Some have said that to paraglide is to hold a mirror up to one’s soul. I incline toward agreement. One year into this odyssey, an experience doubtless born of a larger context, the time feels nigh for some higher order reflection.
This first year has proven a journey of unprecedentedly high highs, excruciatingly low lows, a grueling amount of work, myriad moments of flow, occasional spikes of pure terror, a surprising amount of kinship, long battles between doubt and determination, and countless opportunities for introspection.
You do not know what you are entering when you choose to partake of paragliding. More to the point — you can’t know until you have done it and to a larger degree you continue to not know all along the way. Scant few activities can compete on the combination of nuance, complexity, intensity, unpredictability, and consequentiality.
This sport also exhibits a lamentably high attrition rate. People come to paragliding for diverse and fascinating reasons at all phases and junctions of life but, despite all the wondrous experiences it can provide, many people are ultimately scared, injured, or frustrated out of the sport. I might well have been one of those people within my first six months but for a fortuitous blend of luck, perseverance, and above all else an amazing community of instructors, mentors, and fellow pilots. I hope that this story can in some small way pay those gifts forward to the benefit of other pilots and the paragliding-curious struggling to make good decisions from one day to the next.
Against a Dark Background
“Gonna be dead by thirty if we keep this shit up”, or something to similar effect, a colleague and I would regularly quip while devouring a cheesesteak in the OPS cafeteria circa 2005 long after sensible folk had gone home, taking a moment to refuel in the interstices of manic bursts. I loved the mission, the camaraderie, the technology, and the sense of flow. Also the crushing debt from school meant it felt better to rack up overtime pay than have a personal life or go on vacations — my only concession to discretionary spending around that time was to drop two grand on a 2006 Trek 2200 ZR road bike, an outlay that I figured offered better self-care ROI potential than a single trip to Utah for the skiing I was craving (though also, as I would soon learn, a higher probability of being hit by cars, smooshed by buses, and generally harassed by sociopaths wrapped in oil-powered death machines).
How weirdly prescient these flippant remarks would eventually prove. One’s thoughts flow into one’s words and thence into actions, habits, character, and destiny. I made what I thought a respectable attempt at balance — I biked and rock climbed, I played volleyball and soccer, I eventually found the time and money to ski again — but if we’re being honest work always took precedence over health, hobbies, and relationships. Those other things found themselves packed into the cracks of a career as opposed to woven through my life as first class elements.
In September 2012 I had a freak accident wherein I fell while bouldering, spraining my ankle as well as twisting my knee, and making for a clumsy drive to urgent care while operating the pedals with my left foot. In the grand scheme of things this event, though painful and grotesque, was in and of itself pretty trivial. I returned to all my activities within a couple of months.
But such momentary disruption to 32-year-old Andrew’s reality would not be the end of that sub-plot. A few months later I had an MRI to assess healing which showed what looked at first glance like a complex hematoma by my knee. Six months later I had another MRI which ruled out that theory and had me going for a CT-guided needle biopsy.
I remember getting a phone call at the office with the biopsy results just as I was finishing up an interview with someone who would subsequently become a key timely hire for my project. I would seemingly need to Google “myxoid liposarcoma”. Some days later I would get another call, this one from a radiation oncologist — “We want you come to the office later this week.” “Guh,” I replied, “how about instead of that I drive up to Boston for a friend’s wedding and come see you next week?”. They said that would be OK. My friend, meanwhile, perhaps only half-jokingly, still occasionally remarks that I saved his life when he nearly fell from chair to floor while floating above a crowd of inebriated revelers dancing the Hora. Priorities.
To say that the experience felt surreal for some time would be understatement. Worse still, it came as part of a one-two punch in which the Snowden revelations went off like a bombshell within my professional sphere. Everything felt like a bad dream from which I just needed to wake up. To feel real would require something inescapably tangible — my second visit to the radiation oncologist where they had me lie on a table and, leg stripped bare, used lasers to calibrate the painting of targeting references on my leg to be used over the coming weeks. The subsequent ghoulish appearance smacked of witchcraft and would catch me by surprise time and again. I could go manic at the office to forget my troubles but take a quick break to sit down in a bathroom stall and BOOM there reality was staring me in the face.
The radiation course ran daily M-F for six weeks. I scheduled every session in the earliest possible morning slot so I could maintain with most people at the office the illusion that all was normal, sharing awareness only with key personnel who needed to know for continuity of operations. Keeping up appearances, however, became more grueling from one week to the next. At first the weekends off from treatment provided a bounce-back effect, but as the course wore on that effect dissipated, eventually disappearing entirely to leave me with the perpetual feeling of hauling my ass through life wearing a massive weight vest.
Meanwhile I just kept trying to be Andrew at full-tilt with the major focus being getting the system I was building at work to a state where it could withstand an extended absence of indefinite duration on my part. And during all of this the world kept turning. It can be a lonely place going through something like this when by all outward appearances you seem perfectly normal and everyone else is busy doing their usual thing… and a great reminder that whatever you are seeing in someone else is just the tip of the iceberg riding above the water.
I have one such stand-out memory from that period. On a day when the morning had included not only my penultimate radiation session but also the euthanasia of my rapidly ailing beloved cat I found myself arriving home late after a grueling day at the office and parking at Baltimore’s West Street garage in Federal Hill shortly after a Ravens game had let out. As I walked out of the garage a car raced up a side street, the passengers shouted “WOO!” and threw a bunch of celebratory Ravens paraphernalia in my direction, causing me to be spooked and flip them off, to which their response was to shout “FUCK YOU, FAGGOT!” as they sped off. Shame on me for not bringing the positive energy.
