Paraglider pilots escape without injuries after windy landings |

Paraglider pilots escape without injuries after windy landings

Katie Redding
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Paul Conrad The Aspen Times

ASPEN ” Two paraglider pilots escaped without serious injuries Monday morning when their canopies deflated partially as they entered the landing zone at North Star Nature Preserve, east of Aspen.

A pond broke the fall of Erin Lally, of Aspen, and she walked away from the scene uninjured.

“The real fascinating thing about that is that there was no pond there yesterday,” said Ryan Smalls, owner of the pond. He had drained the water body in anticipation of possible flooding, and had just filled it back up.

Aspenite Thomas Brinkmeyer, 52, was released Monday from Aspen Valley Hospital, in good condition after a rescue that was hampered by the swollen Roaring Fork River between him and responders.

Eight paraglider pilots were trying to land Monday morning at approximately 10 a.m. when winds picked up to at least 25 miles per hour. Lally and Brinkmeyer were with Parapente Aspen, a local paragliding club. Aspen Paragliders guides and clients were also on scene and called 911, initiating rescue efforts.

At such high wind speeds, paragliders will stay aloft, but they will end up flying backward, making it difficult for the pilot to maintain control, explained the pilots on scene.

“In all the years I’ve been flying, it’s rare that a gust comes up,” said Alex Palmaz, owner of Aspen Paragliding. “Normally you see it. … There weren’t any kind of clouds, or anything to indicate that wind is going to happen.”

Palmaz explained that their driver had been listening to wind speeds on the airport frequency and warned the pilots to land. The pilots were almost on the ground when the wind started to blow.

“It was an event that only lasted 10 minutes,” Palmaz said.

As the pilots came close to the ground, turbulence created by the trees ” which create eddies just as rocks do in a river ” would have made the paragliders even harder to steer, said Palmaz.

“We know exactly what we’re doing ” it’s just weather isn’t something we can control,” said fellow pilot Vic Simon of Snowmass.

High winds had been predicted for the afternoon, but not the morning, Palmaz said.

Immediately, fellow paraglider pilot Tomek Pegiel swam across the Roaring Fork River and stayed by Brinkmeyer’s side. He reported that the pilot was conscious and complaining of back pain.

The river divides the North Star property. The designated landing zone is near Highway 82, not on the far side of the river where Brinkmeyer came down.

Rescuers from the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office and Mountain Rescue-Aspen were hampered by the river’s depth ” estimated at between 6 and 10 feet ” and the speed of its current. Realizing that they wouldn’t be able to carry Brinkmeyer across on a backboard, they scouted for a crossing and put a call out to rafting companies, requesting a boat.

But before personnel and equipment from Blazing Adventures and Aspen Whitewater Rafting could arrive, Aspenite Erik Skarvan and his dogs Racer and Sundog came around a bend in the river in a white canoe.

Rescuers flagged a surprised Skarvan down, and he proceeded to ferry medics and equipment across, while bystanders took turns holding his dogs.

“You never know what’s around the next bend,” he said.

Rescuers put Brinkmeyer on a backboard and eventually pulled across the river on a raft loaned by Aspen Whitewater Rafting. An ambulance transported him to Aspen Valley Hospital, which released him later that day. Though sore from the landing, he was not seriously injured, Palmaz said.

Meanwhile, Karen Woodard was in her son’s kitchen with her two-year-old grandson when she thought she heard a girl’s voice calling “help, help” from the backyard.

She went outside and found Lally clinging to a rock in the pond. Woodard coaxed her ashore.

“She put her feet down and realized she could stand,” Woodard said. “Before that, she didn’t know she could stand.”

She called her son, Ryan Smalls, owner of the pond, to explain what had happened ” and they realized how lucky Lally truly had been.

“She said ‘a paraglider just crashed into the pond and the pond saved her life,’ said Smalls. “And I said, ‘that’s crazy, there was no pond there yesterday.'”

After hearing about flooding on Warren Creek, Smalls had drained the pond so that it could take additional water, if necessary. Yesterday, he decided the peak runoff for Warren Creek had passed, and he filled the pond back up.

The coincidences don’t stop there. As it turns out, Smalls and a friend were some of the first people on scene several weeks ago when Lally’s mom crashed as she was coming down from the Maroon Bells area on a bike. According to Lally, her mom sustained a concussion, broken teeth and a broken facial bone in the accident.

“It’s a crazy coincidence,” Smalls said. “It’s pretty amazing.”