German paragliding champion Ewa Wisnierska was standing with 200 fellow paragliders on Mount Borah in New South Wales, Australia. They were about to launch off as part of their training for the next week’s Paragliding World Championship. As the competitors were debriefed, however, there was a warning.
Some storm clouds had been sighted to the north, and as the day progressed, thunderstorm warnings got more severe. The paragliders had been cautioned, and Ewa set her GPS and tracking log. The clouds didn’t look so bad at first glance. She prepared to take off, not expecting what would soon happen.
Strapped into her glider, Ewa Wisnierska took a good run forward and launched herself into the air. On the ground, the rest of the German team followed in a van to track her progress, checking in with her via radio from time to time.
Calm Before The Storm
As she headed north, the first part of Ewa’s journey was quite calm. She followed the mountain ridge from Mount Borah for about 12 miles before it ended, and she entered the skies over the vast savanna. And that’s exactly where she would be most at risk.
Thunderstorm Clouds Appeared
As Ewa Wisnierska’s GPS and tracking log ticked, tracking her progress, two thunderstorm clouds appeared in front of her, one larger than the other. She and her teammates had taken off roughly an hour after many other pilots, and they had passed far beyond the clouds.
Into The Darkness
That left three paragliders directly en route towards the storm clouds: Ewa, an Austrian friend of hers, and a Chinese fellow paraglider – an expert in his field for a decade. The three of them were fairly confident that they could dodge the menacing clouds. But now they were isolated.
Many other paragliders behind and around Ewa Wisnierska and her two colleagues were put off by the clouds. They decided to call it quits. Ewa’s friends from the German team landed and began looking for her. Up in the sky, she was trying to avoid the clouds. She knew that if she flew under them, she could get sucked up, so she tried to steer around. That’s when the unthinkable happened.
In a matter of moments, the weather changed. The smaller cloud was suddenly engulfed and swallowed by the larger one, merging into a tremendous cumulonimbus cloud looming over the plains. Ewa was flying directly into its wrath, trying to veer around it to avoid the updraft. But as Ewa’s Austrian friend tried to steer away from the storm, he watched her disappear. In a flash, she was sucked up into the storm’s updraft.
Ewa Wisnierska’s friend, Austrian glider Gerald Ameseder, pointed his feet straight down and tried to create enough G-force to propel him to spiral away from the cloud. It worked, shooting him out of the sky away from the cloud fortress and towards the earth. Gerald landed at a farm. As rain and hail barreled down all around him, he detached himself from his glider and ran for shelter into the nearest barn. He watched with amazement at the most violent lightning storm he’d ever seen. He knew Ewa was in deep trouble.
Inside the cloud, Ewa Wisnierska was strapped into her paraglider, hurtling upward. She was completely and utterly powerless to break out of the wind tunnel. Ewa knew she was heading toward the storm’s eye in its vicious center because she could hear immense claps of thunder coming from all around her. She prayed to be thrown out of the cloud as she grasped her glider’s straps, however, her vision had become dangerously impaired.
Heart Of Darkness
Ewa could no longer see anything. All around her, it was pitch black, except for constant flashes of lightning, dangerously close to electrocuting her even as she ascended. She could only guess what was happening around her through the colossal rip of the blinding winds. It was critical that Ewa kept flying as steady as possible. She was at the mercy of the storm and the stability of her glider. Through it all, she even managed to get a desperate phone call to the ground crew, saying she couldn’t see. Then, the line cut off.
As Ewa Wisnierska continued to be sucked up by the storm in its angry cloak of darkness, it became freezing cold. She was gaining altitude at an unbelievable rate and began shivering uncontrollably. There was nothing she could possibly do to stop the glider from rising. Huge hail balls the size of oranges painfully pelted her left and right, filling her harness and weighing her down. But trying to fall out of the storm was not an option. Her instruments were soaked. And what was about to happen next was horribly inevitable.
Thousands of feet in the sky, Ewa Wisnierska blacked out. She floated, unconscious in her harness, passed out from lack of oxygen. By this point, the storm system had brought her all the way to the top of the cumulonimbus cloud, and there she drifted, suspended in the heavens. The air at her altitude was 50 degrees below zero. Though she had dressed warmly, her clothing was in no way suitable for such temperatures. Everything, her face, her gloves, and the wings of her glider, all became encased in ice. And she had no breathing apparatus.
