Flyin’ High: My First Paragliding Adventure
Living in the mountains has opened up a whole array of new sports to me. Most recently, I ventured into paragliding. My friend Charlie lives in Frisco and is an expert paraglider. He often takes people on tandem rides: two people linked front-to-back with a harness and one wing. Paragliders call their parachutes wings, perhaps because they do more than just slow you down during free fall.
When Charlie first mentioned a tandem ride, the idea was all excitement in my head. When he called one day and asked if I’d like to go paragliding, I said yes without hesitation. Inside, I was freaking out. This mildly underground activity seemed safe enough. But I knew nothing about it and nothing about the process, while it was very easy to imagine all the risks and terrifying outcomes.
I met Charlie in Frisco, and we headed toward Avon, picking up a fellow paraglider along the way. During our ride, I learned about the sport, some things comforting, some not so much. The paragliding community is small, and enthusiasts often meet at locations that are tested and insured by the United States Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association (USHPA).
Carpooling is a large component of the sport; once you jump, your car is either up the hill or down the mountain. Either way, you need a ride. Many paragliders live in their cars or fancy vans, always ready to fly when conditions are perfect. We reached our site, a high-perched grassy napkin above Avon and I-70, with a car full of people and bulky wings.
Here, I learned that flying is not always a given. If the wind is too strong, not strong enough or if it’s blowing from the wrong direction, all you can do is wait for conditions to change, or as it often happens, pack up and drive home. I loved the unpredictability and dependence on natural conditions. At the same time, it was unnerving to rely on Charlie’s judgment on whether or not we should jump. I completely trusted Charlie, but not understanding the nuances of the wind – and whether I should jump into the void – did not help my anxiety.
While waiting for the wind to change, I sat on a bench, until I read the inscription about the last person who “died doing what he loved.” A few solo flyers took off. It was amazing to a watch: the purity and simplicity of a human body being able to fly. After about 20 minutes of watching and monitoring the wind, Charlie said it was time to go. He hooked me to the front of his harness and told me to start running and keep running, unless he said otherwise. In my mind, a paragliding takeoff would take place on a gentle, sloping, alpine meadow. In reality, it was more of a cliff than a meadow, but keeping my fears to myself, I started running as soon as Charlie said so.
When the wing first left the ground there was a lot of drag, and it felt like we weren’t going anywhere. As soon as it lifted, we started moving faster and faster, and the point-of-no-return was upon us before I could understand what was happening. Then, just like that, we were airborne.
Perched on my harness, I felt nothing but awe and excitement. How could I not? Feet dangling into space, 3,000 feet up, the wind my only engine. Below, people continued their daily routines, unaware that above I was breaking all rules and flying through the air.
The landing came too quickly and uneventfully, thanks to Charlie’s skills, a metaphor for the back-to-earth feeling that left me wondering how quickly I could get back up. But the wind had changed, the hard Colorado sun now hitting the rocks, so it was not to be.
I can’t wait to get back up. In fact, I’m already plotting and planning my path to solo flying, browsing for wings on Amazon.