Notwithstanding my various attempts at distraction, eventually judgement day would arrive, almost exactly a year to the day that my bouldering fall set events in motion, leaving me with a tangible reminder of my reality that kept any manner of denial at bay while I spent a month pumped full of prescription opioids and gradually reacquiring the ability to walk. During this period an assortment of wonderful friends would bring me a smorgasbord of home cooked meals and yet, despite eating greedily of these offerings, I still managed to lose thirty pounds, presumably owing to the inevitable muscle wasting.
A Refusal To Be A Noun Phrase
“I don’t like the word ‘addict’ because it has terrible connotations,” Root says one day, as they are sunning themselves on the afterdeck. “Instead of slapping a label on you, the Germans would describe you as ‘Morphiumsüchtig.’ The verb suchen means to seek. So that might be translated, loosely, as ‘morphine seeky’ or even more loosely as ‘morphine seeking.’ I prefer ‘seeky’ because it means that you have an inclination to seek morphine.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?” Shaftoe says.
“Well, suppose you have a roof with a hole in it. That means it is a leaky roof. It’s leaky all the time–even if it’s not raining at the moment. But it’s only leaking when it happens to be raining. In the same way, morphine-seeky means that you always have this tendency to look for morphine, even if you are not looking for it at the moment. But I prefer both of them to ‘addict,’ because they are adjectives modifying Bobby Shaftoe instead of a noun that obliterates Bobby Shaftoe.”
I think about the preceding passage from time to time as it is, by now for an assortment of reasons, among the most personally meaningful excerpts from Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon. I’ve never thought of myself as a Cancer Survivor. Rather I have merely experienced an oncological ordeal amongst the long list of slings and arrows of outrageous yet wholly surmountable fate.
Who knew a rock climbing fall could be deemed the luckiest thing to happen in your life? Had I not lost my grip on the final hold on that fateful route then quite likely the tumor would instead have been discovered later when it had either destroyed my knee or (as is common with this variant) gone wandering and popped up on my lungs where chemotherapy and/or death are likely scenarios.
In the winter you would likely not see any clear sign of this facet of my history.
In the summer months it’s just a little bit harder to hide. Curious people might be like “what’s up with the one knee-high sock?”. (Answer: some combination of injury, radiation, and surgery (to include a compensating Gastrocnemius Rotation Flap) trashed the valves in my Greater Saphenous Vein which I subsequently had Radio Frequency Ablated; if I want to get my right foot into a rock climbing shoe then continual pressure is key because the return blood flow is fucked)
I have to accept that, on the one hand, I’d be lying to myself if I asserted that this medical misadventure, this incidentaloma if you will, didn’t provide a hard shoulder check on my life’s trajectory, in many ways for the better though certainly not without high costs. On the other hand, meanwhile, the deeply ingrained habits developed in earlier life would prove difficult to escape. Although I certainly took more initiative in shaping my life in subsequent years there was still a central focus on Work at the expense of putting in the work to develop a broader collection of experiences and a healthier set of relationships. More blows of the hammer would need to fall to substantively reshape my reality and priorities.
In 2016 I left Maryland and government life to take a job in Connecticut at Bridgewater Associates. That extremely unique place blessed me with enormous opportunities for introspection and growth. In 2019 I left Bridgewater for a small start-up in Columbus which was navigating such a crazy period that I felt I crammed 5x the expected learnings into my time there on top of the fact that you’re already expecting 5x the learnings compared to a “regular” job.
Sure, I was learning a lot, and yes, my annual MRI and CT scans kept coming back clean (and continue to do so), seeming to indicate that I had artfully dodged the grasping hands of the grim reaper, but my blood pressure and weight had been inexorably ticking upward in recent years, and meanwhile a dark patch continued to travel upward on my lower leg, like an unavoidably obvious yet very ambiguous countdown clock on my ability to do many of the things I love reasonably unencumbered. Would I get another five, ten, or twenty years before needing to become the bionic man? Would my life’s general stress and imbalance kill me before then anyway?
Another Shock To The System
“I find myself wondering what allowed me to resist the ruinous grasp of opioid addiction while my brother could not” I mused while out to lunch with an old friend in Maryland in November 2019. “You had a life you wanted to get back to” was his simple and insightful reply.
I had spent a month on Dilaudid after my surgery. That is some powerful stuff and yet I don’t remember enjoying it. It just kept me from being in unbearable pain. Toward the end of this period as I tapered the dosage my reaction was “holy cowwwww the world is SHAAAARRRRRP”. In some ways the gap between getting off prescription opioids and being able to get back to proper exercise was the worst. And yet, despite that misery, I have never touched the stuff since.
I suspect that the grim reality is that I did become an opioid addict during this ordeal but I managed this problem by increasingly becoming an exercise and adrenaline junky in lieu of popping prescription pills illicitly. I was fortunate that I had a baseline of athletics to lean on to generate flow states and endorphin rushes naturally. I clearly remember the euphoria I experienced from that first set of pull-ups after I was cleared for light exercise. Finally returning to being an indoor soccer goalie was glorious.
I also had a job that I not only loved but also required a TS-SCI clearance that came with random piss tests and regular polygraphs, as well as a solid support network of friends, colleagues, and family, all acting as guardrails during this most difficult period.
