All posts by awgibbs

Paragliding Days 101 Through 114, or… An Exercise In Recalibration

One week ago I flew a double-session that in some respects represented the most positive aviation experience I had enjoyed in months. In the morning I headed to POTM’s Southside, found conditions supportive of a gentle sledder, geared up to a degree excessive for the anticipated flight but useful for routinization of procedures in more complex circumstances, had a smooth launch and uneventful flight, and then eschewed a return-ride to the top in favor of an invigorating hike. In the evening I went to The V, had a nice launch, got too fixated on tracking to thermal triggers, allowed this lack of situational awareness to create marginal circumstances for reaching the main LZ, made the relatively conservative yet absolutely fraught decision to land on the fire road, managed the situation of a cross-wind landing in a messy LZ competently, and then had a sweltering hike down to a location whence I could summon an Uber.

After that SS morning I found myself reflecting that this had proved the first flying experience in months where I was not scared. I just showed up, did my thing, and felt competent, safe, and in control through the whole process. Patience, persistence, and diligence were gradually paying off.

During the V evening I got myself into a gnarly situation but, realizing my peril, managed every subsequent step calmly and competently. I heard “that’s a bold move, buddy” from Joey Jarrell over the radio, realized I had suffered task fixation to the detriment of total situational awareness, went into problem solving mode, acted strategically on prior anecdotes from other pilots landing on the fire road, and then made it to a fairly optimal touchdown location. I was angry at myself for getting into a bind but also happy I had the ADM and tactical technique to muddle through.

A couple of quotes from the How To Recover From Frightening Experiences section of Gavin McClurg’s recently released Advanced Paragliding book resonate.

Fear comes from the unknown. If we can analyze what happened and understand the process that led to the accident or incident, the fear goes away and understanding takes its place. To reduce fear, we need to understand. ~ Veso Ovcharov

I think you have to be really honest with yourself and accept the fact that it will take time. … We have to live with the fact that paragliding is dangerous. Sometimes you get unlucky. We have to either accept that risk or go home. I decided I have to accept it. ~ Tom Do Dorlodot

I had been doing a lot of analysis and drilling to sort through the former since my Spring mishap — diagnosis and focused training with Chris Santacroce, SIV with Brad Gunnuscio, supervised flight with Ben White, boatloads of ground handling, as well as serious thinking about my gear, training, body morphology, personal psychology, etc. Nonetheless my amygdala doubtless needed lots of the latter — time and positive experiences — to get past the recency bias we all experience.

And yet recency bias, almost by definition, offers a double edged sword — recent smooth and joyful patches leave us just as over-confident as terrifying misadventures render us unduly timid (woe betide the new pilot yet to experience their first ordeal). I don’t doubt the relevance of this in my fire road landing at The V. Two days prior, likely owing to the smoke cover of nearby forest fires, I had had a preposterously mellow flight there with Andrew Ross and Alex Bogner. The morning prior I experienced a super chill Southside session. And then maybe I got over-confident. On my first ever V flight I was hyper-fixated on being absolutely sure I would make the main LZ, the subsequent two V flights doubtless built complacency, on the fourth one I got myself into a pickle, and on my fifth one a couple days ago I was once again hyper-vigilant about making the main LZ (which was exciting enough because substantially thermic conditions made the LZ feel much smaller than any previous landing). I should have been roughly equally concerned with every flight but damn our monkey brains.

As I zoom out to look at how I’m approaching the sport differently, a few areas emerge:

  1. greater conservatism about the conditions in which I fly
  2. more indifference to the progress of others
  3. improved exposure to serendipitous mentorship opportunities
  4. more skeptical assimilation of the advice of others
  5. bigger focus on drilling versus flying
  6. increased emphasis on understanding weather
  7. versatility of equipment for varying conditions (now 37m, 25m, and 14m wings)
  8. rigorous change control of variables (waited for SS flight to first fly new harness)
  9. enhanced appreciation for being a multi-sport athlete with no urgency to fly
  10. more liberal “permission” not to fly if I’m just not feeling it in that moment

There are people who started flying around the time I did who have progressed to a level I’ll be lucky to match in five years. That’s OK.

I’ve missed a bunch of flyable moments because I was perhaps playing it a little too safe. That’s OK.

I’ve cultivated a habit of asking myself a simple question before every flight — “Do I want to risk the next several decades of flying and everything else I love on this one flight?”

We all come to launch with a wildly different collection of parameters:

  1. Innate personality
  2. Accumulated experiences
  3. Body morphology
  4. Historical injuries/ailments
  5. Athletic conditioning
  6. Life priorities
  7. Perception of risk
  8. Tolerance of risk
  9. Momentary distractions
  10. Financial resources
  11. External obligations
  12. Social network
  13. Living setup
  14. ???

How wise would it be to compare yourself to others in such a high-stakes sport when so many variables govern your experiences? This game is a risk management pressure cooker like few others. Don’t take that lightly.

You have your whole life to fly. Ensuring that that life is not unduly disrupted or truncated is left as an exercise to the reader.

Recurring Babyhood

I have been navigating the software development game in some fashion for a quarter of a century and gotten passably good at it. I can probably reasonably claim to inhabit the unconscious competence quadrant by now. That station has its perks but also its liabilities.

