Australian paragliding pro Nick Neynens may never walk again after coming down heavily on to a rock face while gliding in the French Alps.
The 39-year-old from Brisbane had met with three other friends in mid-June, in Annecy, southeast France, where they had planned to fly out into the hills.
Nick said it was a relaxed and friendly atmosphere with blue skies, no wind and no sign of any danger.
“I have flown to a lot of places and conditions all over he world and it definitely didn’t seem like this was one of more dangerous,” he told news.com.au.
However, just one day into their trip, the veteran adventure pilot experienced a collapse of his glider and impacted heavily on a rock face, with his reserve canopy not having time to deploy sufficiently.
The horror mid-air crash left Nick with serious injuries. He is now suffering spinal damage and has no movement from the waist down.
“I remember a few minutes before the accident. The actual accident I don’t recall, but I know I hit the ground twice,” Nick told news.com.au from his intensive care unit bed in Brisbane’s Princess Alexandra Hospital.
“I was on the ground for a while after I crashed the first time, then somehow I got picked up by a gust of wind which I believe reinflated my parachute causing the second crash – which did the most damage.
“My friend who was last to take off saw the crash from the air and immediately arranged for a rescue helicopter.”
Nick remembers climbing high to cross the Col des Aravis then close to ridge height he noticed the wind from the west and decided to pop over to that side.
“Not long afterwards I was in a bowl, facing the wind, with my last footage less than 400m from the crash site taking several turns in a gentle thermal.”
He said he had a few turns, searching for lift, and then: “I fell out of the sky.”
His friend saw him spiral and throw the reserve, which did not deploy.
Nick was flown to Annecy Hospital, France, where doctors operated on his back to stabilise an L1 spinal fracture, with his other injuries including a subdural haematoma (head knock), aortic intimal tear, and minor pulmonary contusions (lung knock).
The 39-year-old had been in hospital in France until friends rallied around him to help raise more than $67,000 so he could fly back to Australia a few weeks ago.
It took a lot to convince Nick to accept financial help from the GoFundMe but he’s glad to be back in Australia now.
The contributions have not only gone towards emergency care and repatriation flights, but will also be used to assist Nick with further medical costs, living expenses while recuperating without an income, and any specialised equipment he may require.
Nick, who is originally from New Zealand, is now planning to head back there to be cared for in a spinal unit.
He said it is a long road ahead, but while he is uncertain about his prospects of recovery, he remains hopeful.
“I think of it as being born again – but I just don’t know for sure how much function I will get back.
“I am patient and working through it and I am not too emotional about it. I have had amazing experiences paragliding and this just happened to be one day of bad luck.”
Nick, who has been a paraglider for 15 years, has competed numerous times in the Red Bull X-Alps – the toughest race on Earth – held national record flights and explored corners of the world most would only dare to dream of.
He is often described as being a “legend” of the paragliding world.
Nick took to Facebook where he shared a lengthy post thanking those who donated and all the messages of support from around the world he has received. He also addressed whether he is likely to ever fly again.
“I always thought this was a risky sport with this kind of thing being part of the deal, but the flying on the day that I remember was relaxed and fun,” he said.
“From a few minutes before the incident to a few days afterwards I have no memory. Will I fly again? I’ve never had a dogmatic attachment to flying, I’ve just found it the best value bang for buck to explore and have unique and special experiences in nature. But the situation has changed now and it’s too early to say what the future will bring.”