Pilot #1 personal account:
As stated, there were 7 pilots in total with experience ranging from Novice to Senior Instructor. I launched on what felt like a fairly strong cycle and once the wing was over my head that was confirmed by the lift that my wing was generating. I was able to slide across the gravel take off and easily lift off the edge. Once in the air I found the lift to be broken and somewhat punchy and fairly quickly found myself losing altitude sinking below launch. I switched into scratching mode and worked some light lift over a small clear cut and tree line. I was eventually able to lock into a good climb and quickly worked my way up to cloudbase.
The first few climbs were good and cloud base was around 5000ft. At this point I had identified most pilots in the air except one pilot who I had assumed headed up the range to the NW. Once established I decided that conditions were good for a flight in the Northerly direction and started on gliding and climbing. Slightly up range I spotted the other pilot fairly low and working his way back towards launch. It appeared to me at this point that I was the only pilot that far up the range and continued on. After a few more climbs and glides I spotted another pilot behind me and I started to stay in my climbs a little longer to let him catch up. I radioed him a few times with no response so I flew back and joined into a thermal with him so I could get close enough to yell over to him. He replied with a yeah hoo and we carried on up the ridge.
It was at this point I noticed some of the wind readings on my flight instrument indicating a range of NNW to NE at certain altitudes putting me in the lee of the mountain. I pushed on a few more glides and noted that I had passed any good grassy field landing zones and was in an area with only clearcuts to choose for LZ’s. It was a long drive to the site so I wanted to make sure I had a 100% chance of gliding back to a roadside LZ, if needed, so that my retrieve wouldn’t add hours to our long drive home. It wasn’t a day for long distances.
At that point I took the next thermal to the highest point of the day, which was just past 6300ft, and turned back toward launch for an out and return flight. It was then my intention to examine the ridge I had flown in a little more detail and note any good thermal sources and ridges for future flights. Few glides later and I was closing in on launch and I started to spot the 5 other gliders to the SE. I was picking up radio chatter about miscellaneous things such as conditions and not breaking airspace over the airport as I guess a pilot or two had forgotten since the discussion on launch about heights over the valley.
At this point I noticed the starting phases of over development and that combined with the possibility of lee rotor I lowered my altitude to just above ridge height. A compromise between keeping good distance from the clouds and staying out of the possible rotor. I had also distanced myself from the ridge somewhat pushing a few hundred meters further out from the ridge. The first two pilots I came into gliding distance of were Pilot #3 and Pilot #2. Pilot #2 was the highest by far and had already established herself at ridge height and Pilot #3 was establishing himself in what seemed like a very respectable climb. I glided towards Pilot #3 to increase my lift as I was finishing a glide and needed more altitude and he was surely in some lifting air. My memory at this point is not 100% but I believe I got into a good climb within the vicinity of Pilot #3 and started to circle left. I have a habit of turning left 95% of the time so I can be sure it was a left turn. I had no intention of climbing above ridge height, for reasons stated earlier, and climbed only as high as I thought I needed to get to the next source I had already picked further along the ridge.
I started a glide and I can’t say for sure how long I was in gliding mode but I clearly remember being in a gliding state of mind where I could see everything below, to the right and left, and ahead on my current track direction and everything seemed clear. I could see Pilot #3 continuing to climb and Pilot #2 was not in sight but since I didn’t see her anywhere around me, I assumed she hadn’t dropped to my altitude or lower or she would have been clearly visible to me. I then felt what I initially thought was a frontal and looked up to assess the situation. To my surprise it was a pilot in my wing and I immediately knew it was Pilot #2. It was obvious since Pilot #3 was still in view. She had hit the leading edge of the wing almost perfectly center and the wing tips had continued to fly, wrapping around her body.
I’ve heard many stories and seen many horrible videos of mid-air collisions and knew if I didn’t make an effort to clear her from my wing our chances for a good outcome would be slim.
I recognized my clearance from the mountain side was not in my favor but I decided to stall my wing. I’ve had experience with both stalls and frontals on high performance wings and knew there was a chance, although small, that the wing tips would peel back and the impending stall would pull violently against her still flying wing with the possibility of her being pulled upwards and out of my wing. This is pretty much what happened. I watched as the tips came back and Pilot #2 moved on an upwards path toward the top of my wing. It happened quite quickly and somewhat violently but was successful. Once clear my glider immediately tried to fly, diving forward to pick up airspeed and exit the stall. Unfortunately, the right side of the glider had sustained damage and I had roughly a 30% cravatte so as the glider dove at the ground I entered a right-hand spiral dive.
