About another hour passed as I glided from thermal to thermal until I saw something interesting going on down below. It seemed like some kind of ramshackle military camp, with rows of huts surrounding an open space filled with men engaged in calisthenics, obstacle courses and other paramilitary shenanigans.
My path to the next thermal took me right over the camp, and I hoped I was high enough I sail by unnoticed. Unfortunately, my choice of a bright orange canopy didn’t help in that regard. Just as I was nearly directly overhead, there was a lot of commotion down there — a lot of pointing and shouting, and then gunshots. What the hell? What’s up with these people?
I was high enough that the shots just sounded like soft pops, like someone popping popcorn in the next room. But the bullets whizzing by, ripping through the canopy were plenty scary. In fact, it unnerved me enough that I veered off course a little.
The thermal I was aiming for looked very strong, so I just wanted to catch the edge of it so I could control by ascent. But my quite reasonable impulse to scoot away from the gunfire ASAP caused me to steer directly into the core of the thermal. Before I could get out, I was sucked straight up 20,000 feet into the cumulus — and right into the heart of every paraglider’s worst nightmare. A real SDE — probably more life-threatening than the bullets I just dodged.
Inside a cumulus, the air currents toss you around like a feather in the canister of an Electrolux. I shot up, then spun around, tangling lines and deflating my canopy, causing me to fall until it untangled and re-inflated, causing me to shoot up again — all in white-out conditions that obscured any visual input that could help me get my bearings. It was like a roller coaster ride in hell, on the hell roller coaster that not even Satan has the balls to ride. Now if you like roller coasters, that might sound fun, but let me assure you — it’s not.
After my detox/kidney stone weekend, I didn’t think I could possible throw up any more, and I was right. All the tossing and tumbling just triggered wave after wave of dry heaves — the perfect compliment to sheer terror. This ordeal felt like it lasted over an hour, but in reality probably only lasted about 45 minutes.
Finally, long after I started wishing for death to end this horror, I almost got my wish. My canopy was tangled enough to not re-inflate as I started falling, so I thankfully fell out of that evil cloud. As much as a relief as that was, it meant that the “sudden death” phase of this experience had begun. While I wasn’t fully in freefall — my canopy was slowing my descent slightly — my survival depended entirely on how I landed and what I landed on.
Continued next week: snakes.