In 2011, Felix Wölk was on a photographic mission high above the Italian Alps, shooting action photos for that year’s Red Bull X-Alps from a tandem paraglider. For six hours, he’d been filling his camera's memory card with his best shots from the event, which, until that point, had mostly happened on the ground instead of in the air. They were photos he knew would have a massive appeal. Unless, of course, he fumbled the memory card while moving it from the camera to his pocket, sending it tumbling through the air to the grassy meadow 1,500 feet below him.
It was a rainy, stormy day, with dramatic lighting and real-deal aerial action, and Wölk and his tandem pilot, Axel Gudelius, had been working hard to get the right shot. The target was the famous north faces of the Tre Cime peaks.
"It was an exciting day. The thermal activity was on the south side, so we got some altitude on the sunny slopes, then used that to glide over the mountain to the steep routes,” says Wölk. “It rained a lot, actually. The cloud base was good, but there was a lot of humidity and potential for thunderstorms." Wet wings limited their flying ability, but Wölk managed to get above the pilot and score some shots.
They got the images they were looking for just before it started hailing, sending both of the pilots hunting for cover. With space for only a few shots left on the card, Wölk snapped some selfies before attempting to swap the memory card for a new one, just in case there were more images to get.
His fingers, stiff and cold from holding the camera at high altitude, lost their grip on the small memory card as Wölk pulled it from the camera. “I watched it fall for a few seconds,” says Wölk. “But Axel managed to keep an eye on it for quite a long time! I remember exactly what he said — 'I see it. I see it. I see it. I see it … I don’t see it.' ”
Check out the original launch point and the spot where the card fell on the map below.
They were about 1,500 feet above the ground when it happened. Fortunately, the card landed in a grassy meadow rather than a patch of trees. The pair quickly circled down, packed up the gilder and started hunting.
“I knew I had good shots on the card,” says Wölk. “We had to at least try to search. I started thinking about the angle of the slope, the wind and surmised the card would have fallen towards the bottom of the field. What we were happiest about was the cows — they had eaten the grass, so it was quite short and you could actually look for the card.”
His pilot, Gudelius, recalls the same. "We were lucky that it had fallen in the direction of this field instead of the woods around it — we never would have found it otherwise."
After an anxious half an hour, Gudelius held up the card, which he’d found in some short grass at the bottom of the meadow. "He said to me, 'This is going to cost you a lot of money,’ ” says Wölk. "And I probably would have paid it!”