Paragliding Day 15

“What are you going to make for lunch?”, Ben asked at the end of our Saturday morning session. “Something simple, probably sandwich,” I replied. “Today feels like a grilled cheese day,” he remarked. That sounded right. The morning had been the coldest of our sessions thus far, cold enough for a heavy balaclava under my helmet and minor regret that my gloves lacked fingertips. When I returned home I made a grilled ham-and-cheese… quesadilla? The tortilla crisped in bacon grease, the ham warmed briefly in an adjacent pan, the cheddar got an assist across the finish line from a hand torch, freshly sliced scallions added some color and bite, and a little spicy mustard for dipping completed the experience.

Wherever you land on the taxonomy of my lunch I can confirm that it satisfied. Not long thereafter I fell asleep on my couch for ~90 minutes after some reading. I recently regained the ability to take afternoon naps after a long and painful period where grossly excessive stress had left me too strung out for such downshifts. What a wonderful thing I had been missing. When I awoke I set about the task of clearing garage space for my car in anticipation of snow. Consequently I continued to accumulate background processing time for this journal entry.

The morning had offered strong wind from the outset and thus kiting with a small wing seemed the sensible activity. I got in a solid couple of hours of practice for which my brain was thrilled and my knees were moderately grumpy. Much of that time was spent building deeper muscle memory for a variety of skills that are quickly becoming much more natural with practice. I can feel myself with increasing ease flowing through a variety of corrective inputs to include changes in hand pressure, bends of the knees, twists of the hips, and movement of the feet.

We also practiced acquiring and manipulating the lines in a variety of ways to build confidence that I can handle an assortment of situations: drop the brake handles and reacquire by the lines; launch with a minor line twist and resolve it on the fly; grab the C’s for a rapid deflation; navigate from the brake lines back to the brake handles; smoothly turn over an upside-down wing from a reverse inflation gone awry; quickly turn around to escape a collapsing forward inflation. A couple of hours into this I got caught by a strong gust while performing a turnaround, pulled off my feet, and faceplanted. I decided to take that as my cue that the morning was at an end. Despite the violent finale it proved a great session.

I’m looking forward to being able to launch off the top again but no sooner had I done that we went into a block of uncooperative weather. Even before the weather precluded it, however, I had already decided that Saturday’s training should not involve my feet getting off the ground, having self-assessed that I did not meet the criteria for the ‘E’ in an important checklist:

  1. Illness
  2. Medication
  3. Stress
  4. Alcohol
  5. Fatigue
  6. Emotions

In the short time I have been in Utah I have felt many joyous or serene moments tempered by a countervailing grief. In particular I have found myself on many such occasions imagining how much my youngest brother John would have enjoyed coming out here for a week’s visit. Saturday marked the first anniversary of his passing and the thought of everything he is missing weighs heavily.

Paragliding Day 14

This morning offered southerly wind of moderate strength and minimal gustiness. “Let’s go look at the edge”, Ben said before I could strap into my harness. We walked over and I took it in.

“Yours if you want it,” he remarked matter-of-factly.

As the nature of this morning’s lesson plan became evident I felt a familiar nausea creep in, not a bad one, but rather what I have come over the years to think of as the sweet spot of nausea, an electric intensity and hyper awareness that is slightly unpleasant but well short of dry heaves and indicative of my being appropriately dialed into the stakes at hand. We walked back to our vehicles where Ben pulled out some new “equipment” and attached it to my harness.

Spanish for “Student Driver”

I hooked into my harness, connected the wing, then walked over to an area a little shy of the edge. I practiced reverse inflations and kiting while Ben helped another student get ready. The inflations felt natural like they had for the first time yesterday evening which inspired confidence. After about fifteen minutes, and under Ben’s close supervision (to include one last chance equipment check) , I spun forward and began creeping up to the edge with the wing swaying gently in the breeze. At 0856 I made the go decision.

For perspective I took some photos near the bottom of the hill at the end of the day. My launch point was slightly to the left of the flag at the top of the hill about a fifth of the way into the frame.

After traveling into the wind roughly with the hill’s fall line for a few moments I began banking rightward to follow the contour of the hill. I maintained an aiming point of the far end of the hill while waiting to clear an oncoming pilot passing inside and then adjusted my aiming point to the distant turbines.

As I approached the end of the hill I began banking leftward for a ~135 degree turn to establish a base leg for which the bright blue Porta Potty would serve as aiming point. I had to work hard for this turn and I recall it being the most intense moment of the experience. A little ways into this leg I heard the radio crackle and Ben say “this should look familiar”. I rode this leg down to a reasonable distance from the ground and then swung rightward for the final approach aligned with the wind. After my flare I recall landing in a trajectory slightly flatter than I wanted but nonetheless smoothly enough that a gentle trot was all I needed upon contact. I was initially too gobsmacked after touchdown to remember to keep running to maintain inflation for a clean turnaround and deflation, but… minor detail. I needed a sufficiently long moment to ponder what I had just done that I almost missed the cart ride back to the top of the mountain.

