If the Snake Rings, Don’t Answer It!

Many are the times where I have been hiking or kayaking throughout the Snoqualmie region and noticed various airborne craft with people dangling precariously below. Sometimes it was a paraglider, others it was a hang-glider, but in all cases, there was something about watching the freedom of their movement through the air which was quite intoxicating. I kept telling myself “Someday, that looks like fun.”

Further compounding my interest was that my brother had taken up the sport with extreme passion, and kept sending me spectacular photographs taken from his aerial perch several thousand feet above the ground. But the real kicker was when I was in South Africa for his wedding, and he managed to hook me up with a friend of his for a brief but incredibly exhilarating adventure in a tandem paraglider. It only took a few moments in the air, and I knew for certain that it was only a matter of time before I got into the sport for myself.

* * *

That day came just this past weekend at a course with Aerial Paragliding in Cashmere, Washington. I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

The day started out with just myself and one other student working with a fellow named Chris, who was our instructor. There were other students there too, but we were the only two beginners.

After orientation to the parts of the glider and harness, we practiced building walls and bringing the wing up over our heads. “Building a wall” means taking the paraglider and laying it out so that it is as spread-out as it can be. Then the process continues by letting the wind fill the wing with air, then letting it settle back down to the ground again. You have a “wall” when you have the glider fully inflated, neatly laid out, and at the end of all of the lines that lead back to the harness.

Once you have a wall, you can start kiting. That’s when you pull on that wall with a bit of wind into the wing, then WWHHOOOOSH! The entire contraption lifts off of the ground and starts heading over your head. Kiting is when you can get it into that position and keep it there through the proper application of pressure on the appropriate lines without having the wing drag you around the field too badly.

Since I had already done some that with Yaro, through Skyco Sports a few days earlier, I did not need as much instruction with basic kiting, and was able to spend the time practicing instead. We did that for about an hour or so, then we headed up to a place called “Whisper Point”, where we would start running down our first hill.

Before we could do that, however, we had to perform a flight pre-check. This was done each and every time before launch, and consisted of “R1234RST”:

  • Reserve chute. Do you know where it is? Is it where it needs to be?
    (We weren’t using reserves because we were not going to be high enough to use them even if we wanted to. Besides that, we had no idea how to use them anyway).
  • One chin-strap buckle on the helmet, fastened and secure
  • Two carabineers holding the wing to the harness, both locked and secure.
  • Three buckles of the harness, all fastened and secured.
  • Four corners of the wing spread out and ready for flight, with lines straight and untangled.
  • Radio. Does it work? Can you hear instructions when airborne?
  • Stirrup. Do you have one leg in front, and one behind, so that you can push into your seat once airborne without pulling on your wing? (Imagine pulling on the yolk of an airplane while trying to move your seat forward… not a good idea.)
  • Tops and Turn. Are the tops of your risers in the right position to permit a turn to the forward position once your wing is aloft?

So then finally, we started with some gentle-slopes, running while pointing down-hill, and eventually hoping to go airborne. My natural tendency while running down hill was to look at the ground in case I should trip or fall. However, it really helped to stare out at the horizon instead because the moment I felt unsure of my footing was actually just as I was about to take off.

Without a shadow of a doubt, that’s when the fun really started — the moment when conditions were right and I was able to go completely airborne. It was absolutely awesome. Of course, in the midst of trying to enjoy the ride, my mind was alternating between “YES!” and “Oh crap!! What the hell am I doing?” The flight lasted probably close to a minute, maybe 150 yards long, and was over way too soon.

I had a slight sensation of being on a zip-wire, except that there was no wire directing my path, my path was far from straight, and all I knew about my landing site was that it was “down that way, wherever it happened to be when I lost altitude.

While flying, I kept my arms rather stiff. OK, they were out-stretched and rigid, and it wasn’t helping. I tended to grossly over-correct for everything, resulting in a pendulum motion – both forward and back, as well as left to right. Once on the ground, I recognized it as the exact same behavior that kayak students make when learning to steer. Not knowing what to do, I was doing everything, rapidly, and way to hard.

After bunching up my wing in a rosette, I had to hike back up the hill to do it again. A rosette is when you grab all the lines in front, right where they clip into the harness, then start coiling all of the lines as a group. The process takes up all the slack, and results in the corners of the wing being brought in towards the center, making a gigantic “rose” that is held in place by the lines. At that point, the entire contraption is tossed over the shoulder, and you can start walking with it. If you can imagine one of those renaissance-period puffy gowns that go out really far, then quadruple that, you kind of get the picture. Every step results in the whole contraption being jostled about and making a cacophony of rustling noises. With the sun at my back and an assortment of colored nylon surrounding my entire body, I think it ends up looking more like a peacock than a rose, but that’s just what it’s called.

* * *

My second flight did not go nearly as well. While setting up for launch, I’m not sure what I did wrong, but it was definitely not what I wanted. I ended up with the wing going up from the ground, over my head, and then down to the ground, where it began to drag me across the dirt and grass, face first. My first thought was “Well, THIS definitely sucks!” That was followed almost immediately by “Pull the breaks!!”