I have been muddling through learning to paraglide for two thirds of a year. On a good day I feel like across various skill categories I inhabit a blend of conscious incompetence and conscious competence. On a bad day I may receive a brutal reminder of where I inhabit the unconscious incompetence quadrant. The latter occurs with regrettable frequency.

Success yields comfort and familiarity which in turn breeds complacency and callousness. As we navigate life, and if we are lucky enough to experience success, the natural gravity well takes us from an exploration phase to an exploitation phase. Very easily this may land us on a plateau where we leisurely spend the rest of our lives. There lies the road to mediocrity and cruelty.

To continue the climb we must forgo that comfort and deliberately place ourselves into contexts where we may again live as a baby. Those circumstances will humiliate, frustrate, disorient, and weary us. They will also keep us sharp, build a broader skillset, and foster empathy and patience.

When I experience my fuck-ups in the paragliding reality, the community proves generally empathic, supportive, and patient, but some folks will act with indifference or callousness. What a great reminder this provides of the risks and opportunities in contexts where I am the expert.

When I breeze through software development tasks and have to help others who are struggling, meanwhile, what a great reminder this proves of what is possible in contexts where I am the baby with persistent application of effort and also of what huge efforts one must apply over long years to get there.

My patience with less experienced developers and my own paragliding ineptitude becomes that much more natural if I remember that some of the aerobatic ninjas around me have been at the flying game as long as I have been at the software development game and some of the engineers around me have scarcely been cutting code as long as I have been flying.

Oh that we might spend our whole lives repeatedly finding a way to be a baby again. What a more pleasant and wondrous world we might thus inhabit. Ego is the enemy and a regular ass-kicking keeps it in check.

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.

Paragliding Days 81 + 82

Two Utah Biathlons on consecutive days… my brain feels tingly and my lungs feel scoured. Yesterday consisted of a morning’s flying at FPS and an afternoon’s biking at Corner Canyon. Today involved an afternoon’s crowd-free skiing in fresh powder at Alta and a return-drive stop-off at FPN for a similarly crowd-free evening flight. I am glowing from the physical exertion and mental intensity.

Yesterday morning I found myself with the constraint of needing to be on an 0900 call so I pushed myself to arrive at FPS @ 0730. The wind was hovering at the edge of launchable up top but had been gradually ticking upward so I parked at the bottom and hiked up to the shelf. Joe, meanwhile, running about 15 minutes behind me, opted to go to the top but then found himself momentarily stymied by 17G20 wind. I had made the right call based on my constraints but was experiencing moderate frustration at the margins I needed to build. I might have hiked a little farther up but, among other things… well, let’s be honest, I had made the foolish decision to put a whole jalapeno plus a large amount of Cholula on my nachos the previous evening, thus generating another sense of exigency. With my wing cleanly horseshoed and the wind somewhat weak at my location I tugged on the center As, began backpedaling, scanned the wing long enough to see a clean configuration, spun around, jogged hard and to the left to counter the wings forward and lateral dumping tendencies, and was off for an uneventful flight. I dashed home with adequate expedience to wrangle all of my constraints.

This evening I arrived at FPN @ 1800, found wind distastefully poppy, and took my time by swinging by the restroom and chatting with other pilots, eventually being fully strapped in by 1835. I have of late developed the habit of fully loosening my shoulder straps before clipping into my harness and then cinching them down as appropriate, this providing the necessary flexibility in the face of wearing a widely differing amount of clothing from day to day, one consequence being that I find I can more consistently snug back into my harness post-launch with ease. Once reverse-inflated I worked with the wind to gradually make my way rightward to one finger over whence I usually launch, wanting both to break out of the habit of doing what is familiar and to launch from a location where the brush entanglement risk seems much lower. Having reached the desired finger I began forward kiting to the edge but, having reached it, opted to hang out for several minutes to sample the wind for adequate smoothness. After what felt an adequate period of tasting and having selected a good looking runway I was off.

I sustained flight from ~1845-1930 and generally felt pretty good. The conditions proved moderately thermic, I think I was extra anxious about my wing getting ahead of me owing to a recent misadventure, and consequently I may have had a few undue puckering moments, but never an “oh fuck” experience. I managed to spend a fair amount of time moderately above launch height while ridge soaring, but never quite got high enough to feel comfortable top-landing, and definitely never had the opportunity to bench. Toward the end I had successive passes on a particular location that offered an updraft sufficiently burbly that it creeped me out a fair deal. Between that, plus a recent resolution not to be greedy, plus some exhausting skiing this afternoon, I made the decision that I ought proactively land. The approach to landing, however, proved unusually laborious, with a good deal of lift extant quite far out from the ridge. Eventually, however, I found myself on what appeared to be a perfect trajectory for the aiming point tarp at the bottom and… maybe 30′ short I found my horizontal speed disappear and my body adopt a hovering position quite unexpectedly. Then, maybe 15′ above the ground, circumstances quickly converted from hover to plummet, I punched my fists to my hips to immediately engage a full flare while uttering some manner of curse, and hit the ground hard enough to be like “DAFUQ?” but gently enough that I rolled forward onto and through my knees without injury on the blessedly soft sand.

Moments later I looked up from packing my wing to see another pilot, Alex, suffer a similarly janky landing. Presumably the bottom LZ was offering some unusual low-level wind shear, the bane of pilots everywhere. But, happily, he was also sufficiently non-injured from the mishap to have his priority be getting me to take a photo of him. He turned out to be an out-of-town student of Super Fly who had just had his first experience of ridge soaring at the northside. It is kind of magical so I understand the desire to record the moment.