For reasons too numerous and complex, maybe even for me to fully understand unconsciously, I felt quite emotional on the return trip.

When I reconnected with Ben at the top I blurted out “I can’t think of a more amazing experience in four decades of living” which he made a point of immediately tapping into his phone for the official transcripts. As I reflected on what was likely in second place I came up with my first multi-pitch outdoor climb from a decade earlier in Utah but I did not speculate on how distant a second that might be.

“What do you want to do next?”, Ben asked. “I think ‘do nothing’ might be a good idea,” I mused as I drank in the view from the top and reflected on what I had just accomplished. “It’s good not to be greedy,” he replied.

Paragliding Day 13

Winds were light, northerly, and swirling in the AM so we refrained from heading to the field and instead penciled in some mid-afternoon ground school at Ben’s house to abut an evening session on the NS. We spent a couple of hours covering the topics of weather and emergency landings and then wandered over to the Flight Park where we found winds light and variable.

One of the things I wanted to practice was controlling the wing when at risk of getting dragged across a field and into, say, a parking lot full of cars. Consequently we worked on deliberately and rapidly deflating the wing with a hard pull on the C’s which sit slightly fore of the brake lines. This works very effectively but if you happen only to grab one side’s worth of C’s you’ll also perhaps spin the wing around and slam it into the ground with a BOOM. Ben mentioned that this is a great way to destroy a wing and so I endeavored henceforth to grab both sets simultaneously.

The lightness and variability of the evening gave me an opportunity to play with the larger wing in messy conditions where after a reverse inflation the wing did wonky things like curl a tip underneath or quickly start dumping to one side. Earlier in the evening I struggled with inadvertent adverse brake pressure but after a few inflations that faded. I also got more comfortable with running under the collapsing wing side despite being in a reverse position.

What felt really awesome was that during reverse inflation holding the A’s longer and sitting deeper became far more natural. I imagine that partly this stemmed from a better mental map and partly from having cinched down the leg straps more tightly. The former gave the kite greater momentum to inflate and the latter more naturally levered me into a seated position. When done right it felt like the harness was snugging onto my hips like a chair-shaped glove. The sensation was amazing and was what had been missing for the past several days. Wow. What a thrill to have multiple things click simultaneously.

Paragliding Day 12

Morning

This morning’s weather afforded a reprise of yesterday’s struggles up top, this time with the knowledge gleaned from repeatedly watching the video where I was dragged along the ground after a botched launch of the wing, as well as a couple of immediate video reviews on my first couple of failed attempts this morning. A laser focus on my hands made all the difference. By ensuring I am holding the A’s long enough to generate the right wing momentum I get the double benefit of not applying the brakes prematurely. Being conscious about remaining square with the wing also helped a lot. I still had a bit of a stutter step but the hand technique was the outlier problem and if I can put that on auto-pilot then I can peel off some brain cycles to tune the feet.

On my first launch off the training hill I neglected to give the brake lines a good pumping after spinning forward which meant I was not in an optimally stable state when I began running but things worked out tolerably well and the rest of the flight was nice.

I struggled to get the wing in the air cleanly for a second flight. On the first attempt it looks like I lost my balance, leaned a bit downhill, and inadvertently applied pressure to my downhill hand which collapsed the uphill wingtip.

Instead of resetting up the hill we continued to attempt launches farther down and to the left with various new situations illustrating more of the many challenges of getting the wing in the air under imperfect conditions. In one case I found myself standing on loose soil in a steep section and lost my footing. In another case the wind cut out just as I was about to turn around, I started to correct by running backward down the hill, but then my monkey brain asked “what exactly are you doing running backward down a hill?” and I chickened out. By the time I finally got the wing launched I was low enough on the hill that I hardly got any altitude, I had biased toward running with the fall line versus into the wind, and the whole affair was most illustrative as a failure. Being so low I immediately suffered vision lock on what was right in front of me instead of where I wanted to go and landed too fast and out of alignment with the wind. It ended up being of no particular consequence but was a great reminder of a problem that I need to crush so I will operate safely in more worrisome situations.

Toward the end we took some time to practice inflating and forward kiting the wing to reinforce all the learnings from earlier in the day. The transitions between various kinds of inputs in the face of varying conditions is starting to feel a little more fluid.

Evening

The evening’s excitement began as I got to the end of my street on my way to the Flight Park and was startled to see what appears to have been a blaze in Orem from (not so) afar.

Shortly after I got to the Northside I saw a water bomber making a trip.

As for actual paragliding practice, the evening was mostly a bust, first with wind that was cray, then with wind that mellowed out really fast. I got in a miniscule amount of inflation and kiting practice but that’s life with a sport that hinges on weather. I’m grateful for an excellent morning.

