Watch Out For That Tree

There is a common saying among paragliders that they fall into two distinct groups: those who have landed in trees, and those that will land in trees. I may have just moved from one group to the other… I’m not sure.

All this past week, I have been flying in the Rat Race, off of Woodrat mountain in southern Oregon. It was my first paragliding competition. On this fateful day, however, I had an unplanned outcome to a forced landing on the side of the mountain. It started with significant sink right after launching from the upper part of the mountain, and continued as I made my way down the hill, approaching the second (older) launch that is maybe half way down the mountain.

It looked like I had a good setup to land in a moderately sized parking lot. I was facing south, the parking lot was right in front of me, the peak was to my left, with a ridge going down to my right. Unfortunately, 5 seconds before touchdown I hit even more sink and found myself rapidly heading right towards the backside of the ridge. I turned right to avoid the hill, but I was still clearly in trouble. However, there was a road below that gave me another 50′ of altitude above the ground and maybe another 2 seconds to think. That was good, because I needed 1.5 seconds to figure out what to do.

I could see that by going straight down the road, I would not have the horizontal clearance for my wing. That meant that one or both tips would catch high up on the trees, killing my wing and sending me forward to land on my back. So that option was out with half a second of precious time wasted.

In next half second, I chose to deliberately wrap my left wing tip on a rhododendron, anticipating that I would become a human tether ball spinning around at the end of my lines. Believe it or not, knowing that I was going to crash, I was actually picking and choosing which trees I wanted to land on.

In that last second before impact, I had time to take a deep breath, fly the wing at my target, and relax.

George of the JungleAs the road sloped upwards, my left tip caught the tree, I was spun left and UP, my seat remaining parallel to the ground. I flared like the dickens on the right to slow down and was placed on the ground as gently as a feather. I didn’t need to turn towards my wing because as the human tether ball, the tree did that for me.

With my feet safely on the ground, I switched to the retrieve frequency and let the support team know that I was OK. I did not yet know if I needed help extracting my wing or not.

That’s when an older man who was parked on the hill walked down and asked what the heck I did that for.Poison Oak

“umm, because I botched my landing, and this was better than landing at the top of the oak tree?”

“Well, maybe, but this poison oak is not much better.”

While my wing was mostly over the Rhododendron, all behind it was poison oak. I would have to carefully extract my wing, trying to minimize contact with the itchy shrub right next to it. The older gentleman tried to be helpful, but I had to continually tell him to not use brute force on my lines to get the wing out.

After about 20 minutes, we had my wing free, and I had a massive rat’s nest of lines to untangle.  15 minutes later,my lines were clear, and I walked up the road to that parking lot that I missed on my landing. From there, I was able to launch again from the middle if the hill, heading for the primary LZ.

I packed up, keeping my gloves on, and put all my outer garments in their own stuff sack. I washed up back at HQ and wouldn’t know about the poison oak for another day.

But at least I was safely on the ground.

P. S.: Two days later, I did indeed develop a small rash of poison oak. I was lucky enough to only break out in two pin-sized dots, one on the back of my hand, and one on my forearm.

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