In The Dead Zone
Unconscious and starved of oxygen, her body was freezing over in the plunging subzero temperatures. Each minute that passed increased the chance that Ewa Wisnierska would die there at the limit of the stratosphere. Yet there she remained, strapped into her glider, suspended miles above the Earth.
The wing of Ewa’s paraglider gave way from the weight of the ice that had collected on it. Ewa began to plummet from the heavens in a terrifying free-fall. It was as if someone had suddenly switched on gravity. She was still unconscious, not realizing she was falling. Ewa’s paraglider shot down towards the heart of the storm, traveling at 90 feet every second, far faster than the ascent had been. There was no way for her to save herself. If she continued falling like this, she would be crushed upon impact with the ground.
Suddenly, after Ewa Wisnierska had been free-falling almost two miles, something miraculous happened. Her glider suddenly opened up entirely by itself and its wing straightened back out. As it unfurled, it steadied her fall. The abrupt jerk woke her up. As she gradually regained consciousness, she observed her surroundings and noticed that she was still caught in the snares of the thunderstorm. Her mind started to reanimate, but she could barely move her joints. What would she do? Would she able to save herself?
Now gliding once again, Ewa Wisnierska was neither falling nor being sucked skyward, but she was still in terrible danger and had to get out of the storm clouds. Lightning and hail continued to erupt all around her. Ewa’s body and craft were still coated in ice and moving slowly. She was not able to react as quickly as she would under normal circumstances. To make matters worse, the brakes had long since slipped out of her hands, and her gloves were frozen solid. She couldn’t control her shivering and reach them. How would she move her hands?
Meanwhile, on the ground near the remote Australian town of Manilla, panic was spreading. The German paragliding team was driving around, frantically searching for their friend Ewa Wisnierska. The problem was, they had no clue whatsoever as to where she could be, or where she would land. Gerald, the Austrian paraglider sheltering in the barn where he had landed, managed to contact them, exclaiming that Ewa had been sucked up by the cloud. Everyone knew Ewa was in mortal danger, and that wherever she was, she would need medical help immediately. But would they find her alive?
In August 2006, Ewa Wisnierska was badly injured in a training accident in the Swiss Alps that left her pelvis fractured. It looked as though her participation in the upcoming Paragliding World Championships in Australia would be compromised. But she would not take no for an answer. And now, after fighting so hard to come to Australia and participate again in the World Championship, she was deprived of oxygen, frosted with ice, far too high in the sky, at the mercy of a massive thunderstorm that could spell for her an imminent death.
Somehow, amid the catastrophe, Ewa Wisnierska managed to slowly reach out her limp hands and grasp the handles and brakes on her glider. Though she was numb from cold and barely able to think, let alone to manipulate the glider, she maneuvered just enough to steady its course.
She had to land herself and finally break free of the storm’s grip, and she had to do it fast. Ewa’s head was swimming. She was barely even conscious, shivering and short of breath, bruised from the constant barrage of hail. But then she saw an incredible, beautiful sight.
She had been in utter darkness, and she had been unconscious, and now, finally, Ewa beheld beneath her the surface of the earth. Just seeing land was an indescribable joy. The Australian plains stretched out underneath her. It gave her hope that she might live.
Instincts Kicked In
Ewa Wisnierska’s instincts kicked in as she steered herself downwards. She crash-landed her glider into an open field, about 1,500 feet from a farmhouse. At that moment, she knew in her heart one thing: she was going to live! But she was far from being in the clear.
Sprawled flat in the grass of the Australian savanna, Ewa Wisnierska lay in the fetal position, hugging herself, shivering and shaking uncontrollably. She was trying to warm up her body, and the sun was far from enough to help her. Ewa wanted to get up, to free herself from her harness and move her body to get her blood circulating, but after what felt like hours in the air, she was simply too exhausted to do anything. And it was precisely in that moment that her phone rang.