I was lucky. I had a really robust set of rails to keep me from proceeding out of one nightmare and directly into another one. And yet keeping that djinn in the bottle requires work — I start to experience increasingly awful physical withdrawal symptoms if I miss getting some kind of vigorous exercise two days in a row. By day three or four the muscles in my face and upper back go painfully tight while my skull begins to burn. Insomnia, the bane of my existence since waking up to a burglary in progress during my senior year of college, becomes an increasingly nettlesome companion.
It’s impossible to know why exactly my brother John went off on such a different trajectory so early. Certainly his baseline personality and childhood experiences diverged substantively from mine — his extreme intelligence was paired with an incongruous disregard for risk and consequences which could make him great fun to be around but also get him into serious trouble. His version of events, which seem at least plausible, center on suffering a back injury during his freshman year of college for which doctors prescribed opioid pain killers whose grasp would change his life in profound ways, this at a phase where his adult reality was entirely nascent. He would end up dropping out of school, moving back home, getting mixed up with an unsavory crew, and ultimately going to jail for reasons mind bogglingly surreal and senseless.
Not too much later he would get out early for good behavior, doubtlessly enabled by being white and having family with at least a modicum of financial means and legal wherewithal in a society where money and melanin regularly tip the not-so-blind scales of justice. Subsequently he would finish his undergraduate degree in Chemistry and show the glimmers of being back on The Path. His traction, however, proved tenuous and episodic. He wasn’t always opioid-seeking, but doubtless always opioid-seeky, as once your brain is wired thus there is no going back, only the possibility of containment.
We shared perhaps some of our best years together circa 2011-2016, finding ourselves consistently rock climbing together 2x/week and even sharing a nice Oregon vacation together in 2012…
In 2016, however, he seemed to enter a new phase of the struggle. With increasing frequency he would cancel our rock climbing outings without notice because he was “sick”. By the time I was leaving Maryland in August 2016 for work in Connecticut he had gone off the rails again and effectively disappeared from my reality. It was heart breaking. At one point around that time he was clinically dead but somehow revived. Whenever my grandmother would call in the coming years she would despondently ask if I had any news of John and I would answer truthfully that I did not know where he was and did not even have a functional telephone number for him. I lived with the sense of dread that it was only a matter of time until I got the call.
Fast forward to 2019 and I was having a year that was making a serious bid for topping even 2013 for most stressful year of my life — I had left Bridgewater Associates in February for the aforementioned start-up whose problems ran far deeper than I could appreciate when joining and by August my engagement to be married was broken off. Finding time for self-care was exceedingly difficult. I was losing the ability to sleep even when I had the time for it. Rock climbing fell out of the rotation because I kept procrastinating about getting an ingrown toenail removed to the point that just walking had me limping, never mind cramming into bouldering appropriate shoes. I held onto dear life with my 3x/week swimming habit, something I had cultivated during my recovery from surgery, the bedrock of my existence through all manner of turmoil.
By October I dared to experience the emotion of hope. It seemed like the insane amount of work I had put into the company had turned around its Technology and the VP Engineering who had joined a couple months after I did had gotten the People and Process facets in order. I took a vacation! Sort of. I spent a lot of time working while on vacation in Oregon but I did nonetheless get away for a week and it was good. And when I came back to Columbus… within 72 hours of my return everything seemed to come crashing down — on Wednesday 23 October I found out that the VP Engineering had just put in his notice, on Thursday my brother John would be found in a hospital parking lot dead from an overdose, on Friday I would receive the call delivering this terrible news, and on Saturday morning I woke up to discover that other family I thought I could lean on during a tragedy had instead taken the opportunity to toss a torch into a barrel of gasoline. Any one of those things would have been crushing on its own but all together it felt like sucker punch, rib kick, curb stomp.
To describe that moment as a wake-up call would be epic understatement. In the period of days between between receiving the news and traveling to Maryland for the funeral I took the time for some appallingly overdue self-care — I scheduled my annual MRI and CT scan which were now six months late and I booked a podiatry appointment to have the ingrown toenail taken out. Pulling my tailored dress clothes out of the closet offered another reminder of the woeful neglect of my health — they fit, but just barely, to the point that I had to breathe and move carefully to avoid popping a button or splitting a seam.
I have no words for the grief at the wake and the funeral except that the pain was incomparable. John was 32. He leaves behind a young son, Joey, whose confusion and agony I cannot even begin to fathom. I, meanwhile, am wracked with a sense of guilt about how I might have done more to reach out to him and thoughts of how this is perhaps the most egregious example of work consistently taking precedence over all else throughout my entire adult life.
I returned home in a daze. Shortly thereafter I went to the aforementioned podiatry appointment which offered a picture-worth-thousand-words illustration of the degree to which I was sacrificing my own well being on the alter of Work, going around with what might as well have been a tiger’s claw embedded in my flesh. In Software Engineering we often speak of Technical Debt. Here we see what Life Debt looks like.
And then I was just left alone with my grief to ponder the frailty and brevity of human existence, to wonder what wisdom there was on continuing the present path, and to begin to reason about a change in heading and a re-ordering of priorities. It’s hard to lose your “twin” so young, but I wanted to find a silver lining in that loss, a way to rise above the tragedy. Despite all his troubles John often seemed to have a knack for taking joy in the simple things in life, something I have long experienced as elusive and only much later in life given the room to breathe.
See you in hell, Purdue Pharma.
