“No matter how fast you are as a climber, you can only see so much terrain in one day,” says world-class alpinist Zack Smith, who hung up his climbing gear in 2012 after getting hooked on flight. “In long-distance paragliding, you can see an entire mountain range in a few hours. I found that to be incredible.”
On any given day when conditions are right (read: not too much wind), Smith and a handful of professional climbers, including Cedar Wright and Matt Segal, can be found high in the air under the power of wind. There are no motors in this sport.
“It’s the cheapest way to fly,” says Wright.
The airfoil design of the paragliding wing creates low pressure on top of the wing, giving it loft. Air travels faster over the top of the wing than under it, enabling one to achieve flight.
Lift is achieved in one of three ways: when the wind hits a mountain or cliff and is pushed upward; when warm air rises from a hot spot on the ground, like a dry field or rock outcropping; or in what’s called a frontal lift, based on a change in weather patterns when warm and cold air masses collide. In any of these scenarios, the paraglider catches an invisible force (warm air) and uses it to gain altitude.
Unlike wingsuit BASE jumping, where speeds exceed 100 miles per hour, paragliding is comparatively slow at a mere 20 miles per hour. Instead of aggressively diving and zooming past cliffs at warp speed, paragliders gently fly up and down through the air, catching thermals like birds (sometimes even sharing currents with them) and rising into the sky.
Paragliders can be launched from slopes as gentle as 25 degrees all the way up to a vertical cliff. Flights last between a few minutes and several hours. And instead of floating down after launching, by harnessing the power of the sun, paragliders drift up.
“It’s more of an aviation sport than a thrill sport,” Wright adds. “In paragliding, you can make a few mistakes and can correct them.” He compares the dangers of paragliding to that of riding a motorcycle.
To put it in perspective, paraglider pilots fly suspended by little more than some webbing and air. If things go awry -- like if lines get twisted or the wing loses lift -- a crash can occur. This is why pilots carry a reserve parachute.
Paragliding is not a sport you can teach yourself or learn out of a book. Luckily, there are qualified instructors throughout the country who take new pilots through the training process.
“It’s for people who like being in exposed places and have fast reaction times,” Jeff Shapiro, who’s been pursuing different forms of human flight for 25 years, says.
Flying tandem is how many new pilots learn the ins and outs of flight while actively engaging with the sport. Hundreds of feet in the air, attached to an instructor, one gets to feel firsthand what it’s like to catch invisible forces in the sky.
“Part of the attraction of paragliding is accessibility,” Shapiro explains. “It can be as intense or as relaxing as you need it to be depending on your decisions, allowing a wide variety of people to experience foot-launch flight.”