Paragliding Days 78, 79, and 80

Journaling immediately subsequent to a flying session offers the best value, but we cannot always attain Perfection, and insisting on it may thwart Good Enough. So, laggard though I have been, here I am playing catch-up.

Thursday left me tingling. Circumstances made for the first day in a while where I could ski in the afternoon then fly in the evening. And ohhhhh the sunlight, leaving me drenched in sweet delicious Vitamin D… I was peeling off layers while skiing then dressed lightly when setting up at FPS ~1730. When I arrived at the flight park the conditions up top were wildly beyond my ability but down below I could get a good workout kiting in dynamic circumstances. The wind continually attenuated and as it did I forward kited my way up the hill. Eventually the wind dropped enough that I felt compelled to grab a sledder back to my car. At the bottom, however, I found the trailer arriving and grabbed a ride back to the top for one more sledder in the dying wind. On both flights I found no-wind conditions at the bottom, and thus my approach feeling quite hot, but both times I held my flare to the last moment then put it in hard and touched down gently. The next morning my L5-S1 disc offered its silent approval.

Friday morning’s session found me pinched between business obligations, before flying some contractual wrangling around an upcoming opportunity, afterward an exploratory conversation around another. I found myself again working uphill from the bottom to an eventual vanilla sledder. The interesting facet was the work toward a launch. Finding a moment to launch when I had neither a twig induced line pinch, nor a gust triggering cravat, nor competing traffic offered a struggle. Eventually, however, I made it work and chalked up a more-than-zero-but-not-that-inspiring kind of flying day.

Today, Sunday, offered nothing particularly inspiring in the realm of actual flying, but the ground handling component was fantastically valuable and confidence inspiring.

I arrived at FPS ~0815, was ready to inflate ~0830, found wind conditions just tipping past my comfort level, but decided to power through anyway. By the time I was inflating ~0835 the nearby sensor already showed 13G14, that inflation suffered some delays due to wing folds and line pinch knots, and yet with some help from nearby folks those impediments proved surmountable with an As-and-Cs inflation. By ~0840 the sensor showed 14G15 and it might have been that late by the time I got the wing up. I had to sit waaaaaay back to prevent the wing from pulling me toward the back of the hill, and I had to be very careful about brake pressure, but to my surprise I made it work. Sort of. I could not make it to the lip but never once did I feel out of control. At one point I yelled at a nearby Richard “I am regrettably close to you!” to which he calmly replied “I’ll stay down.” “What is the wind?” I asked, to which he replied “fifteen gusting seventeen”, which I felt ought have been alarming, and yet there I was managing my 37m wing tolerably well. Twice I got close to the edge, spun forward, and tried to approach a launch, but got plucked and tugged slightly backward. I vaguely recall a nearby instructor on one such occasion shouting “HANDS UP!” but on both occasions I touched down gently, spun back to a reverse position, and kept it together. Eventually, however, some manner of turbulence managed to deflate my wing, and before it could execute an explosive reinflation I ran askew it and rapidly spooled in 4-6 rotations of brake line to shut it down with confidence. I then took in several coils of rears before coiling the rest of the lines, ensuring no subsequent inflation would catch me off guard.

I decided that the strengthening wind and the messy state of my wing argued against attempting a side-hill launch and so packed up, drove to the bottom, and set about cleaning up my wing in controlled circumstances. I then forward-kited my way up the training hill to two successive sledders. On the first one the most notable thing was that on my final inflation the wing came up with a huge twig in it, I got plucked enough to end up in a forward facing position, I leaned backward while looking upward and slamming on the brake toggles to dislodge said twig, saw it come loose then pressed the gas to get going. I was mindful of safety issues and resolved them pre-flight but don’t love the possibility that I could have been forced into flight before fully resolving them. Probably the line pinch would have been no issue, but… more margins less problems. For my second flight the most interesting component involved the uphill progress to launch. The wind had gone very cross and I found myself struggling to accomplish a pre-flight ascent. At Joe’s suggestion, however, I worked on a technique whereby I would take two sets of As in hand wind-side and one on the other while also having the Cs in the other hand and brake toggles at the ready as well. The first few tries were a hot mess but then… everything just kind of clicked and I managed a really clean ~100′ uphill run with my wing diagonal to the fall line. It was like finally living first-hand the thing I had long jealously watched other people do. WOO! At the end of this run I spun forward, executed a snap safety inspection, then flew down to the bottom.

No epic flights today but a whole other level of ground handling that just shortly prior I did not know was within my power!

Paragliding Day 77

On Sunday morning I arrived at FPS shortly after 0900, noted some seriously crack-a-lackin wind up top (20-25MPH), pulled into the parking lot below, preemptively dumped my tank at the porta-potty (which apparently went for a flight in today’s 50G60), and was hooked into my wing by ~0930 for some bottom-hill practice.

I have found that 20-25MPH wind atop reliably creates just barely manageable combat kiting conditions below for my P2-rated ~300lb body strapped to a 37m tandem wing. I spent an invigorating and exhausting hour kiting in conditions regularly on the verge of plucking me and continually trying to hurl my wing into the ground. I am happy to report that despite the turbulent conditions my wing only reached the ground when I chose to allow it for want of a break. I mostly stayed on raw brakes and by the end my abs were burning from how hard I had to pull to stay on the ground and how rapidly I had to dance to stay under the wing. These be some weird ass cross-fit shenanigans where the equipment has a mind of its own.