A Perilous Pivot
About eight weeks later I “celebrated” my 40th birthday by staying late at the office with another engineer to debug a network sensor deployment at a client POC that every sober person already knew was doomed and was in service to a product offering that a month later would be shelved. It all felt very BoJack Horseman…
My 41st birthday would be a lot more awesome but the intervening year to get there would be a hell of a dumpster fire. It was the kind of birthday where you almost piss yourself but not because you were piss drunk — rather I went off-piste a little too early in the season, bounced off a barely concealed boulder, superman’d, double-ejected, and was awkwardly pinned in a snow drift long enough that it was a race against time to dislodge myself, partially disrobe, whip it out, and dump the tank, all the while wondering if the next act would be to try not to freeze to death while hiking down the mountain on foot (blessedly I found both skis and lived).
To get to such fun, though, first I would have to quit my job in February 2020 with the thought of taking a world-traveling sabbatical year, only to have COVID blow the world up during my four week notice period, and then become an accidental consultant.
Along the way both my rock climbing gym and swimming gym would close. GAAAAAAHHHH — so short-lived the enjoyment of my repaired toe… So awful to lose access to my pool. Did I mention that I have an “opioid addiction” that requires the constant administration of exercise? In desperation I augmented my in-home elliptical machine by panic-buying at full retail the equipment I needed to do deadlifts in my basement, a rather perilous experience when although your head clears the above floor it does NOT clear the joists which adds a critical step to the setup routine…
Then I would get tear gassed in front of my house…
… as Columbus descended into chaos in the wake of George Floyd’s murder…
… after which I would find myself on a weird and stressful cross-country journey in a 24′ RV with three kitties who progressed from terrified, to curious, to resigned as I kept my foot to the floor and tried not to fall asleep while racing against a moving truck on my way from Ohio to Utah. The deciding factor on whether I survived that trip may well have been that I had a remote friend running “tactical operations support” where the protocol was that as my energy began to flag I sent over my current geo-coordinates to which she would shortly thereafter reply with a camp site reservation an hour or three down the road.
WHEEEEELLLLP — Not exactly the recovery year I imagined 2020 to be but I muddled through well enough and succeeded in beginning a truly new chapter in life.
An Aviation Journey
We might reasonably say that my path to being a pilot has proven circuitous. The year after my surgery I got the idea into my head that I wanted to fly as a Life Project. As an initial hypothesis I imagined learning to fly helicopters and began with some simulator based training. Subsequently I received counsel to learn fixed-wing aircraft first as much of the fundamentals would be the same and the cost-per-hour of renting aircraft far cheaper and so I gave the local flying club run by the DoD at the Tipton airport a whirl.
I learned a lot while getting to see Maryland from a different perspective but ultimately the experience did not quite deliver the way I hoped — the weather was uncooperative, the club had lots of fleet management problems, I fit in only a small fraction of their aircraft, the DC SFRA was an insanely inefficient airspace in which to train, I had a miserable instructor/student fit, my medical certificate took the scenic route through the FAA, end-of-life care for my maternal grandparents exploded into a ton of family drama, and my work project was experiencing a distracting amount of “catastrophic success”. Recognizing that I lacked the headspace and ecosystem to continue the project fruitfully and safely I shelved it for later.
A couple of years later, having moved to Connecticut and settled into my job at Bridgewater, I thought I would give things another go. I reached out to Arrow Aviation at the Danbury Municipal Airport, was connected with an instructor, and got on a path that seemed set to get me to the goal of PP-ASEL certification. That, also, was sadly not meant to be. I was up with my instructor on a Thursday, had scheduled another lesson with him on Saturday, and on Friday while at work received a call that he had been killed while out with another student. A year later the FAA report would detail that between a landing and takeoff at a grass-field airport both instructor and student had failed to note that the flaps had not been retracted which caused a failure to gain adequate altitude on climb-out. My instructor, Duke Morasco, was killed on impact, his student ended up in a coma for months, and the student’s father who had been in the back seat was found sitting alongside a nearby road saying he wasn’t sure how he had gotten there but thought there may have been a plane crash.
When Arrow Aviation called to share the news they asked if I wanted to reschedule my upcoming lesson with a different instructor, as if Duke had just been a broken down engine part that they would swap out overnight. I said that I could use some time to think, that they should let me get back to them, and then I never did. Creepily, Arrow had lost another plane just a week earlier, which did not engender confidence that this was merely a fluke. My aviation journey once again found itself on pause.
Roughly 2.5 years later, while in Utah on a skiing trip and pondering resigning from the aforementioned start-up, the old friend with whom I was staying suggested that the paragliding instructor who had run his P2 certification might be able to give me an intro lesson on the last day of my trip. Why not? Well, frankly, probably lots of good reasons not to… but I gave it a shot and had a sufficiently positive experience that I bookmarked properly learning to paraglide as a distinct possibility one day.
As fate would have it, seven months later I would execute on a long-deferred dream of moving out west, making my home the Suncrest portion of Draper, UT. Just a few weeks later I would begin my own path to P2 certification at Point Of The Mountain. In hindsight I really didn’t properly appreciate the journey on which I was embarking but I had shaken up so many categories in 2020 already that learning to paraglide seemed of a piece with the rest of my rapidly evolving life.
