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Finding balance: After a rough crash, paraglider and highliner Sean Englund reflects on risk

Months after crashing, he’s grappling with public perception of his activities as he tries to make them more accessible
Sean Englund, a 27-year-old Durango-based paraglider, crashed a speedwing Oct. 20 on Smelter Mountain, shown behind him. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
Oct 20, 2023
‘Speed flyer’ crashes on Smelter Mountain in Durango

Soaring through the air, suspended by a small, 13-square-meter wing, or perched delicately on a 2-kilometer line, hundreds of feet off the ground – those spots are what Sean Englund calls his “quiet space.”

“You don’t have the opportunity to think about other things – you need to be on point,” the professional highliner said.

For someone with a churning brain, activities that demand such intense focus suck his attention into a vacuum. They let him step away from everything else.

But the 27-year-old’s quiet space became abruptly cacophonous the morning of Oct. 20, when he pulled too much brake line on his left side and caught the tip of his speedwing – a small, high-performance paraglider built to be fast and highly maneuverable – on a tree as he descended toward the dog park off Smelter Mountain in Durango.

The canopy from which he had been suspended slingshotted his body toward the ground feet first. He had been traveling between 40 mph and 60 mph, at times within 10 feet of the ground, a practice known as “proximity flying.”

Englund bounced and rolled downhill, and came to rest on a large flat boulder.

“I realized something happened and I unclipped my wing and called my buddy who works for Flight For Life. And he was like, ‘You should call 911’ and so I called 911,” Englund said.

He tallied up quite the laundry list of injuries: four broken ribs; three fractured vertebrae, one of which exploded and left fragments touching his spinal cord; a fractured sacrum; a broken sternum, tibia, fibula and ankle; and a separation of the spine and pelvis.

An extensive hillside rescue, a flight to Denver, multiple surgeries and over two weeks in the hospital followed.

Four months after the crash, Englund is back on his feet, roaming the dog park landing zone with his canine companion, Blueberry, and preparing to get back on the highline and under a wing.

It has been tough to contend with criticism by uninformed parties, Englund said. He’s goaded by the perspective of outsiders who lob unfounded critiques of his risk management practices.

“People say all this stuff I do, and what my friends do, is reckless,” he said. “I think that people who don’t wear seat belts are more reckless.”

The medical staff in Denver did not understand – “It just felt like I was an idiot” – but Durangoans did.

Sean Englund plays with his dog Blueberry in the Durango Dog Park on Feb. 16. Four months ago, Englund crashed while speedflying on Smelter Mountain, behind him. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

His pursuits of choice may appear to be high-risk from an outside perspective – but Englund says he considers himself to be conservative in his risk management. He’s spent five years paragliding, two years speedflying and spent time living at a speedflying park in California where he would embark on as many as six flights each day.

“I trained religiously for many years to be able to fly the way I was flying that day,” he said.

For years, Englund has dedicated himself to making highlining, his sport of choice, more accessible and safer. Like its sister sport, slacklining, highlining involves traversing a thin piece of webbing strung between two points high off the ground. In 2018, Englund walked a line strung between the Twin Buttes outside Durango.

Sean Englund walks a highline between the Twin Buttes west of Durango on Nov. 11, 2018. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

He is a course manager and instructor for the International Slackline Association. In that role, he certifies slackliners and ensures they are prepared with safe rigging practices, an understanding of ethics and rescue knowledge. In the decade he’s been in the sport, he saw it balloon in popularity. With a dearth of adequate mentors, safety practices declined.

“I’m trying to reel back the community,” he said. “We need to dial in our systems again. It’s getting unsafe and … we need to be safer.”

In the months since his crash, Englund has documented his recovery journey on Instagram. And he’s been hard at work.

He has submitted two grant proposals for projects that would involve partnerships with nonprofits to make sports such as slacklining safe and accessible to youths in the community.

Englund is in a tricky spot as he tries to open safe access to his nontraditional recreation passions and contends with the attention from his crash and its association with his name.

That, perhaps, has been the trickiest balance to strike yet. He views his accident as just that – an unlikely bad outcome from an event for which he had rigorously prepared.

“Would you stop driving a car if you got in a car accident?” Englund asks.

Sean Englund expressed enormous gratitude to the agencies that assisted in his rescue, including La Plata County Search and Rescue, Durango Fire Protection District, Durango Police Department and San Juan National Forest. (Shane Benjamin/Durango Herald file)

But he also acknowledges the inherent risk in a sport like speedflying, even if he doesn’t categorically define the activity as “risky.” The risk and reward ratio is ultimately up to the individual.

For Englund, everything he does – the slacklining work around the world, the speedflying and work connecting his sports to the community – it’s all a part of the grand fulfillment of his deepest passions.

“I absolutely love it, because you’ve got to make the most of your time,” he said. “I hate the ‘What ifs?’ I’d rather have some ‘Why’s?’”


Sean Englund expressed enormous gratitude to the agencies that assisted in his rescue, including La Plata County Search and Rescue, Durango Fire Protection District, Durango Police Department and San Juan National Forest. (Shane Benjamin/Durango Herald file)

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