GLENWOOD SPRINGS — John Goss considers himself lucky to be alive and walking a little more than a week after he broke his back in a paragliding accident on the side of Red Mountain, leading to a dramatic helicopter rescue that he’d rather not experience ever again.
He also considers himself lucky to have experienced what he would consider one of the most incredible thrills a human can have — flight.
But, after spending several days at Valley View Hospital recovering from surgery after the accident and coming away from it all with the blessing of still being able to walk, he’s ready to put his thrill-seeking days behind him.
“I’ll never fly again,” Goss said Friday, the emotion of the whole ordeal still apparent in his voice as he shared his story with the Post Independent just nine days after the accident.
Not because the doctors told him he could never fly again. In fact, he’s expected to make a full recovery, though he’s temporarily in a back brace while recuperating from the injury.
“It’s my decision. I just have too many responsibilities to put myself at risk like that,” Goss, 49, said of his commitment to the Glenwood Springs Vaudeville Revue, the popular song-and-dance variety show for which he is not only the founder and one of the key actors, but the sole proprietor of the business.
“I came unbelievably close to paralyzing myself,” he said. “My whole life and my career is about movement, and I have a responsibility not only to myself but to my employees who all have families and who depend on the show.”
Two days to remember
The morning of Aug. 21 was just like any of the other ideal summer mornings for taking flight off of Red Mountain, the high peak just to the west of Glenwood Springs that is a popular location for paragliding enthusiasts.
“It was clear and there was a decent thermal lift coming up the ridge,” said Goss, who caught a ride up the mountain on the truck with Adventure Paragliding, which regularly takes customers on tandem flights off Red Mountain.
Goss stressed that he’s an independent pilot and in no way associated with the commercial outfit.
“They’ve flown thousands of times off that mountain and have had no incidents,” he said.
Goss, even with more than 130 solo flights under his belt and no incidents, was still considered a beginner pilot.
“Ironically, just the day before this I had two of the most amazing, epic flights I’ve ever had,” he said.
His morning flight that previous day was his first real “cross country” flight, taking him from the top of Red Mountain to a landing point up Four Mile and challenging him to ride the thermals across the long ridge to the south.
“Same spot, same exact time, no problems,” he said.
Later that evening, Goss said he achieved a new pinnacle in his paragliding pursuits when he launched from Lookout Mountain on the east side of Glenwood Springs, rode some of the best thermals he’s ever experienced up to 13,000 feet, and glided over the valley for more than an hour before finally landing in West Glenwood.
“I was doing loop after loop … it was just heaven up there,” he said.
His morning flight was to be of a more routine nature, from the top of Red Mountain, back and forth across the slope of the mountain a few times, and to the landing strip just west of Glenwood Springs High School along the Roaring Fork River.
The particular spot where he crashed, an open, 60-degree rock slope with very little vegetation and direct morning sun, can make for some of the best heat thermals on the mountain, Goss said.
“I spent probably an hour on that lift just the week before,” he said.
That day, though, his wing got caught in a rotor wind, kind of like an eddy in a river, just as he came over the gully.
“As I turned, it just took the whole wing and sucked it in,” he said. “I’ve been in that kind of turbulence hundreds of times, but because of where I was at that moment my chute collapsed.”
Rather than falling to the ground, which he said might have actually turned out better, his chute began to open as he came across the ridge, whipping him backwards against the slope.
He slammed into large rock that, although he didn’t know it at the time and despite a fair amount of padding in his harness pack, shattered a vertebrae in his back.
Hanging on for life
The initial impact knocked the wind out of him, and for the first minute or so Goss said he literally thought he was dying.
Though he never lost consciousness, he said his hands and fingers were tingling, so he knew he was hurt pretty bad. But he was able to grab onto a tiny brush, switching hands every so often to keep from sliding down the steep slope and risking a severed spinal cord.
After a while, he said he was able to dig a small foot-hold that allowed him to get out of the harness and move a short distance to a bigger bush where he was able to crouch and wait for the rescue team to get to him.
That took a good three hours, as rescue workers had to make their way up the mountain through thick vegetation and rocky terrain. At one point, as onlookers watched from across the river near the high school, one of the rescue workers could be seen stepping into the rock field where Goss was and sliding a ways before regaining his grip.
When they did reach Goss, he said it was all they could do to hang on and ease him into a stretcher.
Meanwhile, a Colorado National Guard helicopter had been called in by Garfield County Search and Rescue and the Glenwood Springs Fire Department to complete the operation. It eventually maneuvered over Goss and the rescuers, lowered a cable to attach to the basket, pulled him from the mountainside up into the helicopter and brought him to a waiting ambulance at the high school football field.
“It felt like forever,” he said of the difficult rescue operation, which included a wild, fast-spinning ride up into the helicopter and even the occasional electric jolt from static electricity caused by the helicopter’s rotors when he was still on the ground.
“I can’t say enough about the people that helped me that day,” Goss said. “Because of the angle of the mountain and the spot where I left myself, they just had a lot to contend with.”
Given the extent of his injuries later determined at the hospital, he said it’s amazing he’s still walking.
“I must have moved around 50 different times up there on the mountain, and it’s just amazing I didn’t sever my spinal cord,” Goss said.
Show goes on
“I can’t tell you how sad it makes me,” Goss admitted about his decision to give up paragliding. “Still, I know I can look back on it, and all the incredible flights I had.”
He said his focus now is on continuing to improve the increasingly popular Vaudeville Revue show, which continues without him through the remainder of the summer season until Oct. 6. He does hope to make at least a brief appearance on stage at some point soon, though.
A special account on Goss’s behalf to help defray medical bills has also been set up at Community Banks, and the cast is already planning a special fundraiser show for sometime after the regular program season.