Despite the popularity of the Winter X Games and comprehensive terrain parks at both Buttermilk and Snowmass, keeping boards to snow is the general goal for many downhillers. Catching air sounds fun—until you’re in the air and realize the unavoidable fact that what goes up must come down. Turns out, there’s another way to catch big air, have extensive hang time, and stick blissfully smooth landings: paragliding on skis.
According to Alex Palmaz, owner of Aspen Paragliding, Aspen was the first ski resort in the country to allow paragliding, and it’s still one of just a few—Jackson Hole and Sun Valley are the others—that offer it.
If you’ve spent any time in town, you’ve no doubt seen Aspen Paragliding’s colorful gliders dancing against the bright blue sky as they float, swoop, spin, and seemingly kiss the mountains. During warm-weather flights, experienced pilots catch thermals (upward currents of warm air) to keep flights going anywhere from 15-45 minutes before eventually landing in town. Weather is the biggest factor in flight time.
Winter flights at Snowmass average about 15 minutes and are more of a ride than an aerial tour due to cooler temperatures, snow-covered terrain, and no thermals. That said, the rad factor of taking off and landing on skis is undeniable—yes, just like James Bond in The Spy Who Loved Me . (And snowboarders can do it too: Aspen Paragliding is an equal opportunity flight provider!)
Palmaz, who's a tandem administrator with a P5 Master Rating (the highest) with the U.S. Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association, says he’s been ski launching off Aspen mountain since he first learned to fly, plus for about 25 years as a tandem operation.
“When we fly in Aspen, you have to ski to get to one of the launch sites, so we had to do it,” says Palmaz, who took his first flight (it just happened to be with Aspen Paragliding) more than 25 years ago. “The beauty of skis is the fact that you can take off in less steep terrain because you can get more speed with skis. And that makes it less intimidating for clients.”
His operation has been offering winter flights in Snowmass for 15 years. The launch site is on Sam’s Knob, just below the top of the Village Express lift. Flights usually happen in the morning and are dependent upon the weather.
“On Snowmass, we want calm conditions,” Palmaz says. “As soon as wind starts getting five, six, eight miles per hour, it's too much.“
The landing zone is on a catwalk near the Snowmass Mall, making the alpine adventure appropriate even for beginning skiers.
“We have strict parameters when it comes to flying here at Snowmass, [and] ours is the only commercial operation,” Palmaz says. “In Aspen, other people can fly, but you have to have certain certifications, and you have to be a member of our club. Not just anyone can fly. We don’t want to lose this. Some people in the flying community don’t like rules. It’s taken a long time to get what we have, and we do it right.”
A common misconception is that paragliding is like BASE jumping. Palmaz explains that isn’t the case: Gliders are laid out before the flight, and all lines are thoroughly checked. There is no free falling aspect to the flight or wondering if your chute will open, because you don’t fly until it fills with air.
Furthermore, Aspen Paragliding will not fly if the conditions aren’t just right. For tandem rides (which is what clients are offered; no flying on your own), the rider is in a harness with the pilot. Once in the air, you sit back in the harness for a comfortable and completely stable flying experience. Your pilot may even give you some pointers on how to fly.
At $250, this experience isn't cheap. For winter flights, you’ll need a lift ticket or foot pass to get to the on-mountain meeting spots. Plan for about 45 minutes for instruction and flight time. Summer flights, meanwhile, begin and end in Aspen and include transportation to the launch site and back to town from the landing zone. The whole experience takes about two hours.
Interested in giving it a whirl? Here, a few things to keep in mind for winter flights:
- Wear ski clothes, as it gets extra chilly in flight.
- Consider wearing an extra mid-layer or vest.
- On cold days, pop some hand warmers into your gloves.
- Goggles or sunglasses are a must.
- It’s a lot to manage with gloves, but consider wearing a GoPro or bringing a camera (just make sure it has a secure strap).