Paraglider Caught in Rock Slide Goes From Flight to Plight

As an experienced aviator, Air Force retiree and founder of a paragliding company in Arkansas, Britton Shaw purchased an inReach® Explorer satellite communicator after imagining all the emergency scenarios that can occur while up in the air.

When the need for an SOS occurred, however, Shaw was very much on the ground. He was perched precariously on the edge of a cliff after a rock slide in the remote mountains of Switzerland swept him off his feet.

That day was Shaw’s 20th wedding anniversary, and what began as a majestic paraglide over the largest glacier in the Swiss Alps before an evening of celebration with his wife — who opted to stay back at the hotel — took a turn for the worse. An unexpected wall of cold air forced him to go in for a landing (paragliders generally need warm air to stay lifted and in flight), but he was prepared to hike out and didn’t panic.

Knowing he wouldn’t be able to make it out quickly with all of his paragliding equipment, Shaw abandoned his gear except for the necessities, dropped a waypoint on his inReach device so he could go back and retrieve it later and began trekking across mountainous terrain out to the road.

Eventually, that didn’t go as planned either.

The view from above the Swiss Alps where Britton Shaw was flying when he had to do a sudden landing.

Rocky Situation

“It was just one of those rare things,” Shaw said. “There was a rock avalanche, just like a snow avalanche, and the whole mountainside gave way. Boulders were hitting me. But the miracle in this was where I got deposited — I was left dangling on a cliff.”

To many, that may not sound like a “miracle,” but Shaw knew that real tragedy could have occurred if he had been pushed even inches farther. From the cliff, he hoisted himself up to a ledge where he immediately triggered an SOS on his inReach device.

“That was a moment of panic,” he said. “I had survived all this, I’m sitting there, but there’s no way anybody is going to reach me in time before I lose all of my strength … I was counting the seconds.”

That’s all it took to hear back from the GEOS International Emergency Response Coordination Center (IERCC), though.

“They communicated in a way that kept me calm and relaxed, and I was getting frequent communications,” Shaw said. “I was even able to talk to my friend all the way back in Arkansas — one of those buddies that you can rely on for anything.”

Back at the hotel, Shaw’s wife also knew something wasn’t quite right based on the last track point she saw on his MapShare™ page.  

“My wife finds a great comfort in being able to watch where I am,” he said. “She knew there was a problem in that instant because of where I stopped, and she immediately rushed to emergency services.”

Switzerland search and rescue dispatched a helicopter to Shaw’s location, which arrived within an hour of the triggered SOS and transported him to a local hospital. He walked out later that day and was able to reunite with his wife for their anniversary.

Britton Shaw paragliding rescue
Emergency services dispatched a helicopter to transport Britton Shaw to safety.

Proven Reliability Around the Globe

Originally inspired to buy an inReach after hearing Garmin sponsored athlete and paraglider Gavin McClurg talk about the device, Shaw now won’t leave for any adventures, or guide a paragliding trip, without it — even in his home state of Arkansas.

“It’s proven itself because of its accuracy and reliability all over the globe,” he said. “And here in this rural area of Oklahoma and Arkansas that we typically operate in. There’s almost no service if you were to look at a satellite map — we’re in a no man’s land.”

Shaw is now back up in the air, with trips around the world planned for the next year. A surprise landing on a glacier and getting caught in a rock slide didn’t dim his passion for adventure.

“I’m just one of those competitively driven individuals; it’s all about how far I can push myself,” he said. “And I’m allowed to focus so much more on my flying knowing and having the satisfaction that I’ve got that inReach.”

NOTICE: To access the Iridium satellite network for live tracking and messaging, including SOS capabilities, an active satellite subscription is required. Some jurisdictions regulate or prohibit the use of satellite communications devices. It is the responsibility of the user to know and follow all applicable laws in the jurisdictions where the device is intended to be used.