Paragliding the Boulder Foothills (1997)

Have you ever dreamed of flying like a bird? I certainly have, which explains why I went skydiving a few years ago and parasailing a few weeks ago.

Since moving to Boulder about a year and a half ago, I have often bicycled along the foothills on the western edge of the city. Several times, I observe people who are (seemingly) effortlessly parachuting off of the foothills to a field below. It looks so leisurely as they glide down, turning at will to face different views of the city or the mountains. Then, a few weeks ago, I am bicycling the foothills again and watch the paragliders (the technical name for parachuting off a hill or mountain) do their blissful thing and I think to myself: "I have to do that sometime! Life is too short not to live it to the fullest, and this paragliding looks like an easy way to experience sheer bliss without having to jump out of a plane." (A big reason why parachuting seems so terrifying to me is that you have to fly up about a mile in altitude in a tiny, perfectly good plane, then have the courage to leap out.)

The most overwhelming fear is "What if the parachute doesn't open properly?" This fear is one of the advantages of paragliding, since, unlike parachuting, you cannot leave the ground unless your parachute is working.

So the next day, I check the yellow pages for paragliding outfitters/schools. I find one and sign up for their introductory two-day training course for the July 5th weekend. On the first day, they take you out for a day of "ground-training" where you practice running with your parachute and having your parachute "inflate" (fill with air) as it rises above your head. In addition, you are taught how to hold and organize all the strings that attach to the parachute. I found this task extremely difficult and confusing at first. You have three straps on both sides, with about eight strings coming off each strap and leading to the parachute. One set is called "risers," which lead to the "front" of the parachute (the parachute is rectangular-shaped like the contemporary parachutes, which affords excellent turning and maneuverability while in the air.) Another set is called "brakes," which control the back of the parachute. In all, there are about 30 strings, which often makes for a tangled and confusing spaghetti web—especially when the strings get caught up in the yucca cactus plants, which often happens when the parachute goes down on the Boulder foothills. This spiders web of strings is so tangled and confusing to me that on my training day, I often fear that I will crash during flight due to a tangle. But after a while, I get used to this "problem."

You start by strapping on a helmet, a radio for getting instructions from your instructor while you are flying (important to know when to turn or brake to avoid hazards such as roads, fences and houses) and a harness. The harness has a seat-like design that allows you to sit when you fly, which makes paragliding rather comfortable. After you strap these items on, you lay out the parachute behind you on the ground then strap on the parachute to the harness, making sure all the lines are clear, untangled, etc. Next, the instructor checks to make sure wind speed and direction are okay, and that no one is in flight. If okay, he gives you the command to run toward him as fast as you can. This involves letting your arms project back from your body (your hands are holding the "risers" and the "brakes" straps). By having your arms in this back position, you allow your body to pull the rapidly inflating parachute (it has cavities that fill with air). You are instructed to run as hard as you can, and keep running even after the canopy starts lifting you off the ground (since you might not get enough "lift" to stay off the ground, and the running helps you to do a second launch if you touch down again).

Instructions to keep running are not as easy as it sounds. In part, because you are told to look up at your parachute to make sure things are okay, in part because the parachute starts lifting you off the ground (which means that you often find yourself running, embarrassingly, on your tip toes), in part because the inflated parachute makes you feel like you are trying to pull a lead-filled sled, and in part because when you are first learning, it is not easy to find the courage to run toward a big drop off. As you run, if you see the parachute start going down on one side, you must run in that direction and pull down on the brake on the opposite side. There seemed to be a lot to remember about take off and flying and landing and packing the parachute, which is especially challenging for me since at the time I have a "career" distraction. In a few days, I will be resigning my Boulder job and moving back to Florida in a month, and not certain what I would do once back in Florida.

After a few hours of running with my parachute, they bring us up an 80-foot hill and had us start to practice flying. I perform two "launches" from the hill, and have short flights to the ground. In paragliding, they are called launches instead of jumps, since a jump off a hillside is not a good way to maintain the speed you need to get airborne. Unfortunately, my skydiving in the past gave me the bad habit of calling them the politically incorrect "jumps." Other bad skydiving habits I picked up were to rely too much on the radio for instructions, and to pull to hard on the brakes.

The next day, we ascend up to a 250-foot hill, where I am able to do four launches, which gives me about two minutes of blissful flight over the foothills, residential areas, and a lake. It is a hot and dry 90-degree day, which made our hikes up to the hill rather strenuous—especially because we have to lug up our parachutes and harnesses.

Twice on my approach runs, I do not get enough lift and have to run down the hill a bit until I was lifted off the ground. Once off, the bliss starts. I am able to experience instances in which updrafts of wind lift me to higher altitudes. My views of the city, as I slowly turn and glide, are breathtaking. That's me in the photo above. The photo below is just after I land from that flight.

Boulder is almost ideal for paragliding. It features foothills along the western edge, which means easy access to elevated launch sites (Paragliding is found in Florida, but there the paraglider must be towed up with a vehicle or boat.) The foothills and fields below are owned by the city (within the 30,000 acre greenbelt which surrounds the city), which makes access open to anyone. The scenic views of the city, the foothills, the mountains, and the open space are exhilarating. In addition, there are multiple companies that offer paragliding training and equipment. The weather in the spring, summer, and fall is often dry and features light breezes excellent for paragliding. Unfortunately, in the summer, the city often gets afternoon thunderstorms, which means the paraglide schools try to start early in the morning.

On both days, sadly, we have to abort our flying by early afternoon due to weather. So good are the conditions in Boulder that people come from all over the country to paraglide here. In fact, in my group of three beginners, the two others are visiting from Canada. By the end of my training, I am very eager to get back up to the launch site to do more flights, and am extremely disappointed that the weather stopped us. Undoubtedly, I will try it again when the opportunity arises. After about 10 days to two weeks, paraglide students can get a "P2 License," which allows the paraglider to fly at will without an instructor. With such a license, one can buy her or his own parachute rig and fly pretty much whenever your heart desires (if you happen to live in a place like Boulder).

Here is a short YouTube video of my day of paragliding in Boulder:

How far can you paraglide? I was told that the world's record is 182 miles and several hours of flight. It's mind-boggling.

If you would like to sign up for paragliding in Boulder, check out the Parasoft Web page. I highly recommend them.



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