Into the Not-So-Wild Blue Yonder Off Red Mountain
Watching paragliders coasting on the thermals, the colorful shells of their sails holding them aloft in the blue, I have often wondered how they got up there in the first place. Did they learn to fly like fledgling birds in a nature film, dropping out of the nest with a thunk?
Nope. It’s easier than that.
One recent summer morning, an able instructor taught me the process. It only looks like running off a cliff.
I had dreamed about it the night before. I’m fairly adventurous; I have taught skiing and figure skating. I learned rock climbing as a child. On one hand, I worried that the take-off might be like a rappel: that terror-inducing moment when a rock climber must walk backward off a cliff, leaning back against a thin nylon rope to boldly go where no one with any instinct for self-preservation would ever go. On the other hand, I thought it might feel like a childhood dream come to life—one where I’m ice skating and I leap effortlessly into the sky, floating over valleys and mountains at will, a wingless wonder.
The actual launch at first felt like running in ankle-deep sand. My able instructor, Pine Pienaar, had told me we would run together, starting on the right foot. As the canopy rose, it would resist us. It did, and as we neared the point where Red Mountain begins to pitch steeply down toward Glenwood Springs—the point where I’d normally stop running and start to climb down—I discovered my feet weren’t quite touching the ground. They hovered two, three, then five inches above it. Almost imperceptibly, we rose. And we were moving outward, not being blown back into the hillside.
Within moments, Pine, who was harnessed behind me, his arms around me and on the controls, had us cruising downward in big looping traverses. Flying 10 or 12 feet above the ground, I watched the trees and rocks cruise by.
Tall and lean but well-muscled, Pine is sunny and outgoing, the sort who makes friends easily. As he had strapped me in and introduced the gear, speaking in a not-quite-British accent, his expertise and the silver dusting in his beard told me he had quite a few flights under his belt. Turns out he’s been teaching this sport for more than 25 years.
In terms of height and speed, the first leg of our flight was similar to a chairlift ride and took about the same amount of effort from me. The amazing difference was being free of any tether, soaring like a hawk. After following the mountainside a ways, we moved out over the river, the drop to the ground increasing to several hundred feet.
In comparison to hang glider and hot-air balloon rides, this was more peaceful. The paraglider was so silent that I discovered I could interview Pine in flight. (I figured I could remember most of his answers. I hadn’t planned to take notes, so I brought only my camera along. Because I had no zippered pockets, I tucked it into my bra.)
During the flight, I learned that Etienne “Pine” Pienaar hails from South Africa. He first came to this valley to play rugby in Aspen. That’s where he learned to paraglide. Pine now holds an advanced tandem instructor’s rating from the United States Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association and has taught paragliding to dozens of students. Several of them were at the launch site when Pine took me aloft.
Pine now co-owns the Adventure Paragliding Company with his wife Shannon, the genie who handles the management side of the business.
It was Shannon who had driven the truck containing me, Karlee, Haylee, and the gear to the launch site. Like me, Karlee and Haylee were taking their first-ever flights. The two sisters live in Nebraska and were vacationing with their parents. (During the preparatory safety movie, shown at the Glenwood Adventure Company where Adventure Paragliding has its offices, their dad looked fine, but mom looked a bit fretful.)
Unlike me, the sisters weren’t worried about dropping things; I later learned that Karlee had been texting her mom during the flight.
Unlike hang gliders, which have rigid frames and are piloted from a horizontal position, paragliders use lines and harnesses to attach pilots and riders to a parachute-like canopy. The canopy, which is made of rip-stop nylon coated with silicone or polyurethane, costs about $4,500 and lasts around 300 hours.
Paraglider pilots launch themselves using currents that rise up mountainsides; they then can use thermal air currents to soar even higher. To steer, a pilot makes weight shifts and manipulates lines and brakes. Pine did all the steering, and once we were high above the Roaring Fork, he treated me to a few more advanced maneuvers, dipping the canopy first to the left and then to the right, creating an exciting figure-eight roller coaster maneuver. It suited my taste for adventure, but my stomach rebelled, so Pine quickly took us back to glassy, serene gliding.
As we silently swept over the river and treetops, I asked Pine about his oldest student. Although I’m fairly athletic, I’m only 5’1” and I recently turned 65. I had worried whether I would be strong enough to paraglide. Silly wabbit! Pine told me that just a few days earlier, a 92-year-old who had seen the rest of her family fly told him that she wanted to go aloft. She said that if he’d bring a step stool to help her climb into his company’s truck, she’d go up the next day.
Pine brought the step, and the lady flew.
Our landing was not much more difficult than the takeoff. Pine told me to hold my feet straight out and anticipate contact as we neared the ground. It was like fending off rocks when you wash out of a river raft. It didn’t take much strength, but I suspect that Pine was doing most of the work.
At the landing zone, I got to watch a small flock of Pine’s baby birds, his students, leave the nest and float down the mountainside. One young woman was taking her first-ever solo flight—which, accordingly, meant that she was also making her first solo landing. As she came toward the field, Pine directed her by radio:
“Just make some 360s there and don’t come too far forward into the field. Just do that to lose some altitude.”
“That’s good, now make a 180-degree turn on the right to get oriented to the field.”
“OK, now brake. Slow down. Keep your feet out. That’s it.”
She landed with a shout of jubilation.
Soon, the tandem flights carrying Haylee and Karlee followed, bringing them down into the landing field. “That was a great experience. Not as scary as I thought,” Karlee enthused. (Karlee, 20, had been egged into paragliding by her 24-year-old older sister Haylee.) “I loved it,” chirped Haylee. “The views were just beautiful. I would totally recommend this.”
Adventure Paragliding (AdventureParagliding.com) offers a tandem flight, which lasts 10-20 minutes, for $165. They fly four times a day during summer, at 6:30, 7:30, 8:30, and 9:30 a.m. There’s no minimum or maximum age limit; the maximum weight is 260 pounds.