Inverted and Broken, Part 3: Dead wood and floss

It was a long way to the ground.

I heard people on the ground coming toward me, and assumed that one of them would be Jeff. I called out as loudly as I could that I was in a tree, and that I was okay; he called back acknowledging that he heard me. The first people to arrive were some neighbors, and I told them that I was okay as well. Normally I carry my cell phone in my top harness pocket, but since I cracked the LCD on my previous phone a couple of months ago, I had taken to carrying the new one in a side pocket, where I could wrap it in my fleece helmet bag for added protection. I fished it out and turned it on, and the first thing I did was to call Jake. He lives nearby, he’s the site director, and he has many years of experience, including multiple tree extractions. I managed to leave a message on his answering machine that wasn’t entirely coherent, but that was apparently good enough for him to figure out where I was. Although I was 50 feet off the ground, I wasn’t getting a great cell phone signal, so I asked the neighbors to call Morningside, since I knew that there were also people at the flight park with experience in handling this sort of thing. I was having trouble manipulating the phone buttons with my gloves on, but kind of wanted to have them in case things got rough. I finally gave up on them and dropped them, along with the helmet bag, to the ground. I got the phone number for Morningside from my contacts list and told it to the people on the ground.

Normally, the first thing that I do after I land and get the glider stable is to call Nancy and tell her that I’m safely on the ground. Since it was already 7:30, I knew she’d be getting concerned, so I decided to call and tell her where I was. The call went through, but it was not easy to use the phone, since I had decided that leaving my helmet on was probably a good move. When she answered, I said “It’s me — I’m in an emergency situation, I’m waiting to be rescued, I’m not hurt, I’m not hurt, I’m not hurt…”, but she heard only the first two phrases before the call went all crunchy. She tried calling me back a few times over the next couple of hours, but I wasn’t in a position to answer the phone. When she answered that first call, she was just starting to have dinner with her three kids, and those were anxious hours for them. Rachel, the oldest, pointed out that I was in a position where I was able to call, so it couldn’t be too bad. To ease the tension, they all came up with possible scenarios, some of which weren’t too far off: that I was stuck in a tree, that I was in a lake, that the glider had flipped and I was helpless like a turtle waiting for someone to flip me back over, or my favorite, from Stephen, that I was surrounded by wolves.

I decided to unzip the harness, thinking that it would make me more comfortable, and I’m undecided as to whether that was a good idea or not. Jake arrived pretty quickly, and after him John A., as well as the local fire department. Jake had brought what he had handy, that being about 50 feet of climbing rope and a heavy duty extension cord. People on the ground were talking about how to proceed, and I was trying to interject:
“We’ll need to get a rope up there.”
— “I have dental floss.”
“We’re going to need a really big extension ladder.”
— “I have dental floss.”
“It’s going to be really hard to get a rope up to him.”
— “I have dental floss!”
I think some of my rescuers were thinking, “Dental floss? Sounds more like he has a head injury!”, but as I was talking, I had pulled the floss out of my front harness pocket and was tying one end to the limb in front of me. I looked at the package, and was relieved to see that it was a 55-yard roll, not just some little sample from the dentist’s office. I unrolled it, and let a loop drape all the way to the ground, where Jake understood exactly what I was doing. I tied off the other end to the branch while Jake tied one end of his rope to the floss. Using the doubled strand, I pulled the rope up and wrapped it a couple of times around my ankle, leaving enough to work with.

The first order of business was to secure myself in case the glider came loose from the tree. Though I had been focused on the limb in front of me, the ground crew was emphasizing the tree behind me. The configuration was that the glider was upside down, rather nose-high, with the outboard leading edges broken, supported mostly by branches of a dead tree that were wedged into the corners of the control frame. The parachute bridle extended upward another 20-30 feet to where the chute was draped in the tree canopy. I was next to the rear part of the keel, having slid off the rear of the sail, and was facing the nose. I turned around to see that the dead tree was quite a bit closer than the live tree in front of me (I was 10-15 feet out on a healthy limb on that one), but the dead wood wasn’t encouraging. My rescuers had no faith in using the live limb since it was so far from the trunk, so I went for the dead wood.

I coiled up the end of the rope and threw it over a crotch in the tree, and got it on the second try. Jake had tied a loop in the end of rope, but it was 3-4 feet out of my reach. I came up with a clever idea, though. Since I was by the trailing edge, I removed one of the longest battens and used it as a hook to snag the loop and pull it toward myself. I looped the rope around my chest and tied a bowline. Jake had tied the extension cord to the end of the rope, using a dubious-looking knot, but at least we had something. If the glider suddenly came loose from the tree, then provided the dead tree held, they’d be able to arrest my fall and lower me to the ground. As an added precaution against the possibility of my slipping out of the chest loop, I tied the end of the rope to my carabiner with a secure knot. That turned out to be a serious mistake, the second-biggest mistake of the day, and probably cost us an hour.

While the ground crew was getting a better rope and a ladder, I tugged on the parachute bridle to see how badly my reserve was snagged. I was able to pull in quite a bit of the bridle before it stopped. Jake asked if I could use the bridle as an additional way to secure myself, and I thought that was a fine idea. I had often wondered how much resistance nylon webbing puts up when you try to cut it with a hook knife, and now I know: as I suspected, it’s like cutting a single sheet of newspaper with very sharp scissors, you barely know anything is there. I tied the loose end of the webbing to a different branch on the dead tree.