By ~1000 Joe had parlayed one of his side-hill launches into some out-front soaring that looked fun and reasonably safe but caused me some concern. He was maintaining good distance from the hill and substantial clearance from the ground but I did not love the confluence of signals I was seeing. Spring is a notoriously messy season to fly, we’re both without experience flying in the spring, we were 2.5 hours after sunrise on a clear-sky day, the wind was quite strong (19G21), I was getting micro-plucked even being at the very bottom, and the seven wings aloft consisted of six hang-gliders and one paraglider (him). Nothing noteworthy happened to him, and I’ll admit to being mildly jealous, but we spoke at length afterward about how both of us should be reasoning about risk.

It’s hard to know whether some of our occasional out-of-sync’ness stems from my having a lower baseline tolerance for risk, my having recently had an extremely unsettling experience, his having had more time under wing, or some combination thereof. We’re also flying quite a lot which pushes two factors in opposite directions to unknown relative degrees: flying a lot keeps you current and progressing but simultaneously piles onto cumulative risk. Three nines reliability for catastrophic outcomes seems pretty safe unless you log one thousand flights.

Meanwhile Ariel was beginning his drive back to WA after four glorious months sojourning in the area. I’m sad to see him go but grateful for the mentorship I received owing to his visit. He arrived just as my P2 training under Ben was wrapping and thus provided a continuity of tutelage that doubtless played an outsized role in keeping me on a good path. The handful of home cooked meals I could offer as recompense seem inadequate to his tirelessly good-natured support. He represents the very best of this community.

Paragliding Day 76

The last time I had an experience as disconcerting as my previous session, circumstances blessed me with a delightfully vanilla flight the subsequent day to reset my mind state. That flight involved a quick Northside circuit ending with a top-landing after which I said “good enough!” and shut it down. I am grateful to have accomplished similar today though having four intervening days provided a lot of time to allow recent experience to play havoc with my head. Generally the best thing to do after a rough ride involves getting back onto the horse as soon as possible while also scoping the experience to a very short ride.

I arrived at the park by ~1620, took a moment to help Joe set up on an unfamiliar demo wing, swung by the restroom, then found myself fully geared up by ~1645. The wind proved cycling in intensity, varying in direction, and generally gross. In no hurry to fly in such conditions I spent 45 minutes kiting and parawaiting. The experience played very “Walmart parking lot” and I tried hard not to inflate with anyone downwind of me lest I clobber them. On one occasion I found myself getting tugged gradually but inexorably toward the cars and so took an extra wrap of the toggles, sprinted forward, snapped the brakes hard, and had the wing come down satisfyingly… right up until the point it gift-wrapped another pilot. UGH. Then no sooner had I sorted out that situation did another pilot get dragged by their collapsing wing through my lines. What a mess! Thankfully an assortment of generous onlookers helped us muddle through the ensnarements.

By ~1715 I sensed I might have an opportunity to launch. “You should probably not stand so close to me” I suggested to a nearby observer who was watching a friend get set up for a tandem flight. With them clear I reverse inflated, spun forward, and began fighting my way up the finger. “Holy crap that’s a big wing” they remarked (all of your flights are tandem flights when you are two humans worth of human). They wished me a nice flight, I eked my way past them, and then I got hard plucked, spun around, shut things down, and replied, “weellllppp, I guess not yet”. Another pilot fought her way past me in an attempt to launch and had about as much success, her wing collapsing into the tandem setup in a way that required some help to disentangle. Setup to go again she had an explosive inflation that resulted in her nearly colliding with me but she angled sideward and just managed to get it under control. She re-inflated and in time successfully fought her way forward to the lip of the finger for a launch.

With this data point and others offering encouragement I again reverse-inflated, spun around, and began fighting my way forward. It was some work. On a few occasions I got micro-plucked but scrupulously avoided brake pressure to keep in control. On other occasions the wing strived to surge past me but a timely combination of brake pressure and forward sprint kept things on the level. Maybe thirty feet short of the lip I found the wind taking an increasingly vertical aspect to a degree that I regularly quasi-hovered with just my toe-tips grazing the ground. As I came within striking distance of the lip I glanced rightward at the windsock and noted a substantial eastward component. Visions of my two-months-prior bush-entangling tumble down this very hill danced in my head and so I angled eastward to ensure a wind aligned launch. I saw an assortment of menacing bushes but also a path between them that I would follow. Feeling the wing tug me aloft I swung my feet upward to maximize my clearance and then focused on preventing the wing from getting ahead of me like nothing else in the universe could be more important.

And I was off. I swung rightward, wriggled backward into my harness, and then proceeded to make two or three circuits. The wind proved somewhat rowdy but non-crazy. With greedy flight extension being the furthest from my intentions I took an extremely conservative approach regarding ground clearance and pilot distancing. Having launched at ~1725 I was happy to accept a ~1735 landing after an uneventful experience. Meanwhile keeping touchdown smooth required an extremely aggressive flare which would seem to indicate a substantial downdraft at the LZ, corroborated but several pilots sinking out during my return hike.

