Playing with trees is an occupational hazard paragliding, cruising just above them can provide that crucial piece of lift to clear a ridge and climb up and out into the next thermal.
It was for that reason that I found myself scratching about 10ft above the treetops, a ridge before my final glide home. Determined not to be forced into another “out-landing” I squeezed a little lower… Normally always facing down slope for an easy getaway, I allowed my wing to swing across slope as I reached the edge of the ridge. With little warning I hit sinking air, and dropped 10ft in a less than a second… now faced with a large set of trees directly in front of me and as well as further down the ridge to my left – I was trapped, and both sinking air and a sinking realisation hits you that you will be landing in a tree.
I am reliably informed that the only pilots that haven’t landed in a tree, are the ones that will be landing in a tree in the near future, though that is little comfort as the top branches of a 60ft tree loom large at around 30Kph. With preparation the only option left, the goal is to ensure you land as thoroughly in the tree as possible, as the only real danger is in not doing so and falling back out again.
Trees are surprising soft and gentle places to land, especially at the top, as I came to a rapid but embracing stop. With the wing being allowed to fly over the top of the tree, I found myself firmly wedged between branches & suspended about 60ft up on the side of the ridge.
With pilot pride the only noticeable injury, I confessed to my comrades over the radio about my poor landing choice, and placed my order for the obligatory evening beer penalty for poor flying performance. I am also reliably informed my language may have breached “The Radio & Telecommunications Act”.
“Err Neil, is that you in that tree?”
Mine’s a case of Kingfisher then
Climbing a tree never fazed me as a boy, but this was the first time I had had to climb down a tree I’d hadn’t actually climbed up. This poses some interesting challenges, not least extracting yourself from your harness, reserve chute & flight deck, disconnecting all the lines from the harness to allow the wing to be retrieved, then slowly climbing to the ground – all without letting go of your friendly local branch.
So how do I get down from here?
After about 25 minutes & various attempts, I finally climbed across to a lower tree with branches all the way down & finally I was on the ground again – though with my rather expensive wing still 60ft up in the tree.
It was shortly after this, that two enterprising local teenagers appeared further down the ridge. The nearest village was about 8km away – almost straight up, and like a pair of mountain goats had walked up in about 30 minutes!
Examining the pilot with a strange look of bemusement, one boy kicked off his flip flops and began to climb the tree, whilst his friend continued up the ridge to a mountain spring to refill my water bottle with another younger boy that had also appeared. What had taken me 25 minutes to climb down, Sunil had climbed back up (in bare feet) in less than 3 minutes. Stepping on the flimsiest branches high above the ridge, he proceeded to untangle my wing & the lines from the tree top.
After 3 hours, much sign language, and confusion on their part as to why I wasn’t married (I explained my mother felt the same), Sunil, who had remained up in the tree for the entire time dropped my now balled up wing from the tree and climbed down – a hero in my eyes.
It is quite humbling, to own all latest technology money can buy, yet to be rescued by two 14 year old school boys with little more than bare feet & courage.
We moved a little further down the ridge, to a smooth grassy knoll, where were able to lay out the wing and untangle the rats nest of lines and finally pack it away.
Despite the fact I have a lightweight mountain harness, fully packed with wing, helmet and reserve, it easily weighs 20kgs. My protestations ignored, Sunil swung the pack easily onto his back, put his flip flops back on, and began back down the path with me in tow.
It took about an hour to reach the village at the foot of the ridge, I was constantly lagging behind despite carrying nothing but myself. As we walked through his village to the bus stop, he proudly wore my backpack as if returning from a hunting trip with some strange animal in tow. He got lots of deserved admiration, particularly from one pretty little girl.
Arriving to a little group of villagers waiting at the bus stop, the two boys got some quiet admiration from the men folk, and I summoned them both for my thanks and their reward for saving me and my glider.
I hope Sunil got her phone number too – it was the very least he deserved.