By the time I returned home a couple hours later the fire situation seemed less dramatic.

Paragliding Day 11

This morning’s wind forecast showed a fairly stable 8 from the south so we prepared for a session on the southside starting up top with some kiting.

One pedagogical tool I found valuable was an “edge transition” in the wrong direction, in specific starting with properly bent knees and then deliberately locking them and experiencing the degradation of control.

I struggled in a familiar fashion launching the large wing up top but Ben caught a video that was extremely informative.

One longstanding curiosity has been why at the moment of losing my balance I generally fall to the right. This video made clear that, among other issues, I am failing to square my hips to the wing before launching and then trying to do what looks an awful lot like a skiing skid stop. Then when this inevitably fails and the wing whips me around I find myself leaning on the wrong brake handle which seals my fate. I need to work on having squared hips, a lower posture, and staggered feet to maintain the right contact with the ground. I also must strive to disconnect my brake inputs from everything else and rely on seat pressure to lift me, not the brake pressure my monkey brain wants to use as if it were a rope to climb. Lastly Ben introduced another degree of freedom, specifically the way my feet bottoms are engaging the ground, and I began thinking about digging in my heels versus being on the balls which leads to my getting levered over top of my feet.

Before heading downhill for some flights off the training hill we spent a few moments in the simulator, something that looks like a playground swing set gone horribly wrong. Here you can clip in your harness and hang as if suspended from a wing. We used this to work through how eventually I will be levering myself back into the harness’s seat post-launch and subsequently levering myself back to where I started in anticipation of landing. We also took the time to experience the ways one can maneuver the body to perform turns without the pressure of being airborne.

The first of my two flights had a slightly messy start, a smooth series of turns, and then a slightly messy landing. After spinning around from reverse-launch to forward position I got tugged rightward and found myself doing a fair amount of lateral movement before adopting a solid runway heading. As in previous flights the objective was to launch into the wind, veer leftward to aim at the cars in the parking lot, and then veer rightward to face into the wind for landing. It was all going smoothly during my turn to final approach when the wind decreased abruptly, I dropped a bit unexpectedly, and I aborted the last bit of the turn to align with my direction of motion. It was a little bit of a skidding affair but nothing particularly noteworthy. I realized my left knee was ever so slightly tweaked when I walked back up the hill for another flight. I wonder if I had locked my legs inappropriately and/or I ought have done a PLF even though it seemed like a fairly benign situation.

For my second flight Ben drew some “runway” lines on the hill with his foot and set as a goal for me to stay within them. After spinning around I put in a couple of hard pumps on the brake lines which worked wonders for imparting lateral stability to the wing. From there it was an easy and smooth affair to maintain a clean runway heading for the entirety of takeoff. My turns were smooth but where I got a little concerned was that shortly before my base-to-final turn I was hit with a gust that lofted me a good deal and seemed to threaten blowing me onto the gravel access road. The radio crackled with Ben remarking that landing on the road would be fine if the wind forced my hand there. I thought I might need to do so but some gentle symmetrical brake pressure got me on a path shy of the road. Then things got messy right at the end. My arms were extending and nearly at full flare when a the wind gusted again and I was suddenly up maybe twenty feet with my brakes already fully applied. Heeding the counsel never to take out brake once you have flared (much like your yoke in powered flight) I prepared for a hard landing by spinning a quarter turn clockwise, bending my knees slightly, and whipping my fists to my chest at the last moment. Contact felt smooth as silk and after a full cartwheel the only damage was a tiny scrape on each of the outside of my left calf and the meaty part of my left shoulder, soft tissue documentation of a successful series of contacts that distributed the force of the impact uneventfully.

You should never want to do a PLF, but it felt incredibly satisfying to do one uneventfully, the knowledge of having that insurance policy established deeply reassuring. I am grateful to have practiced that very thing the previous morning. It was also fascinating to me how automatic the whole shebang was. The time from gust to impact must have been around two seconds and so there was only time for instinct. The whole affair reminds me of the experience of slide tackling as a soccer goalie to shut down a breakaway, my signature move if ever I had one. Some deep and subconscious part of the brain is looking for a collection of parameters to align and then GO. I would not be able to tell you which leg I use for tackles except that the paint is always buffed off the right shin guard.

Neat.

Paragliding Day 10

Morning

Wind was non-existent at daybreak so we waited until 0930 for enough to practice forward launches on northside. I also took advantage of the grass on this side to throw myself into the ground a few times. I won’t ever be trying to land like this but I’m glad to have the PLF in my tool box.