Reaching the top I watched a crew of folks collaborating on a Project Airtime wheelchair tandem launch…

… the first of which was unsuccessful but quickly followed by a successful one…

Between these two attempts I observed something alarming and heretofore unseen: a pilot attempting to launch while flying through the adjacent gully. After they dipped out of view I sprinted to the other side of the finger and was relieved to see they were merely horribly entangled, seemingly more embarrassed than injured. “Do you need help?”, I shouted down. “I think I’ve got it”, came their sheepish reply. “I don’t believe you”, I thought, knowing all too well from a similar recent misadventure of my own that having help in this situation makes matters 10x-100x easier both logistically and emotionally. I worked my way around to the other side of the gully, saw that they were still badly ensnared, came over to their location, remarked “I was rescued from this only worse just a couple months ago so I am obliged now to help you“, and worked at lifting and disentangling their wing while they balled it inward. Eventually another person came over to help and we sorted things out in short order.

Having resolved this situation I hiked back up the field, retrieved my gear, and hoofed it up to my car. Along the way I ran into Ted who had months ago been the first to arrive on the scene of an ordeal of my own. He asked if I had had a nice flight, I replied that I had, and remarked on how it was always a bonus to get to help out someone in trouble given how many times other pilots had rendered assistance to me in difficult situations, remarking on the experience I had had a couple of months ago where Ariel got me disentangled but quickly realizing that it was Ted’s own arrival in one of my moments of need months earlier still that was presumably on his mind. This would have been less ambiguous if I could have managed fewer misadventures over my first six months of flying.

Later still I ran into Jeremy and we chatted for a bit. He had been one of the first people to reach out after my terrifying Monday misadventure, for which I was very grateful, and we spoke more on this and related matters. He also noted that he had just returned from a California flying trip that had included “putting a friend on a helicopter”. Yikes. This shit is real and your only defense is constant vigilance (also humility and gradual ramping up through lots of practice). Our conversation proved wide ranging but in one of the more memorable moments I found myself recounting and analogizing to a technical driving course I took a decade ago during my government days. During the high-speed track driving component an instructor remarked that we would be training in a succession of short blocks because our brains were not prepared to deal with such a high cognitive load for sustained periods without unacceptable degradations to safe operation. This feels highly relatable to my present quest to survive spring flying: I must engage in active piloting at a heretofore non-required level if I am to remain safe, that work will provide a draining cognitive load, and I would do well to execute this training in small bites to ensure I don’t unduly fuck it up.

Paragliding Day 75

Going to bed last night I had low expectations for this morning but upon waking I found a gathering southerly wind that offered enough hope to vector my body to the hill. Arriving at ~0810 I found wind just on the edge of what I can comfortably top-launch but by the time I was gearing up I sensed it surpassing my comfort level.

After strapping into my harness with the wing anti-oriented to the wind I bundled and bear hugged the wing and began marching down the hill for the shelter of a side-hill launch. Ariel saw me doing this and, bless his heart, side-hill landed to offer guidance and support. I suggested that he be mostly physically hands-off to force me to figure things out but to tell me if I was doing anything dumb and offer general counsel. His main suggestion was to be really sure that my wing tips were clear and, had he not been there to help lay out my wing, to be unclipped from the harness while arraying the wing. After prepping the kit he suggested building a wall with an As-and-Cs approach with hands on the brake toggles and I obliged. Once I observed that the lines looked clean I brought the wing up and… woo, a little spicy, but I mostly kept things under control. To my recollection the wing dumped a bit to my reverse-facing perspective of rightward, I spun forward and jogged laterally to get under it, then it dumped in the other direction, I spun back to a reverse position, I got tugged upward and sideways, but eventually got close to aligned with the wing, spun back to forward, ran more laterally to get under the wing, and then… awwaaaaaayyyyyyy we go.

I had put a good deal of pre-launch care into fiddling with my harness straps and found myself duly rewarded. Not only had I ensured good relative configurations between my leg and shoulder straps but I had also snugged up my lateral straps a bit. Post-launch I found I could mostly ooch back into a seated position with minimal effort and after acquiring some altitude I needed invest only a modicum of additional time in getting fully seated. The most wonderful realization, however, was that with the snugging of the lateral straps I had acquired a nearly perfect amount of back support. I was so happy to have figured this out that I let out a whoop of joy to accompany a shit-eating grin.

The character of the conditions engendered both great joy and great caution. The boosty nature of the wind afforded me altitude I had never previously enjoyed at the southside but also had me taking great care to generally stay well out front, to regularly validate my ability to penetrate, and to avoid the venturi of the points of the face. There were not many pilots aloft, but a few, some of them roughly of my body-to-wing ratio, to include Joe, so I figured that if I flew a pattern at least as conservative as they were I would be ok. This worked out great, offering me one of my most enjoyable flights ever, right up until the point it didn’t.

On an eastward track I found myself sinking a bit and so cheated back toward the hill. I was beginning to cross the east-end gully when *WOMP*. To my recollection my hill-side left-tip rocketed upward while the other side collapsed in a fashion so instantaneous that I felt I had been teleported from ordinary flight to facing 180 degrees backward and diving toward the ground. As I worked to correct this situation *WOMP* and I was whipped around 180 degrees in the opposite direction, found my wing unbelievably far ahead of me, and noted my body was hurtling toward the west berm of the gully at presumably ~30-40 MPH. Some part of my brain screamed “PULL RESERVE!” while an even another louder voice roared “NO! TOO LOW! ONLY MAKE WORSE!”. With this argument settled the next one ensued: “BRACE FOR IMPACT!” paired with “NOT TODAY!”. Then, with the wing in a more normal relative position, and trying to find the right brake pressure: “DON’T EAT HILL!” and “DON’T STALL!”.

