hospital bed, dressed, ambled outside, and called myself an Uber home. In the Uber I had all the windows rolled down which made for a deafening highway drive. As we got off the highway the driver asked why I had wanted all the windows down and I told him, fully aware of the irony, that I was a couple weeks out from my second Pfizer shot. After thirteen months of being incredibly fastidious about social distancing I went and crashed a paraglider and thus had an ambulance ride, my first After Times medical visit, and my first After Times Uber ride, all just weeks before the vaccination finish line. FAIL.

Not one for being particular empathic, later that evening my Apple Watch chided me for a lackluster day on my Exercise and Move goals. Fuck you, Apple Watch, I’M HAVING A MOMENT HERE.

The next morning Chris Santacroce reached out saying that he had just heard about my accident, was relieved I was OK, and wanted to follow up with me when I was ready. We would speak briefly on the phone a few days later. During this subsequent chat he mentioned his own accident from over a decade ago, remarked on how I was at the beginning of a multi-layered process, and offered to help me navigate it, the latter being something on which he has since delivered in spades and for which I will be permanently deeply grateful. Over time this has included a journaling exercise to begin the reflection process, a subsequent long session at SuperFly to unpack and analyze the event and its run-up, and a bunch of opportunistic supervision at the hill to assess and work on related technique issues. Getting to work with Chris has been one of the unexpected silver linings of my horrifying mishap.

The weeks subsequent to my accident proved extremely difficult. I was grateful to have gotten off so lightly, but in addition to a sore upper back and lower neck I did have a mild concussion that needed protecting, so I found myself abruptly transitioned from a multi-sport daily regimen to being woefully sedentary and focused entirely on work. The support of various pilots/instructors/friends was key to muddling through this period. Jeremy Pottenger, as with my March scare, reached out immediately to offer support, no stranger himself to paragliding ordeals. Joe Hastings and Ben White were regular sounding boards. Janica linked me up with a long and much appreciated phone call with an instructor, Greg Kelley, who happened to be renting a room from her around the time of my accident. Joey Jarrell hung out, talked at length, and loaned me a wing he wanted me to use for kiting practice.

About three weeks out from my crash, and one week out from my second Pfizer shot, I figured it was as good a time as any to get back to climbing, acquired a Momentum membership, and began some extremely cautious indoor bouldering. This provided not just a much overdue release of pent up energy but also a palpable reminder of how many non-flying activities I love that can be dashed in a moment as the result of bad luck, bad judgment, bad technique, or more likely than not a combination of all three.

About four weeks out from my crash I finally cautiously poked my wingtips in the air. The first four sessions were deliberately a kiting-only affair — a POTM Northside evening on 5/5, a Galena Park evening on 5/6, and then two more Northside evenings on 5/11 and 5/12. In the middle of this, on Friday 5/7, I had the aforementioned “unpack” session with Chris. Among many valuable insights were the ones that we are all on a brake pressure journey, my next scare could be a whole other class of journey (e.g. conditions, maneuvers, etc.), I need to damp my oscillations in approach because every flight is different, I need to find a better balance of conscious and intuitive understanding, and generally I need to make things flow better by cultivating softer arms that are always giving the glider what it wants.

By the fourth kiting-only outing I was starting to feel an urgency to fly again coincident with an extreme trepidation thereof. My upcoming SIV with Brad was scheduled for the 20th, and I felt that a successful experience there was critical for my having a successful return to flight, but I really did not want to have my first return flight be a tow-launch to intense maneuvers. And so, on the evening of the 12th, I went to bed praying that the forecast of a smooth Southside morning would hold.

I woke up to an early alarm on the 13th in the hopes of a close-to-dawn flight that would provide the simplest and safest experience possible, found promising conditions in the current report, worked my way through the morning routine, was at the hill by 0700, and was ready to launch by 0715. I had not been this anxious about a flight off the top of Southside since my first one back in October. Ben happened to be out with some of his current students and as I edged resolutely toward the lip I heard his voice come reassuringly through the radio indicating that he would be watching over me.

The launch was smooth, the air was boosty but consistent, and I found myself quickly above launch height, using the generous lift to maintain huge margins by staying waaaaaay out front compared to what I might previously have done. I performed a few ridge soaring circuits before deciding that I had had enough after ~15 minutes. The whole flight was smooth and sensible, my descent well calibrated, and the landing gentle. I would be remiss, however, not to mention that every time the wing made the slightest crinkling sound I would have to bite down hard on a rising panic, never mind that it was just doing something I had handled countless previous times without incident. Throughout the whole flight I found myself repeatedly mouthing Chris’s mantras of “soft arms” and “give the glider what it wants”. After my flight I managed to catch a ride back to the top from Jordan who, having been one of my first responders, noted that he had been imagining that he would likely never see me at the hill again and was happy to be proven wrong.