The first forward launch was ok but I took overly cautious steps and didn’t quite get that goldilocks brake pressure. In particular I am sometimes overcompensating for earlier mistakes around excessive brake pressure and need to get more dynamic. During the next launch I did better with these things but lost the wing toward one side near the end. Consequently we added quick twists of the head to scan the wingtips and subsequent countermeasures for various adverse situations, firstly a hard run toward the dipping wing with corresponding brake pressure on the opposite side, and secondly a vigorous snapping of the brake line in the case of wingtip that has not fully unfurled. After a couple more runs the ideas started to sink in though I feel I was too sluggish either to recognize or respond to a dipping wing with a sufficiently timely and aggressive sprint to save it elegantly.

When the wind suddenly picked up we switched to a smaller wing and moved closer to the ledge so we could keep making use of the time and conditions we had. During this portion I was performing reverse launches, spinning to a forward position, and then aiming to maintain a static location. One issue that quickly became evident was that in juggling multiple tasks I was at risk of losing the consistency of my probing of the brake lines which is one of my most important sensors. Ben would occasionally dart in, grab my hands, and start pumping them in the steady and relaxed rhythm I ought have been maintaining. I started thinking in terms of this being a metronome that I need to keep running to maintain a certain clock frequency of data collection and processing. It was also interesting to do this drill in this particular location as the fall line was askew from the wind and the sand was soft which punished mistakes of timing and balance more severely than when you are on flat and firm ground. I would sometimes be too slow to respond to a dipping wing, need to step under it to recover, then find that I had stepped too far and/or pulled too hard and/or too long on the countering brake and then had by body forcefully tugged in the opposite direction, then potentially find myself in a cycle that was tricky to break. It is really interesting how subtle changes in terrain can amplify the challenge of performing certain tasks well. I also found myself opportunistically leveraging the shadow of the wing as one more data point, which I could imagine being useful in some circumstances, but also I wonder if it is “cheating” at this phase and I ought be focusing on feeling brake pressures.

Evening

This evening involved the same manner of drills, again on the northside, albeit in much stronger and gustier wind. We started and stayed on a small wing.

The freshness of the morning’s lesson made this session extremely valuable and a lot of stuff began to click in a way it previously had not, both individually and in concert:

  1. Continual probing of brake pressure converted from a square wave to sinusoidal
  2. I began to recognize seize-ups of my arms after struggles and got better about resets
  3. I began detecting when I was applying residual brake pressure that I ought not have
  4. I began noticing when my brake input would bump my thigh instead of going outside
  5. I found opportunity for rough brake inputs to correct wing collapses or oscillations
  6. I seemed to get better about juggling these disparate tasks simultaneously

There was no flying to be had today but there is valuable practice of some kind to be had in a variety of conditions, especially as a novice, and living so close to the training site makes it far easier to exploit every circumstance. There are so many component skills I need to master to the point I can put them on autopilot and free up my prefrontal cortex for increasingly macro and dynamic problems.

What a productive day!

Paragliding Day 9

I woke at 0600, opened the WindAlert app, and messaged Ben that today’s wind forecast looked “whack”. The choice of word would prove prescient. He suggested a late start on the north side and I figured we would get in a decent if short and messy morning of kiting practice.

When we arrived the wind was entirely calm and so a handful of us were hanging out chatting in the lower area waiting to see if conditions would turn favorable. Other folks were launching off the upper area and flying down to where we were.

*WHOOSH*

*THUMP*

I heard gasps and turned around to see a huge plume of dust. Several people were running toward it with phones out. When I realized what had happened I was astonished by how loud the sound was.

What I had heard, and that others had seen, was a paraglider attempting an aerobatic corkscrew landing but instead of flattening the trajectory at the last moment she had instead flown directly into the ground at ~30MPH. Someone with line of sight remarked that she had not pulled up at all and bounced a couple of feet on impact.

About twenty minutes after first responders arrived a Life Flight chopper landed.

I was in disbelief that the pilot could have survived such an impact…

… but about fifteen minutes later they began loading her aboard…

… and in less than five more minutes they were on their way…

As I reflect in concert on the extreme caution I am currently taking as a beginner paraglider, the extreme risks that this unlucky pilot was taking, and the near misses I have had in other sports such as biking (hit by car), soccer (concussion from cleats), and skiing (too numerous to mention), I am offered a stark reminder that nearly every activity is as dangerous as you choose to make it. In large measure you make your own luck through advanced preparation, situational awareness, and limit adherence.

After the chopper had left Ben asked me what I wanted to do. I remarked that I don’t trust my brain’s ability to self-assess after situations like these and thus the “do nothing” tactic seemed as applicable here as anywhere.

“What do you do with the rest of your day after something like this?”, someone asked.

Paragliding Day 8

Conditions were looking to be 11G13 at the outset of our day which is darned perfect for our purposes so Ben and I started atop southside at 0800 with some kiting practice.