Leaning rightward away from the hill and pulling as much brake as I imagined would not make a terrible situation even worse I screamed over the berm with maybe 10-20′ to spare.

Having avoided calamity by razor thin margins I immediately aimed directly away from the hill and vectored myself to a landing at the bottom. Later I would learn that in the instant between my dropping below line-of-sight of the ridge and my surging upward post-recovery that pilots in the top parking lot thought they had witnessed a likely fatal crash. I feel terrible about having done that to them.

Arriving at the bottom I took off my gloves to massage the bitter cold out of my hands. Moments later Ariel landed alongside me, having seen at least the tail-end of my ordeal, and remarked that “it looked like you were just standing there for a while pondering life”. “Yeah”, I said, “that and my hands were really fucking cold”.

Later I would get to be the day’s local celebrity in a fashion equal parts mortifying and gratitude producing. I had a series of deeply appreciated conversations with Ariel, Jeremy, Josh, and Joey as I struggled to piece together what happened and how I can prevent future such occurrences. There are a lot of nuanced reflections to journal here but at the present I am fried and need some time to digest.

I am glad to have gleaned another lesson so valuable so cheaply but I could really do without the small margins for error.

Probably the most stand-out lessons are:

  1. I don’t adequately know what the hell I am doing in thermals.
  2. I need to fear terrain features waaaaay more in strong/thermic conditions.
  3. I need to build in much wider margins when dealing with unfamiliar circumstances.
  4. I need to get my ass enrolled in an SIV course as soon as possible in lieu of “self-study”.

Yeesh. Dumbass.

Paragliding Day 74

I have been pretty good about journaling shortly after the day’s activities but not this time. I am presently writing on a Saturday evening about what transpired Wednesday morning. I offer no single reason for this, but rather note that I have been feeling a bit overloaded and burned out lately, a matter I will attempt to put to page elsewhere. For now I will power through on sustaining a worthy project despite the momentary fatigue.

I woke up at ~0430 on Wednesday, about 1.5 hours before I would have liked, but after accumulating a respectable six hours of sleep, so I resolved to stay awake for an early arrival at FPS, filling time with assorted mindless tasks and getting to the flight park moments after 0800, not long after dawn in our recently initiated daylight savings regime.

The wind sustained an intensity just short of soarable and a character messy enough to offer a fairly technical experience. I imagine I was geared up and inflating by ~0820 for what would prove a long initial kiting session. Like my last session I surprised myself with my ability to keep the wing in the air through a variety of struggles initiated variously by turbulent weather, students impatient to go on sledders, experienced pilots doing short loops with high-up side-hill landings, and the occasional tandem wing. I focused particularly on managing the disruption of a passing wing’s wake with rapid response braking followed sometimes by a let-off of the brakes coupled with a sprint forward to re-power a wing threatening to collapse, occasionally requiring a spin-around but often not and even then finding I could recover things.

Eventually I saw the trailer doing a lap and… I declined to do a sledder. I imagined sinking out just in time for the wind to strengthen and my return to come as it became too strong for a top-hill launch. I patiently continued with my kiting and… another trailer lap induced me to go for a sledder in the persistently slightly-short-of-soarable wind.

Just after launch something felt off. There was no way I was going to be able to ooch backward into a seated position. My leg straps had been too loose on launch, leaving me dangling strictly by the straps, with my tail bone below the seat-board such that no leverage could be found. Ugh. Not directly a safety issue, per se, as the straps should be able to hold my weight, and I am exceedingly diligent in pre-flighting them, but still I would much rather have my weight supported by the seat and in turn by the beefy carabiners, and furthermore I found this arrangement restricting my breathing at moment when I would have liked to have been catching my breath.

At first my approach was to aim directly away from the hill, thus building a margin for error to focus on the harness, but this proved futile and so I resolved to end the flight as expeditiously as possible. During what I hoped to be my penultimate track along the hill, heading east, I saw Joe slightly ahead of me and of a similar altitude looking back at me with what I took to be a concern that I was constraining his options. I deemed that he was carrying enough altitude that at worst I was imposing a convenience/enjoyment issue, not a safety issue, so I continued my track just slightly longer, my goal being to minimize the complexity of my flight while dealing with a compromised situation. I swung a 180 back to a westward track and aimed to land in the farther end of the parking lot, both to give Joe more breathing room to land and myself a longer final. I got down without incident but after several minutes aloft in a sufficiently uncomfortable configuration as to have being on the ground offering a huge relief. Oof.

Back at the top I re-geared and cinched in my leg straps with a mind to prevent that from recurring. And probably I slightly overdid it. Not too much later conditions amped up enough that reaching the ledge provided a modest struggle and once I got airborne attaining a properly seated position in the harness offered more of a challenge than it ought have, probably now because with snugger leg straps my shoulder straps were too constraining. Bleh. I got in a nice thirty minutes of soaring for my troubles, noting a launch of 0925 and a landing of 0950, but also other harness strap issues diminished the enjoyment. As the flight played out I felt an increasing burning in my neck and abs, indication that I was not getting the back support I need out of the harness. Presumably resolving this will entail better configuration of the lateral and seat straps. Guh. I gotz 99 problems and my straps are one. So many small details, so many nuances, so many micro-challenges to iron out…

At my next opportunity I need to spend some time suspended from the simulator playing around with my harness. I also clearly need to make a comprehensive assessment of my strap situation an integral component of my pre-flight and adopt a much more dynamic approach to them. I gather the widely varying amount of clothing I am wearing from one flight to the next makes this critical.

