I’m strapped into a harness. Tight up against a 20-something dude. We’re atop a 10,450-foot mountain. I’m in front. The Dude issues commands from behind.
“Start running. Keep going. Head up.”
Oddly, it’s his “head up” order I’ve got problems with, not his directive to start running off the summit of Rendezvous Mountain.
Keeping my head up is difficult when I’m worried about running into a hole hidden in the uneven slope.
If I injure myself tandem paragliding, it can’t be twisting my ankle in a hole.
After running about 100 meters I do begin to wonder what happens if the wing doesn’t go up before we run off an edge….
“Go! Go! Go!”
We get yanked back and to the side as the Dude begins to pull up the wing. I straighten out, and get back into stride. I’ve never felt so light while running.
Looking down, there is nothing but 20 feet of air under my feet—then 100—then 150 feet. My legs continue to bicycle beneath me.
“You can stop running,” says my tandem paragliding pilot.
“Sit back, take a load off.”
The harness we’re both attached to has a seat for each of us. Relaxing into it, it’s wonderfully comfortable, like the sit-hammock on my deck at home. My hammock at home doesn’t do loop-de-loops though.
For the next 20 minutes, sitting beneath/behind me, the pilot has us spinning and spiraling thousands of feet above the valley floor. I don’t want it to end.
Although common lore holds that paragliding, or parapenting, was born in France and flourished in the Alps in the late 1970s and 80s, in 1965 an American aeronautical engineer was actually “slope soaring” with wings very similar to the paragliders of today.
David Barish had been charged by NASA to develop a new parachute for bringing spacecraft gently back to earth. He built small, people-sized models and tested them by self-launching. Running down a mountain slope, with his parachute already opened, Barish was able to take off and soar. An avid skier, Barish discovered that he could skim down mountainsides with these test wings. At the urging of a friend, he toured ski resorts from Vermont to California the summer of 1966, demonstrating his radical “slope soaring.” This lofty idea never took root though.
In the late 1970s, men in the French Alps began foot-launching ram-air parachutes on their own. Pretty soon, mountaineers in the Alps were carrying wings up mountains so that they could soar back down to the valley floor after summiting. Paragliding began to spread throughout the early and mid eighties, becoming popular not only with mountaineers, but also with aviation enthusiasts.
Paragliding reached Jackson Hole in 1988. Today the Jackson Hole Paragliding Club has a hefty membership roster. Every spring and summer, JH Paragliding helps wanna-be pilots earn their “novice” or “intermediate” rating. (Classes started May 1).
“Kurt Kleiner is the grandfather, or great-grandfather, I guess he’d be now, of paragliding in Jackson Hole,” says Scott Harris, co-owner of JH Paragliding (with Tom Bartlett) and also a paragliding instructor. “Kurt taught Tom Bartlett, Jon Hunt, John “Birdman” Patterson (who once flew 102 miles from Wilson nearly all the way to Farson, Wyo.), and Luke Madsen. Those four guys in turn got the rest of us started and the rest of us are now teaching the next generation. The paragliding scene in Jackson is alive and growing.”
Looking up at the skies over Snow King, High School Butte, and Teton Village, the sport’s popularity in Jackson Hole is apparent. On warm evenings, when there is a steady light wind from the north and fluffy clouds dotting a Smurf-blue sky (ideal conditions), dozens of colorful wings skitter and spiral through the air above town.
Why paraglide? Well, paragliding equipment is easier to deal with than a hang glider. Paragliding wings can be thrown into your car and carried on your back. Hang gliders cannot. There are also Jackson Hole’s numerous launching and landing sites, all more easily accessible with a paraglider than with a hang glider. “We’ve got the tram at Teton Village. In 12 minutes, a pilot can be at the top and ready to soar down 4,000 vertical feet to a perfect landing zone,” Harris says. There is also a lift to the 7,808-foot summit of Snow King and a wide-open landing zone at the bottom. High School Butte, Phillips Ridge, Haystack Butte, Nelson’s Butte, and Beaver Mountain are all also great launch sites.
There is also the natural appeal of gravity-related sports to people here. “It just feels amazing up there,” Harris says. “I think the idea of flying without a motor intrigues a lot of people. It is also safer than most other sports people around here do. Driving your car home after having flown, now that is dangerous. I took my daughter up for the first time when she was five.”
Jackson Hole Pragliding does tandem flights from Snow King Mountain in downtown Jackson and also at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. Call 307/739-2626 to make a reservation to fly at JHMR ($275) and 307/690-7560 for a Snow King reso ($225). Fliers must be a minimum of 40 pounds; max weight is 225. Flights at JHMR are in the morning and Snow King flights are in the evening. JH Paragliding operates as long as the JHMR tram is open (through September) and Snow King’s Summit Lift is open (closes after Labor Day weekend).