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A Narly Reserve Ride over Mountains

Posted by Mark Kirschenbaum on

In August I experienced a pretty nasty malfunction which was the culmination of a couple bad scenarios. On sunset tracking dive, myself and 20 other people realized we were directly above a mountain of unknown height. Our leader, thankfully, safely pitched in place to signify the profoundness of our situation. I had spent the short duration of the dive trying to follow their erratic pattern and framing. Up to that point, I didn’t process that we had gotten out short and tracked directly over a peak.

Quickly, I tracked, barely cleared my air, and pitched. Instantly my VK96 went into line twists. Unfortunately, my old training took over and I tried to just flip out of the measly twist. This caused me to lock out on my back in a spin. I knew people were around me and I felt I was running out of altitude over this peak. I knew this was not the time to fuck with this canopy. Game Over, decision made.

Knowing I had a skyhook and a bunch of cameras, I tucked my chin, and let go of my risers. This sent the canopy into an oblong path with my body going over canopy. When I chopped, I felt the freebag rub across the back of my helmet. I could feel my body fly across the sky and my harness load up unevenly under the billowing reserve. My OP126 opened up in line twists and the risers were not perfectly square. It felt like it started diving. I feared I was running out of altitude.

Luckily my paragliding training kicked in and I was able to level out the canopy by pulling the outside lines. (Thank you the Sik Nik and Annette O'Neil) Thankfully, the reserve was now over my head and I could get out of the twists. Taking a breath, I now looked for a place to land. Using “the point” method, I was able to determine I could make a wide open field and lead the way for others to land. Everyone landed safely from that load and we all learned a lot.

After many days of debriefing I will continue to use the Skyhook. I feel there was no way for me to have correctly assessed my altitude at that point, flip over, safely gotten rid of the spin, and deploy my reserve. I'm almost certain, with the anxiety of my situation, and the lack of altitude awareness, I would have been forced to fire my reserve on my back anyway. It’s my feeling, and after talking to the manufacturer, had the freebag not hit my helmet, my Optimum most likely would have opened up square. If you look at the shear number of spins in the reserve vs. the number or rotations I would have done during the reserve deployment, they do not match up. It's not the spin that caused the twists, it was the hitting of my helmet and / or something during the extraction that did so. In the end, having a reserve with line twists is better than not having a canopy at all!

I have learned a bunch from this and can’t believe after all my years of jumping I got caught up with tunnel vision on the spot. Perhaps it’s because I had only done 15 jumps at that DZ, but 18 other skydivers on that jump fell into this too.

I have also learned to always stay square under line-twists, push the risers together, and if possible, grab above the twists. And lastly, I’ve learned to never, ever, under any circumstances pack with three topless girls in front of me playing hacky-sack.

I’m releasing this video so others may learn and hopefully it saves someone’s life. The take homes are:

* In line-twists, get square, push the risers together, and if you can reach, grab above the twists.
* Practice PEEL Velcro methods on your EPs. It took me a split second longer, because simply pushing the handle didn’t work on my new rig.
* Check your spot and mentally comprehend where you are especially at new DZs.
* Know “the point” method of determining where you are going to land. Learn how to change your pitch under canopy.
* Shit happens, hug your family & friends - especially your rigger.


(Super important to keep your helmet as snag resistant as possible especially on the back and sides. You never know!)

We've all had friends that would be here if it was for a Skyhook/MARD. I still feel strongly that they are an invaluable asset. As wing-loadings get higher its a personal choice that must be weighed by each individual flying a high performance canopy. I'd much rather be under a reserve with line twist in the 50ft extraction time than crater into a mountain with nothing over my head.

The main & free-bag were recovered the following day thanks to the help from some amazing people. The prairie I landed at was 5.5 miles away from the dropzone as seen below.

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