The big takeaways from this earlier portion were manifold:

  1. I need to be in a deep stance when launching a large wing in windy conditions.
  2. I need to be maintaining staggered feet positions so I can take long and powerful steps instead of machinegun baby steps as I get dragged by the wing.
  3. When setting up as in (2) I need to take care not to step into lines dangling on the ground.
  4. I need to kill the reflex to put my weight on the brake lines if I start to tip backward as this spoils the lift and exacerbates the problem.
  5. I need to take the time to re-check the airspace when relaunching after a failed launch so I don’t impinge on someone else in a vulnerable position coming in for a landing.
  6. The ability for the lines to find the tiniest gap in my helmet once more is truly insidious.

After an hour up top we headed down to the training hill where I got in a couple of really nice flights.

The most problematic part of my first flight was the launch and in a way analogous to (4) from the above list. I brought the wing up in a reverse launch, spun to face forward, and immediately the wing started dropping to my right. This loss of lift caused a slight loss of balance and I reflexively caught myself by putting weight on the right brake line which took out even more lift and exacerbated the problem. “LOOK LEFT” I heard Ben shout, and so I did, the problem began to correct itself, and running I went.

Unlike previous flights I sustained a gentle pressure on the brake lines and so managed a smooth and constant ascent. “Pencil pressure”, Ben kept saying, and in the moment I knew I had heard this elsewhere yet could not place it, but now I remember it was from an instructor in a lock-picking course describing the appropriate touch on the torque wrench. Nearing the end I heard “a little left to avoid team purple” and so gently turned that way, then “turn right to face into the wind” which I did, and then I flared for a very satisfying landing. Without the latter instruction I suspect I may have forgotten to align with the wind before touch down.

Ball it up, hike it up, and let’s do it again.

Actually getting to the point of a second launch was the messy part. First someone above me decided to launch just after I brought my wing up and nearly collided with me but Ben, providing a second set of eyes and reacting quickly, jumped on my brake lines and brought the wing down before things got messy. I may have failed to shout “LAUNCHING!” and need to be more reliable about that. During the next attempt I put in too little break pressure after bringing the wing up which allowed it to sail over my head and then collapse, this being the result of my over-compensating for earlier mistakes where I applied too much brake pressure and caused the wing to fail to get up in the first place. Happily the third time was the charm and I quickly got into the air.

I had charted a course where I would be running against the fall line into the wind to launch, then veering leftward to aim toward the parking lot, and then finally veering rightward to realign with the wind before touchdown. It all went pretty much according to plan modulo one minor maneuvering issue at the end plus the oddity that I would swear I never heard any instructions on the radio. As I was finishing my rightward turning track and just short of flaring I found I could not get the wing to come around as far as I would have liked and I landed with a bit of a leftward trot but smoothly enough. As Ben came walking down I shouted up “did our radio link cut out?”. Ben remarked that he had been talking the whole time and I had done everything he said. So either I was in such a trance that I did not consciously register what he was saying or maybe Ben was mashing the wrong transmit button. Either way it was really Zen and I kind of like the idea that I did everything I ought without being told even though it’s too early for radio-out flight to be a great idea.

In discussing the issue I had at the very end Ben noted that in those situations I have to be more aggressive with my inputs. This is counter to the problem I’m having launching where I’m often applying too much brake. I noted that it is also counter to what I would ever do with a yoke during powered flight. Ben remarked that in those circumstances I have not just a yoke but also pedals with which I can make such inputs but while paragliding I’ve got just one set of inputs and thus have to be comfortable with making much more versatile use of them. That makes total sense.

And thus concludes another great morning!

Paragliding Day 7

The wind forecast this morning looked strong and gusty which made both kiting atop southside and launching off the training hill seem problematic. Ben and I thus decided to practice uphill kiting on the training hill which involves setting up as if for a reverse launch but then allowing the kite to gradually pull you uphill like a poorly behaved and very powerful dog.

Uphill kiting as a n00b is mentally grueling and especially so in gusty conditions. It involves a whole lot of everything you’ve already done but with the added messiness of standing on an incline which brings the possibility of a surprise launch. We discussed how if that happens you are welcome to jam on the brakes while your feet are still on the ground but once you cross that threshold “do nothing” is the order of the day as gravity will cause your crossed cables to naturally unwind. Your main task is simply to keep your head clear of the cables.

I managed to make my way up a good portion of the hill albeit with many collapsed wings along the way. One particular struggle involved things happening too fast for me to sense brake pressure quickly enough to react. I found myself tempted to revert to doing things by sight but that comes with its own array of problems. I also seemed to be at risk of stepping into the cables after a wing collapse which could make for a bad time if the wing suddenly relaunched. Lastly I think the fear of a surprise launch had me putting in brake pressure after the wing came up far too aggressively.

