I can’t tell you how much being able to blog about my crazy life has meant to me. Oddly, it keeps me sane. I have so much more to spill out onto the page. I just need the days to be 36 hours instead of 24. Alas, my story will be told eventually.
However, this entry was not written by me. It was written by one of my most favorite people in the world. My friend Michael is one-of-a-kind. We met many moons ago in a yoga class. He could hardly bend or move at all and I wondered at his attempts to stretch and twist his very tall, handsome body only to give up half-way through, find a corner and take a nap. There was a story there, no doubt. After class one night, his bright, twinkly eyes connected with mine and within a few minutes, we were friends.
I was coming to yoga class with my friend Joann at the time and she was initially attracted to Michael, only to change her mind later. Just not her type, she figured. I ended up dating an artist friend of Michael’s for a while. Well, we are all best of friends now. Michael is the type of person who really likes people, and they like him. He can get to know you in an instant and be genuinely interested in your life and your story. Michael is a talented artist, photographer, writer, builder, wood carver, and a beautiful spirit.
For years, I knew that his slight limp and physical problems were the result of, as he said, “Smashing my head against a mountain.” He was a hang glider in the early days of hang gliding. Very dangerous then. Probably still is. Don’t know. Don’t want to find out. He never really told me the story of how this happened though, until now. A few weeks ago, I received an article in my email with the story of how his head was introduced to a mountain and how he was indirectly responsible for the invention of safer hang gliders.
When I read this story, I cried. It touched me so deeply that I wanted to share it with everyone. So, here it is.
Been Up So Long It Looks Like Down to Me.
Well, here I am, many moons later, thinking about that day when I almost met my maker. What led up to my decision to jump off the mountain that day when the wind was not quite right has kept my mind busy wondering for 36 years. Finally, at the ripe age of 71, I have enough understanding to write about it.
Two days before that final flight, I had a great ride. December 28 1975 was a good day. My friend John and I hiked down the south slope of Mt. Lukins to the sweet spot for wind All I wanted to do was soar forever. After evaluating the air currents, I elected to be the “wind dummy” and took off first. John followed. We were lifted up like angel’s with wings. A few bumps at first, then a silky glide in smooth circles and a perfect landing.
I couldn’t wait to go out again, so a couple of days later, John and I were on Mt. Wilson. This was not as sure a wind as on Lukins. The strong north side wind moved up the south side in gentle puffs. Hmmm, we considered. Was this the dreaded “rotor” wind? Pilots call this a “wind shear” and it can rip a plane to pieces or cause it to plummet to the earth like a rocket gone bad.
We talked about it for a while. The circular flow of air in a rotor spins like a Ferris wheel out of control. It lifts you up on one side and slams you down the other. We checked all sides from our starting point for signs of “good wind” or “rotor.” In hindsight, we probably ignored the warnings, but as enthusiasts, we were also confident that we knew our stuff.
Wind is a fickle creature and a hang glider is dependent on wind alone to keep its rider alive. Even experienced riders can make a mistake and take off in a gentle onflowing wind only to find a rude, or even fatal surprise as they fly headlong into the downside of a rotor. Or, they might be unaware of a wind approaching from the back, or even a thousand feet over their head. Hang gliding is not for the faint of heart. To those who love it, it is worth every risk to soar the heavens and fly free with the birds. There is no feeling like it in the world.
So there we were, hooked into our gliders, looking, feeling, examining, silently praying to the wind gods. Waiting for the right moment to push off, we looked down the mountain for signs that the brush was showing a nice breeze coming up the slope. We were expert riders and knew enough to remember that no matter what our precautions, surprises can kill us anyway.
I guess, thinking back, that my desire to fly overrode my good sense that day and I miscalculated the wind as thoroughly as a beginner would have. But, that was then. Looking back always brings more clarity.
Mt. Wilson is a large canyon flight with an altitude of about 5,000 feet at take off. While we were considering and waiting, John took out his field glasses and looked at the brush and tree movement on the canyon ridges to our right and left. No wind indications there, but the landing site in Eaton’s Canyon showed flags blowing straight up the canyon toward us. This was a good sign, the sign we had been waiting for. So, even though there was a little voice in the back of my mind screaming DANGER! I pushed it out of the way and remembered that Mt. Lukins turned out okay, so, “What the Hell, I’m going.” I pushed off.
It was a good take-off and all went well for about a mile. After a few hard bumps, all was calm. Ahhhh. That wasn’t so bad, I said to myself as I sank into the bliss of gliding. My peace was short-lived though. Without warning, my glider yawed left until I was flying backwards, away from the mountain. Uh oh! I broke out in a sweat as I saw that I was still level from my take-off point. I managed to turn the glider around and started a bank to the right to get the hell out of whatever turned me around.
