Everything white. My nose and throat full of mist, my feet disappeared, I can see no further than the variometer in my lap, which reads 832 meters- surely that can’t be right? I jumped 270-feet in five seconds? Alex’s voice crackles on the radio. “Go west, go to the beach. West!” The compass says I’m headed north so I lean left and pull on that brake line. Nothing happens. Vario still reads north so I pull harder. “West” crackles the radio. I don’t dare let go of the brake lines to answer. Slowly the compass turns northwest, then west. I relax for a moment and strain to see through the white veil that surrounds me. It’s like being suspended in, well, a cloud. No depth, no ceiling, no floor. My eyes regain their focus on the vario in my lap. Due north. Shit.
I’ve been lost before. In the Swiss mountains, cold, tired, desperately hungry, miles from the nearest town. In the alleys of Shinjuku, drunk, confused and unsure about the gender of my companion (who seems to be wearing my expensive watch). At the end of a forgotten desert road, short on gas, out of cell service, and a quickly setting sun.
Uncomfortable all of them but as I reflect back on these moments every one of them had something in common. I was on solid ground. Worse case scenario I could dig out a snow cave, find a bench or crawl into the back seat of the car until morning. Sure I may wake up lost or without my wallet but at least I would have my feet on the ground and a new day to figure out what to do about it.
I am lost in the clouds. This is my sixth solo flight. I launched as usual from a 570 meter ridge at the top of Escaleras which overlooks a low valley and, beyond that, Playa Dominicalito. It’s a straight shot to the beach, 2.5 kilometers due west. Even if there is no wind the glide ratio of my paraglider should get me safely there and, if I lose too much altitude before then, there’s a soccer field and cow pasture two-thirds of the way.
The launch went smooth and I turned north along the ridge to catch a thermal lift along with a pair of turkey vultures scouring the forest below. The usual rainy season clouds hung over the back of the ridge but I stayed in front, slowly climbing to 750 meters and enjoying the view when my radio crackled with the voice of my trainer Alex. “Dude, you’re getting close to cloud base, come down.” A wisp of thick air reached down for my face, mist up my nose. I looked up. White. My wing was already inside and before I could react so was I.
Cloud suck is an increased velocity of thermal lift caused by the release of latent heat from water vapor in the air as it condenses. The warm thermal air I had been happily circling in became a super fast elevator as soon as it hit the cooler cloud base.
I pull left again and, just like last time, don’t feel any turn. Then, suddenly, the compass spins wildly, a full rotation around the dial and half again before stopping at NE. Is it broken? What’s going on? I pull left some more and it slowly changes. Pull harder and quickly I’m pointing west, or at least I think so. Holding course. Pressure on the left brake. I look ahead into nothing and start to talk to myself out loud. “It’s OK. You’re going to be OK.” Holding course west. Water beads on my hands and drips from my nose. Everything is white. “It’s OK. You’re going to be OK”.
Alex taught me that pulling down and holding the single ‘A’ lines that lead from my harness to the tips of my wing curls them in and increases descent rate so I pull. The technique is called Big Ears and, while I have no idea if that’s what is happening up there, I do know the circulation in my finger tips are being cut off but I hold it anyway.
Compass still says west, descending at a rate of 1.8 meters/second. Everything still white. I can’t feel my fingers. Look down, white. Wait, a wisp of green. Maybe. Yes, there’s another one. My feet appear in front of me as the cloud mist begins to thin. I can see the canopy! It seems different somehow.
I emerge from the clouds wet, relieved and disoriented. 552 meters up and still in front of the ridge thank god but where am I? A few seconds later the coastline reveals itself and I clue in. I’m about two kilometers north of where I started over a shallow jungle valley. Behind me is the mountain ridge and ahead a small ridge just high enough to block my flight path to the water. My choices are to land somewhere in the jungle or fly southwest to the end of the small ridge and hope I retain enough altitude to make the beach.
I make it past the ridge and back on course, crossing the soccer field at a height of 150 meters. The beach is just ahead but before that is the highway, power lines and a thick line of palm trees. It feels too low to make it over all of that so I turn a bit more south and straight into the wind. It works. My descent rate slows down and I am able to clear the highway and the palm thicket with room to spare. I even have enough height to make a couple smooth S-turns over the water before stepping down onto the dry sand. My wing softly falls in front of me. A perfect landing.
My mind and body are at odds with each other. Elated about the recovery and landing and still terrified from being lost in the clouds. My hands shake as I pack up my equipment. My left forefinger is completely numb and will remain so for the next two weeks.