Also the hill is starting to get uncomfortably busy as we roll into spring, requiring much more active decision making about flight paths. I eventually sunk out on this flight as the result of getting repeatedly boxed out of the track I would have preferred to take. I would rather stay safe than risk getting pinned but landing much earlier than would have been necessary with an emptier hill or more thoughtful pilots is a bit frustrating. When there are ~25 wings in the air in such a confined space a combination of diligence and courtesy make for a much better community experience.

On my return hike I saw a pilot with his wing laid out in these nasty looking bushes in preparation for a launch. I was perplexed and alarmed that he would not have laid his wing out just a few feet lower in a location that offered no such obstructions. I had a mind to shout up to him as much, worrying that he would launch with lines impinged by ensnared twigs, but was distracted with trying to understand if the person standing not too far away was his instructor. In fact it was his instructor which makes the whole affair all the more upsetting. This sport offers adequate risk without taking pointless ones. This student reverse-inflated and with two ugly looking twigs pinching his lines together in different locations went for a flight anyway. Ugh. This offers a brutal reminder that at all experience levels it is you who are hooked to the wing, you who is responsible for all aspects of safety, and you who will have your body mangled as consequence for mistakes. Always be building safety margins to blunt the effects of bad luck. Adopt an attitude of “this will _probably_ be fine” at your own peril. And, when you see someone else doing something senselessly risky, don’t hesitate to tell them. It will be easier to live with a standoff-ish response from an ungrateful pilot than to see someone get hurt knowing that you might have prevented it.

On my way back to the top I took a moment to appreciate Brian’s finesse in taking someone for a tandem flight. I can barely do a high-wind side-hill launch by myself so watching tandem pilots do it with a whole other human complicating the situation is certainly a sight to behold.

Arriving at the top I ran into Chad and asked him if he had been flying. He remarked that he had just been on a quick sledder and decided to shut it down, noting that he felt he was in a mental fog, likely owing to the stressful experience of being in the final days of closing on a house sale. We spoke of the high consequences of this sport, the value of extreme conservatism in deciding to fly on any given day, and how the best thing you can do for the safety of other pilots is to scrupulously avoid providing _any_ pressure at all to fly. Everyone needs to be making that decision for themselves every day with great awareness not only of their general skill and current conditions but also based on whether their head is in the game. To the extent that one ever pressures another pilot about a decision it had better be to _not_ fly. Far better to be wrong in that direction than the other.

And now, possibly because I have of late been watching BoJack Horseman, I am imagining this dog trying to talk his human out of flying.

Cadence, Context, Control, and Self-Care

Late February: I’m out. Here’s four weeks notice. Think I’ll take a sabbatical, see the world, move to Utah, live the life…

Early March: Uh… COVID-19? Hrm…

Late March: Leeeeeeeeeeroyyyyy Jenkins!

April: I guess I could do some consulting while the world sorts its shit out.

May: Man I would love to pull the trigger on the Utah relocation but shit is getting weeeeeird.

June: I did not know what weird was.

July: This is not getting any better.

August: I guess I have to thread the needle of ongoing pandemic and impending civil war…

September: Leeeeeeeeeeroyyyyy Jenkins!

October: Woooooooo!!!

November: Woooooooo!!!

December: Woooooooo!!!

January: I did not know what weird was.

February: Man I am really starting to feel a new depth of weariness.

March: *Brain Melts*

Breeaaaaaaathe…

What a strange, intense, educational, and disorienting year it has been… For everyone, yes, but I can only tell you how I have experienced it, and in my reality a big part of that has had a distinct “wherever you go, there you are” flavor to it.

Much about this past year has been awful but I would be remiss not to note that much has been wonderful: I experienced a renaissance in my cooking, dove into the novelty of consulting being my primary work modality, reconnected with a bunch of people over Zoom, moved to the outdoorsman’s paradise of my dreams, and took the time to decompress and process after a comprehensively horrific 2019. The freedom has been wonderful, yes, but in many ways also overwhelming, the lack of structure and inversion of contexts inexorably wearing me out. I’ve had to pull the brakes, step back, and reflect.

Arriving in Utah mid-September I gave myself about two weeks to decompress, deploy, and re-orient. Then I dove in with both feet: I bought a mountain bike, a rifle, and paragliding kit and lesson-pack. I was going hard all the time, to the point that my body was screaming at me, playing outdoors whenever circumstances permitted, and packing consulting work into the cracks when weather, injury, or fatigue forced a break. October and November were wildly intense, unlike any other period in my adult life, and incredibly satisfying, that period culminating in the accomplishment of attaining my initial paragliding rating. And then I launched into skiing season, racking up in just December as many days at Alta and Snowbird as I might have reasonably hoped to get in a whole season in recent years.

Blowing into January, I… was starting to feel off. Then we found our capitol overrun by violent extremists and I felt really off. But maybe this was a convenient excuse to feel off, placing it on external events and ignoring what I was doing to myself. Yeah, the world is kind of fucked, perhaps especially fucked presently, but also wherever Andrew goes there he is, and despite changing so many variables I was doing to myself what I have always done, cycling through periods of mania and depression.