I relaxed for a second as the glider levelled out. Then it shot up for about 1,000 feet in six seconds! I was screwed. In those days we flew in a swing seat sitting upright. In my attempt to dive to a lower altitude I pushed the control bar against my navel. I didn’t work.
The glider flipped upside down over the nose. I was on top of the winds now. “Oh no,” I muttered as I heard the distinct sound of aluminum crinkling, like wind chimes. How ironic that such a beautiful sound could be so deadly. The glider flipped and I was under it again, or what was left of it. One wing gone and the rest a total mess. I thought that this would be a good time to wake up and realize that this was just a nightmare. It didn’t happen. I knew I was dead.
I was spinning so fast details of the ground below were a blur of motion. Oddly, my mind went to, You shouldn’t have taken off. Why don’t you have a parachute? and useless thoughts along those lines.
Down below, greenery was spinning like a pinwheel in a hurricane, but I could make out, in the middle of that whirl, a large tan rock that I was bound to hit flat on. No hope. All I could think was, Ok, if this is what you’ve gotten yourself into, it’s alright. I was resigned to the fact that if one transgresses the rules of the elements, a payment has to be made.
“It’s alright,” I said aloud three times, trying to fortify myself. In a way I became detached. I grew bored with being so helpless. I thought of disengaging myself from the glider so I had a chance of being flung out into the trees or bushes instead of that swiftly approaching rock. I couldn’t tell how high I was so I didn’t let go.
Next, the sound of the wind and flapping sail grew louder and I was crashing through trees and brush, feet first, pulling off branches, then whole bushes out of loose, granular ground. Suddenly, I stopped sliding, the last bush held. Old movie serials came to mind as the hero is saved by the last branch he grabbed on his way to a sure death at the bottom of the gulch. Even in crisis, our sense of humor and irony never leaves us.
There I was, laying on my back, just above the sheer drop off. I was grasping that bush, grinning, with tears in my eyes. Was I really alive? What’s next? At first, I couldn’t tell how badly I was injured. Then I saw that my left foot was pointing off at a weird angle. I knew my leg was probably broken. I eased my grip on the bush and didn’t slide down the mountain any further. I felt my thigh. It was tight and numb so it knew it was the femur that broke. I felt around the leg to see if anything was sticking out. I found a lump, but my pant leg wasn’t damp, so I was bleeding externally. I wasn’t numb anywhere else and I could move my head with no strange feelings or any pain. That was good news at least, probably no serious back injury.
After a few minutes, the shock was wearing off and pain was invading my body. I decided that I’d better secure myself to the bush in case I passed out. I pulled myself straight up for about twelve inches so I could get my arm around the bush, then wrapped my hand through the cord that held the front of my field jacket closed.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was the heavy jacket, gloves, and helmet that kept my skin intact. Later, when my heavy hiking boots were removed, my toes were completely black.
After I felt confident that I was secured to the bush, I looked up the hillside and saw my glider. It was a mangled mess. It had struck the cliff nose first. I was about 120 feet down the slope from the glider.
I’m still not sure how I missed that rock I was sure would be my final resting place. Nor can I figure out how I came undone from my swing seat. Perhaps when I was contemplating disengaging from the glider, I actually started to undo the belt. All I can put together is that the glider must have slammed into the cliff, somehow unlocking the belt. The centrifugal force then could have flung me down the cliff at an angle. Going through the trees slowed me down a lot. But, this is conjecture. I will never know what really happened because I don’t remember hitting the ground.
So, there I was in the middle of nowhere. Was someone looking for me? I waited for rescue or death from exposure or wound infection. About fifteen minutes later a helicopter showed up and hovered above the glider, blowing it away like an autumn leaf in the breeze. It was then that I realized another mistake in judgment. My field jacket was green; so were my pants. I looked like any other bush. Only my blue helmet could have stood out against the landscape.
The helicopter moved off a bit to my left, hovered for about 30 seconds, then flew off. My heart sank. I mentally kicked myself for being clever enough to camouflage so well by wearing green. Just when I was about to give in emotionally to the inevitable, I heard someone climbing around in the brush above me. I tried to call out, but couldn’t because my ribs were injured to the point that I couldn’t take a deep enough breath to yell. I tried whistling. That worked. It caught the rescuer’s attention and he called out for me to continue whistling.
