Movement over the earth has always been the goal. Meticulously crawling up sheer vertical faces, rapturously running over the next ridge. About a year and a half ago, I decided to try and learn a new way of moving across the world: paragliding.
Thanks to the generosity, mastery and stoke of my friend Jeff Shapiro, I went from complete novice to certified paraglider pilot in two fun-filled weeks. The gentle mountains above Missoula Montana, and the broad soccer fields in town, were a welcoming and forgiving place to learn my wing, launch into a favorable breeze, arc silently through the invisible currents, and drop back to earth without breaking any bones.
Last summer, in the Alps, I teamed up with a new friend, Jonny Baker, and began to combine paragliding and climbing. Jonny lives in Chamonix and has an irresistibly positive and encouraging spirit (he also throws a great party!). After a quick morning flight on a borrowed ultra-light wing, he invited me to ride the lift up to the snow covered peaks just above town and do my first true mountain flight. Soaring off the Aiguille du Midi was the wildest thing I’d tried so far with my wing, and for the entire 20 minute glide back down into the valley I was smiling so wide my cheeks hurt. But my heart was also racing and I couldn’t escape the feeling of relief when I touched back down.
I hadn’t arrived in Chamonix expecting to combine flying with climbing, at least not right away. I figured that this would be at least another year off, and I’d just need to focus on the basics for a while. With the help of Jonny though, I convinced myself that mountain flying, given smart preparation and conservative decision making, could be a safe prospect. (this worked out okay for me, certainly with a bit of luck. I wouldn’t necessarily advise others to follow this accelerated progression)
Our first real climb and fly mission was the Gervasutti Pillar, a long 5.10 rock spur on the flanks of Mont Blanc. Jonny and I bivied below the route the night before, and then climbed the route at first light. Though it was our first time roping up together, we worked well as a team and efficiently simul-climbed the 25 pitch route in under 4 hours.
We had planned to spend most of the day on the rock, and then launch our gliders from the sub-summit (Mont Blanc du Tacul) just above the route. But having reaching this sub-summit by 10am and with perfect calm weather forecast all day, we opted to continue the hike up to the true summit of Mont Blanc. A light northerly breeze easily inflated our wings, and we giddily cruised out into the clear alpine air.
The week before, I had spent three days on the “Chamonix Skyline” traverse. Endless exposure on sharp granite spires, and equally endless route-finding and complicated rappelling. Now from the glider, I flew along these spires, crossing back and forth along the breadth of the traverse three times. A consistent updraft from the sun-warmed valley gave us effectively infinite airtime. I spotted each the bivy sites I’d used along the traverse, and even waved to climbers as they inched their way along.
A few weeks later, Jonny and I again flew of the highest point in the Alps, this time after climbing “Divine Providence”.
Later in the summer, Jonny and I spent a week in the Dolomites. A first visit for both of us, flying here was definitely more challenging. Simply figuring out which routes might be fly-able, what sort of conditions they’d require, where we might be able to land, and how to carry our gliders (hauling v carrying in packs). Rolando Garibotti was invaluable with very generous and detailed beta. Over that week we managed to climb and fly off:
A few closing thoughts on the sport of “climb and fly”:
This is far from a new thing. The pioneers of paragliding were mountain lovers that often combined climbing with flying. For example: in 1988, different teams flew off both Mt Everest and Cerro Fitz Roy.
As a sport though, paragliding is still quite young and seems to be increasing in popularity and accessibility. New lighter weight wings make more ambitious multi-sport adventures a possibility.
I’ve been flying a single-surface wing, the Skyman Sir Edmund (20 sq meters), which weighs 3.5lbs. I use a Nova Montis harness (0.7lbs). So the whole package is 4.2lbs, and fits in a 20 liter backpack.
This wing is rated up to 220lbs, so for me at 170lbs I have plenty of capacity for carrying climbing and bivy gear.
Lastly, I want say that I still have mixed feeling on paragliding. While I had an amazing experience last summer, and those epic days will stay with me forever, I know how quickly things can go wrong. Alpine climbing alone has it’s share of objective hazard, and one should be very careful about adding an aerial element. In the short time that I’ve been a paraglider pilot, I’ve already lost two friends. Both were far more skilled and experienced than me, and both had been extremely generous in sharing their love for the sport.
Both of those men loved life and loved what they were doing. Nothing worth doing is risk-free, but deciding which risks are worth taking is the key. Be safe out there!