Paragliding can be a high-altitude experience

Outdoors Experiences

Posted: Sunday, August 11, 2002

Exiting from the Mount Roberts Tram car I don my large pack, careful not to slam it into some tourist, and take off for the usual launch area, about a 15-minute hike from the tram. The large pack draws attention and the inevitable questions having to do with a long camping trip. A truthful answer invites further interrogation, so I sometimes adopted a defensive tactic, hiking with head down and ball cap pulled over my eyes. I am never rude, even though the questions are tiresome.

Locals, of course, know what those of us who fly paragliders are up to, although it is surprising that so many people don't know that our goals are quite different than those who jump out of airplanes with parachutes. Paragliders are larger than parachutes, while at the same time much lighter in construction. They are inflated while the pilot is on the ground, and pilots do not "jump" off cliffs to start the flight.

Arriving at launch, I asses the conditions and unroll the wing if I intend to fly. Soon the peanut gallery forms. This time the observers are quiet, feigning inattention, apprehensive about watching a suicidal act. The attempt to launch is the entertainment the gallery is waiting for. If I get the wing tamed, centered over my head, I can usually turn and float off the ground after a few steps, disappointing those who like to watch Real TV or stop at car crashes. On occasion, I've failed to get off the ground and ended up in the alder below the launch site, unharmed because of the bush's cushioning effect, though extricating the glider takes time. A successful launch after one or more failed attempts sometimes evokes applause and cheers from the gallery.

Novices and timid paraglider pilots are content to launch and land successfully, simply gliding down, but the sport is really about soaring on uplifting winds or thermals once you learn the basics. On a good soaring day I can make a right turn at launch and find lifting air above the observation platform, turning slowly once in it until the lift ceases. Then I wander around looking for more of the same, getting as high as I can. A few of us have been near or a little above 6,000 feet, although somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000 feet is more common.

Once above 4,000 feet, the scenery changes like the backdrop in the next act of a stage play, nearby mountain peaks and ridges yielding to a more spectacular panorama of icefield nunataks and glaciers to the east, the islands and passages of the Alexander Archipelago everywhere else, going on and on, textured waterways with myriad shades of grays and greens. Sometimes I'll even have an eagle for a wingman, giving a demonstration, in silent ridicule of my clumsy craft and my inexpert handling of it. Eagles, hawks and ravens are the local pros who can show us where the lifting air is, and give us clues about wind speed, direction and turbulence.

Paragliding is an adventure sport, like rock climbing, mountaineering or skydiving, to mention a few. I define an adventure sport as one where small errors can have large consequences, where risk is an inherent (and necessary) element, and the outcome never certain, no matter how prepared you are. Your chances are better, however, if you are prepared, and have skill and knowledge. If you hate risk and just want a little excitement, stick to the rides in an amusement park.

Before I fly I try to know as much about the day's weather as I can. There is a good Internet site that gives winds aloft, including a ground station on the top of Sheep Mountain. This information and the immediate forecast are enough to decide whether to hike to launch, but the decision to fly I make only after I have looked at all the indicators I can see: wind socks, trees, cruise ship smoke, channel waters, clouds and soaring birds. If the winds are light at launch and the intended landing zone, and coming from the right direction, I can launch. If the sun is out and some surface heating has been occurring, I may be able to soar well above launch.

The best clues about the day's flying prospects are obtained from the "wind dummy," the first paraglider in the air. This role is best assumed by a more experienced pilot, but it may just be one with a bolder temperament, or a novice who hasn't yet been humbled. Some pilots will never "wind dummy," especially those who don't fly much. If you are visiting an unfamiliar site it is appropriate to let the local pilots test the air before you fly.

Brett Neyhart and I have about 200 hours in the air, a number that would qualify us as "intermediate" in experience. Brett works for the Post Office, gets off each day around 2 p.m., and has a disposition inclined to test the air first. His orange wing is often the one you see earlier in the afternoon, sometimes quite high, and Brett has the local record for time in the air, 3 hours, 40 minutes. Other local pilots who try to fly frequently are Geoff and Marcy Larson, Clark Gruening, Gene Randall and Jack Kreinheder. There are a total of 17 local pilots with current United States Hang Gliding Association licenses, but most of them fly infrequently.

Paragliders came into existence about 20 years ago. They are derived from and closely related to steerable parachutes, but with an important difference - they can soar. There are other soaring machines, fixed-wing gliders and hang gliders, but neither allows you the freedom to stuff it in a backpack, hike it up a mountain, lay it out on the ground, and, with just a little help from the wind, float upward in the invisible ocean of air.

Jerry Buckley is a local paraglider.

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