At first this involved a lot of getting thrown to the ground by a tandem wing until the required body posture began to click…
… and occasionally even throwing myself into the ground on purpose in preparation for later mistakes that might otherwise have been much higher consequence…
I remember that my first proper flight off the training hill portion of POTM’s Southside, an experience that probably lasted less than 30 seconds and had me no higher than 100 feet off the ground, yielded a “whooooaaahh THIS IS HAPPENING!” sense of awe in the moment and a euphoric sense of accomplishment upon landing despite being the paragliding equivalent of skiing the bunny hill…
The next day I would have a less than excellent training hill flight wherein I took off in a cross-wind, got fixated on where I was going instead of where I wanted to be going (damned if there isn’t a life lesson there), landed fast and sloppily with a partial tail-wind, and paid the tuition for that “cheap lesson” in the form of a bunch of skin buffed off my knuckles.
Not easily deterred, however, I kept muddling through lots of dirt eating experiences…
While occasionally taking a break from getting my ass kicked to do other things…
And once receiving from another pilot a grim reminder of the perils of pushing things too hard…
Until eventually I had some vague semblance of the crudest of competence…
At which point it was time for my first flight off the top of POTM’s Southside…
Things I remember about this flight: immediately prior I felt like yacking and was having thoughts to the effect of “what the HELL have I gotten myself into?”; during the flight I think I experienced the most intense flow state of my life; on the trailer ride back to the top I had to work at not crying while surrounded by other pilots and awash in a bittersweet cocktail of joy and grief; back at the top I described the flight as peak life experience with the next closest competitor being a multi-pitch climb I had done in Utah nearly a decade ago.
To elaborate on one piece therein… I had on the eve of the second anniversary of John’s death, the day I started muddling through the writing of this journal entry, a conversation with one of my brothers about the episodic and multifaceted nature of the attendant grief. He wondered about whether it ever gets better. I posited that we will continually find different reasons to grieve as we flow through the various epochs of our lives and reflect on how he is not there to share in it. He noted that for him an immediate and palpable sense of loss centers on the missed opportunity to share in the experience of fatherhood as The Cousins grow up. I remarked on how I imagined John would have enjoyed coming to Utah on vacation to share in the marvels of this wondrous place.
This is dangerously potent stuff. The first anniversary of John’s death came just days after my first flight off the top of the Southside. In recognition thereof I consciously decided beforehand not to fly that day before showing up at the hill and being thus tempted. I was clearly failing the ‘E’ line item, “Emotion”, from the IMSAFE checklist. Sometimes a part of your life that played a role in driving you toward this sport can be the same reason you need to keep your wing balled up and feet on the ground on a given day.
The first six months of my flying, a journey to the humble P2 certification and the many experiences beyond that, would yield such a diverse collection of experiences, sometimes inspiring, sometimes terrifying, always educational.
There’s nothing quite like your first ridge soaring flight at the Southside when finally things slow down just enough that you have the time to savor the experience…
And there’s nothing that compares with the godlike experience of benching up on the Northside for the first time and finding yourself with so much altitude you can make a cautious foray out over the edge of the city and perform your first 360 degree turns while drinking it all in…
Even on days where the flying is not particularly great you will likely be treated to views that take your breath away…
And then there is the experience of doing something that seems straightforward and serene one day in December…
Only to attempt what you imagine to be the same thing a few weeks later in January and have it go completely differently because you failed to understand the subtle differences in conditions and maintain steadfastly disciplined technique…
That last pictured misadventure was one where, although in the moment I thought I might be having a life altering event, I could at least see the humor in the experience and laugh about it with friends after the tumbling mess of pilot-plus-wing came to a rest, grateful that some combination of luck, pliable (if a bit stabby!) bushes, and a strong upper body prevented a broken neck.
There were other incidents in the first six months that would never provide laughter or smiles, only a brutal experience in the moment and a sobering reminder of the risks we accept, sometimes unwittingly, especially as a novice pilot, every time we strap into a wing.
There was the occasion in November when I received a practical lesson on wing loading, Venturi, rotor, and wind shadow all at once by straying a little too far west at the Northside, getting pinned by the wind, sinking into turbulence, dropping precipitously toward a ledge for a forced landing, getting plucked just as I spun around to de-power the wing, being just as quickly dropped back on the ground, and finally participating in a rodeo where the two possible outcomes were either successfully de-powering the wing or getting dragged off a cliff to a several hundred foot drop. I would have been hard pressed to come up with a moment in my life where I experienced greater dilation of time or narrower focus of attention. So far…
There was the occasion in March when I was enjoying what felt like one of my best flights ever and suffered a 50% asymmetric deflation with ~100 feet of altitude while on an eastward track near the gulley at the east end of the Southside. Ultimately the margins for avoiding a high-energy/bad-angle ground strike that would have teleported me from three dimensional space to two were perhaps sub-second and tens of feet. An instructor who saw it happen said it coincided with another pilot doing aggressive wing-overs upwind from me though it is hard to be sure what initiated the incident and in any case if you’re the Pilot In Command on a solo flight then it’s your ass on the line and it doesn’t really matter how things started. Life ain’t fair and the ground don’t care.
I remember feeling an alarming wobble in my harness, looking up to see the right side of my wing in a peculiar triangular aspect, going into a hard dive to the right, finding myself hurtling toward the ground in the other direction, leaning hard away from the deflation and the upcoming hill, finding myself looking back in the original direction only to have my vision quickly occluded by a wing that surged to three-o-clock, brake checking like my life depended on it, having that curtain come up to reveal I was just about to plow into the berm of the gulley, then banking hard to the right to just avoid eating dirt, and finally fly directly to the bottom because HOLY FUCK.
