The Near-Miss in Morocco
My best friend, Chris Hoyte, and I were on an impromptu flying trip through Morocco. Chris is an amazing photographer, an experienced traveler and a conservative pilot. I’m an action sports athlete fairly new to flying, but not to risk. This is an account of a learning experience that I was lucky to get away with.
After a beautiful five days of relaxing coastal soaring in the south of the country, we traveled an entire day in the car towards the Atlas Mountains. It was a few fast hours on the freeway before winding through the rural back roads, avoiding the big city and watching the mountains grow closer by the mile. The last hour was a road so bleak and barren, I was convinced we were lost. My hopes of getting an evening flight at our destination were gone, so when the road was covered with a herd of sheep, I patiently used the rental car to help the shepherd herd his flock across the road. We drove slow and observed. There were a few camels and a lot of school children. The kids walk home from the bus, an old dump truck, by themselves from the time they’re about 5. Often you’ll see a 6 or 7 year old guiding a few 4 and 5 year old kids home. They’re responsible here in Morocco, something us American kids learn later in life. Something I will learn, very viscerally, tomorrow.
The next day, we made our way up to launch; a beautiful mountain top littered with wild flowers and grazing sheep. The cutest little, windswept girls, maybe 6 years old, live there and ask us for money. We give them hugs and smiles with a few dirham. They have very little but they are very content with their lives on the ground. A contentment that I should have learned from, seeing where this story nearly ends, later the same day. Lessons are hard to see unless they slap you in the face.
On launch, there are a dozen pilots from Germany, Switzerland and France. They all suck at ground handling. One is being drug across the ground with his instructor in tow. Another is trying to perform a forward launch in huge, mid-day cycles, leaving him tangled in his glider fifteen feet from where he started. But one by one, after countless failed launches, most of them are flying. Chris and I launch into a good, strong cycle and get 100’ over launch immediately. We made our way to the end of the ridge, where a steep rocky face was providing nice thermal soaring for all the seemingly rookie pilots. We joined the gaggle, cautiously. After half an hour, I wanted more, so I pushed out from the ridge in search of stronger thermals. My timing was poor and I lost a bit of altitude. I found no lift, only air that was plummeting to the ground. I was bombing out like a rock and I was not happy about it. I searched frantically for lift, but only encountered turbulence and wind. I landed, bummed. I looked back up at the ridge, all the pilots still making mellow figure-8’s. I wanted to have a big flight and I was on the ground. Damn.
We decided not to head straight back to launch, which in hindsight, may have been a better idea. Instead, we had a great lunch and a beer at the riad, relaxed and used the wifi to get in touch with home. I was kicking myself for my mistake that led to the end of my flight, but we would fly again this evening. I was building it up in my head already. By the time three o’clock rolled around, we were stir-crazy and the wind was whipping. We packed up and headed to launch.
The cycles of wind were very strong when we arrived. I recognized and accepted it as dangerous, but I wanted to go way up, so I had already justified the risk to myself. We were alone on launch and the sky was empty. I laid out my glider and took off into the sky, hopeful and anxious. I made my way back to the end of the ridge, but the lift was light. I was cruising around, staying close to the hill in hopes of surviving until the next good cycle arrived to take me skyward. Then it came. A big gust of wind rolled up the hill and I soared up a few hundred feet above the ridge. I moved over to a rocky point and found a nice vertical thermal. In two turns I had gone up another 500’, so I kept working it. By the time the lift slowed and I relaxed, I was way up. The view literally took my breath away. Looking north, I could see the entire Atlas range; tall, black, snow-capped peaks with thin veins of couliers streaking down their faces. Vivid, multi-colored fields of wildflowers adorned the foothills. I could see for miles; the reservoir that I knew was there but never could see, the city of Marrakech in the distance, the vast mountains. It was like I finally arrived and realized where I was. The air was quiet and I was peacefully descending, appreciating the view. Then I remembered, I don’t want to go down! I was determined to stay in this place I had just found. The remnants of the long travel, my failed flight and the impending end to the trip flooded my mind. I told myself I would scratch as hard as I could to find another ride back up to my throne in the sky. I knew that the thermals this time of day could be violent and unpredictable, but I was willing to face those odds, or so I thought. I should have pushed out and gone to land safely, content like the little girls, responsible like the school children. But I didn’t.
I was about 300’ over the top of the ridge when an angry thermal came spinning up the hill like a dust devil. It grabbed my glider and threw it hard to my left, while simultaneously trying to collapse and spin the left side. I leaned hard to my right and used huge brake inputs to try to regain control of the glider, at least keep it on heading away from the ridge. I thought quickly about my reserve parachute, but dismissed it as an option because of my low altitude. The glider was still being thrashed to the left and I continued to force it to the right. Once it was over my head, it wasn’t flying. My massive brake inputs had stopped its forward progress and we were now falling vertically. I stabilized the parachutal effect and let off the brakes, making the glider quickly fly again, causing a lightning-fast surge; the glider shooting way in front of me. I was glad it was finally flying, regardless of how powerful and dynamic the surge. I braked the glider, and as I swung under it into familiar flight, my feet nearly touched wildflowers that were perched on the edge of a series of rocky cliffs. The shepherds below had witnessed the cascading event and were screaming at me. I yelled back, trying to convince myself that I didn’t almost die. I had come within feet of the dark side of our sport and I had accepted those odds since breakfast. In hindsight, I never accepted the level of risk I was actually taking. I accepted a level that I thought I was taking; a huge difference that nearly cost me.
Wide-eyed and white knuckled, I flew straight out. I tried to pretend that I was fine, circling in a broad thermal over a hot field near the LZ. Reality was gnawing at me and my body wanted to be on the ground. I locked into a steep spiral and went to land. Chris had seen the the second half of the event, his camera had caught the onset. He followed me out and landed right behind me. He dropped his glider where it landed and came and gave me a hug. I was still silent. He was glad I was alive, as was I.
In the hours after my near-miss, I tried to understand the incident. What exactly happened? Did I over-control the glider? Should I have deployed my reserve? I couldn’t know for certain, and the uncertainty led me to question why I paraglide and if it was worth all this risk. I decided that I can’t live without flying, but I realized that the way I was flying might keep me from living. I suddenly saw my own expectations as the monsters that they are; snarling and frothing trolls trying to pluck me from the bridge. I could clearly see my mindset and decisions that led me to where I had been, the desire to fly overwhelming my ability to make sound decisions. The lesson had slapped me in the face. I needed it and I was lucky to get it for free. I rubbed my face, grateful that it was still there to take slaps.
That night at dinner, a French pilot told me “You must have had a great flight today, I saw you very high over the mountain.” On the surface, I smiled and nodded. But in my mind, I was thinking of the content little girls, happy with so little, and the small school children, more responsible than I had ever been. I promised myself I’d be more childish in the future.