The G force from the spiral was building fast and I recognized that stopping the spiral and gaining control of the glider was not an option. I immediately pulled my reserve parachute and tossed it into clear air. It opened cleanly and quickly, to my relief, and I then focused on disabling what was left of the wing. After 3 or 4 wraps on the brake lines I looked over my shoulder to see how much time I’ve have before landing and was a little surprised to see the mountain much closer to me than I estimated. I abandoned the brake lines and spun in my harness to get my feet facing the ridge in preparation for impact/landing. I somehow dodged a few trees and landed on the steep cliffside completely unharmed. The glider was in a tree and the reserve was actually trying to drag me uphill in a thermal wind. It was easy to disable and I gathered it up and shoved in in the back of my harness.
Letting fellow pilots know I was alright and I needed a heli evacuation was my next objective and once complete I assessed my location and the possibility of retrieving my glider from the tree. While I waited, I noticed cloud base dropping and wisps of clouds moving through at my altitude. I started to feel anxious, knowing it would be difficult for the helicopter to retrieve me in foggy conditions. When the helicopter arrived, my fears were confirmed as conditions had deteriorated and a rescue was not going to happen. I remember the feeling of seeing that helicopter hovering right there in front of me, close enough to see the pilots face and knowing they could do nothing to help my situation. I was then informed the rescue was called off for the day and I would have to spend the night on the snowy mountain side.
Getting my glider out of the tree became my main focus at this point as I knew I would need it for protection if I was to sleep at that altitude. It seemed impossible to get it out so I grabbed my hook knife I keep on my harness chest strap and cut all the lines off the glider at roughly a foot above the risers. I then found the longest branch possible, which was a challenge in itself, as the trees are fairly small at that altitude. I broke it off and used it to hook into the openings in the leading edge and somehow managed to fish the glider down to the ground. I wrapped it up quickly and made the decision that I was going to attempt to move down the mountain to see if I could get below the snow line. I informed the rescue team I would be moving from my location and I would update them when I stop moving.
I really didn’t have a lot of time to hike and it was slow and dangerous due to the steepness of cliff face and amount of snow cover. I hiked until dark at which point, I decided it was too dangerous to continue moving on the slippery steep surface. I found an area that was somewhat open, that had received some sun, so the snow had melted away and exposed some of the rock face. I figured this would be a good spot, not that I had much choice at this point, to be seen by the rescue team. Of this rocky area there was a small patch about 10 sqft that I was able to clear the snow from and sit down. Unfortunately, it was still quite sloping so I planted my hiking poles into the ground and put them against my chest to hold myself up. Sliding off the front of this little ledge was a real possibility and I remember being quite scared of sliding off the edge.
I opened my glider bag pulled out the reserve and laid it on the ground to sit on in hopes of keeping dry. It didn’t make the best surface to sit on since the reserve material is very slippery and I continuously had to keep pushing myself back up the hill using the poles. The glider was used as a cover/tent and there I was all set up. It was around 8pm and the mountain was calm, I was fairly warm and uninjured, I was counting myself somewhat lucky.
I wasn’t wearing proper footwear so my next task was to remove my shoes and socks as frostbite was a very real possibility. It was cold on the feet with no socks but not nearly as bad as keeping the wet shoes and socks on. Not that that was an option anyways. Rubbing my feet worked for a long time but it would only work for so long. Morning couldn’t come soon enough. The calm of the mountain eventually broke around 12am as the winds began to howl. I started to worry about glider I had wrapped myself in and the open spot the night had picked for me. I made an effort to gather all the leading edge of the glider to prevent the winds from inflating the glider and pulling me off the edge. I got lucky as the winds were much stronger around me and I seemed to be in a somewhat sheltered area and was only beat up a few times. The strong winds subsided after about 3hrs and the calm returned. It was replaced with the sound of what I initially thought was rain but it sounded too light. Damn, snow. It continued to snow the rest of the night and was still snowing when daylight came.
By this time my phone was getting low and I was resorting to powering it down and only turning it on a few times to communicate with the rescue team through text. They had assured me that they were going to attempt a rescue as soon as they could legally fly, as we all know, 30 min after sunrise. I was told they were assembling at 6am and by 7 I could hear the helicopter hovering around the mountain. I decided to switch to my 2m radio, I had been keeping in my down jacket pocket, in hopes that the warmth would extend its battery length. I made contact with dispatch, which had direct contact the with pilot. I relayed information to dispatch until the the rescue team was directly in front of me. I couldn’t see them but I could hear them. They slowly hover closer and established my new location. I was then told they would land prep a long line team and return, which they did fairly quickly.
Next time I saw the helicopter it had two rescue team members hanging a couple hundred feet below on a line. It took a bit to get them right to me but once they touched down it only took a matter of seconds to get me into the harness and off the hillside we went. Conditions were poor and the guys on the end of the line were using the distance we were from the trees as a reference and relaying the information to the pilot to guide us out into the valley. When we finally cleared the cloud, it was a quick cold ride to the Alberni airport.
Once on the ground I met with the team members I had been taking and texting with and thanked them for all they had done and recognize the risks they had taken to free me from that frozen mountain side. I will be forever grateful.