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!

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