After playing this game for a while we found ourselves both high enough and in wind agreeable enough that attempting a launch seemed like a reasonable idea. I brought the wing up for a reverse launch and was almost tempted to turn around and make a go for it but aborted in a situation similar to last Friday where I wished I had aborted. The “be patient” lesson seemed to have stuck.

I brought the wing up once more for a reverse launch and this time things came together, I spun around, and I was off. Sort of. I quickly applied excessive brake pressure and found myself losing altitude and on track for doing a flying dropkick of another student preparing to launch and/or their instructor. I shouted “INCOMING!”, which caused them to scatter, but also had the presence of mind to back off on the brake pressure which allowed me to balloon to a safe height. This particular hurdle cleared I had lost awareness of my aiming point and found myself in a situation similar to my messy flight last Wednesday but the radio crackled with Ben’s voice saying “LOOK RIGHT!” which I did and things came back together. The rest of the flight felt pretty good thereon and I managed a pleasantly smooth landing.

Ball it up, hike it up, and let’s do this again. I stopped short of whence I might try to launch and did a little more uphill kiting practice until I was ready for another launch. The wind felt a little more sketchy, but not unreasonably so, and we decided we would do one more launch to get off the hill and then do some kiting practice in the parking lot below. Once I was running downhill I found myself dealing not only with substantial crosswind relative to the hill’s fall line but also an oscillatory wind strength that made getting off the ground messy. The first time my feet prematurely returned to the ground was my fault, the recurring mistake of excessive brake pressure the culprit, but I recall it happening an additional two or three times, per Ben these owing to the wind dying down. Each time I nonetheless succeeded in hitting the ground running and once I got properly into the air the actual flight felt really good. Continued gustiness made for a few sudden drops but I held fast to “do nothing”. Perhaps the most memorable thing was at the landing I effectively split my attention between the onrushing ground and my aiming point in a way that I had failed to do on the second of my two flights on Friday, the reward being a soft and straight approach and a gentle trot as I made contact. WIN.

Subsequent kiting practice in the parking lot offered opportunity to reinforce an assortment of lessons. In general my handling of the lines to get the wing into the air is beginning to feel more natural under a variety of circumstances. I did, however, repeatedly struggle with a situation where the wing angled up part way and put me in a wrestling match stalemate where I could neither walk backwards nor get the wing farther up. I imagine this means I need more momentum in the wing’s launch so it can carry through to a fully upright position with less effort on my part. An area of growth involved being more flexible and anticipatory of how I am going to leverage lines as I get the wing airborne, especially when the wing is in an imperfect layout on the ground. In one case the left side of the wing had folded over on itself and Ben remarked that I ought know that this will inevitably mean a huge excess of lift on the other side and so I ought only hold one brake line accordingly. As with so many things in life the likelihood of success has already been decided before you reach the key moment. Be prepared.

This was a great morning.

Paragliding Beginnings

A week into into my training my instructor lamented that he had not kept a journal of his own learning experience and encouraged me to do so. That sounded like a great idea so here we are.

Day 0 (2020-02-21)

While in Utah for a week’s skiing back in February I found myself opportunistically doing a morning’s paragliding intro with Ben White of White Cloud Adventures who was then training my host and old friend Joseph Hastings. I had a very positive experience and bookmarked getting certified as a future life project. Also during this trip a switch flipped and I knew it was time to begin a new chapter in my life.

The Interlude

I flew back to Ohio, gave four weeks’ notice at my job, and… then the pandemic struck. And then centuries of systemic injustice boiled over. Planet Earth has been kind of a hot mess. After a wait-and-see period I began making concrete relocation plans and by mid-September I was in my new home in the Suncrest portion of Draper in Utah. By no coincidence I live a 15 minute drive to Point Of The Mountain Flight Park which is a novice paraglider’s dream. Consequently, once I had recovered from a brutal four day RV trip across six states with three cats, top-of-list was re-connecting with Ben to begin training in earnest.

Day 1 (2020-10-02)

I am about two humans worth of human and Ben did not immediately have an appropriate demo harness on hand but he encouraged me anyway to come hang out at the flight park.

I began with the rookie mistake of going to the wrong side of the mountain. The wind in the area generally comes from the South in the morning and the North in the evening and you want to be on the wind-facing side. Whoops. Back in the car and around to the North side I went.

There I observed others for a while, did some no-harness/hands-only forward-facing “launches” with a deliberately underpowered wing just to get a feel for things with my feet staying unambiguously on the ground, caught a breathtaking sunset, and was treated to some amazing aerobatics. The evening felt pretty magical as it began to sink in that this is my backyard.

Day 2 (2020-10-05)

Ben had scrounged up a slightly larger harness, one large enough I could fit in albeit uncomfortably, and so we could begin training in earnest.

