March 07, 2013

The Crash - Part 1

A flight from Lady Mac 2 days before the crash.

On Thursday, February 14, I crashed my paraglider (Firefly 16 - technically considered to be a Hybrid or Mini Wing) on the rocky slopes of Lady Macdonald. The impact thrust my femur up into my pelvis, shattering it into a bloody mess. I came to rest against a tree, and pulled my phone out of a breast pocket. Movement and sensation was good in my upper body and right leg, but I couldn't feel a thing in my left leg. I tried to move into a more comfortable position but movement was not possible. I also tried to get out of my harness and backpack, but was unable to do this as well. If my phone had not been in my breast pocket, I doubt I would have been able to reach it.

My first call was to a buddy who is one of the main rescue wardens for Banff National Park. No answer. My next call was to Banff Dispatch. They answered, and in a frantic voice, I told them that I was on Lady Mac, above Canmore, and had crashed my paraglider abut 300 meters below the Tea House (ie: The Launch), just west of the hiking path. They asked for the color of my wing - red, white and blue - and then we were disconnected. Almost immediately, my brother happened to call me for our daily chat, and being somewhat shell shocked, I figured it was Banff Dispatch calling back for more details. "I crashed my paraglider on Lady Mac and I'm really fucked," I said in to the phone. Tony said a few words and when I realized it was him, I said I had to go and hung up. Then I dropped the phone and it rolled down the hill and out of reach. I wasn't particularly alert at the time, but I did have the wherewithal to know that I'd just dragged my poor brother into the situation and I felt really bad. In the meantime, Tony didn't miss a beat. He got on his computer in Baltimore, found the contact info for Canmore Search and Rescue, and placed a call for help only five minutes after my original call.

My pelvis post surgery

I laid on the cold ground for about an hour before the Kananaskis Rescue guys arrived. In that time, I remember saying to myself that I didn't care how long the recovery took, as long as I had the opportunity to recover. I knew that I'd broken either my femur or pelvis and that I was likely losing lots of blood internally.  I was cold and shivering and falling deeper into hypothermia. The relief I felt when the K-Country team arrived is hard to explain, especially since most of the guys were either good friends or acquaintances. They did an incredible job of packaging me in rough, icy and undulating terrain. Then the Bell 407 ship came in overhead with a long-line, and the rescuer clipped us in and up we went. Two minutes later, we were landing at the Canmore Hospital. My gratitude to the pilot and rescuers is beyond words. Without them, I would not be here today. 

The view from the helicopter during the initial recon. Photo courtesy Matt Mueller.

Once at the Canmore Hospital, they rolled me into a corner of the ER and got to work. My core temp was 30 degrees Celsius and I was shivering uncontrollably. Tubes were shoved up and into every orifice, lost  blood was replaced, and at one point, I was later told that my systolic blood pressure dropped to 60. I don't know how long everything took, but when everything was done, I was rolled out of the ER and into the back of the waiting STARS Helicopter bound for Foothills Hospital in Calgary. My gratitude to everyone in the Canmore ER is immense.

Before I say any more about Calgary, surgery, and the recovery, I'm going to backtrack and talk about the crash and what happened out there.

In hindsight, I should have never launched that day. But hindsight is too easy. Obviously, there were enough positive factors to justify taking off. The wind was blowing 25 km/h - 35  km/h out of the west and seemed fairly consistent and laminar (for the front range of the Rockies). I felt like I recognized the conditions and knew what I was getting in to. I looked back to a flight I made from the same place a few weeks prior, and figured that the wind was just as strong, if not stronger then. One difference between those two fights though, was the wing being used. On the previous flight I was on a 12 meter whereas this time I was on a 16 meter. I should also note that if I'd had a larger wing with me on the day I crashed, I am confident that I would have left it in the bag and hiked down.

The moment I left the ground, I knew I had dangerously underestimated the conditions. I was instantly blown back and to the left and almost got pushed behind the ridge. I fought to correct and penetrate away from the hillside but I  kept getting blown all over the map. I had a bunch of deflations and collapses and for a moment, I considered trying to put it down on the upper slopes. But that thought didn't last long and I told myself I could keep flying and pull it off. My goal was to get away from the hillside and lose elevation since it had been pretty calm in the valley. 

I don't know how long I was in the air. It felt like two minutes to me, but my buddy Ian who watched most of the rodeo said it was closer to thirty seconds. Before I went in, I remember getting hit by a violent gust that surged the wing and put me into a tight spiral. I thought I might have gotten some lines crossed but just before impact, I managed to get into level flight. The problem was that I was pointed straight at the hillside with a nice tailwind. Boom.

Laying out on a beautiful, calm day just 48 hours prior to the crash.


MJT said...

Wishing you all the best on your recovery Andrew. A harrowing tale.


the_absconder said...

Holy Hell man. I'm so very glad you can still write to us about all this. I'm speechless. Keep us updated. That is an intense x-ray.

Do give a call sometime if you find yourself stuck in bed and feel like being social. i'm at nine oh 7-232-0280 (shouldn't be an expensive international call, with most plans at least).

Get well soon! -ben m (in alaska)

Anonymous said...

Hi, my name is Alistair Clark. I'm a speed flyer/ base jumper/ wingsuit pilot at from Calgary.
Thank you for the write up on your unfortunate day out there. I've been wondering about this incident, as there isn't much info in the news. I wish you the best and fastest recovery possible.
These activities are gaining popularity fast out here and I am seeing a misconception and a trend of bigger speedwings being considered safer. And also the misconception of speed wings being flyable in these mountains. The turbulent nature of this area is also underestimated often. So I want to thank you sooo much for sharing your experiences and hopefully deterring from similar incidents in the future.

Alistair Clark.

Jason Martin said...


I'm really sorry that this happened to you. I know from personal experience how much pain you've been through...

Get well, my friend...

Jason Martin

nikko said...

Jesus H Christ Wex, for the love of the blessed Virgin Mary. I just got myself a wing after watching your vids and now this. What's a mountain loving man to do?
Rest up and Godspeed to recovery!
Nik Bertulis

peterperu said...

I had my own day of terror in peru last summer. Crashed my glider after flying off a familiar launch above Huaraz, Peru . I launched at 4500 meters, went up to 6000 meters and flew around for about an hour . The wind was picking up , so I flew towards the valley to land when I got whacked rel hard by either a rotor or maybe fell out of thermal. I was sure I could get my wing flying so I did not pull the reserve. I fought my glider for a full thirty seconds at least. It went apeshit into spirals, and it was just blue/yellow, blue/yellow(color of grass)until I hit femur first . The shockwave from breaking my femur ctracked my pelvis in 5 places. I came to when the ambulance guys came, so must have been out an hour or so. The most frustrating part is that I still am not sure what happenned, was it a rotor or just falling out of an ugly thermal ? I just want to know so I will avoid the situation if it happens again .

Hugh McElrath said...

Hi Andrew - Thanks for your post. I am 5 months into successful recovery from a shattered femur (paraglider towing) and 2 years recovering from broken back/legs/wrist (also PG). I just want to say that modern orthopedics are wonderful and wish you equal or better success in your recovery. The USHPA mag had a good article this month about psychological recovery from a mishap. It's good to critique one's decision-making and technique - even soberly consider giving the sport up - but it sounds like you decided up on the mountain to continue, so keep your confidence up!

Unknown said...

Hey Andrew,

My mom just filled me in. So glad to hear you're recovering. Wishing you well from Portland.
Mat Bilodeau