Aussie paraglider to jump off Everest
Approaching 62 years old, and after retiring from a police rescue squad in 1996, Ken Hutt needed some adrenaline replacement therapy.
He had watched the documentary, Miracle In The Storm, about a paragliding competition in which a German flier was sucked up to 9,947m, blacked out and only just came to in time to land it. Another Chinese competitor was also lifted by the same storm, and was killed by lightning.
A year after watching the documentary, Hutt was trekking to Everest Base Camp, acclimatising himself before paragliding off the summit of the world’s sixth highest mountain, Cho Oyu, when he started to suffer from altitude sickness.
It was April 2014, and an avalanche had just killed 16 Nepali guides on the Khumbu Icefall. Above him, helicopters with stretchers dangling ferried bodies down the mountain.
“I’m sitting on the glacier next to Lobuche, watching them, one after the other, feeling really sick,” he recalled. “It was only 5,000m, and I’m supposed to be climbing this 8,000m mountain and flying a paraglider off it.’”
His adventure was being sponsored by the Gates Foundation, which was going to triple every dollar he made to help polio eradication. Nepal got rid of polio in 2000, but the disease still afflicts children in parts of South Asia.
His team crossed the Nepal-China border into Tibet where a friendly local bureaucrat, sympathetic to Rotary’s ‘End Polio Now’ campaign allowed him to fly off the mountain. Hutt started climbing, and never felt another pang of altitude sickness.
He got to 7,200m and had the choice of flying from there, or proceeding to the 8,188m summit with the rest of the expedition. But he couldn’t do both.
Next morning, he stuck his head out the tent and it was a glorious, clear day with a 6 knot breeze wafting up the mountain. Perfect for flying. The guide wanted him to summit, but he decided that since the whole idea was to raise money for polio, summiting that mountain was not going to raise any money, paragliding off it was.
“In hindsight, I’m pretty disappointed I didn’t summit. I was pretty fit. I was feeling really good,” Hutt says.
He pulled the super lightweight (2.7kg) glider from his pack and suddenly became acutely aware of his own inexperience, and the fact he had only flown this particular glider once before -- off a tiny hill near his home south of Sydney.
He would be flying in air one-third the thickness, hanging from a glider too small to carry his weight plus the ice axes, sleeping bag, rope and food he had to carry for self rescue.
“All the Sherpas were saying it was ridiculous you shouldn’t do this, but once I started to spread the glider out they all started getting really excited about it,” Hutt says. The wind dropped from 6 knots to almost nothing.
In the absence of a breeze, Hutt had to launch by running down the slope. After a hop and a skip he was airborne.
Then he realised he was not breathing: “I’ve been flying for half a minute or something without taking a breath. All of a sudden there was no air to breathe. Just trying to suck it all in. Nothing.”
He tried to come down fast as he could. Landing was something else again. He could not locate the prayer flags he had put up as windsocks at Cho Oyu base camp.
“The scale is huge. You have no idea how fast you’re flying, how much sink rate you have. All I did was head to base camp. It was about 13 km on a line of sight. I started to do circles to lose altitude. I lined up base camp, thinking I’m going to have to land on the rocks. ”
He was flying at 50km an hour through the thin air, and the noise through the risers was deafening. He landed on scree, and intentionally turned to touch down on his back where an ice axe wrapped in a down sleeping bag protected him.
“I opened my eyes and right in front of me was the summit of Cho Oyu,” he said.
Now, all Hutt needs is the right permission from the Nepali authorities and the right pandemic case numbers to get cracking on his mission next year at 62 to be the oldest person to fly off the top of Mt Everest. But his trip is in the hands of the gods and Nepal’s bureaucracy.
Hutt was told he had verbal approval for the flight from Tourism Minister Rabindra Adhikari, who later died in a helicopter crash. So, Hutt led a trek of Rotarians to Everest Base Camp which raised $180,000 for the End Polio Now campaign.
Hutt knows the dangers, but the lure of the Himalaya is more powerful. He adds: “You are being unfair to family. Mountaineering is selfish and dangerous. Throw in a paraglider in the high mountains and the danger doubles.”
So, people ask Hutt why he keeps doing it, and his answer is: “If you’ve got to ask you’re never going to understand anyway.”
PARAGLIDING FROM MT EVEREST
1988: French adventurer Jean-Marc Boivin was the first person to paraglide off Everest. He died 17 months later in a BASE-jumping accident.
2011: Two Nepalis, Sano Babu Sunuwar and Lakpa Tshiri Sherpa, flew off Mt Everest without permission, then kayaked down to the Indian Ocean.