paragliding wing above the Snake River at Swan Falls, Idaho on Jan. 27, 2019. Six years
prior, a paragliding accident at California’s Soboba Flight Park nearly cost him his life
and now Lamoreaux faces his “alive day” with an annual sunset flight in remembrance.
Photo by Seth Dahl
One paraglider’s journey of healing and reinvention.
BY BELLA BUTLER
It’s a windy day in Phoenix, Arizona, and Lane Lamoreaux has just paraglided from a summit in the South Mountains. Now that his flight is over, it’s time to make the 2,500-foot ascent back to the top where his truck is parked. In the past, this climb would be a breezy hour for Lamoreaux, but today it’s proving difficult. The ground is covered with loose, decomposing granite, and his prosthetic leg is slowing him down.
He stops halfway up and sits on a rock to talk with me on the phone. The cotton sock and gel liner that cover his residual limb, which ends a few inches below his knee, are soaked with sweat and his prosthetic won’t move with his leg.
“Fortunately, I’m in Phoenix so things dry quickly,” he says in a remarkably patient tone. “I’ll wait here for an hour.” The wet sock nearly guarantees a blister or even infection— an especially dire situation for amputees. But Lamoreaux is resilient, and he adapts.
Lamoreaux took up paragliding in 2006 after his motorcycle was stolen. He’d had a few close calls on the bike as well and took it as a sign and used the insurance money to buy a paraglider. Next to his shoes, the glider became his only form of transportation.
Seven years later, Lamoreaux crashed. Big.
Camped at the base of the San Jacinto Mountains in California, Lamoreaux and his friends woke up encased in fog. They sipped coffee and watched the cloud base slowly lift before heading up to the launch site. They heard it was windy. Lamoreaux checked the weather advisory to make a thorough analysis. Yeah, it’s windy, he thought, but these are stratus clouds. They’re stable.
After two hours of flying, Lamoreaux began rollicking in the mellow conditions, intentionally losing altitude and using the wind and ridges to regain lift.
Above the mountain he saw a patch of sky open up, divine beams of sunlight pouring through the gap in the clouds. A few minutes later, he noticed the numbers dropping on his groundspeed measurement device. In seconds it fell from 12 mph to six, and then two. Almost instantaneously, it then shot to 36 mph—backwards.
An accident investigator hired by Lamoreaux’s insurance company would later call this “an act of God.”
In meteorology, it’s called a microburst—a localized column of sinking air that trapped Lamoreaux in 60 mph winds. Lamoreaux deployed his backup parachute, but in the sinking air it only acted as a weight expediting his plummet.
“I fell from such a height that I just remember I had to take a gasp,” he recalls. “I couldn’t just scream the whole time.”
His right leg hit the ground first. The force drove his femur through his pelvis and into his ribs, his own body a weapon severing internal organs and arteries. His parachute inflated, dragging him roughly 200 feet across the fire-scoured ridge he’d landed on.
A friend landed nearby to cut him free of the parachute and radio for help. Lamoreaux survived flatlining during the helicopter evacuation to the hospital, where he lay in a coma for nine weeks fighting an excruciating battle for his life.
“I don’t feel like the universe has created a script for everyone and that things are just going to ‘be as they should.'”
A native of Tucson, Arizona, Lamoreaux grew up in a Mormon family. Around the time he hit puberty, he became acutely aware of how his religious identity made him different. While his friends enjoyed the weekends, his family would spend three grueling hours every Sunday in church. He was the son of a bishop, and he watched his peers begin holding hands and dating, things the Church of Latter-day Saints prohibits at young ages.
At 13, long before his accident would push him to confront life and its meaning, Lamoreaux became a closeted Buddhist. Later, he’d take on one of the most exalted theological tenets: fate.
“I don’t feel like the universe has created a script for everyone and that things are just going to ‘be as they should,’” he says. “I think the world’s a lot more dynamic than that … It involves a lot more of our contribution, which puts us in a position to take ownership.”
For example, if everything happens for a reason, Lamoreaux posits, the reason he crashed was gravity.
After waking from his coma and recognizing the limitations of his new body, Lamoreaux spent his nights grieving the memories of his former self, a man he likely wouldn’t be again. With zero cartilage in his right hip, doctors would eventually amputate his right leg.
This new physical reality meant bidding goodbye to many ways he identified himself before the accident. Lamoreaux was a former U.S. Marine, marathon runner, competitive cyclist, devoted wildland firefighter—smokejumper, specifically— and of course, paraglider. These weren’t just activities for him; they were him.
During recovery, Lamoreaux would close his eyes and go to the sky. He knew he’d return to paragliding, and it became his motivation to recover. He needed to walk. Just a few steps, he thought, to launch off the mountain.
When we relinquish the concept of fate, we also gain agency. Dr. MC McDonald, a trauma researcher, believes this is where we might take note of the existentialists’ polemic.
“They’re so aware of the fact that having complete responsibility over ourselves is both freeing and terrifying at the same time,” McDonald said in an interview from her California home last spring. “You’re the only one who is going to decide what your life is going to mean.”
McDonald, whose work intersects neuroscience, psychology and critical philosophy, says our memory files are made up of three components. There’s the narrative, or what happened from start to finish; the emotional content, if it makes us laugh or cry; and the meaning we assign to a memory. She argues that we are the authors of our own perception, and that we can answer the question of meaning anytime. “Our power to reframe and reinvent is endless,” she wrote in a 2020 essay.
Following his grieving period, Lamoreaux would come to grasp the complexity of this power: What came next was up to him. “I had to decide who I was going to be and what I was going to be,” he said. “Those aren’t easy decisions to make, especially when you’re being forced via external events like trauma.”
Lamoreaux invested in camera gear and began making training videos for the National Fire Center, something he always wanted to do. And eventually he made it back into the sky.
Last spring, Lamoreaux returned from Colombia where he had spent 127 hours paragliding in the Andes.
“I lived an exciting life, but that life has, like all things, come to a close,” he said. “I just so happened to be in this unique position where I cannot only live one extraordinary life but also get the opportunity to have a bonus life.”
Back in Phoenix, Lamoreaux is cresting the mountain, his truck in sight as we finish our phone call. In a few hours, he’ll leave for Guatemala to compete as one of only two Americans in an exclusive paragliding competition. It’s hard to tell if he’s aware of the anomalous paradox of the last two hours as he orated the tale of a near-fatal accident while climbing a mountain with a prosthetic leg, his paraglider hoisted above his head, navigating a turbulent ascent.
Perhaps it’s the seamless alchemy of trauma and creation that make him so humbly unaware of his own remarkableness. Lamoreaux would say it’s resilience, but not the kind you read about in physics: the ability to return back to an original form. His own definition of resilience: adaptation, reinvention and the pursuit of regaining lift.
Bella Butler is Senior Editor for Mountain Outlaw magazine and its sister publication, Explore Big Sky newspaper.