Classic Tales: Hang Gliding Horror in Owens Valley!


Hang gliding in Owen’s Valley, USA, in 2010

Paragliding and hang gliding can be dangerous, we all know and accept that. But, when you look deep in to the motives of most of us, it is that very danger that gives us the thrill and excitement that makes our sport so special to us.

Every now and again though our fun and games can take us a little too close to the edge. Bruce Goldsmith has seen a lot of aerial action, but task 1 of the 1993 hang gliding world championships in Owens Valley, gave him a day to really remember.

“I was 20 miles out from goal, almost there, and taking what I hoped would be my last climb.”

The thermals in Owens are notoriously ferocious and strong and, at 14,000 ft and a grand above the summit of White Mountain, Bruce pulled in the bar and went for the glide.

“I came out the thermal and as I hit the surrounding sink it all went horribly wrong. The glider pitched violently downwards, way below the horizon then tumbled. My body’s momentum threw me upwards and slammed me hard in the sail. I heard the leading edge snap as I hit it and knew straight away that I was really in the shit.”

“I fell like a rock, spinning wildly round and round with the wreckage of the glider underneath me. I was really disorientated and knew I had to throw the rescue immediately as the mountain side was coming up fast.”

Bruce pulled the handle and chucked his parachute hoping for the nightmare to end. But it didn’t, in fact things just got worse. The rescue chute flipped him over face down and the bridle pulled him tight to the wrecked glider, pinning his arms down by his side. Now, with the glider above him, when he finally hit the rocky peak it was going to be face first and hard.

“I was flying with quite a small reserve and with the thin air up high I was falling really fast. The ground below had little patches of snow left over from the winter. I was rotating really quickly and my vision was a blur of brown, sharp rock with the occasional flash of white from an isolated snow patch.”

Chance was on his side this time and Bruce whacked in, face first, right in the middle of a little snow patch and amazingly escaped with nothing more than a sore nose. Momentarily he thought he he’d got away with it but not so, it wasn’t over yet.

“I’d come down 100 metres below the summit and just as I landed another huge thermal came ripping through. Before I could even recover from the impact, I was off again.”

The reserve had re-inflated and was threatening to pluck Bruce and his wrecked wing back off the mountain.

“I was desperately trying to unzip and get out the harness as fast as I could. I was shitting myself. I could see exactly what was going to happen next.”

The summit of White Mountain is sharp as broken glass and Bruce was about to be torn to shreds as the parachute dragged him and the broken glider across the rocks and back in to the air.

“I starting wriggling and thrashing trying to escape the rig as it dragged me this way and that, then just as I left the ground again, I slipped free of the harness and dropped a few feet before stopping again. My boot had caught in the webbing and I was being lifted off the mountain by one foot. I went berserk, and fought like a madman to get free.”

Bruce just got out in time. He dropped about three metres back on to a snow patch. The glider and reserve chute got carted upwards, smashing against the rocks till it finally snagged on the very summit of the mountain. When Bruce climbed back up to the wreckage he found nearly everything was smashed; the vario, both his radios and the glider was in tatters. He gathered up his reserve and oxygen kit and set off down.

After walking down to 10,000 ft, he spent a cold and hungry night wrapped in his reserve with only a banana to eat. At first light Bruce continued his retreat back to civilisation eventually arriving back down at launch 10 minutes before the window opened for task 2. Shell shocked, tired and starving, Bruce was gutted to find the team’s spare glider rigged for him and ready to go. They clipped him in, the klaxon sounded the window open and off he went for task 2! Respect!

Bruce’s wrecked glider remained on the summit of White Mountain for the next three years. It’s a reminder and warning to all who flew over it of the power Owens Valley commands over all who dare to fly there.


If you’ve had a lucky escape then write to us at editor@xcmag.com

Updated January 2011


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