Many months later, after multiple SIV sessions wherein I practiced handling both deflations and stalls, I found myself with a fuller understanding of how the situation escalated and nearly ended in disaster, going far beyond just needing to do better at “Active Piloting”. The list of failures is lamentably long:
- Inadequate appreciation for the implications of strengthening conditions
- Inadequate understanding of the implications of being very light on my wing
- Inadequate appreciation for how terrain features generate wind flows and qualities
- Inadequate situational awareness regarding what other pilots were doing
- Inadequate preemptive brake pressure and weight shift to prevent deflation
- Inadequate awareness of the visual appearance of various wing faults
- Fixation on the wing fault which wasted time and caused a dive toward it
- Perhaps not throwing my reserve the instant such unprecedented weirdness manifested
- Initial under-correction which caused a hard dive toward the ground
- Subsequent over-correction with low airspeed which perhaps caused a stall-spin
- Inadequate appreciation for how hard my wing would surge after suffering previous
- Spending any brain cells pondering a reserve toss by the point it was too late
Also good grief is it ever lonely to go through something like this and then land somewhere that other people are having a good time and are completely oblivious of what just happened to you. We should always be looking out for pilots in trouble and offer them timely support in whatever way we can. In some of those moments we will be the victim and there is nothing quite like having someone there for you. The difference between this moment and the occasion of my Northside tumble was thus enormous.
I am haunted by a moment from a subsequent SIV session where I was recreating and practicing handling similar for the illustration it provides of how easily things could have been entirely different. My dearest wish for all pilots is that they can reverse the ordering of my “maneuvers” experiences. You want to learn about this stuff with thousands of feet to spare while over water with a master instructor on radio and a rescue boat at the ready.
Sadly, though I was registered for my first SIV course in May, the universe would take another run at me 10 April, this time more consequentially. On a Saturday morning at Southside I would launch into conditions that were meaningfully thermic at a time when I was surely unfinished processing my recent fear injury. My baseline brake pressure was doubtless excessive and my timing of inputs when entering thermals premature. Toward the west end of the hill I remember entering what to me felt like a very strong thermal, applying brake pressure out of a fear of impending deflation, then hearing an explosive crinkling and looking up to see, to my horror, my wing “broken in half” at the initiation of a full stall while I was carrying an altitude of maybe 50-100′.
I don’t recall the period spanning incident initiation to subsequent ground strike, presumably owing to a concussion, but between piecemeal observations from horrified onlookers and subsequent learnings in SIV I can guess at what happened while being spared the worst of the PTSD. One pilot said they saw me turn toward the hill which is unsurprising as entry to full stall can send your body yawing until you return to stable flight. Another pilot said they saw me enter back-fly which is ostensibly why the staff at the trauma clinic I subsequently visited kept staring in confusion at my full-body CT scan unable to find a single damn thing wrong with me.
Also helping my cause was a lot of tumbling versus pancaking which temporally distributed the dissipation of kinetic energy. It was also pretty great that two pilots were on my crash site within seconds, one to de-power my wing and another to get me out of my harness, because going for another flight, this time with a concussion, would have REALLY sucked. Instead I got to walk over to the ambulance under my own power where one the paramedics complimented my choice of a MIPS helmet.
At least the people at the trauma clinic thought my beard was pretty epic. Gotta take what you can get.
On the way home from the hospital I contemplated the irony of having been so ruthless about social distancing during the pandemic only to crash my paraglider between my two Pfizer shots and do all of ambulance ride, hospital visit, and Uber ride in the span of a few hours. You can’t make this shit up. I bet the paramedic whom I asked for a mask had to work hard not to laugh at the absurdity of it all. Oof.
This misadventure would earn me a roughly four week break from flying while I waited to clear the danger zone of Second Impact Syndrome, something made all the more important by my previous life as an indoor soccer goalie which included a nasty concussion of its own when I made an awesome clutch diving save only to have my face trampled by the on-running opposing forward. Toward the end of that stretch I started doing some tentative kiting. I won’t lie — having “permission” to not fly from my concussion was greatly appreciated.
The real fear started piling on once I cleared that period of restriction, the days until my 20 May SIV were dwindling, and reasonable weather to fly was popping up. This was truly put-up-or-shut-up time in my evolution as a pilot. Would this be the third and final strike in my struggles to be a pilot or would I power through this? In the end it would prove the latter but what a grinding period of doubt and darkness this would be. I credit an amazing network of instructors, mentors, and friends for getting me through this chapter.
Finally I would launch off the top of Southside early in the morning on 13 May with just a week to spare before SIV. I had what to an onlooker might have looked like a super chill ten minute soaring flight but from my vantage it was drenched with anxiety. Every subtle wing-crinkling sound triggered a fear response though I had handled such moments uneventfully and unthinkingly hundreds of times prior. I stayed pushed way out in front of the hill to give myself as much terrain clearance as possible. I made myself fly just long enough to feel like I had self-administered a proper dose of exposure therapy then flew to the bottom to land. I would get in just three more short flights before heading to SIV for god knows what.
The pre-SIV anxiety was awful but the actual experience was amazing. By the end I was declaring that it may well have offered a new record for peak life experience. The in-the-moment experience was exhilarating and the after-the-fact ambience was one of catharsis. Oh to rewind time and do my first deflations in SIV instead of utterly alone over unforgiving ground.
