“I’m going to die now!”

That was the clear thought that shot through my head as I fell down the steep rocky north face of Zugspitze, Germany's highest mountain. My knee and shoulder smashed against the rocks, and I screamed in agony. Despite the pain, I couldn't help but smirk internally as I scolded myself for making such a stupid decision that could have cost me my life. Spoiler alert: I survived. But I learned some valuable lessons the hard way.

Words and images by Thilo Rek

In this post, I’d like to talk about the psychology of decision making when the risks are crystal clear. Whether you’re skiing on avalanche-prone slopes or weighing risks in any other sport, understanding your own thought process is crucial. And let me tell you, it’s not always easy.

It was a perfect day, with the weather holding steady. Our plan was to paraglide back down to the valley after the four-hour hike to the top of Zugspitze. We had a blast scrambling up the Stopselzieher trail, complete with some easy climbing sections. And since we timed our ascent during cable car maintenance, we had the whole mountain to ourselves which is normally crowded with tourists. 

Unfortunately, the flying conditions were not ideal. After waiting a while to see if the conditions would improve, we decided to descend on foot. Max, with whom I had done several Hike&Fly tours, and I agreed. However, Robert, with whom I was out for the first time that day, the youngest, bravest, and perhaps the most reckless of us all, wanted to try a launch.

Mistake number one: we should have talked Robert out of it. The wind was not optimal, and the launch site is dangerous. But since we weren’t an established team, we didn’t discuss it. So each of us made our own call. After Robert launched with my assistance, Max wanted to try too. He had to abort his first attempt and asked me to hold up the centre of the wing to help him rise faster and save space to get airborne.

Mistake number two: We should have discussed what would happen to me, the last person left on the mountain without assistance, instead of having one person descend alone. But we didn’t, and with my help, Max launched successfully as well (not perfectly, but good enough).

Now, I was alone on the summit. I thought, “Why not give it a try?” and prepared for a launch. I tried three times and aborted, but I was overconfident on my fourth and fatal attempt. Mistake number three!

The wing was above me, but the tension in the lines wasn’t good. Nevertheless, I decided to take off and fly. Seconds after take-off, a gust of wind caught me from the side, causing a collapse, and I crashed from a few meters above the ground and started tumbling down the rocks. I was going way too fast, and I knew this would be the end. But then, after about 100 meters, my paraglider’s lines snagged on a rock, and I stopped. An hour later, it already got dark, a rescue helicopter pulled me out of there. I underwent six surgeries so far and am still working my way back to my old self.

So what have I learned from this experience? In retrospect I realized that I would never have crashed if I were with my regular mountain partners. We have a well-established habit of discussing risks together. I knew that the launch was dangerous and potentially deadly, but I didn’t discuss it with anyone and suppressed the risks in my mind. I had a mental blackout, which led to my crash.

So here are my tips for making the right decisions, even when you’re alone. Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Okay, so you might be a risk-taker yourself! But would you allow your best friend to attempt the same launch when all the risk factors are on the table?
  2. Would your best friend allow you to launch? 
  3. Would you allow your partner to attempt the launch?
  4. Would you allow your child to attempt the launch?

Only if you can answer all of these points with “yes” it’s a good decision. Alright, we are mountain athletes, and we consciously take risks. Questions 3 and 4 may provide a greater safety margin here. However, on this fateful day, questions 1 and 2 alone would have been enough to keep me from a terrible accident!

I hope I can give some food for thought to some of you. Stay safe out there!

1 thought on ““I’m going to die now!””

  1. Dear Thilo,
    Thank you for your reflections and insights! You know, I trained people who make existential decisions in high-risk situations. The exact same things you describe above happen to them (Only difference: they face it by profession, not by jumping off a summit ;-)).
    Human risk-evaluations on the spot are anything but rational, and maybe mistake number 0 is that we think they are.
    Yet, we can reflect and learn; from our own mistakes and from those of others. The bottleneck yet is that we have to question ourselves first. Wouldn’t it be way more convenient to blame your company for leaving you behind…? But you don’t do that.
    I think your questions above are a good piece of advice – from someone who has learned his share.
    Get well soon and then – head back outdoors, have fun and stay safe!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Posts