Paragliding … and Crashing in Nepal
Paragliding launch Pokhara, Nepal
About ten years ago my husband and I decided to celebrate our 50th birthdays and 30th anniversary by spending four months in Nepal learning to paraglide.
It was an amazing, and yes, frightening experience. Some days we would be circling in the sky with huge eagles and buzzards close enough to touch, beautiful Lake Thewa sparkling thousands of feet below us, and massive 25,000 foot peaks dominating the horizon.
Truly, a life-changing adventure. Little did we know.
On the morning of Christmas Eve, I launched off the hill for my 52nd flight, leaving my husband and a friend standing on the cliff as I flew down the ridge and out of sight.
I didn’t know it would be fifteen minutes before wind conditions would allow them to take off. And they didn’t know I was about to crash near the landing site and break my back.
Pokhara from the air
I lay in a crumpled heap in a rice paddy at the bottom of a cliff. I couldn’t stand. The slightest movement brought agonizing spasms. Local children and women huddled around me but didn’t know what to do. A dog licked my face. I saw a vision in the clouds – my mother’s face showing shock and concern, and filling me with love.
Twenty minutes later my husband landed nearby, ripped himself out of his harness and raced over. Another paragliding friend arrived shortly after.
There was no ambulance, no helicopter, no emergency service to call, so they very carefully got me up the hill and to a taxi.
Our hotel and home for 4 months
I refused to go to the hospital, insisting they take me back to our hotel instead. Which is why I was sitting on the fourth-floor terrace of our hotel two hours later, fighting off spasms and fear, when gunfire erupted in the street below as Maoist guerrillas attacked a police checkpoint in front of our hotel.
‘Long Live Maoists’ graffiti
At first it sounded like fireworks. But then women started screaming and someone yelled, “They’re killing each other! They’re killing each other!” I started sobbing and tried to get out of my chair. My husband dragged the chair with me in it off the terrace and back into the safety of our room.
It was Christmas Eve, 2004.
4th-floor terrace we were on when the Maoist guerillas attacked the police checkpoint directly below us on the street and the bullets started flying.
Two weeks later, I finally went to the local hospital where they took x-rays of my spine and found evidence of massive trauma. But the doctors insisted it was from a very old injury. I asked how they knew that, and they said, “Otherwise you wouldn’t be walking.”
They said no paragliding for two weeks, but other than that, expressed little concern.
Roxanne in bed in the Hotel Tropicana ICU, insisting, “I’m fine. My back’s just a little sore.”
So ten days later we were still in Nepal and I was well on my way to recovery (and more flying, I thought), when we got word that my mother-in-law had just passed away after a long illness.
Then, the next day, the King of Nepal declared martial law and locked down the country because of the war happening around us.
He closed the airports, and cut off all phone and internet service indefinitely. We were stranded with no way out of the country.
We tried to be as philosophical as possible about our circumstances, but a few days later we were once again pushed up against the wall when a visiting Swiss Radiologist happened to have a look at my x-rays.
The instant he saw them, his eyes opened wide in dismay and he said, “I don’t think this is an old injury! See these? These are bone fragments in your spinal canal. If one of them shifts you could be instantly paralyzed. You shouldn’t be walking. You shouldn’t even be standing!”
Roxanne’s burst vertebra
Our journey instantly took another twist: it became a tour of medical facilities in Nepal.
A CAT-scan in Pokhara reaffirmed the Radiologist’s concern. An MRI in Kathmandu confirmed his diagnosis – it was a very recent burst fracture of the third lumbar vertebrae. I must not carry
anything bigger than an apple. I must avoid any trauma or jarring action. (Have you ever taken a taxi ride in Asia??)
And there was nothing anyone could do: I would have to see a neurosurgeon as soon as I returned to Canada.
Suddenly, every pothole in the road became a mortal enemy. Every twinge from my back came with a vision of life in a wheelchair. Every moment of not knowing what was in store sucked emotional energy from my husband and me like a giant black hole.
And then we met Dr. Banskota, an American-trained orthopedic surgeon who runs a hospital in Kathmandu where they do free surgery on underprivileged children with terrible deformities whose parents could never afford the operations.
Dr. Banskota and patient
And as we sat with him in his office, he exuded such love, such optimism, and such wonderful stories of the body’s remarkable ability to heal itself, that by the time we left him, we had been
transformed. For the first time in many days, we had hope.
The next day, we flew to Europe. And several days after that, we were back in Vancouver.
Every one of the x-ray technicians, emergency-room doctors and neurosurgeons who saw my collection of x-rays, CAT scans and MRI’s over the next several weeks was astounded that I was walking. And a few months later it was decided that surgery was too risky, and that my spine had stabilized enough to minimize immediate risk of paralysis. Recovery was now up to me. But my neurosurgeon made one thing perfectly clear, “My lady, you have used up every one of your nine lives.”
My husband and I had gone through the most intense five months of our thirty years together. We had floated in the air thousands of feet above the earth. We had witnessed death, been touched deeply by it, and come closer to losing each other than ever before. And we had come out of it closer than ever before.
A friend later insisted, “I knew that trip was going to be a disaster for you.” But we don’t look at it that way at all. In fact, it is still our favorite journey ever.
And when people look at me today they have no clue of how close I came to dying or life in a wheelchair. But I do my best to never forget.
And I’ll be forever grateful for the many self-healing techniques we’ve collected and been teaching others for many years. Suddenly I had to put them to good use myself! (Van designed a short yoga program for me that was so effective Whistler’s premier physiotherapist would like to take me to conferences to show other physios what self-healing techniques can accomplish.)
Van and I have been together now for over forty years now, and many of those were spent on the road, traveling and living overseas. But this adventure, celebrating our fiftieth year on the planet, was our most memorable. It changed everything. And we don’t regret it one bit.
With every good wish (and safe landings!) on your own adventures,
Roxanne K. Chappell
Roxanne & Van in Australia, 1974
In Pokhara, Nepal, 2004, just before Christmas Eve!