“It’s just so damn fascinating.”
Where else do you have to learn to see the invisible, to make life and death decisions literally by the seat of your pants, and to fully commit your soul to that capricious and sometimes ecstasy producing entity we call Nature?
Paragliding’s got me gripped, my friend. I sat down to write about Contrast & Balance and why building those into your life is important, but the drive to share my experience as a new pilot, learning as fast as I can in an unforgiving and extraordinarily environment was too much.
Paragliding is where people fly off a mountain or an ocean cliff on what looks like a parachute. It’s actually an inflated wing, although we pilots often call it a glider, but never a parachute.
We hang under the glider in a harness, and we direct the glider by pulling on lines leading up from the harness to the wing, changing the shape and usually causing it to turn in one direction or another.
It’s not “parasailing”, which is where you get dragged by a boat while hooked to a round parachute; there’s way more agency in paragliding.
We are not connected to the earth by anything other than gravity, and our path is determined by sun, wind, and the slight ability we have to turn, speed up, or slow down.
Our general goal, as paragliding pilots, is to find “lift.”
Lift comes in two general flavors: Ridge lift, and thermals.
Ridge lift happens when the wind hits a (you guessed it) ridge, and is deflected up.
Ridge lift is relatively predictable for a beginner to find; look for ridges that are perpendicular to the wind (like at Torrey Pines, in La Jolla CA) and just cruise back and forth along the ridge riding the “wave” of air that is billowing over the ridge.
Ridge lift is fun, usually smooth, easy to fly in, and where many pilots begin their journey into flying.
Thermals are parcels of air that are rising due to being heated on the ground. We tend to imagine them as perfect columns rising from the ground to the clouds, but they’re not usually that cleanly defined.
Thermals spin as they rise; it’s why on a good flying day if you look up at a group (we call it a “gaggle”) of pilots, they form a circle. The gaggle is turning around the central point, or core, of the thermal, and “mapping” out what the thermal actually looks like.
Those rising thermal columns can be broken up or deformed by wind, or a cloud shadow can cover the patch of ground that was “feeding” them heat and turn them off at the base.
Thermals are far more elusive for the beginner. They are invisible, not always predictable, can have different strengths, and are just as likely to pop you out of them as they are to suck you in.
Remember when you were a kid and went down to the bottom of the swimming pool, laid on your back and blew big old bubbles? They bent and skittered and shimmied as they rose to the surface. Imagine riding on top of, or in, one of those bubbles and you have a little bit of an idea of what riding a thermal whilst hanging under a paraglider is like.
The big difference is that, unlike in the pool where a bubble is clearly different from the water, in the air you can’t actually see the thermal.
Sometimes you get lucky and you’ll share a thermal with soaring birds, or bits of pollen or dust or leaves or butterflies. It’s a magical thing, to be swirling around in a big rising invisible cylinder of air surrounded by a swirling flock of swallows or opposite a red tailed hawk.
Still, most of the time you’re alone, and you have to imagine where you are in the thermal. To do that, you need to listen to your butt.
Why? Because you’re seated, and the most direct form of communication as to whether you are rising or falling is the feeling of your seat either pulling you up or dropping away from you.
It’s an unusual line of communication. Sure, it’s supplemented with your eyes; when you’re low to the ground you can see the horizon fall away as you get sucked up in a thermal, but as you get higher and the angle changes, that horizon moves relatively less and less, and you need to learn to tune in to what your kinesthetic sense is telling you.
Dialing in to that kinesthetic sense, connecting it with what your eyes are telling you, and using your mind to create a model of the massive space we call the sky that is constantly changing based on those inputs is at the core of why I’m so fascinated with this sport.
On top of all the imagining and interpreting what’s going on is actually keeping the wing and inflated over your head, which is a huge skill set by itself.
When you first enter a thermal, your glider pitches back and there’s some turbulence; you’re slicing in to a rising bubble, and depending on what part of the glider has sliced through that bubble (left side, right side, or the entire leading edge) you feel it in your seat.
When you exit a thermal, your glider shoots forward a bit as you slide out; you have to slow it down with your brakes to make it doesn’t shoot too far and collapse in front of you.
Yes, the wing you’re flying can collapse, and you have “the rest of your life” to fix it. The sport is full of big consequences, and that’s a part of what makes it so fascinating.
What you do as you fly actually affects your life, which tends to really sharpen your judgement and lends weight to your decision-making process.
Many pilots talk of flying as meditation in the sense that you can’t think of anything else when you’re flying; your conscious mind is fully engaged.
As soon as you bring the wing up overhead and step off the mountain, everything else falls away, and you must focus fully on reading the invisible, feeling the lift or sink of your seat, and reaping the extraordinary rewards of riding a force of Nature.
To life, my friends!
Too much reading...
How about dessert?