Cooking was transitioning from an artful love to an obligatory grind. My engagement with social media was turning from an augmenting reality to an ashes-in-mouth replacement for real interactions. I was seeking out opportunities to ski and paraglide so aggressively that I was risking converting the most magical parts of my life into chores. With my consulting work packing into all the cracks between my outdoors adventuring I was warping a freedom producing arrangement into a No Days Off one. And with all of this the constant optimization problem was generating serious Decision Fatigue and the Always On attitude was gradually scorching my brain. I was doing an increasingly poor job reasoning about Opportunity Cost and Diminishing Returns.

I enjoy leisurely brewing pour-over coffee from precisely ground fresh beans and carefully managed temperatures…

… and, perhaps not coincidentally, I’ve found recently that I enjoy watering plants, especially when done with a contraption not unlike the kettle I use for coffee…

… but it’s worth noting that in the course of developing my paragliding cadence I cultivated a routine wherein I would rise from bed and grab an energy drink from a mini-fridge I had placed in the path to the toilet sitting on which I would ingest the day’s first caffeine coincident with excreting the night’s waste products, after which I would head downstairs to pound water and swallow vitamins while feeding the cats, then shower and dress and right before leaving scarf down a bowl of yogurt that also facilitated my swallowing a 200mg caffeine tablet. #efficiency #jackedupandgoodtogo

You can do that for a while, but it’s not a good permanent configuration, and yet there is a real danger of it becoming permanent when you have set up your daily life in the place you used to vacation. Hrm.

This past Thursday I spent a bunch of time cooking then had a really nice backyard dinner with friends…

… sufficiently nice that I drank just a little too much, the consequence of which was my first hang-over in longer than I can remember, definitely mild enough not to be debilitating, but real enough that flying would have been stupid, skiing probably would have felt gross, and working would have been inefficient. And so, quite by accident, I unexpectedly had “permission” to do fuck all with my day.

I wondered what I might do with this situation that would be out of the recent ordinary and thought I might play a computer game which apparently I hadn’t done for almost four (!) months…

I fired up my old friend Rocket League, ensconced myself in a large LoveSac, and… almost immediately the game crashed. And then I remembered part of the reason why I had fallen out of this habit. My PC has been a bit flaky since a nearby lightning strike shortly before I left Ohio and Rocket League became especially flaky after it migrated its back-end from Steam to Epic in the fall. I guess I was deep in the experience of getting my P2 paragliding rating when I gave up on Rocket League and the coping mechanism of computer games evaporated from my reality.

In this moment, however, I persisted, feeling a deep conviction that my present funk required a change in approach to escape. After trying a bunch of things the Internets suggested, only to have none of them fix the crashing problem, I found myself rolling up my sleeves and reading Rocket League’s debug log file, thus converting what was supposed to be a fun bit of decompression into something that felt lamentably like what I get paid to do. #nodaysoff Eventually I saw something that looked promising: “timed out while waiting for GPU to catch up”. Sonofabitch. I cranked down Rocket League’s graphics settings, the crashing stopped, and I got to playing for a bit.

I would take a break from gaming for a few hours to wrangle an assortment of stuff but then return for a pre-bedtime session and… wow I must have blacked out afterward the instant my body hit the mattress because I woke up at ~0200 feeling like I was being sous-vide’d because I had forgotten to crank down the Chilipad Ooler, then could not find my iPhone to do it, then went to ping my iPhone with my Apple Watch only to discover that it was not on my wrist (I would the following morning find it on the floor by the bed which has never happened previously), thankfully found my iPhone somewhere in the blankets which allowed me to dial down the heat, and then I blacked back out for another six hours of the deepest sleep in longer than I can remember.

That was a powerfully stark indicator that I’ve been kind of an asshole to my brain, depriving it of the care it needs, instead push push pushing all the damn time. I remarked to a friend at one point during this mini-journey that “I find myself wondering on why I allow things like this that I love to slip away” and that “maybe I get so busy doing the things I think I’m supposed to do in service of the person I think I’m supposed to be that I forget to be happy”.

And so on Saturday I plonked down the cash to buy a new high-end pre-built gaming PC. I’m realizing belatedly that I let my new Utah reality consume my whole being when really what I want is to integrate it into a larger collection of activities that in concert give me balance and happiness. And none too soon as I’m entering a particularly crazy part of the year where the mountains still have the snow for skiing but the hills are becoming ready for biking and thus the opportunities to play outdoors are truly overwhelming.

Early in my paragliding training Ben got into the habit of saying “you live here now” but the import of that has taken a while to really sink in. I would have to go turbo for several more months and reach a breaking point to really appreciate the meaning.

I don’t have to go paragliding just because the wind is perfect. I also don’t want to feel agitated when the wind is uncooperative for a long time. And I definitely don’t want to make exploiting the bounty Utah has to offer feel like a job. But I also don’t want an overly structured routine with an extremely smooth and predictable flow. I would like, rather, to find a way to surf seamlessly between an assortment of modalities and intensities and feel like they’re all OK.

That feels like my big overarching project for this year as I continue to re-invent my life, both personal and professional, and not fry my brain in the process, a very real risk for someone who spent most of his adult life living on the east coast and working a very conventional and predictable schedule. These are good problems to have but it would be folly not to accept that they are problems. Wherever I go, there I am, and this has been a very strange year indeed.