There would be more action prior to SIV — a couple of Southside sledders the morning of the 14th, a long Northside kiting session on the evening of the 15th, and some uphill kiting work to a side-hill Southside launch on the morning of the 18th followed my a Northside kiting session in the evening — but the most psychologically important thing was that initial breaking of a nearly five week flying dry spell.

On the 19th I was a basket of nerves in anticipation of beginning SIV training. We had ground school on the 20th, after which I felt pretty good, but the 21st ended up being a weather day during which I returned to a state of extreme anxiety. I had shared with Brad everything that had happened to me recently, and he was amply empathic and thoughtful, but nonetheless by the time I was on-deck for my first tow-up I was fighting down dry heaves.

My first launch was clean but the actual tow-up was an ordeal as I could not seem to find my stirrup to get properly seated. I struggled to maintain a good heading for the tow while distracted by the diverse challenges of expanding my lungs and not crushing my testicles. Blessedly I managed to wriggle myself fully into a seated position just as the tow was ending and the maneuvers were to begin. And then it was off to the races practicing asymmetric deflations.

And, oh, what a wonderful thing it is to practice navigating your wing through wacky misconfigurations in the controlled context of being over water with a rescue boat nearby and a master instructor on radio watching you like a hawk. I dearly wish that my first experience with an asymmetric deflation had been in this rigorously controlled environment versus 100′ over hard ground with nobody to guide me.

How different might the preceding two months have thus been? Hard to say… Maybe that would just have postponed a reckoning with my relationship to flying? In my first post-accident chat with Chris he posited that nearly everyone who is to have a long and happy relationship with paragliding will at some point have had an experience as terrifying as mine. Sometimes it comes within the first year, sometimes it takes a couple of decades, but generally it is a necessary ingredient in calibrating one’s risk management to something sustainable.

Doing this SIV course was probably the highest adrenaline experience of my whole life but after my first tow-up I converted from hyper-anxious to hyper-focused. The anticipation of the unknown was the only truly scary part of the affair. Everything after that offered an amazing state of flow in the moment that in turn has provided me a much needed boost to my confidence. Although the nose-down spirals and asymmetric spirals were certainly the most thrilling moments of the course, when Ben later asked me what was my favorite part of the course, my answer was not those but rather “executing a smooth-as-butter 360 turn with full speed-bar while holding in an asymmetric deflation”. I’m not looking to be a dare devil but damn does it feel good to have a toolbox full of techniques to deal with the occasional calamity. How great is it to know that you can still be the master of your destiny even when half your wing is gone? I am incredibly grateful to Brad for playing this key role in salvaging my self-confidence as a pilot.

This sport will always throw some wrench at you but if you can keep calm, keep current, keep practicing, keep getting mentored, and listen to your gut then hopefully you will find a way to muddle through.

I had a scary bush-grazing launch experience at the Northside on the evening of the 27th after a long kiting session, my first post-SIV flight no less, but some combination of prior experience and practice made it a non-event — being sure to keep my feet up to avoid a hard snag, having soft arms that gently searched for just the right brake pressure to clear the obstacle, and delicately weight-shifting to counter an undesirable rotation.

On the morning of the 28th I had one of those everything-goes-wrong kind of days — wind gets a little too strong just as I arrive at the Southside, I go to my roof box for a smaller wing but realize I left the key at home, I drive to the bottom for side-hill practice but realize I’ve lost the buckle to my helmet strap, after I procure a loaner helmet and start uphill kiting the wind keeps getting too weak just in advance of my position, I start to get so frustrated I begin to curse — and then I made great decision, namely to do the annoying hike down the hill instead of trying for a sledder and then to just go home. Persistence is my double-edged sword, and three-months-earlier-Andrew likely would not have packed it up like this, but maybe today-Andrew is just that little bit smarter about avoiding hairy situations.

Over the next few days there was LOTS more kiting and only three little Southside sledders. One of the outcomes of my recent traumas has been a happiness to spend a lot more time kiting. And one of my happiest memories from this little slice was getting smacked hard by a gust during an evening’s NS kiting, being plucked and dropped on my butt quite rapidly, finding myself momentarily being dragged toward the cars, but calibrating just the right toggle inputs that I could gently coax the wing back to an overhead position that allowed me to progress smoothly from my tailbone, to a knee, and then back to my feet. The March version of myself would not have had the finesse to do that.

