Paraglider sets sights on World Cup after near fatal crash

A Holmfirth pilot is setting her sights on the 2017 Paragliding World Cup in Brazil just months after a near fatal crash in the Himalayas – thanks to the care she received at BMI The Huddersfield Hospital.

Ruth Churchill Dower, 47, currently ranked as the number two female paraglider in the country, was flying her Niviuk Icepeak 7 as part of a World Cup event around the mountains of Bir Billing, northern India, when she lost control and crashed into a mountain.

Ruth was stuck for hours before help reached her. After a tricky mountain rescue, she was flown to England where she was treated at the BMI Huddersfield Hospital for a torn anterior cruciate ligament, a meniscal tear in both her left and right knees, a suspected broken back and other neck injuries.

Ruth was treated by Mr Graham Walsh, Consultant Orthopaedic Knee & Sports Injuries Surgeon, who, with a combination of surgery and physiotherapy techniques was able to steward her back to full fitness in less than a year and in time for her to compete in the European Paragliding Championships in Macedonia on August 8, where she came 10th out of 20 other female paragliders.

On Ruth’s recovery and how he and his physio team managed to achieve such fantastic results in such a short period, Mr Walsh said: “The expectations of Ruth and other world-class athletes is to recover from injury and get back to competition. Surgical techniques and rehabilitation have advanced to a level to where we can now be more confident in achieving these goals. Here at the BMI The Huddersfield Hospital we have an excellent team that work together to get people back to the activities they love, whether this is competing in world championships or playing a round of golf at the weekend. We are proud here at the BMI The Huddersfield Hospital that Ruth is able to compete and wish her every success in her future goals and we continue to offer the latest treatments to get people back to their best.

Ruth, who also runs the award winning early years training company, Earlyarts – a company she set up to train teachers in creative leadership –  had a suspicion something was wrong the day before the accident: “Something felt a bit strange with my paraglider but I couldn’t put my finger on it. It was a high level, competition-class paraglider, which had only been released the previous year, and I had flown it without a problem throughout the entire season up to the World Cup.”

On the day of the accident, Ruth set out to complete a competition task, involving several turn-points to achieve the goal: “I had slowed down during the race to climb in thermals which are sometimes marked by cumulus clouds at the very top. I saw pilots ahead, climbing in a strong thermal and I went for it, pushing my speed bar to get maximum speed.”

As Ruth navigated towards the thermal her paraglider collapsed at a speed of about 88kph. She managed to get the glider flying again but just as she did it collapsed again, taking her into a spiral-dive. The glider collapsed a third time once Ruth had managed to recover from the spiral-dive – she was now in a ‘cascade’, a term used by paragliders to describe a vicious cycle of collapse and recovery, with each collapse in the cascade becoming increasingly violent.

"At that point what I should have done was to deploy my reserve parachute but I had been in a similar position, with the same glider, a year before and managed to pull out of it,” she said. “I had trained to deal with these situations. However, I realised I had lost 1,000ft in under a minute which was very, very fast and didn’t have the chance to recover it again. I positioned the glider into a reverse flying manoeuvre which is part of the stall technique, braced myself and flew backwards into the mountain.”

Ruth hit the mountain vertically at around 21mph, a speed which would be fatal in most cases, and the glider landed on the edge of a mountain precipice. 

“The impact was horrendous. There is a micro-second before the impact where you realise how big the impact is going to be and you don’t know whether you’re going to survive it."

Ruth was stuck, seriously injured and cold on the side of the mountain for four hours awaiting rescue with the realisation that this particular area was inhabited by snow leopards. When the mountain rescue team eventually arrived Ruth was not only seriously injured due to the impact of the crash but also had clear signs of hypothermia. Arriving at the foot of the mountain Ruth was scanned, assessed and had her injuries strapped-up at a local hospital and was then sent home.

Once she had returned home Ruth sought out the help of Mr Walsh, who operated on one knee and recommended physiotherapy for the other. And the treatment plan paid dividends for Ruth for her return to paragliding representing Britain at the European Paragliding Championships last month – a performance she hopes to build on in the Paragliding World Cup in Brazil in 2017. 

“This was my first time flying with the British team and it was great flying alongside them. I would just like to thank Graham and the physio team for all the help and support they have shown me since I first walked in. They have helped me strengthen the parts of my body that I really need to compete, and have given me a second chance to do the sport I love.”

For information about the European Paragliding Championships follow the link

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Date: 15th November 2016