She survived giant hail-stones (up to 15 centimeters in diameter), freezing cold temperatures, violent lightning, and incredibly powerful winds. And she had nothing but her paraglider.
One seemingly normal day on February 14th, 2007, Ewa Wisnierska made a choice. Weather reports had just come in indicating severe thunderstorms in the area, and Ewa faced a terrible prospect. Thing was, the Paragliding World Championship in Australia was closing in, and as one of the top paragliding champions in the world, she had to train. She had to push herself. Like any top athlete would do, she felt nothing could stop her. So, Ewa made a choice. And she chose to fly.
High above Australia
High above the Australian savannah, her worst fears came true. She was suddenly caught by the strong drafts of an incoming storm, and soon enough Ewa lost control. Though she had tried to fly around the clouds, she got sucked up by 20-meters-per-second winds, and from that moment on, she was basically powerless. She was at a height of about 2,500 ft at that point, but the spiraling drafts launched her upwards 67 ft per second until she lost consciousness due to lack of oxygen.
At 3,000 ft, severe cold exposure started to cause frostbite on Ewa’s hands and feet. After all, she was training on a hot day in a hot region, and she simply wasn’t prepared for freezing temperatures. Her clothes, her helmet, her gloves—nothing was made to sustain such heights. Ewa felt the creeping cold get to her for another 17,000 ft before she passed out.
At 20,000 ft, the temperature plummeted to -58 ºF. Orange-sized hailstones started hitting her around that time, badly bruising her. Soon after, she reached 24,000 ft, the previous record altitude for any paraglider pilot to survive. She was in uncharted territory from that moment on.
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Above the Everest and beyond
I don’t know many people who can even imagine what it feels like to be at that kind of height. Oxygen becomes much less common as you rise through the upper levels of the atmosphere, and human bodies simply aren’t made for those conditions. Even birds can have a hard time just cruising at about 27,000ft high on a clear day, let alone during a powerful lightning storm. Yet, Ewa kept rising, up and up and up until she flew past the elevation of the Everest itself, at 29,035ft.
As she kept rising, lighting and hailstones passed and struck around Ewa’s near-frozen body, which had by that point been almost completely encased in a thin layer of ice. She reached 32,000 ft, higher than the cruising altitude of a passenger jet, in less than 15 minutes. At that point, the storm finally weakened, and she began her descent.
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The swirling clouds didn’t make it easy, though. She was still caught up in the storm, unconscious, and in great danger. By some freak chance, her parachute automatically opened at the right moment and, after about an hour after getting first caught, she woke up. She was still 23,000 ft high, and there was still not much she could do.
Her face, hands, and legs felt completely frozen. She was only wearing a lightweight flying suit, after all, and ice had formed even inside it. Amazingly, the clouds lost their grip on her glider and she landed safely over 40 miles away from her launch site. She was okay. Bruised and frostbitten, but otherwise fine.
"It's like winning the Lotto 10 times in a row,” said Godfrey Wenness, the president of the Manilla Sky Sailors club and organizer of the Paragliding World Championship. The chances of surviving such an ordeal were practically zero, as proven by another unfortunate pilot caught in the same storm. He Zhongpin, a 42-year-old Chinese paraglider, was found over 45 miles away from his launch site. He didn’t make it.
''You can't imagine the power - you feel like nothing, like a leaf from a tree going up,'' Ewa told the ABC Radio after the fact. "I was shaking all the time. The last thing I remember it was dark, I could hear lightning all around me. I knew I was in the middle of the thunderstorm and I could not do anything.”
She said that returning to land safely was like something out of an astronaut film. "I could see the Earth coming — wow, like Apollo 13.”
Ewa, now 47, went on to lead the successful paragliding career she loved, and now teaches the sport to newer generations in Bavaria. Her unbelievable story is retold in the documentary film Miracle in the Storm.
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