I should also note that I had another unsettling (but again uneventful) bush-grazing Northside launch the evening of the 6/2, the day before I was intro’d to The V, one consequence of which was that I was dead sure I was NOT going to attempt The V’s north-facing launch which is a high-commitment hope-you-clear-the-bushes affair. If you’re struggling with something in particular, then best to avoid high-consequence situations that hinge on it, instead finding contrived and safe ways to work through the challenge. Hope is never a good strategy but it is an exceptionally stupid one when flying.

And thus we arrive at the present day where I am incredibly grateful to have ultimately managed such an optimistic story arc. The fact that I could come back from such crushing adversity says a lot about the quality of our little community. I have benefited hugely from this support network and hope fervently that I can in time find adequate ways to pay it forward.

I am nonetheless struggling to ascertain the key parameters that led to my experience — What was unique about my situation? What was just plain bad luck? What drove me to certain bad outcomes? What somehow blessedly made all my trials relatively cheap lessons? What can I do differently going forward to have a more mellow paragliding experience? What can other newcomers do to avoid the drama I experienced?

The first thing that someone will realize about me is that I am an outlier physically, substantially from the general population, and extremely from the paraglider population, weighing in at 300lbs and standing at 6’6″. Firstly, this creates challenges around finding gear — finding a harness that fits me nicely is tough and the wings suited to me are tandems where I roughly inhabit the midpoint of a huge weight range. Secondly, this has doubtless governed my collection of experiences — all sports have elements of finesse, but perhaps several of the ones I have done over the years entail a certain brutishness, ranging from being an indoor soccer goalie, to doing martial arts, to wrestling, and maybe that renders me prone to fighting the wing instead of flowing with it.

Another salient detail about myself is that I am hyper-analytic. This is extremely valuable for developing a conscious understanding of a subject but perhaps slows the transition between the “conscious competence” and “unconscious competence” quadrants which is perhaps severely punished in a problem space as fluid, varied, fast-paced, and high-consequence as flying. It probably also plays into challenges around fixation on details and over-compensation in the wake of adverse events.

And then there is the determination thing… Am I admirably persistent or willfully stubborn? That varies from moment to moment, and depends on who you ask, and ascertaining the difference continues to be a life-long project. To have a long, happy, fruitful life flying the key doubtless is to be persistent over time and unwavering in emergencies and yet perfectly willing to pack it up when a specific situation feels off.

And what of things that could happen to any novice pilot?

I had an overall fantastic experience doing my P2 with Ben White during October and November of last year. The weather was shockingly cooperative and I was thus able to experience a hyper-density of high-quality instruction. I then went on to have four months of relatively incident free flying. What might have been interesting about that period? For one, it was winter, a period known both for the smoothest flying conditions and yet also the ones where relatively few pilots and students (and thus mentors/instructors) are in evidence either because it is unpleasantly cold or because there is snow to play in elsewhere (I was extremely fortunate to link up with Ariel Zlatkovski for mentorship during this period but there is only so much one person can do). That provides ample opportunity to get over-confident in your ability while allowing latent bad habits to re-emerge just in time to get smacked down by the more complicated and turbulent conditions of Spring. Meanwhile, local SIV courses tend to be offered late-Spring and late-Summer/early-Fall, making the time I did my P2 somewhat misaligned with doing an SIV shortly thereafter (and I was uncomfortable traveling for one before getting vaccinated).

There exists also a huge risk around false familiarity for pilots who have yet to see a full turning of the seasons once or twice, a major call-out by Chris during his interview on the Cloudbase Mayhem podcast in addition to developing a discipline around choosing not to fly. By some measures my incidents/accidents occurred while I was doing things that seemed entirely familiar when in fact conditions were somehow outside my experience in problematic ways.

Lastly, perhaps we all need to ask for help more proactively when we experience the kind of adversity that shakes us to the core. I remember on 6 April I had a flight at Northside that just felt off. I kept having a wonky experience in thermals that in hindsight was predictive of my 10 April crash. I was continually braking prematurely, anticipating a surge instead of breaking one, a problem that Joey had wisely called out in February, that I had spent the subsequent month focused on correcting, but that had then suffered a regression after my deflation scare. In this case I had the good sense to abort my flight and go land. What I failed to do was proactively seek out help diagnosing what was going on. After my accident various people have been awesome in helping me return to flight and become a more safe and proficient pilot. I was foolish not to seek out more of that help before going for an ambulance ride.

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