Polio eradication campaign soars from new heights

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Ken Hutt

From the October 2015 issue of The Rotarian

Ken Hutt is running toward the edge of a cliff, pounding across the snow in thin freezing air, a full pack of gear strapped to his back. As if attached to an invisible string, he rises a few feet off the ground and drops back down. A few more strides and he is aloft again. Then he flies off the face of the world’s sixth-highest mountain.

Hutt, a member of the Rotary Club of Berry, Australia, has just paraglided off Cho Oyu, 12 miles west of Mount Everest.

The flight was both the fulfillment of his longtime dream to climb an “eight-thousander” – what mountaineers call the 14 peaks in the world that rise 8,000 meters or more above sea level – and a boost for Rotary’s global campaign to eradicate polio.

It began when a friend invited Hutt on an expedition to climb Cho Oyu and suggested he make the descent by paraglider. “My first thought was, that’s a little bit beyond my capabilities,” says Hutt, 56, who at the time had nearly 25 years of climbing experience but only three years as a paraglider. Then he reconsidered. “After a while I thought, well, I’ll give it a go. And I decided to convert it into something that would be useful for charity.” Polio eradication was an obvious choice because Hutt had raised money for Rotary’s End Polio Now campaign through his club in New South Wales.

Few people paraglide from such an extreme height, and the potential complicating factors – among them, bad weather, steep terrain, and wind gusts from nearby peaks – meant the flight would be a literal leap into the unknown. A few people asked Hutt’s wife if he had a death wish. But he was undeterred.

It was April 2014 – a year before the devastating 7.8-magnitude earthquake in Nepal – when Hutt arrived in the country. He spent a couple of weeks in Kathmandu and Everest Base Camp with other members of the expedition, adjusting to the altitude. Four Sherpas and a guide joined the team for the ascent of Cho Oyu, which got off to an inauspicious start. For several days, the group had to wait at Cho Oyu’s Advanced Base Camp, at 5,700 meters, for powerful winds battering the mountain to subside. As they waited, they watched a steady stream of climbers return to camp, their summit dreams defeated by the difficult conditions higher up.

When a brief window of clear weather was forecast, the group set off and by 21 May had made it as high as Camp 2, at 7,200 meters. They bedded down for the night in temperatures that plunged to negative double-digits and awoke to a crystalline blue sky and calm winds. As the others prepared for the final push to the summit – 1,000 meters and a day’s climb away – Hutt realized he’d reached a decision point: End the climb that morning and launch his glider from Camp 2, or attempt to summit with the team.

He later told Cross Country magazine, which focuses on paragliding, what he was thinking: “I had been climbing strongly over the previous weeks and felt the summit was certainly achievable. However, the weather forecast was dictating my opportunities, and unless I took advantage of the current conditions, paragliding would be off the agenda. With conditions such as they were, and the opportunity to complete the quest of flying from the mountain and maximize the fundraising and awareness potential of the End Polio Now campaign, the decision was made to make the attempt at launching from here.”

Hutt packed up his climbing equipment and strapped into his Ozone Ultralite 3 paraglider, whose custom-made bright red sail read “End Polio Now” and featured the Rotary gearwheel. Photographs were taken, and he began running. “I had no idea about the distance I was going to need to run to inflate the glider to support my weight and all the gear I carried, so I took off a little blind to what would happen,” he says. Over the cliff was 1,800 meters of empty air, so Hutt needed to be airborne before he reached the edge. He knew the glider would take his weight – he just didn’t know when. He estimates that he ran 70 feet, short of breath and bursting with adrenaline, before the sail pulled him up.

“Two minutes in, when I got myself comfortable in the harness and I knew the thing was flying, I sat back and could have screamed the house down. It was just sensational,” he says. “I couldn’t stop looking up at the glider where it said ‘End Polio Now.’ Seeing this beautiful red glider with the mountains and snowscape behind it, flying at 7,200 meters, is something I don’t think can be topped.” Thirteen minutes later, he made a hard but safe landing on a rocky moraine near Cho Oyu’s Advanced Base Camp.

Hutt’s flight down Cho Oyu has brought in nearly $40,000 worth of donations to date from people who heard about the expedition and wanted to help. It also has given him a platform from which to speak about polio. Hutt, who works in landscape construction, says physically demanding activities are becoming less appealing as he gets older, so any repeat stunt in the Rotary glider would have to be less strenuous; he mentions a possible flight along New Zealand’s west coast. For now, though, his only plan is to continue talking about the need to drive the final nail into polio’s coffin.

“We’re so close to eradicating polio – we can’t stop, we have to keep going,” he says. “The last tenth of one percent is probably the hardest. But we want governments to know that this little Rotary club on the south coast of New South Wales is doing its bit.”

The Rotarian