I guess we looked pretty good to each other; he as my rescuer and me no looking like hamburger. He opened his emergency kit and tried to hydrate me with an IV, but couldn’t find a vein that hadn’t yet collapsed from shock and contacted someone at a hospital who gave suggestions for getting the IV going. I was growing impatient to be OFF OF THIS DAMNED MOUNTAIN! I told him that I would take care of the shock so that he could concentrate on getting me out of there. The hospital agreed. The rest of the rescue team arrived and told me they had to get me to an open area so that the helicopter could pick me up. I felt both dread and relief. Visions of being dropped and rolling off the cliff like a downhill snowball ran through my head.
My fears were unfounded. These guys knew their stuff. They put me into a basket with ropes and tackle attached and worked me up to a place that was away from the cliff. The helicopter positioned itself over me and lowered a cable so it could be attached to the basket. It was a surreal view as I was being drawn towards the bottom of the only hope I had of living. I could feel helicopter fighting the same wind that collapsed my glider and mild worry grew into near panic. Oh my God! I said to myself, I’m getting into another aircraft.
Finally, I was level with the open door and a man pulled me inside and slammed the door. He told me to keep my hands inside the basket and the helicopter pulled away from the mountain. The air got rougher. There we were, only three of us, me, the pilot and the crewman who pulled me in. He was hanging onto the superstructure and I was being tossed all over the inside. By the time we got away from the mountain, I was mostly on the floor and feeling extremely grateful.
Inside an hour of the crash I was safely in a hospital. I had a broken left femur and shoulder. My left arm was paralyzed. Almost immediately the doctor drilled a bolt into my shin so my leg could be put into traction. I was moved to a room with scaffolding for the leg and sandbags were attached. I could feel the pull. Not fun. But, there were drugs and then I was blissfully unconscious.
When I was able to function again, I looked at pictures that were taken of the site. One picture amazes me still. It was my glove, still hanging onto a piece of the control bar. There are a lot of unanswered questions about that crash and I can live with that. My brother told me they could see a tunnel carved through the branches and the ground littered with broken parts of brush, trees, and glider. During my slide, my doctor thought that a branch caught me at just the right angle to break my femur instead of shatter it. From the nerve damage to the shoulder, he concluded that the same branch that broke the leg, broke the shoulder and pulled my arm to about the level of my ear. My arm should have been ripped off, but it wasn’t.
My recovery was slow. At first, I could feel everything, but had no motor control It took years to get the use of my arm back. I still have back and leg pain. For the two months I lay in the hospital, there was guilt that came and went, guilt that I was probably a contributor to having hang gliding sites shut down. This would mean that others would not be able to have what I considered to be one of the most beautiful experiences possible, flying free.
Later I discovered that I was probably climbing at about 60 mph with the wind going in the opposite direction at the same speed when I hit the dreaded rotor. Basically, the wind changed direction at about 120 mph—OUCH!
When I was on my own again, I visited all the flying sights that I knew and cautioned fliers not to take the risks I did. In other words, I cautioned them to never fly with their egos. Shortly after that, my friend Chris Price came to visit. He showed me his latest achievement, a brand new flying harness that included a parachute. I finally realized that my survival and my proactive demands for hang gliding safety reform brought about parachutes becoming a common part of a flying harness. It also brought about industry testing for the strength, dive recovery, and stability of hang gliders.
Recollecting that fall brings many thoughts to me that I am sure are shared by others who have suffered a crisis. There is the theme about how precious time is. I have spent only a little time beating myself up for the mistakes I made that day. The rest of the time, what I thought was the rest of my life, brought up what was most precious to me. I was grateful that the lady I loved was not there to see what had happened to me. Another thought was the gratitude that I felt for having had the chance to experience the true freedom of flying in a hang glider.
In most movies and TV shows I’ve seen of people falling to their death, they scream all the way down. It wasn’t like that at all. I was laughing from the joy I had had in my life. Looking back, I am sure I understood that there was no time to waste in fear or sadness.
So, it comes to this wisdom, dying in a hang glider should be left as a vicarious experience. Giving up living is easy when you have exhausted all means of surviving. If time permits, the terror of being so helpless is beyond my comprehension, even though I went through it. It is a frightening door that I do not even want to remember opening. I hope that no one reading this has to experience what I went through. You might survive and relate your story to others, but probably not.
I owe the Montrose Search and Rescue for my survival. My brother John, Glen Brown, and Chris Price for retrieving my glider and taking pictures of the site, and so many others who dedicated their time to helping me recover. Thank you.
I no longer fly hang gliders and lead a much more sedate life, at least physically, but I still have fantasies about flying. To be sure there is still a smile on my face.
Love to hear your comments and stories.