Running oﬀ the edge of a mountain with some bits of string tied to a chunk of fabric feels safer than it should.
With the sun in the sky and the wind in our faces, a small group of pilots-in-training gathered on Mount Swansea in Invermere, BC earlier this month to do just that.
The journey to my ﬁrst solo high ﬂight (5655 feet) came after a two-week crash course in the sport. Our mix of eight rookie and experienced pilots took part in a training course with ebullient local gliding enthusiast Max Fanderl, who pushed, prodded and goaded us into our ﬁrst tiny ﬂights.
The thrill of that snatched air time while racing down small hills in Brisco gave me a tantalizing taste of what was to come.
As a total newcomer to gliding, I was blown away by the speed and ease of learning to ﬂy. With equipment compact enough to pack down into a large backpack, paragliding is the most portable, simple method of getting airborne.
The mechanics are very straightforward. The paraglider canopy (wing) is a polyester or nylon airfoil. Wings vary in size depending on the weight and skill of the pilot and are connected to their passenger with a series of reinforced lines made of Kevlar or similar materials. Although they look very thin, these lines are incredibly strong.
When unwrapping a glider for the ﬁrst time at the end of our ﬁrst theory session, the tangle of threads baﬄed me. We'd set up in a ﬁeld just beside Fanderl's house and I was handed a pack the size of a small child to puzzle over.
“I prefer to pack the wing and the harness attached together,” Fanderl told us. “It doesn't get as tangled.”
Minutes later, drowning in threads, I understood why. A modern paraglider wing has from 300 to 450 metres of lines in a mish-mash of colours.
To help control the wing (and likely prevent pilots from going insane after hours of untangling) these lines are grouped together and attached to reinforced “handles” called risers. These are used when a pilot readies for take-oﬀ by inﬂating the wing and for ground handling (ﬂying the wing like a kite while on the ground).
As a newbie, inﬂating the wing wasn't high on my agenda for day one. By the time I'd wrestled my way into the harness, a colourful patchwork of canopies was already ﬁlling the ﬁeld around me.
Fortunately I'd been paired with a fellow beginner, Julie Neville, and together we tussled with our equipment, getting the wing and lines spread out on the ground, ready to ﬂy.
Unlike parachuting, where adrenaline junkies are at the mercy of their chute opening, paragliding wings are inﬂated and visually checked before pilots run oﬀ the edge of anything.
The ﬁrst step, after familiarization with the equipment and learning to safely strap in, is this inﬂation.
With the sun dipping in the sky and my head swimming with new information, I found myself in the driver's seat sooner than expected as Fanderl appeared and asked who wanted to give it a try.
“Well, this is what I'm here for,” my brain reminded me as we clipped my harness onto the risers.
Forward momentum and a bit of a breeze are needed to get the cells of the airfoil to inﬂate. After a quick 'how-to' from Fanderl, I counted down in my head and started running, yanking the risers in my hand forward to guide the wing up.
At my inexpert touch, the wing inﬂ- ated and made it part-way up before crashing back down to Earth. A few more repetitions elicited the same response until something clicked in my brain and the wing soared into the air. Whooping excitedly, I forgot what I was doing, stopped running and, with a thump, was back on the ground again.
It's utterly exhilarating to feel that ﬁrst surge of power as you harness the wind. With a taste of that, I keenly threw myself into practice inﬂations and ground handling at our next session.
By day three we were ready for the big leagues (in actuality, teeny little slopes in Brisco).
The most common mistake among new pilots, Fanderl had conﬁded, is not getting enough ground time before heading into the sky.
With that in mind, we spent an incredibly lengthy, sun-drenched day running down slopes in Brisco, which is where the real highs and lows of the sport revealed themselves. At its best—the ﬁrst snatches of ﬂight, the satisfaction of harnessing the surging wind—it's magical. At its worst—scrambling hikes followed by inclement weather aborting all launches—it reduces you to a frustrated, sweaty wreck.
Particularly in the early days, paragliding can kick your butt.
While being attached to a gigantic kite is great while a pilot is in control of it, a stout wind can be a game- changer. My ﬁrst encounter with this came mid-afternoon, watching a fellow pilot getting dragged face-ﬁrst across some particularly scrubby ground (which, by the way, is hilarious when it's not happening to you).
But it was as the day in Brisco waned that I discovered the element that continues to test me with the sport to this day: patience.
After a brutal scramble to our ﬁrst proper launch site, about 1200 feet from the valley ﬂoor, hearts pounding, Julie and I, along with coursemates Tomaz Stich and Dwayne Stringer, watched our fellow pilots launch. All kitted up, with adrenaline pumping and my wing clipped in, I waited for the wind to die down so I could do my ﬁrst ﬂight.
Sadly, it was not to be. For beginners, the right wind conditions are crucial. It's the diﬀerence between getting blown miles oﬀ-course and touching down lightly in your ﬁeld of choice.
While my eagerness and determination not to face the hike down again might have caused me just to go for it if left to my own devices, Fanderl wisely talked me down due to the wind strength. I sloped back to the truck, tail between my legs, on the brink of exhaustion and bristling with annoyance.
But after a couple more theory sessions, the following weekend found our ragtag group ditching Brisco in favour of Mount Swansea, where I ﬁnally got the ﬂight I craved.
Swansea endeared itself to me from the beginning. Firstly, I'd launched oﬀ there in a tandem ﬂight with Fanderl a couple of years prior. Secondly, the hike from the upper parking lot is a breeze with a 40 or 50 lb pack digging into your shoulders.
Our spotter (who would help guide us down by radio) launched ﬁrst and after a couple more pilots hit the sky, it was my turn. Hooked in and helmet on, I gazed down the steep stretch of slope between me and a rather nasty fall.
The worst thing you can do is half commit to a launch, Fanderl reminded us, and with his nod, I whisked my wing into the air with ease and started sprinting. With wind rushing over the surface of the wing, physics kicked in and suddenly I felt the upward pull of lift for the ﬁrst time.
After a couple of steps I found myself running into the sky, feet connecting with nothing but air. I was ﬂying!
After a couple of unashamed whoops of joy I settled into exploring my new frontier: the sky. Floating up into the blue, birds as my companions, my frustrations and worries melted away. By the time I'd landed, I was hooked. V