In the morning we were at the top of the South side and did kiting exercises. I could feel dormant neural pathways formed in February begin to fire as I recalled the feel of launching and handling a wing. Unsurprisingly these pathways were weak and I was making all the expected mistakes: fixing my gaze on the wing, holding my arms like chicken wings, pulling on the brake cables in a static or abrupt fashion, locking my knees straight, and moving my feet with an awkward side-shuffle. Fixing the feet issue was the most challenging as crossing your feet for lateral movement is something that high school wrestling beats out of you. I also got an object lesson in the importance of carefully inspecting all of your clothing for snag points. While in a forward facing position I began to lose control of the wing and was either too slow returning to a backward facing position and/or turned the wrong way to do so, caught the goggle band securing hook on a line, got thrown into the ground, and dragged and choked a bit until I grabbed the helmet strap magnetic release. Ergh. A good lesson overall but I got a bit banged up in the process.

Afterward Ben and I beelined to the Super Fly Paragliding store to help me figure out a harness, a reserve shoot, and a better helmet. The early bird gets the harness and I walked away well equipped having beaten out the several people who had called about what was their only XL harness while I was in the store.

In the evening we went out again, this time on the North side. Getting into a proper rig of my own felt waaaaay better. No more hunching would be required. I have a hazy memory of a drop-the-grenade-throw-the-pin moment where Ben was walking me through setting up the sail, he told me to hold the line and throw the sail, and my brain got it backward. I might as well have had Rookie tattooed on my forehead. The wind was light and variable which made getting the wing up for kiting practice difficult but happily we were able to do a bunch of forward launch work with an underpowered wing to prepare me for an eventual actual launch of the southside training hill area. I also came to appreciate how a timely tugging of the lines during a reverse launch can breathe new life into a collapsing wing.

Day 3 (2020-10-06)

We spent about an hour at the top of southside doing kiting practice and then drove to the bottom of the hill in anticipation of doing some newbie launches. This terrain and how you employ it at this phase is paragliding equivalent of skiing’s bunny slope: gently inclined, flat, wide open, and you only walk up part way (which is work enough if you’ve been a life-long sea-level flat-lander until just three weeks prior).

The wind was light so we were in a good setup for forward launches. We started low enough on the hill that at most I was only going to get my feet off the ground very briefly, an opportunity to feel what launching on an incline would be like without actually launching. This went smoothly and then I had a hike up the hill to a higher location in preparation for a proper launch. I’m a little hazy on what happened next but I think I had one or two failed-ish attempts at a launch where the wing collapsed on me before I could get going. Probably I either released the A’s too abruptly or subsequently added brake line pressure excessively. Hiking up again made it evident that paragliding is a sport that makes you work for it.

Once more we attempted to launch and it was looking successful from a technique standpoint but maybe there was not enough wind. I heard the radio crackle and Ben say “be ready to run again!” as I was coasting along just a few feet off the ground and then… maybe there was a puff of wind or maybe I got the cable pressure just right and suddenly THIS IS HAPPENING. I ballooned upward and every other concern in my life vanished in an instant. Intellectually it seems like it should have been terrifying but in reality is was just incredibly Zen. I remember getting nudged a bit off course but gently handling the brake lines and returning to my aiming point. At various points I recall Ben saying “legs straight!”, “do nothing!”, “FLARE!”, and finally “whoah…”. With my feet roughly head-height my hands went to my butt to fully extend the brakes which bled off my descent speed and I landed in a gentle trot. AMAZE. That was a flavor of experience you never get to repeat. From incredulity to Zen to euphoria in the span of a minute…

Day 4 (2020-10-07)

Ben was out today and so I was training with his assistant Lindsay. Owing to an assortment of things today would prove more educational than glamorous or euphoric. After getting set up for some kiting practice at the top of southside, but before actually doing any, the wind took a turn for the uncooperative and we packed the gear up and drove down to the bottom of the training hill. We had a fairly variable crosswind that made for several abortive attempts at a forward launch. I also got manhandled by the wing again, thrown to the ground with a helmet snag when I failed to switch from a forward to a reverse facing position as the wing collapsed, this despite having gotten a new helmet that I thought was better proofed against this. The ability for your lines to find any catch point is truly insidious. In this case it seemed that one of the rivets did not sit quite flush to the outer shell. Ugh.

Having marched a good ways up the hill for one more attempt, it seemed that the wind was changing toward greater non-cooperativeness, so we decided to hike down and call it a day. Part way down, however, the wind settled a bit, and we were thus enticed to give a forward launch one more shot. And wouldn’t you know this time I did successfully get airborne but then things got messy. A strong crosswind gust shoved me leftward though I successfully corrected it. Sort of. I think after this I had lost track of my aiming point. Then another hard crosswind shoved me unnervingly to the left and I never fully recovered. I found myself predicting a rough landing to the left which caused me to look left to assess the terrain but in doing so sealed my fate as the wing follows your gaze. I thankfully remembered the “keep your legs straight” admonition, registered the “FLAAAAARRRRRE!” in my radio, and leveraged a quarter century’s experience playing in the snow with sticks strapped to my feet to execute a skiing/skidding-style landing that I really ought have saved for much later in my progression. Sadly I did not have the presence of mind to transfer my fists from the full-flare alongside-butt position to something more protected like by my groin and thus belt-sanded my left pinky. Ugh.

