March 08, 1996 Features & Images » Feature Story

feature 310 

By G.D. Maxwell The landscape below stretched to the horizon in rolling green hills, bucolic countryside more at home in Vermont or Quebec than any place I’d ever lived. I soared above it, twisting and turning on currents of air, flying in and out of clouds, wisps of vapour eddying behind me. Slowly but incessantly, I lost altitude and gently touched down. I instinctively knew having both feet on the ground was dangerous. Running and leaping, I tried to get airborne again. No luck. Over and over, until exhaustion left me with no hope, I’d run and jump desperately into the air. It was all so easy before. Why couldn’t I get off the ground. How had I lost the power of flight. How... The dream ended as it always had. Sheets on the floor, pyjamas soaked with sweat, me in my bedroom with only a fading memory of flying. It was, I learned later, a dream sequence many shared. For an excruciating period of my youth, night dreams of flying and Superman comics had me convinced I could, if only I discovered the trick, fly. From the time I was six until shortly before my 10th birthday, I practically lived in a red bath towel cape. I infuriated my father by calling him Jor-El. I regularly leapt through my grandparents’ ground floor window hoping this time would be the time, only to land unceremoniously in their rapidly dying peonies. I recoiled in horror at the sight of turquoise or any vaguely green rock, paranoid it was strength-robbing kryptonite. It took a dive off the garage roof to finally make me give up the dream of flight. Girls, cars, the Summer of Love and the whole nonsense of becoming an adult drove the dream of flying deep into my subconscious. Even night dreams of flying became fewer and further between. Skydiving never enticed me. Leaping from a perfectly good plane bore no resemblance to flying and required a gap in the sanity gene I lacked. I had a brief encounter with hang gliding, but it was far too cumbersome in its early days, and in the mountains where I grew up, too many hang gliders became grease spots on canyon walls to make that form of flight appealing. The first time I saw somebody paragliding off Blackcomb though, it left me frozen in the middle of Honeycomb, pop-eyed and slack jawed and mumbling monosyllables that sounded like, "man... fly..." The dream was back. It took another 18 months, but when I finally called Parawest Paragliding, new own Claude Fiset agreed to meet me and explain what paragliding was all about. Claude had just bought the company and was looking forward to his first summer season at Whistler. Like virtually everyone else here, Claude is from somewhere else; in his case, Mont St. Anne, Que., where he’d operated a paragliding school for the last five years. Claude explained paragliding had its start in the French Alps where crazed, thrill-seeking Frenchmen had adapted the square, ram-air parachutes used by competitive skydivers to their favourite sport: jumping off cliffs. These had the distinct advantage over hang gliders of requiring no rigid superstructure and were, therefore, much easier to haul up to the top of a shear drop. The fact they were safer than hang gliders was probably a drawback for this particular crowd but was offset by the ability to access ever hairier launch points. Competition and growing interest led to successive generations of paraglider design; today’s wings bear only passing resemblance to those first packed in the Alps. There are wings designed to soar high, wings to perform aerobatic tricks, wings for speed and tandem gliders for the ultimate tête-à-tête. Also designed into modern paragliders is a high level of safety, although this concept has to be understood within the context of actually leaving the ground and flying on currents of air. "So when do you want to go," Claude asked. "Right now," I replied. "But it’s getting dark," he said, as though I didn’t have a clue. "No problem, I have a headlight," I said anxiously. Well, it turns out there are limitations to flight. No night flights — although I still wonder about full moon nights — no rainy days, no foggy days, no winds above 30 km/h. The litany of limitations was beginning to sound like a weather forecast in the Coast Range. But there were good flying days last summer, August excepted; I just never made one of them. Between too much work and too much weather, Claude and I didn’t get our schedules to mesh until a beautiful sunny day at the end of last month, right on the cusp of leap day, an appropriate coincidence. We met at Rendezvous about 4 p.m., shortly before the ski patrol began their sweep of the mountain. At the top of Choker run, Claude unloaded yards and yards of purple and yellow nylon, attached to a spider’s web of impossibly thin lines. "Time out," I said. "What’s with the spaghetti? My shoelaces are thicker than these cords." Patiently, Claude explained the lines were made of nylon-coated Kevlar and supported 80 kilograms each. I lost count at about 40, figuring by then I was safe even if he’d exaggerated their strength by double. I watched as he spread the nylon out on the snow and straightened the spaghetti, which was attached to a pair of seats and harnesses. I put my legs through the seat at the front and Claude squirmed into the one a few inches behind. He grabbed the control lines and said, "Now we run straight down the slope." As we took the first few steps, Claude pulled hard on the harness attached to the wing’s leading edge. The drag on our forward momentum was tremendous as the cells of the glider filled with air and rose over our heads. A few more steps and I was suddenly running in mid air, like a cartoon character. The twin effects of gaining altitude and having the slope fall away