Hey all, Ernie here with a piece from Andrew Egan. A few years ago, he wrote a piece for this tiny little newsletter about a topic that took him on one of the craziest road trips I had ever heard about. Recently, the general subject of that trip became very newsworthy again, and it got both of us thinking about it once again. I’ll let him take it from here. …
Today in Tedium: This is a tough one to write. Some of the reasons will become obvious in a moment, but there are also personal reasons. The chief one being that I’m about to talk about a community that has always been very accepting of me while providing the backdrop to some of the most amazing two weeks of my life. And in between, there are people I do not know grieving the loss of a loved one. Ernie and I went back and forth as to whether or not we should even do this article. We talked about tone and what we wanted to say. Then, we realized there was something we had to say. Come what may, this has to be said, even though we’re technically revisiting a community and topic we covered a long time ago. (In fact, it was the subject of my very first article for Tedium nearly three years ago.) Today’s Tedium is talking about risk, the wonderful world of paramotoring, and a couple of very recent tragedies. — Andrew @ Tedium
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A quick overview of how Ernie and I “met” (He probably doesn’t know most of this)
Frankfurt, Germany is a lovely city but one I had spent enough time in. I was really looking forward to the four-plus-hour bus ride I was about to take to Amsterdam. That’s when I got the phone call.
It was my client broker at the time, Melissa, informing me that two of my biggest copywriting clients had decided to “go in another direction.” Just like that, $3,000 a month in income was gone. It wasn’t all my income but it was certainly enough to revisit plans to live in Europe until my visa ran out. I decided to enjoy the rest of my trip (only another few days) before going home. I’d get to work finding new clients, maybe another broker. It’d be fine.
When I got back to Houston, a strange thing happened. I took a look at my life and realized that I didn’t like it. I wasn’t doing the writing I wanted to do, only what could pay the bills. The result was that I spent 8 to 12 hours a day writing things I barely found interesting for people who barely read them without having the energy to do what I wanted to do. My biggest audience was Google’s search engine bots (hope they found my prose compelling) and Zoetrope for the occasional short story I could be bothered to complete. So I decided not to do it anymore. I waited tables and bartended in college and I got a job doing that. Now I just needed a story.
In what feels like another eon, I was a proper journalist, a reporter at Forbes Magazine and ABC News. The marketing money nearly doubled my salary as a journalist so I took it. Then squandered it and found myself a 30-year-old bartender looking to get back in the game. Nothing was really jumping out at me. Everything seemed boring or better off in the hands of someone else.
Then, a friend from the bar decided to do a strange thing: He bought a fancy bed sheet and a very expensive lawn mower engine. At first, Trey German’s paramotoring hobby just seemed neat. A good way to spend your weekends. But Trey is not just a neat guy; he’s an immaculately educated engineer, a genius, and a true adventurer. It was that last part that lead me to cram into the back of Trey’s Jeep for a damn-near-2,000-mile road trip to Polson, Montana.
Just before packing my bags, I thought it’d be a good idea to reach out to some publications about my trip, my previous experience, and the pitch to different articles specifically designed for the publications I queried. No one replied. Out of frustration, and a little bit of curiosity, I reached out to a guy at a small newsletter that kept popping up on Digg a few times a week (it seemed).
These are the opening lines to my first email to Ernie:
My name is Andrew Egan, Large Marge sent me, and I’m a freelance writer based in Texas. […] From Sept 28th to Oct. 17th, 2016, I’ll be in a support car for a competitor in the Icarus Trophy, it’s a paramotoring event from Montana to Nevada. The guy I’m following is a former engineer at TI that quit his job to start his own company. The race is part of his development process. I’ve been granted access to his team during the race and to interview other competitors by race officials.
Some industry talk about video and supplementary articles follows but that was the gist. He replied pretty quickly, like two days later.
Thanks for submitting to me—it sounds like a nice, risky way to spend a few weeks. Let me think on this and get back to you.
Hahaha, always a good editor, planting seeds for the direction of the story even before he accepted it.
