Picture yourself floating thousands of feet above the ground. For most people, that image is enough to induce a full-on panic attack. For certain adrenaline junkies, however, there’s nothing better. While it may sound dangerous, modern equipment makes it pretty safe — most of the time…
When one German paraglider set out for a normal practice run, she didn’t anticipate any problems. But once nearly everything went wrong, she knew she would have to draw upon every ounce of her athletic expertise to survive.
Are you afraid of heights? Ewa Wisnierska sure isn’t. In fact, she is one of the top paragliders in the world. But even with years of experience, she had no idea about the dangers she would face in 2007.
As a member of the German national team, Ewa was in the Manilla, Australia for the Paragliding World Championships. About a week beforehand, she and a couple hundred others set off on a training run.
But there were signs that this was not going to be an ordinary practice session. Though organizers warned of stormy weather conditions that day, Ewa and her team figured they could handle it. Hadn’t she already seen it all?
Ewa departed about an hour after most of her competitors, and the first leg of her journey was business as usual. She met only calm conditions while zipping over the mountains.
Meanwhile, Ewa’s team monitored her progress from a decked-out van below. They could follow every detail of the glider’s trajectory in real time and would pick her up whenever she landed.
12 miles in, the smooth sailing stopped. The sky darkened and thunderstorms erupted all around Ewa. She’d seen rough weather before, but never anything like this. This storm was a killer.
Within minutes of its arrival, the storm was proving deadly. It already took one life. He Zhongpin, a Chinese paraglider, perished in mid-air after a lightning bolt struck him.
Chunks of hail, some larger than five inches in diameter, also rained down from the sky. One solid hit could shatter bones or tear through the thin cloth of the glider.
Sensing these dangers, Ewa steered away from the storm. She breathed a sigh of relief when she surpassed the range of the lightning and hail, but little did she know she had flown into the most formidable hazard of all.
Her glider entered a cumulonimbus cloud and got caught in a draft. It hurtled her upward at a speed of over 40 miles per hour. She reached a height of well over 30,000 feet, an altitude equivalent to that of a jumbo jet. It was higher than Mount Everest!
That was when Ewa blacked out. Not only was she higher up than any paraglider had ever gone before; she was also completely helpless.
Her ground team lost track of her amid the storm and could only watch in horror as her altitude numbers kept going up and up. They feared the worst, but kept their hopes alive for a miracle.
Icicles formed on Ewa’s gear and body as her lungs struggled to find oxygen. But as it turned out, her unconsciousness was something of a saving grace.
Ewa entered what was essentially a hibernation state, not unlike a cold-blooded animal. She couldn’t do anything for the moment, but at least she was keeping herself alive.
More and more ice covered her glider, and the weight caused it to plummet. Ewa awoke in free fall. She couldn’t even control the brakes because her gloves were both frozen solid.
As the Earth’s surface reappeared below, Ewa grabbed the handles and steered toward the ground. It was a strong effort, but not a perfect one — she crash-landed in an open field. Battered and exhausted, Ewa grabbed her radio.
Ewa’s team had no success reaching her during her ascent, so they could hardly believe it when she finally made contact. With time running out, they received Ewa’s coordinates — almost 40 miles from the original launch site.
When Ewa’s support finally reached her, she was freezing and too tired to move. But she was still alive. They whisked her away to a nearby hospital, where the staff got her the warmth and oxygen she so badly needed.
Ewa’s injuries were severe, but she made an astonishingly quick recovery. As a matter of fact, she made her return to the skies just six days later. She was on cloud nine — fortunately, this cloud didn’t lift her up past Mount Everest.
For true champions like Ewa, not even disaster can keep them down for long. Even in the face of unimaginable adversity, you have to power through and keep chasing your dreams.
Ewa’s survival almost defies explanation. How many other people could have made it through such a nightmare?
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