'I told myself, you're not going to die here'
A paragliding crash left Guy Anderson stranded in the desert wilderness with a dead radio and a shattered body. He tells Naomi Canton how he survived – and why he can't wait to get back in the harness
Tuesday 15 January 2013
One moment Guy Anderson was paragliding over the spectacular mountain peaks of Sun Valley in Idaho. The next he was stranded alone in the desert wilderness, with a shattered pelvis, punctured lung, lacerated kidney and broken arm. There was no human life for miles, wild animals on the prowl and his radio and live tracker were dead. Not only did Anderson survive against formidable odds, but once out of hospital, he couldn't wait to get back in his harness.
It was during the final task of the 2012 USA Paragliding World Cup that Anderson's wing suddenly deflated, causing him to fall about 60 feet and crash into a mountain region inhabited by cougars, wolves and bears.
The 49-year-old was flying across the mesmerising Sun Valley when he hit unmanageable turbulence while gliding low in a windy valley. Unable to open his reserve parachute in time, he ploughed into the desert wilderness and went missing for two days and two nights.
Despite crashing on the final day, he qualified for the Superfinal, and today Anderson starts the 12-day World Cup Superfinal in Roldanillo, Colombia, to compete for the 2012 Paragliding World Champion title.
Speaking from his Somerset home before departing to the US, Anderson, a winemaker, recalls the accident: "The weather was getting rougher and several of the pilots had landed early. I was hoping I would get a big thermal that would lift me out."
His mother-in-law had passed away that year and his dog had been put down that day. "You are not going to be the third," he told himself. "Because these things happen in threes."
It was at that moment that his wing collapsed. "I had just enough time to think, 'Right, this is going to hurt', and thump, I went down."
Anderson bounced along before landing face down in blue and green sage scrub, his sunglasses rammed into his nose, in wild terrain with not a trace of human life.
"I was relieved I was alive. I was not in a large amount of pain and I was just about breathing. I was about 50kms [30 miles] down the course so knew I was in wild countryside and it would be a struggle to get out."
Blood was pouring out of his head; he took a photo with his phone (he had no signal) and saw a cut on his nose from the sunglasses. His left arm seemed to be broken and he could not twist round, suggesting his ribs were broken too.
The batteries in his GPS live tracker and radio were both flat; his mobile had no signal and he had no map.
"I was looking at the mountains and clouds hoping to see another glider. And then I couldn't see the mountains. A know-it-all voice then said to me, 'This is a sign of shock. You need oxygen.'"
He sucked oxygen from the cylinder he was carrying, owing to flying at high altitudes, and his vision returned.
After creating a sling from a jumper, he lay in his harness in a bush with his wing rolled up behind. He took a nap but was woken by deep growls from behind him that sounded like a bear. He couldn't twist round because of his ribs, so he took pictures with his flash on to frighten it and sang "She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain" in the hope any bear might think it had stumbled across a campfire. He had seen a bear in the Idaho city of Ketchum earlier in the week.
Local farmers he had met after the first task had told him that wolves had killed half the elks. "I was a bit worried because I just had a penknife," he says.
When dawn came the next day, Anderson was feeling optimistic – but found he had urinated blood. "I knew it was probably a sign of internal injuries, possibly a broken pelvis," he says.
Although he had been carrying four litres of water in a ballast bag, he knew he needed more. He remembered a local pilot telling him, "If you land somewhere wild, walk downhill." Unable to walk because of his injuries, he pushed himself down on his backside. Half way down he could see a stream but when he reached it, it was bone dry.
He stretched out his hand and, as if by magic, found a perfect walking stick. After more than an hour of slipping down, he managed to stand on his feet.
He hobbled a mile further taking slow controlled steps, watching rattlesnakes slither by.
By 7pm he recognised watercress in a muddy stream and ate it. That was his only meal of the day. He had left his uneaten sandwich, waterproof jacket and penknife with his canopy.
That evening a big thunderstorm erupted. Exhausted, he lay down on the path under a bush wearing nothing but jumpers and got totally soaked.
Shivering and shaking he started hallucinating. "I had this weird dream that I was at a trade camping fair and there were lots of people showing off their lightweight camping equipment and they looked at my woolly jumper and said, 'That does not look very good', and I said, 'I wouldn't buy a jumper for a storm.' Then my legs and arms took on human identities and started speaking to me. My English legs said, 'We are not doing any more walking.' My Canadian shoulder was more positive and chipped in, 'Don't listen. Just concentrate on staying warm.'"
The next morning he woke up in a muddy puddle and after spending hours getting to his feet, he set off again and after some time saw a beautiful wooden cabin. Then when he came to the spot, it had disappeared. He persevered, motivated by thoughts of family. "If your life is full enough, there is a lot to keep you going." Little did Anderson know, but since midnight on the Saturday a huge search operation had kicked into action. About 75 people had been scouring the hillsides on foot, motorbikes and in spotter planes.
His wife Louise and two daughters feared the worst. Two pilots had died after crashing in a separate contest, the Paragliding World Championships in 2011, causing that event to be cancelled.
"I thought he had been eaten by a bear," his eldest Chloe, 22, says, sitting in their living room. A British pilot had even flown back and visited Louise in Somerset on the Monday and said that Anderson's glider "was the same colour as sage bush" and the search was "like looking for a needle in a haystack".
Then on Monday lunchtime Anderson saw a huge Black Hawk helicopter come into the valley and disappear out of sight. At first he thought they had missed him waving his red T-shirt on a stick, but in fact the search team had found his canopy and one of the pilots had followed his trail downhill by foot and radioed the helicopter.
After an emotional reunion with the search team an hour later, he was put on a stretcher and flown to hospital where he had surgery on his arm. The other injuries were stable fractures and he was in hospital for just a week.
Now he is fully recovered from all his injuries with almost full movement back in his arm.
"I can't wait to take part in the Superfinal and meet up with old friends from Sun Valley. I will definitely be trying to win. If I come in the top 30 I will be ecstatic," says Anderson.
It was Louise who bought him his first paragliding trip in Wales in 1994 as a present. "I never thought it would lead to this," she says. "I thought he would do it once and never again."
But Anderson has no plans to give up. "You get to places that no one can get to; you see things no one could ever see on the ground; you fly with a lot of birds. It's the closest you will ever get to flying. It's euphoric."
For the Superfinal he has packed a SPOT satellite tracker, water purification tablets, batteries, food, a lighter, a mirror for signalling, a tarpaulin and a whistle, and also invested in a bright purple glider to keep his wife happy.
"I'm more convinced than ever that you have to do what you want to do in life and lead the life you've got as we will all be dead soon. You should not turn anything down – do it all. I am not going to sit around in cotton wool and not be the person I am or lead a duller version of my life just to extend it a bit," Anderson says. Then he describes an uncanny episode of his miracle escape.
When Rob Wolf, a local rescue bus driver he had befriended after the first task, heard Anderson was missing, he placed his finger on a map and made a cross on it. After five hours hiking the next day to hunt for Anderson, he looked into the valley at the spot he had marked and saw the Black Hawk helicopter land. Anderson says: "He used his binoculars and he could see me getting into it and he sat down in tears. So he would have found me."
To follow Anderson in the Superfinal go to http://pwca.org, or to track him flying realtime go to live track24.com
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