It took some haruanging to finally get his clear thoughts on the pitch but eventually he replied:
I think one [of] the concerns I have are not the content itself—I think it sounds like a fascinating, wonderful idea.
I guess my concern is more that the nature of Tedium is more structural, on my end. Tedium is growing, but it’s still small potatoes … and I haven’t really done this kind of thing before, where I’ve let another writer take it over for an issue. (On one occasion, while I was on a two-week vacation in Europe, I did re-run an already-written piece by a friend of mine, but that’s the exception.)
I don’t have a freelance budget over this way or anything like that, so this territory is brand new to me. I love the idea, but I don’t want to hold you back if another media outlet is a better fit for this kind of content (i.e., one that could better cover your costs, etc.). What are your thoughts on this kind of thing so I can figure out if this is a fit or not?
In my mind that was a “yes, I run your stuff if you can’t get anyone else to.” But someone else came calling with proper money. I said yes, but only if I could also work for Ernie. They agreed but countered with less money. I agreed. I sure as shit don’t regret it.
The number of miles I traveled following the 2016 Icarus Trophy, conservatively. Trey German, the pilot I followed on that story, set his odometer when we left Houston. When we returned it was clearly over 6,000 miles. Side trips and random runs for parts add up, but I don’t know if they should count for mileage. The route ran from Polson, Montana to Henderson, Nevada but we had to get from Houston, Texas and back. It was a good trip.
On the importance of our little communities
How people spend their time basically dictates who they spend their time with. Three years ago, I was spending my time looking for ways to write stories I found interesting again. And that’s how I found Ernie, wrote a couple dozen articles, and watched as more and more people came into the fold. David Buck, especially, does great work.
The risk in being a writer is largely financial and while it can feel important, it’s never life or death. Over the years, I’ve become very proud of Tedium and the writers that Ernie features. For us, the stakes seem high, but we know it’s largely self-importance more than consequence. For my own reasons, hopefully clear from my earliest interactions with Ernie, I have become attached to my little community of writers and hobbyists.
For the communities we write about, however, sometimes it is life or death. And it has never been more true than for my first Tedium piece. Even back then, Ernie and I understood we were voluntarily going into a strange place, outsiders invited into a community of self-selected outsiders, those with the money and inclination to do something very risky but potentially rewarding in unexpected ways.
I didn’t want to let them or Ernie down.
The estimated number of pilots injured during the first iteration of Icarus, according to a pilot who was there. She also followed the second year in a tricked out 1980s Chevy conversion van. Before following Icarus, I was prepared to witness the worst. In hindsight, I don’t think I understood the full risk and consequences involved in paramotoring.
How our own perception of risk changes over time … or doesn’t
The impetus for this specific article is a high-profile death in the paramotoring community and I’ll discuss this more fully in a moment. Unfortunately, to fully articulate the issues at hand, I have to discuss an earlier death.
Jeff Toll was a highly respected paramotorist, whose highlight-packed YouTube videos helped popularize the sport at its infancy. If they ever erect a Hall of Fame in the sport, a Jeff Toll bust is certain to find its way into the Legends section.
I don’t really need to recap his life and death here too much. If you’re really interested in his story and the sport in general, you should really check out The Toll Road:
Jeff’s passing hung over Icarus 2016 but none more so than on the last night when competitors and support crew gathered in a cabin outside Zion National Park. Beer was drunk, flammables were smoked, steaks were eaten, and we watched Jeff in silent awe. The Toll Road was intended to be a celebration of the sport to that point. Instead, it ended up as a memorial to one of its rising stars.
When I got back to Texas, I had two stories to write: one a general overview of the trip for an air sports magazine that ended up with the title “Any Which Way but Down or A Fair Amount of Male Nudity in the American West,” and the other was for Tedium. I had an idea (or Ernie did?) to focus the story around risk, asking the race participants, “Why do this?”, “Are you concerned with the ultimate consequences for participating in this completely voluntary activity?”, and “How do you gauge risk and especially risk within paramotoring?”