I’m happy to say that in the subsequent six months of flying I have been incident free but boy has it been a lot of work to power through the trepidation and evolve my approach. Those months involved a progression through a series of phases:
- being too injured to fly and relieved I had “permission” to stay on the ground
- dreading the idea of flying and being terrified while doing it
- dreading the idea of flying but at least finding a state of flow in the moment
- dreading the idea of flying but starting to enjoy the experience again
- finally actually looking forward to flying again and feeling like I was performing well
In the wake of my accident I found my public paragliding journal go from daily delivery to batch mode with the first subsequent entry coming after nearly a two month gap.
In my second big checkpoint I found myself compiling a list of key changes that were helping me to be a happier and safer pilot:
- greater conservatism about the conditions in which I fly
- more indifference to the progress of others
- improved exposure to serendipitous mentorship opportunities
- more skeptical assimilation of the advice of others
- bigger focus on drilling versus flying
- increased emphasis on understanding weather
- versatility of equipment for varying conditions (now 37m, 25m, and 14m wings)
- rigorous change control of variables (waited for SS flight to first fly new harness)
- enhanced appreciation for being a multi-sport athlete with no urgency to fly
- more liberal “permission” not to fly if I’m just not feeling it in that moment
In that entry I further pondered the wildly different parameters with which we all come to launch:
- Innate personality
- Accumulated experiences
- Body morphology
- Historical injuries/ailments
- Athletic conditioning
- Life priorities
- Perception of risk
- Tolerance of risk
- Momentary distractions
- Financial resources
- External obligations
- Social network
- Living setup
In the meanwhile there have continued to be many valuable, enjoyable, encouraging, and sometimes painful experiences.
One of the most meaningful classes of such was to begin cautiously dipping my toes into mountain flying on mellow days with half a dozen trips to The V providing a powerful “ah, yes, THIS is what I have been training for!” experience…
It would also be hard to overstate how valuable SIV training has proven, both as an avenue to catharsis for past trauma and prevention of future drama. If there is a high-level mantra coming out of this which is applicable to any emergency in life it might be…
- Do not panic
- Do not fixate
- Prioritize your problems
- Remember your training
- Never give up
I also shouldn’t pretend like it has been all sunshines and roses. Getting dragged across the Southside by my 37m wing in 17MPH wind while wearing shorts was a “cheap” reminder to stay humble no matter how well some facet of your training is progressing (and also to wear pants)…
I have spent a lot of time pondering the nature of luck, both the extent to which we can shape it with training, analysis, diligence, and caution, as well as the reality that we can never be totally in control. Perhaps the pithiest way of capturing our conundrum as aviators is an analogy you will often hear pilots quote that goes something like the following…
You start out with two buckets. One is your Experience bucket. It begins empty. You also get a Luck bucket. Its total contents are unknown. In every moment you will draw on some combination of the two. Your job is to fill the former before you exhaust the latter. Furthermore, many deposits to the Experience bucket will be paired with withdrawals from the Luck bucket. Good luck!
There is certainly something to this but with paragliding at least we have a couple of valuable hacks, specifically Ground Handling and SIV. The former allows you to feel out how your wing behaves in messy circumstances cheaply and safely. The latter, while far more expensive and certainly not risk-free, is unparalleled in the protective value it can deliver when done well. Squander these opportunities at your peril.
There is of course a much broader collection of areas where we can strive to manufacture “luck” from day to day:
- aeronautical decision making
- maneuver technique proficiency
- weather theory understanding
- weather conditions cognizance
- terrain feature implications
- gear configuration, inspection, and maintenance
- brain combat readiness
- physical body toughness
- personal ego containment
- life priority sustainment
If we keep all of these things in mind and strive always to operate within a Threats And Error Management framework we just might come through in one piece. We have so many opportunities to short-circuit bad outcomes but consistently taking the right action at all of the cross-roads takes great skill and discipline.
It’s also really important to think about cumulative risk. I think I did this far too little early in my paragliding experience. In moving to Utah and becoming an independent consultant with a flexible schedule I created an environment in which I could cram ~20 years worth of vacation-based outdoor adventures into one. Wow. Also yikes. And double yikes because until I renewed the annual lease on my house I was doubtless falling prey to the Scarcity Trap, wondering if this was just a single-year hiatus from Normal Life. One of my favorite treatments of this subject is Mike Meier’s Why Can’t We Get a Handle on This Safety Thing from which the following except stands out…
How good do those decisions have to be? Simply put, they have to be just about perfect. Consider the types of decisions you have to make when you fly. Do I fly today? Do I start my launch run at this time, in this cycle? Do I have room to turn back at the hill in this thermal? Can I continue to follow this thermal back as the wind increases and still make it back over the ridge? Each time you face such a decision there is a level of uncertainty about how the conditions will unfold. If you make the “go” decision when you’re 99% sure you can make it, you’ll be wrong on average once every 100 decisions. At 99.9%, you’ll still be wrong once every thousand decisions. You probably make 50 important decisions per hour of airtime, so the thousand-decision point comes every 20 hours, or about once or twice a year for the average pilot.
So, to be safe you have to operate at more than 99.9% certainty. But in reality, 99.9% is virtually impossible to distinguish from 100%, so really, for all intents and purposes, you have to be 100% sure to be safe.
And now I think we can begin to understand the problem. Let’s first consider this: We all have a strong incentive to make the “go” decision. The “go” decision means I launch now, relieve my impatience to get into the air and avoid the annoyance of the pilots waiting behind me, instead of waiting for the next cycle because the wind is a little cross and the glider doesn’t feel quite balanced. It means I turn back in this thermal and climb out above launch and stay up, instead of making the conservative choice and risk sinking below the top and maybe losing it all the way to the LZ. It means I choose to fly today, even though conditions are beyond my previous experience, rather than face listening to the “there I was” stories of my friends in the LZ at the end of the day, knowing that I could have flown but didn’t, and knowing that they did and were rewarded with enjoyable soaring flights.