On the phone were Ewa Wisnierska’s teammates. All this time, as they sped across the Australian countryside, they had been calling her nonstop, trying their best not to give up hope. Every time they had called, the signal on the other line was dead. But now, her phone actually was ringing. She heard it buzz as she fumbled for it in her pocket. Finally, she managed to pick it up with her hands although was scarcely able to move. And then, before she could say anything to give her teammates a definite sign she was alive, the phone cut out.
Desperate For Coordinates
The reception was spotty in the remote field where Ewa Wisnierska lay in desperate need. She scraped the ice off of her GPS watch to look at her coordinates. She then opened the phone again and began slowly typing her coordinates in a text message.
Ewa’s body temperature was dangerously low. She was too weak to walk to the farm. As she waited for cellular reception to come back, so she could send her teammates the text message, she could die before they found her. Then her phone rang again.
This time, the call went through. As Ewa’s teammates excitedly tried to get information out of her, with the first words she managed to get out of her shaking mouth she told them she was very cold. She begged them to come quickly. They had no idea where she was and urgently needed her coordinates. She slowly told them the GPS data, and they raced over to try and save her. It was a race against time and the elements. Would they reach their friend before it was too late?
Not Safe Yet
At long last, like angels on earth, Ewa Wisnierska’s team reached her. They freed her from the straps of her harness, marveling at the amount of huge, heavy balls of hail that had accumulated inside there with her. They extracted her and sat her up. The primary need before all else was to get her warm. Ewa’s teammates wrapped her frigid, wet body in heavy blankets. She was laid out on the backseat of their car and they immediately rushed her off to the hospital. But when they arrived, something bizarre happened.
Ewa Wisnierska had survived extraordinary altitudes, a long period of time unconscious, oxygen deprivation, lightning, exposure to extreme cold, and ferocious winds. Yet at the hospital, the doctors told Ewa and her teammates something incredible: she was more or less fine, and free to go. The oxygen levels in her blood were normal. She required bandages for the bad case of frostbite on her ears and legs, and the constant assault by hard chunks of hail had left her with bruises, but she would be alright. It was then, she told them something they thought was absurd.
At first, nobody believed Ewa when she told them. Perhaps she had been delirious in the backseat of the car on the way to the hospital. But she insisted that her GPS tracked her all this time, and according to it, she ascended to a height of 32,634 feet. The number was ludicrous. She had indeed been thousands of feet into the electrical storm, but this made no sense. They shook their heads, certain that after all Ewa Wisnierska had been through, it would not be unlikely that her electronic instruments had malfunctioned. But then they double-checked the GPS.
The Most Shocking Revelation
Ewa Wisnierska had not been exaggerating. Her GPS was correct. She had actually been taken up into the air to a maximum height of 32,634 feet! No human being on Earth had ever been at those altitudes unprotected and survived to tell the tale. To put this number into perspective, it’s the altitude at which many commercial jets fly. Ewa Wisnierska had floated unconscious at the height of Mount Everest plus South Africa’s Table Mountain. She had cheated death itself. And after being up there, was she finally lay her extreme sporting pursuits to rest?
The Return Of The Queen
Ewa Wisnierska’s otherworldly experience did not deter her from achieving her dreams. She was determined to keep training in advance of the Paragliding World Championship in Australia. Just six short days after her ordeal, she decided to get airborne again.
Ewa returned to the very same site that she had originally launched from, atop Mount Borah, New South Wales, Australia. Having been interviewed since then about her jaw-dropping journey, she was surrounded by the media. With news cameras tracking her, she took off. And there was one incredible catch.
A Chance To Meditate
Ewa was in the very same glider that she had used on the day of the storm. Not only had she survived the ordeal, but her craft had come out of it still able to fly. Despite lightning, hail, colossal winds, and ice sheets, it was still usable. As she flew off into calm skies, Ewa reflected on her fellow pilot, He Zhongpin. The 42-year-old had also been caught in the storm and had sadly perished, presumably struck by lightning. Remembering him and what could have been, Ewa sailed off — but this was not her last flight.
Master Of The Winds
Ewa has gone on to compete in a multitude of other paragliding competitions and, naturally, has won many trophies for her prowess. Today, she is a teacher, imparting her hard-learned knowledge with hopes of training the next generation of paragliding superstars.