For that last question, a British pilot named James Borgas proved to be especially useful. A London-based real estate broker, James had a background in sailing and small aircraft before getting into paramotoring. This was something I noted pretty quickly about paramotor pilots in 2016, almost all of them had a background in other extreme sports or highly skilled aerial activities. Many were private pilots, some were former military. It was rare for an average person to look at a paramotor in flight and think it would be a reasonable thing to try themselves.
That first article (which was also syndicated by Atlas Obscura because Ernie is dope like that) quoted James extensively:
“It’s not really about risk, we try to manage risk as much as possible,” Borges said. “If we do that, we get to fly in a way few people experience.”
I wrote, “Borges explained verbally what extreme sports athletes and scientists have long known: that while fear is common, the reward is a healthy dose of adrenaline and dopamine, the chemicals in the brain responsible for happiness and satisfaction.”
Other than questionable usage of “verbally,” when I look back at the article, I wonder if I was too reductive about the pilots’ relationship between risk and the sport that quickly became their “obsession”.
My thesis was essentially that the rewards, largely neurological and emotional, outweighs the risk. While this is still very true for many paramotorists, it ignores much more significant questions. And in light of recent events within the community, Ernie asked if I would revisit the topic, and that would mean reconnecting with James.
“These are not holidays. These are adventures and so by their very nature extremely risky. You really are putting both your health and life at risk. That’s the whole point.”
— The slogan for the Adventurists, the organizers behind the Icarus Trophy. First held in 2015, the long distance endurance paramotor race has typically been held in the United States. For 2019, Icarus is taking a challenge I’m envious of, Brazil.
The whole point and something I’ve never done before
Reconnecting with a source on a previous story is something I’ve never done, outside of a few technical experts. James was a normal person doing something extraordinary and found it somewhat amusing that it caught the attention of a writer. I was kind of banking on that same spirit when I reached out to him over Facebook last week.
In the nearly three years since Icarus 2016, James has become a father of two while getting into the commercial side of paramotoring (in a role he has yet to specify exactly). He is enthusiastic to participate in a story once again, if a little unsure of what to say.
In an instant message James says, “… I’m an unknown pilot, I don’t advertise my daily/weekly activities and I don’t make a big song and dance about the exciting trips I’m doing, or have done. So why does my opinion or experience have any relevance to anyone at all? Maybe it doesn’t!”
Still I had impressed upon James the larger point I was seeking to address and he agreed, which in a testament to British politeness, was wonderfully expressed as, “...my father told me ‘when someone asks you a question, you should answer it!’”
Death is a part of paramotoring. It’s a part of virtually any activity ever undertaken by a human. If there is an activity no human has died while participating in, I’d be surprised. Of course, there are differences between sleeping and skydiving. More people will die sleeping but that misstates the statistics and misses the risk we’re undertaking. Sleep is a necessary function. No one makes us skydive, barring peer pressure or a very specific scenario in an action movie.
Paramotoring is not an activity anyone just falls into. The equipment is expensive and training to get into the sky takes time. Even the most basic activities are dangerous. One of the first things a pilot learns how to do is “float” their wing from the ground. This involves simply catching enough air to keep the modified parachute used in paramotoring off the ground. It is actually quite difficult to do for any period of time but practiced paramotorists can do it all day. Even this basic training can potentially lift someone off the ground if they’re not careful.
Icarus 2016 was rife with faceplants from ill-timed takeoffs and landings in thorny brush. Equipment failure is expected in an endurance race race across difficult terrain. (There’s actually a funny story about engines from Icarus that I won’t embarrass James with here. But seriously bro, three motors!)
The pilots at Icarus are a much smaller community within an already small community. Average paramotorists fly with friends on the weekend, gaining flight hours while learning increasingly difficult maneuvers. When performed properly, these tricks can be safe and spectacular while giving the pilots the all important adrenaline rush they seek.
“When you first start, oh yeah, there’s always an adrenaline rush,” Trey German admitted for the 2016 Tedium article. “After a while, you really only feel it during maneuvers or extreme conditions.”
