Residents of the Pemberton Meadows area can expect to see sails in the air through the week as the Canadian Paragliding Nationals go on — not in spite of the death of one of their fellow competitors on Monday, Aug. 6, but because of it.
“We surveyed the pilots and everyone wanted to carry on,” said Nigel Protter, one of the event organizers and a competitor in the event. “Not one person dissented. This is our game, our sport. And these things do happen, unfortunately. But how many people do we know that have died in avalanches? Do we stop skiing? No, we keep going. We head up the mountains and think of our friends.”
Protter said he and the other paragliders are deeply saddened for John Clifford, 55, and for his wife and five-year-old daughter. In a statement released Tuesday, Protter said, “This is extremely unfortunate for John, his family and friends. All of us involved in the event, the competitors, volunteers and organizers, are devastated and we’re thinking deeply about what this means for John’s loved ones. It’s the end of a great life too early.”
The incident is still under investigation.
The day started off warm and sunny, but a thunder and lightning storm moved into the area in the late afternoon, prompting organizers to call the event. At the time about 65 paragliders had already reached the finish while Clifford and two other paragliders were still in the air.
It appeared that Clifford was hit with a gust of wind as he passed over the river, bending his wing and dropping him 40 to 50 metres to the side of the river, where his gear pulled him under the high water.His body wasn’t found until a day later by a combined RCMP and Pemberton Search and Rescue effort.
Protter said Clifford appeared to be in distress before he dropped from the sky.
“He was definitely not flying in a good way, the way you’d expect a pilot in full control to get down safely in those conditions,” he said. It’s unknown why Clifford did not return to the ground when the organizers pulled the plug on the event.
Protter says it’s possible that he was trying to make up lost time. National titles are based on cumulative time over the competition, which started on Aug. 4 and finishes on Aug. 12, and competitors have been pushing their limits.
On the first day of competition, four athletes used their reserve parachutes to land safely, including two local athletes who have never had to toss their parachutes before. Protter said that’s unheard of.
“We’ve had two (reserve parachute tosses) in the 20 years I have flown here, and now four in one day,” he said.
Most of the athletes are experts, said Protter, or locals who know the air currents in the Pemberton area well. Monday’s storm was not entirely unexpected, and he said the winds were nothing an experienced pilot wouldn’t have encountered before. “Bear in mind, we all fly regularly in conditions like that,” he said.
Protter said he understands why the other paragliders have chosen to continue on despite the tragedy.
“It is a great event and it was a great race yesterday,” he said. “The flipside of this tragedy is that a lot of the people here, many of whom are world class, are just blown away. There is such good flying here, and it’s absolutely one of the world’s top flying destinations. We really hoped that would be the main thing to come out of this.”
Jill Giese, co-owner of Dreamcatcher Meadows, said the paraglider landed in a section of the river near their property.
“It was right in front of our neighbours’ place,” she said. “The storm came up and they (paragliders) got blown off course, and one of my neighbours saw him come down in the river.”
People living nearby tried to go to Clifford’s aid but he was in a wooded, hard-to-reach area and he was gone by the time the first neighbours arrived at the river. Giese herself ran to get a horse to reach the river, but was turned back by the lightning storm and heavy rain.
“It was awful to feel so helpless,” said Giese. “Our deepest sympathy to his loved ones and fellow sport lovers that were his friends.”
— With files by Cathryn Atkinson