In a similar vein I also really appreciated Chess In The Air’s The Risk Of Dying Doing What We Love. This contained infographic is a bit grim…
… and that’s even before you read the accompanying text!
Unfortunately, all the information in [this] chart […] only refers to the risk of death and does not account for the risk of injuries. The reason is simply the fact that data about injuries are extremely unreliable since the great majority of sport injuries are never reported and/or accounted as such. (The omission of injury information also means that activities that tend to have a relatively high injury to death ratio (e.g. skiing, equestrian eventing, marathon running, riding motorcycles, hang gliding, paragliding, downhill mountain biking) might look relatively safer than they really are, and activities that have a relatively low injury to death ratio (e.g. general aviation, soaring, skydiving) might appear relatively more dangerous than they really are.)
This last bit feels particularly related to a big topic on my mind… As a community we are in grave danger of Instagram-washing our flying experiences in a way that does a disservice to all pilots but especially new ones. We do have forums like the Paragliding Incident Discussion group on Facebook but it appears to me that this is largely reserved for the most spectacular incidents as reported by the most open and brave pilots. And I get it — while most people were civil and supportive when I shared a write-up about my April crash in the UHGPGA Facebook group, there were inevitably some vocally caustic assholes, and if you don’t have a naturally thick skin then inviting the layering of gratuitous insult atop grievous injury feels like an endeavor not worth the trouble.
And never you mind the likely many more pilots who silently and smugly thought to themselves “that won’t happen to me” simply because their unwittingly reckless dice rolls thus far have come up favorably enough they could wave away their minor scares as trivial dust-ups as opposed to prelude to disaster. I find myself thus reflecting on an observation a professor offered roughly a decade ago in a course I took at MIT’s Sloan School Of Management: we all have a bias to think of our own successes as the result of hard work and intelligence and our failures as the result of bad luck while simultaneously casting the successes of others as the result of good luck and their failures as owing to a lack of character.
In my estimation nearly all pilots are carrying more risk than they appreciate and nearly all have a collection of terrifying experiences to tell. Mostly, however, they share these experiences exclusively in hushed tones within intimate circles because the potential for shame, the concerns around propriety, and the pressure to project exclusively positive energy are enormous. I’m not sure how exactly we fix this toxic situation but if we are to have a thriving community then we must. Too many people get scared and discouraged out of this journey because on the surface it looks like everybody else is having an easy and glamorous go of things.
Some Final Reflections
In closing I imagine it would be worth sharing three interactions I have had over the past month.
On one occasion a pilot posted to the UHGPGA forum on Facebook a question asking what it meant to members to be a good pilot. There were lots of really good answers. My contribution, offered in list form, which I mostly still like but wish had called out weather and gear more separately, follows:
1) continually learning
2) learning across facets
3) patient in progression
4) humble about abilities
5) avoids the scarcity trap
6) avoids the sunk costs fallacy
7) maintains wide margins in all things
8 ) appreciates the diversity of goals, experience, and personality across pilots
9) generous with perceptions without being pushy
10) creates an environment where people are comfortable sharing their mistakes and fears
11) strikes the balance between positivity and sobriety
12) calm and skilled in the handling of emergency situations in all their forms
On another occasion I found myself reading a gripping narrative on the Paragliding Incident Discussion forum on Facebook written by a pilot who had been through a harrowing midair collision and subsequent entangled descent under reserve during a high level competition. It was well done but I took issue with the pilot’s description of the incident as being “unavoidable”. My reply was sufficiently well received by many forum participants, including the pilot who wrote the report, that I feel it worth sharing the relevant piece here unedited.
My main commentary is meta — We need to think of avoidability and culpability in non-binary terms. Every time we strap into our harness we forfeit the right to say it was unavoidable. Every time we get into a dust-up with another party there was doubtless something we could have done differently. Every time we make a decision that optimizes for ease, fun, education, or competitiveness, we’re giving up margins that affect the degree to which we can assert inevitability. And every time we claim unavoidability we prioritize protecting our ego over taking an opportunity to scrutinize our choices to learn from the situation.
Lastly, I find myself reflecting on a conversation I had just a few days ago, one initiated when while packing up my wing at the end of a Southside evening a newly minted P2 from Arizona fresh off his first no-radio solo flight struck up a conversation with me.
He mentioned he was planning on doing a thermaling clinic in Mexico next month. I nodded. He said that he thought that would be a great next step in his progression. Again I nodded though more lost in thought about how to navigate this conversation than in agreement, a rising concern building inside me coincident with a desire not to be unduly pushy with my opinions.
I mentioned my recent SIV experiences, spoke of the learnings, and said I was planning a thermaling clinic next year as the next step in my progression. He asked about what I had learned. I spoke not just of the material we had covered but also how it had enabled me to recontextualize various experiences I had had in the wild during my first year of flying.
“Hrm…” he mused, “maybe I should do an SIV before I do a thermaling clinic.”
“Yeah,” I replied, “that’s not a bad idea.”
Eventually he began to wander off.
“Progression!”, I shouted after him.
“What?”, he shouted back.
“Progression: slow and steady,” I replied.
He smiled, waved, and headed to his car.