Day 6 – Chamonix

This day sadly is a humbling lesson and Im happy to report no one was badly injured. But there are a lot of take aways from this day and I think they need to be addressed.

We woke up and had a spectacular breakfast at the chateau, fully prepared to take on the day. Everyone was well rested, showered, and had tons of calories! Today we planned to fly from France to Switzerland and I was so excited to cross a country border in a paraglider. We arrived early to the chairlift, Aiguille du Midi, which would take us from the base of Charmonix to Plan de l’Aiguille (2317 meters).

Badass snow launch off giant mountain, commence!

Eduardo launched after a few pilots, including one speed wing (but mostly tandems), and almost instantly soared into the clouds. Bianca helped Janika and Paul launch and got them a great happy flight down off such a cool site. Next I launched and began hunting for thermals to take me to cloudbase to begin my trek, I followed Bianca for a bit thermalling with her and then managed to hit an awesome 3m/s thermal but immediately left its core and my wing pitched forward about 30 degrees as I entered downdraught and i pulled hard on my breaks to prevent a frontal but it kept fighting me. I unfortunately didn’t have the correct intuition because I made the wrong choice and wrangled the wing into submission by pulling the brakes and trying to balance them with a much tigher hold AND HELD THEM THERE. While this certainly bought me time to think about what I was doing, it also really increased the pressure put on my wing and I could see the wing getting more and more upset with my brake input until my wing invetibably went into a full stall and collapsed and I fell at 8m/s towards Mont Blanc until the wing reopened in a dive and I corrected with a weight shift and brake input to release energy and help the wing sort itself out. Unfortunately, once was not enough for me and I really wanted to test Bianca’s ability as an SIV instructor out a little bit so I managed to repeat a stall one more time before I decided I needed to understand what caused this behavior. To me at the time of the event, I was inexperienced and didnt have the correct intuition and handled the situation with a wrong maneuver that inevitably collapsed my wing. That was enough reason for me to decide to land and go through the data and understand what had happened to me. Having never experienced that, I think, I made a big error in relatively benign conditions and fortunately recovered it. High altitude mountains, adrenaline, and mostly my inexperience played a huge part in this event and are the reason I didn’t get to cross a country border with my paraglider. I landed shortly after in a field I saw, near our van, and a woman and her dog came out to bark at me for being on private property. I apologized and gathered my belongings and packed in a nearby parking lot. Here is the flight visualized.

I wasnt necessarily frightened by the event, but it was a great sign of my inexperience in the sport and made me excited that I still had so much to learn. Mostly, I felt bad for scaring Bianca with my impromptu wing collapses. At the restaurant the night before we talked a lot about the mantra “just manage it,” and i have to admit in the situation I put myself into, it worked great and gave me the confidence i needed to not panic and just focus on flying the wing (even though I was the one who collapsed it!).

After putting my stuff in the van I got myself some pity orange juice, light beer, and coffee and went on my way towards the rest of the team still flying toward Switzerland. Switzerland is not part of the European union. Why does this matter, you ask? Because our car’s data plan was purchased in the EU and doesnt have the ability to give data the second we cross into the swiss border. The other neat fact is that my cell phone has an inactive Google Fi SIM card that needed to be activated in USA, But wasn’t. This is to say that when i crossed into Switzerland, i had no communication unless someone messaged my Garmin Inreach satellite communication device. I had my navigation set to Bianca’s landing and was driving there. As I arrived and couldnt find Bianca, I pulled out my InReach to get an updated location and found a “Need help” message from Jason and he was fairly close by.

This is the map I had to go off of because it was my only available offline road map and topology map I had of the area. I drove up the road as much as I could and just set my EarthMate app to navigate to the location of the ping. After 10 minutes of running uphill through vineyards I miraculously came across Bianca with local rescuers (phoned in by an observer of the event) who told me hes okay and in my head the situation relaxed signifigantly!

I carried the rescuers pack uphill (its what Ive been training for, no need to skip a workout now!) and we heard Jason’s whistle calls and got to him and helped get his stuff together. Jason was super prepared for this and carried things I didn’t even think to carry (like the whistle) and made me reevaluate my emergency kit.

We eventually then had to go to the police station where they confiscated his glider over the mercy of some judge- we are currently battling getting his equipment back and I find it slightly offensive that they even took it in the first place. Anyone who knows Jason will know he is a great and cautious pilot who got into rough air. We did the responsible thing and went to the hospital to confirm he was okay and there were no hidden injuries. After all this, we went to a nice hotel to rest that Bianca and Eduardo picked out and I didnt let Jason have top bunk.

Lessons learned

  • No matter what, don’t stop thinking and never panic. Manage your situation to the best of your ability. If you can’t, your reserve is the right decision.
  • Sheer between a thermal and draugh can become super strong. Always let the wing fly and make relatively quick corrections but put the wing back into trim position. This should have been a simple awesome thermal but instead I made it into a problem.
  • Have offline maps and do your best to have as much information about the local area prior. If I didnt have the GPS maps offline I would not have been able to navigate to that coordinate quickly.
  • Not having a data connection prevented me from knowing the overall situation quickly and that stressed me out longer than necessary.
  • Act and have a priority. I was picking up Bianca but the priority immediately changed and clearly hers changed too. Trust your team will do the right thing unless your intuition says otherwise.
  • Paragliding is an amazing sport. Learn with it and don’t fight it! Make sure you enjoy it and grow with each step.
  • If you need time off to reevaluate yourself, take it.
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