Former Santa Barbara paragliding instructor and principal at Adams Elementary School Marjorie Variano was found dead at the base of a cliff below La Cumbre Peak on Thanksgiving Day. She’d been paragliding with a group headed for Parma Park, but when she did not land, they began searching for her, finally locating a downed airfoil at the bottom of a cliff 1,500 feet below the peak at around 1:15 p.m.
The steep box canyon made the location unsafe for helicopter approach, and an Air Support Unit copter lowered a County Fire paramedic down-canyon. It took him an hour to hike to her spot and verify that Variano had died. The approach of nightfall postponed operations until Friday morning, when about a dozen Search and Rescue volunteers with climbing gear and brush-cutting equipment were lowered to a shelf above the body. The location required a stretcher, ropes, hoist, and helicopter to carry Variano out, as well as the rescue team.
A veteran hang-gliding and paragliding instructor, Marge Variano had taught for about five years at Eagle Paragliding, said owner Rob Sporrer. He was hoping to recover her variometer from the Sheriff’s Office, which contained GPS information that could track her last flight and possibly explain what happened. Paragliding was a passion for Variano, who made trips to Mexico and Colombia with groups, Sporrer said, and would take books and crayons with her for the kids.
Ernestina Angel, the office manager at Adams school, recalled Variano’s kindness and love for children. Variano had told her how “all the kids would be so excited when she would show up” on her journeys. “It was like Santa Claus.” Sporrer agreed: “Marge was like a Pied Piper with those kids, handing out books.” A memorial service is being organized in Santa Barbara for later in December.
[UPDATE] The U.S. Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association (USHPA) has asked Rob Sporrer to examine photographs taken at the scene and Variano’s track log to research the accident, which had no witnesses. Sporrer is an “authoritative figure in the country and world on paragliding,” said Nick Greece, editor of USHPA’s magazine, who also knew Variano. The group’s Accident Review Committee, consisting of experts in the self-regulated field, sometimes issues reports that are collected in the magazine in the hope that “there’s something [we] can all learn from this,” said Greece. Sporrer stated that in his 20 years of paragliding in Santa Barbara, the only other death within memory was the 2015 incident involving veterinarian Ron Faoro.
The Santa Barbara Soaring Association is organizing a memorial service for Variano on December 10 at 4 p.m. The location is yet to be determined; attendees are asked to RSVP to the group’s website: sbsa.info. Donations to the Marge Variano Memorial Fund — to benefit Santa Barbara Search and Rescue and also Variano’s reading program in North Carolina — can be made at the site.