Today, James admits this feeling is still a major reason for his draw to the sport, writing, “Like any addict, the sport fills a void any drug does in someone who has an addictive personality. There is something that unifies all extreme sport participants, it’s hard to explain this, I’m not the guy to explore this but, like it or not, all [paramotor] pilots share it no matter what warp of life we come from. I like to think we are all on a journey of self discovery, living for the next moment. I justify a lot of the risks I take on the need to fulfil this basic urge.”
But time spent satiating this urge is something of a mixed bag for pilots. They find the sport rewarding but the longer you do it, the more you encounter. James adds, “Sadly, the consequence of a serious incident is never far away and if you socialize with fellow pilots over a long enough period …” He did not finish the thought.
Many of the pilots at Icarus 2016 were friends of Jeff Toll, so my exposure to the sport always included some hint of tragedy, even if it’s not exactly personal. So when the news of Grant Thompson’s death hit my inbox, I can’t say I was surprised. Though unfamiliar with Thompson at the time, I looked into his popular YouTube channel—The King of Random, which he had handed off to a new set of on-air personalities more than a year before his passing—and noticed his love for paramotoring seemed to be pretty new. In fact, he only picked up the sport some five months before his fatal accident.
It should be clear that, even if he was new to the sport of paramotoring, Grant was definitely familiar with risk. He frequently played with dangerous chemicals and flamethrowers on his channel, and the explosions he created sometimes drew the attention of the local police. Even if the sport was new to him, his spirit likely found friends quickly in the community, though he was flying alone the day he died.
It would not be appropriate for me to litigate Grant’s actions since I’m not privy to the accident report and gauging his skills from a distance is unfair. There is one significant question his death raises, and it’s not necessarily about risk. Instead it’s a question that’s subjective and probably impossible to answer … can anyone truly understand the full consequences of the risk they undertake?
Paramotor pilots almost universally acknowledge the ultimate consequence for failure in the sky. But they won’t be around to suffer those consequences. That will be left to those they leave behind.
James argues that proper instruction early in a pilot’s career combined with experience can help eliminate deaths. “I had a great instructor, I got into the sport late so maybe those that flaunt the rules and get hurt had poor instruction or are young, or are just stupid …” he writes. (It is paramount to stress here that he was not talking about any one person but rather deaths in paramotoring in general.)
Still, he and many of the others I contacted about this story (but declined to be interviewed on the record) say their perception of the sport has largely remained the same. They pursue a risky hobby because that risk yields rewards for them. And nothing, from fatherhood to the death of a friend/acquaintance, is likely to change that.
In high school, I got to take a class in military history and strategy taught by a military vet. This was during the opening days of the Iraq War; combat was on most everyone’s mind. While debating the merits of the conflict, a classmate brought up the all volunteer status of America’s military that these men and women had signed up for combat. I’ll never forget how Mr. Mills, a veteran of the first Persian Gulf War, answered: “I can personally guarantee that no 18-year old private has the vaguest understanding of what they agreed to.”
Damn near 15 years later, those words echoed around every question about paramotoring and other risky pursuits. Yet somehow, I failed to recall them when writing my first paramotor article.
Risk should be conveyed clearly to anyone who takes up an activity and the paramotoring community does seem like it makes safety a priority. Not every community is so fortunate.
In late July, two boxers died within the same week from injuries sustained while fighting. When I asked Earl Harris, an aspiring professional boxer in New York City, if any trainer had ever made it explicitly clear that he could die from injuries sustained in the ring, he thought for a second before answering, “No, and it’s kinda fucked up that they don’t!”
*Writer’s Note: In addition to the death of Grant Thompson, paramotoring has been hit with a number of tragedies in the past year. A voluntary list of incidents, including deaths and non-fatal injuries, is maintained by the U.S. Powered Paragliding Association which can be found here. At least two were reported in 2019 to the USPPA though anecdotal evidence from the community, which suggests that number worldwide is likely much higher. Our thoughts go out to all who lost loved ones before their time.*
Thanks Andrew for the great piece—here’s a link to share it if you’re so inclined.
And another shout-out to Cheddar’s Need2Know podcast—be sure to give it a listen.