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Tacoma paraglider falls 500 feet, crashes into cliff in Swiss Alps

The scene before Greg Overton of Tacoma was paraglider’s paradise — a cliff in the majestic Swiss Alps, with the lush Lauterbrunnen Valley below.

“This is the valley that’s born of fairy tales,” he described to KIRO Radio’s Dori Monson. “You see pictures of it online — it’s this crazy flat-bottomed valley with 2,000-foot cliffs on either side. It really doesn’t look like it’s from the real world … it’s one of the only places in the world where you could fly right past a 1,500-foot waterfall in a paraglider.”

Overton has been an avid paraglider since 2015, when he got his start in mountainous Colorado.

On that day in Switzerland earlier this month, he and a friend did one flight, then decided to take a cable car up the Schilthorn Mountain to do a second launch.

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“Our idea was gain the top of the cliff, fly over [the village of] Mürren, use the updraft from the cliff to stay flat, from an elevation perspective,” he explained. “So, trying to get down the valley headed north.”

When they started losing altitude too rapidly, he and his flying partner, who did not have radio communication due to an error, each decided on their own to land at the same time.

However, on his last pass toward landing, Overton fell 300 feet and went straight into a cliff.

“The initial cause [of the accident] was what we call rotor — where the air is coming up the cliff and it’s swirling above the bench, kind of like an eddy in a river,” he explained. “And paragliders, having a soft wing, don’t have a very high degree of resilience to that kind of turbulence. The glider stalled and spun, and eventually, I wasn’t able to gain steady flight before impact.”

In a moment that Overton described as driving a car and realizing you’re about to crash it into a wall, he hit the sheer cliff at about 1,300 feet, then fell another 200.

Because the rock he collided with had a slight overhang, the wing was able to point slightly forward. Overton was eventually able to spin the wing away from the rock.

“If I had been against the wall and the wing was a rumpled mess, I would have been in very big trouble,” he said.

As a last resort to avoid a 1,100-foot drop, he was prepared to throw his reserve parachute, but ultimately made the decision not to.

Once safely back on the ground, he walked to the train station and got himself to the hospital. He was scraped and bruised with minor spinal fractures, but was discharged. Thankfully, he did not have a concussion, despite the fact that his helmet split on impact.

It’s a near-death experience that might have any paraglider rethinking the hobby, but not Overton. After taking the day after the accident off, he went paragliding in his next destination, the picturesque Alpine town of Annecy, France. He knew that if he held off much longer, he might be too afraid to ever return to the sport again.

“I just had a nice, silent, smooth flight down, and it reminded me of how much I love flying and why I do it,” he said.

Now back in Washington, he is staying curren as a paraglider; just this past Sunday, he launched off of Poo Poo Point on Tiger Mountain in Issaquah.

“I’m not back to 100 percent mentally at all — I think that’s a long road — but I’m certainly willing to put in the effort to get back on the horse,” he said.

Listen to the Dori Monson Show weekday afternoons from 12-3 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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