Once the extension cord had been replaced with real rope, I said that I was ready to detach myself from the glider so that I could climb down the tree. I did not want to open the carabiner, since some of my security was connected to it, and it seemed much simpler to just cut the hang straps. I wrapped my legs and one arm around the closest big limb, reached back with the knife, and cut first one hang strap, then the other.


When I had tied the loose end of the rope to my ‘biner, I hadn’t been paying close enough attention, and it didn’t follow my harness mains the whole way. Instead, it went the wrong way around one of the wires just before the knot. I wasn’t connected to the glider by the hang straps any more, but I was still tied to it with the climbing rope. It may have been around this time that the first seismic event occurred, some branch breaking so that the glider shifted and I was left dangling in my harness. I don’t think I had moved more than about a foot, but the rope around the wire was now under more tension. I tried untying the knot one-handed, but I had tied it well and that didn’t have much hope. My hook knife was now out of reach, since I lost my grip on it when I cut the second hang strap, and it was still dangling there, snagged on a loose thread (and it has too narrow an opening for climbing rope anyway).

I explained my predicament, and Jake offered some suggestions, but I said I was getting tired and need to rest a bit. At least three people had come over from Morningside with more equipment, and they decided to send Louis up to assist. He used the ladder to get to the first branch of the dead tree, then climbed up to where I was, keeping himself tied in to the tree as he moved up. He had brought a line up with him, and used that to haul up an additional rope over a better branch for good measure when it came time to lower me.

At some point in here I had gotten my feet onto a branch below me, and I think maybe Louis had stepped on it as well, and it provided the second seismic event. Though the heartwood of the tree was sound, some branches were not, and this one felt a little spongy. While Louis was up there, it let go, and I don’t know whether it narrowly missed people on the ground. Someone had asked whether I could cut the wire with cable cutters, but that seemed beyond my
strength. Louie and I discussed cutting the rope, and someone tried sending up a pocketknife from the ground. Around that time I remembered that I had a jackknife in my side harness pocket, and got it out. It was unfortunately not very sharp, and neither Louis nor I had any luck in trying to cut the tough rope.

Finally, we came up with a plan. I grabbed a limb above my head, and hauled myself up above the glider. Louis was able to pull on the keel enough to reduce the tension in the rope, allowing me to open the carabiner and remove the rope. That finally freed me from the wreckage. Opening the carabiner a second time, I unhooked the reserve bridle, so that only the two ropes were connected to me (both tied around my chest). Louis helped them slide over the limbs as the belayers gave me slack, and I was able to climb down. I had one final misstep just above the ladder, as I put my foot on a rotten stub that crumbled under my weight and left me suspended from the chest loops at the level of the top rung. Down the ladder, and I was safely on the ground. It was now about 9:30 PM.

I wanted to stay and make sure that Louis got down safely, but I was assured that he had things well under control and was taken from the scene by John and Jeff. The phone rang again as soon as I got to the car, and after hunting around in my harness for the phone I talked to Nancy and gave her a quick synopsis of the evening’s events, assuring her that I was unharmed save for some scratches and bruises that I got from wrapping my arms and legs around the tree limbs.

In typical irony, I also banged my head on the roof rack as I walked around behind my car in the dark. Jeff took the wheel; he lives just a few miles from Nancy’s house, and a little after midnight I was there.

I eventually got the glider back — thanks go out to the people who went out there at dawn the next day to remove it so that there wouldn’t be wreckage visible, causing ongoing calls to 911. I’ve posted some pictures of what’s left with a little bit of unsurprising analysis of what happened. There were repercussions from this that I won’t go into here, most of which people were able to clear up before too long. I got out of this easy — some minor scrapes and bruises and a trashed glider. Looking forward, it’s not clear where things will lead. I do expect to continue flying, but I’ll be taking a break. During that time, I intend to keep from disappearing by means of doing some XC driving as opportunities arise. I’ve heard that people at my level somtimes have an incident that scares tham, and they drop out of hang gliding. I didn’t get scared. That is to say, the flying went fine, and it was one isolated decision that went wrong. There’s nothing about flying (without trying a move like that wingover, of course) that I’m apprehensive about. If I felt like other things were in place, I could take my Falcon out to Morningside tomorrow and fly, but the time isn’t right yet, and I think won’t be for a while. It’s also interesting that I don’t remember being scared while it was happening. I had a short stretch of fear while I was in the tree and thought I might be doing that last 50 feet unexpectedly, but I wasn’t scared during the time between the wang and hitting the trees. I was unhappy, but the sentiment was more like “Aw rats, this really sucks, am I really screwing up this badly?”. Tom has said you never know which people are going to be able to stay cool under pressure and take appropriate measures, and which ones will be like deer in the headlights. I’m glad to know that, at least on this one occasion, I was able to be in the first group.


About cleversky

Hang glider pilot in New England since 2004. Also an avid orienteer, and an embedded systems firmware engineer. And some other outdoor stuff.
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