This day in contrast to the previous was a reminder of something I already knew about the high degree of variability one must tolerate in a complex activity that brings together the vagaries of human, equipment, and weather. I also note that what I did to my pinky is a perfect kind of injury, a “cheap lesson” if you will, one that reminds you for a few painful days of something really dumb you did, but does so without any meaningful loss of function and/or lasting damage. Crashing/falling is an inevitability in multiple sports I do (climbing, skiing, biking, etc.) and consequently having good instincts when it happens is critical. I would do well to perform drills at home that ingrain them. I imagine that being able to reliably nail a Parachute Landing Fall will be important for protecting myself as such a large individual.

Day 5 (2020-10-08)

The wind this morning was too messy for any launches but we got in some really good kiting practice at the top of southside despite it being a short session.

One of the drills was bringing the wing from above down to having its edge just shy of kissing the ground, returning it to a stable position in the center, then doing the same on the other side. This was valuable for working on both precision control and predictive control. Not only do you need a light and adaptive touch on the cables but also an anticipation of how you will need to bleed off momentum proactively to avoid overshoot.

The other drill was to reverse which hands I was using to operate the brake cables. Whereas previously I had been tugging on the cables themselves I was now holding the handles and in a reversed fashion as I would when eventually doing a reverse launch such that when you spin 180 degrees to face downhill your hands are already on the handles in a position appropriate to launch. One’s immediate reaction to this is naturally “ARGH EVERYTHING IS BACKWARD”. I had gone from “if I see a wing tip dip then pull the cable on the other side” to “if I see a wing tip dip then pull the cable on the SAME side”. Quickly, however, the next revelation arrived: “don’t look at the wing; just listen to your hands; pull on the cable that has surplus tension”. And suddenly a lot of stuff started to click.

This is the lesson where kiting started to feel natural. My gaze remained on the horizon, my elbows stayed in while my hands were continually probing the lines for subtle changes in pressure, my knees were gently bent at the ready, my feet were gliding across each other as needed, and in situations where previously I might have been running awkwardly after a fast tipping kite I was instead gently twisting my body and applying timely inputs relatively effortlessly. It felt really good.

The Morning Commute

Day 6 (2020-10-09)

Starting out on the top of southside we had me try out a new wing. My kiting experience was nowhere near as graceful as the previous day. It’s hard to say exactly why with so many variables in play: different wing characteristics, variable and gusty wind, my own mind state. But before too long I got it together enough that it was time to drive down to the training hill once more.

I was a good deal nervous owing to my two previous launches offering such a stark contrast, the first a magical and fairly flawless affair, the second a scary and injurious mess. Today, owing to the wind being stronger, we would also be employing reverse launches for the first time which would leverage the techniques acquired the previous day. As we marched up the hill Ben had me verbalize the things I needed to do to be successful: “pick an aiming point”, “keep looking where you want to go”, “look, lean, and pull, in that order”.

We took a conservative initial position on the hill, attempted a reverse launch, and found inadequate wind to make it happen and so balled the wing up and marched higher. Making another attempt at a reverse launch I rushed the transition from a reverse stance to a forward stance and collapsed the wing messily. Ben counseled me to take a pause both before and after such a transition and ask myself whether I felt good about how things were going before proceeding. We set up for another launch, this time with my being more patient and explicit about each transition, and things gelled. Running down the hill it all came together for a flight that was every bit as smooth as my first one, a hugely satisfying and relieving experience to bookend such a suboptimal earlier one. The main critique for this flight was that I likely flared a bit early. I’m still getting comfortable with having my feet hurtling toward the ground and having to wait to pull the cables.

Once more I marched up the hill and set up for a second flight. This time I would launch successfully with relatively little struggle. Where things got exciting was when the headwind decided to gutter out a couple of times. The first time I had a bunch of altitude and so although the dip was unsettling I avoided overreacting with brake pressure. The second time occurred closer to my landing point and consequently, although “do nothing” was again likely the correct action, I ended up executing an early flare (mistake #1), fixated on the rapidly approaching ground instead of maintaining my frame of reference with an aiming point (mistake #2), failed to notice that I was beginning a subtle leftward turn (mistake #3), and consequently found myself with with a slight leftward drift as I made contact with the ground. Overall it was still a good and fun flight but it provided a lot more learnings than the previous one.

Big lessons of the day: be patient, be sure of your setup, and maintain that frame of reference until your feet hit the ground.

What a week!