resulted in skiers and trees very quickly getting tiny below us. We adjusted ourselves back into the seats and relaxed in the ultimate Barcalounger. Time and space were suspended above and below us. The world was silent and weightless. I felt myself drifting somewhere between this incredible reality and the flight of my dreams. Claude’s arms rested just above his head, in straps attached to one thin line each. These ran back to the trailing edge of the wing and were the only flight controls. "The weight of my arms at rest maintains the wing in a neutral position, somewhere between minimum sink and best glide," he explained. "When I pull down on the controls — the brake lines — they bring the trailing edge of the wing down, kind of like flaps on an airplane’s wing. This creates more drag over the airfoil and slows us down. If I pull on one side only, we’ll turn that direction." Having explained the simple concepts, and knowing my propensity for roller-coaster rides, Claude demonstrated all the manoeuvres at once. Suspended like rag dolls, we were dancing and swinging in wide arcs under the canopy. The effect was vertiginous as we occasionally rode to the edge of negative G forces. The fluid in my inner ears threatened to lose track of vertical and horizontal directions. Fortunately, with more than 2,500 flights and 800 hours airborne, this was a walk in the park for Claude. We settled into a comfy flight, caught some lift on a thermal updraft and watched the setting sun and rising moon jockey for position in the sky. A few stragglers skied below us but most of the people left on the slope were stopped; their sunglasses glinted sunlight our direction as they watched us soar overhead. Thirty-five minutes after we left solid ground, Claude braked hard, flaring the wing and we touched down gently, just above Base II. I’ve had harder landings just getting out of bed in the morning. But as nice as the tandem ride was, I knew I had to solo. So next morning I sat in rapt attention in front of a white board upstairs at Merlin’s as Claude explained glider construction, aspect ratios, glide ratios and pitch, roll and yaw axes. He graphically demonstrated the interplay between horizontal and vertical speed, angle of attack, the dynamics of entering, riding and exiting thermals and flaring to land. Then we all grabbed solo gliders, about the size of a large day-pack, and headed up the mountain. Richard, a tourist from the UK, had made a few flights a couple of days earlier. Peter, a snowboard instructor on Blackcomb, was well along in his training but was going to try taking off on a snowboard for the first time. Under sunny, cloudless skies, we made the traverse back around to Zhiggy’s Meadow. In deep powder, we wallowed to spread the wings out on the snow, straighten the lines and get into our harnesses. The solo wings were about half the size of the tandem and seemed, to my eye, really small. I decided to watch the others fly first. After all, they had both flown before and why not learn from experience. Claude checked Peter’s equipment, hung a radio from his neck to give him in-flight instructions and waited for a breath of wind sweeping up the slope. None came. Peter launched anyway and we watched as the effect of his snowboard tended to twist his body too far sideways. The glider never inflated evenly and both pilot and glider aborted some 75 feet down the slope. Oh well, the snowboard was an experiment. After pre-flight safety checks, Richard started sliding downhill, veered the other direction and met the same fate as Peter. Watching them both struggle back uphill in hip deep snow made me determined to get off the ground. Now, I’ll be honest. I didn’t have any fear of flying, none at all. But the idea of pointing my skis straight down Zhiggy’s was a bit disconcerting. It’s not how I usually ski that terrain. Deep breath, positive mental image, and I’m moving. But not very far, not very fast and not at all successfully. Seventy-five feet uphill in hip deep powder, carrying a bundled up paraglider and skis, does a lot to tarnish the allure of unpowered flight. I got back up just in time to watch Peter crash and burn again. Claude mumbled something about no snowboards, ever again. But then, Richard took flight. He was airborne and Claude was giving him instruction over the radio. "Brake. Ease off. Good, good. Okay, brake for landing. Excellent." He was standing on the far shore of what is Blackcomb Lake in summer, whooping for joy. Figuring he had found the sweet spot, I pointed my skis in his tracks and leaned downhill. Twelve feet later, I was weightless and the ground was doing that disappearing thing again. Claude’s voice was on the radio; I don’t know what it said. Sensory overload had set in. I was flying. It might have lasted a minute and a half, maybe two; I don’t know, it seemed like seconds. It was a straight flight and a perfect landing. Only after touching down was I aware of the crowd gathered along Cloud Nine, watching in familiar, slack-jawed gaze. We only had time to make one more flight that day. It was longer and I remembered to play with the controls, turning left and right and braking and swooping. Flying solo, in these benign, controlled conditions was a piece of cake. What I know about paragliding pales in comparison to what I have to learn, but there’s plenty of time this summer to learn more. What I know for sure is, this flying’s no dream and the landings are a lot softer than the ones I had as a kid. If you want to fly: o Tandem flights range from $95 to $155 depending on flight path and duration. o A one day course of theory and solo flights, as described, is $140. o Full certification courses run $800. Parawest Paragliding - 932-7052

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