In the end, I was only dragged about 10 feet, and I was not moving that fast. Nonetheless, it served as a valuable lesson that there is quite a bit more to this sport than I am going to pick up all at once, and this is going to take a LOT of practice.

After recovery from my drag, I got set up again for launch, raised the wing over head, took a few steps down the hill, then WHOOSH! I was not only airborne, but had very rapidly gained a considerable bit of altitude. Well, maybe it was only 20 feet, but for my second flight, that was a lot.

My arms were much more relaxed this time, and I was able to keep my focus more on the horizon as I traveled down the valley. Part of me just wanted to scream out loud, except for the fact that nearly all of my attention was dedicated to focusing on everything that was going on around me: The wind, the shape of the ground, my forward speed and altitude, how far I was from the two hills on either side of the valley, and trying to figure out where I was actually going to land. While I knew the line on which I would land, I had absolutely no idea how far down that line I would travel before touching back down to the ground again. Imagine traveling in a car with a good bit of speed, letting off the accelerator, and trying to figure out how far you will travel before your speed bleeds off. This was basically the same thing, except that the whole thing was in the air and coming to a stop meant coming back into contact with the earth down below.

On this flight, I had managed to travel about 500 yards down the valley, and when my feet finally touched ground, things were far from over. There was still the task of safely getting that gigantic wing back down too, because I did NOT want a repeat of that ground-dragging thing that happened earlier at the top. So while simultaneously struggling for balance with my earth-bound feet, I also had to turn around backwards to face the wing, duck under my lines, and collapse the trailing edge. Then and only then could let out that scream I had been holding in since I launched. Wooo Hoo!!

Best of all, I still got to go back up and do it again for a third launch! This time, the instructor picked us up in the truck, took us past the top of the hill where we started before, and launched us from the top of Whisper Point. Even before laying out the wing from this point, it was clear that we were higher than before. Rather than standing on the middle of a gently sloping hill, we were now on top of something which sloped downward and maybe 45 degrees and dropped about 80 feet over an equivalent distance on the horizon. All the principles from the first two flights still applied, except that the wind was quite a bit stronger from here, the launch sequence was faster, and we were heading directly into a rising thermal the moment we stepped foot off the ground.

Without a shadow of a doubt, this was the best flight so far. I was airborne for more than two minutes, and traveled between a quarter and half of a mile. After that, it was time to pack up, stuff the wing into the back of the truck, and head in for lunch because the conditions were rapidly becoming way to strong, turbulent and erratic for somebody still on her first day, with less than 10 minutes of cumulative airtime under her wing.

That’s OK… my stomach was ready for lunch anyway.

* * *

At one point during lunch, I heard somebody’s cell phone going off underneath one of the wings which was bunched up in the grass under some shade. It was on vibrate-mode, and I could hear it going off amidst the fabric. I let the instructor know, and he moved the wing a bit, only to jump back rather rapidly. It turns out that it was not a cell phone at all, but was actually a rattle-snake that had been buried beneath the wing, and it was not at all happy about it.

Like we didn’t already have enough to worry about as first-time students. Now we had to think about snakes getting wrapped up in our wings, only to fall out of the sky and land on us too? “Welcome to Eastern Washington,” my instructor told me.

* * *

After lunch, watching a video on kiting, and a couple of hours just lounging around waiting for the worst of the winds to die down, it was back to the slopes again. The difference this time was that we had the basics under “moderate” control, and were able to launch, travel, land, rosette, load into the truck, and do it all over again in much less time. All in all, that meant that I got between 4 and 5 flights in after lunch. As much as I tried to keep track, I’m really not sure how many there were.

Mostly, I just know that I was having an absolute blast the entire time. By the last two flights, I was easily traveling between 1/4 and 1/2 of a mile in the air. While airborne, I was much less jerky and reactive to whatever happened to me while up there. I was also able to start changing directions just by changing my lean in the seat, rather than always applying breaks. The former maintains most of my speed, while the latter looses both speed and altitude.

And my landings were getting much better too. The key to a good landing is to control your horizontal ground-speed by getting it as slow as possible, while simultaneously making the wing “stall” when you are about 3 feet off of the ground. Then, the moment your feet touch the ground, turn around and collapse the wing.

When we wrapped up for the day, I noticed that I had a nice set of bruises on both of my upper arms, and I was not sure what they were from. My instructor said “Congratulations… We all get those. it comes from leaning forward against the risers connected to the harness.” I found it hard to believe that bruising was actually “normal,” except that we were doing the same set of drills over and over all day long. Normally, those particular motions are only needed once or twice, depending on how many times one launches on a given day.

When we started today half way down Whisper Point, going to the top seamed way out of my league, ominous, and scary. By the end of the day it was just awesome and fun. So when we then put our stuff into the truck for the last time and headed to another hill that they call “Don’s Peak” to look at what tomorrow would hold, the sensation of ominous and scary was back all over again. This launch point would have us traveling easily twice the distance we had traveled so far, and followed a zigzag pattern that traversed the interconnecting hills and valleys we would have to navigate on our way down to the landing zone a mile away and several hundred feet below.

As much as that hill might have provided an adrenaline rush, the wind had changed, it was getting late, and Don’s Peak would simply have to wait until tomorrow, providing that the weather cooperated with us.

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