Paragliding in Aspen, Colorado

One of the outdoor sports I really wanted to experience on this trip was Paragliding. I have always loved flying and this particular sport seemed to be the closest you can get without actually sprouting wings. So you can only imagine how excited I was when the Timex big wigs said they had arranged a Paragliding trip for us in Aspen, Colorado.

The campsite south of Aspen, part way up Independence Pass is named "Difficult Campground." We suspected this name came as a result of people like us who wanted to camp near Aspen, but found it difficult to come up with the $16 camp fee. Fortunately, we had a simple plan-- don't pay.

We split early in the morning, before the fee-checker-person made their rounds. After all, saving 16 bucks is the equivalent of putting like 3 gallons of gas in the Truckster! Honestly, the price of fuel has gone up so much that I've completely lost track, but you get the point-- We have priorities, damnit!

On the way out of Difficult we saw a black bear. He ran away upon seeing the approaching Truckster, obviously concerned that the unstable vehicle could fly off the road at any moment and kill everything in its path. I'm telling you, that was one smart bear.

We rolled into Aspen and immediately began burning through our money. Parking for an hour was a couple bucks, and Cody damn near had an aneurysm over his 5 dollar Chai Tea at a trendy little cafe where we chose to grab breakfast. I jokingly said that people in Aspen wipe their asses with $20 bills (We later discovered they use $50's).

Now I could go on and on, but you get the idea-- We are but poor adventure seekers and Aspen is expensive. 'Nuff said.

Adam, Rom and I were excited to fly and got down to the business of signing "we won't sue you" documents, in the event we died or were horribly disfigured when the Glider crashed into the woods. Cody opted out of the Paragliding altogether, citing not a fear of flying but concerns with landing. This was inconceivable to the rest of us, but it was his prerogative. The only problem I could foresee was that Cody would bum around Aspen, constantly being assaulted by the overpriced EVERYTHING, rather than flying high above the town and spitting on it.

Since Paragliding requires several days of instruction before you can solo, this was going to be a tandem ride. Our pilots emerged from a locker room and individually introduced themselves to us. My pilot was Alex, a guy dressed in orange jacket with matching sunglasses. After a few minutes of dawdling around all of us piled into a waiting Ford F-350 pickup truck for a ride to the top of the ski area.

The truck was burdened with more than 10 people and a bed full of Paragliding gear, yet somehow it drove straight up severe inclines without flagging. I rode in the rear with the pilots, hanging on to a metal rack while sitting on the bagged gliders. About half way up the mountain the truck slowed as a fox crossed its path carrying a dead animal in its mouth. Breakfast for its pups, no doubt!

Eventually, the truck stopped near the summit. Everyone piled out and made their way through some woods to a clearing, normally the crest of a ski run in the winter time. Since it was the middle of summer, however, the clearing was covered in prairie grasses and weeds rather than snow-- the perfect place to unfurl the oversized chutes that would carry us aloft.

The pilots went to work preparing the Paragliders while we picked our noses and took pictures.

When it finally came time to launch, I was damn near giddy. Alex, gave me the 20 second take off instructions, which basically included: [I]run, feel the chute resistance, and sit back in the seat once airborne.[/I] He then double checked all his connections and carabiners so that I wouldn't fall off the rigging and die in a mushy pulp on the side of the mountain.

Unlike the Space Shuttle, everything was a "go." We awaited the right wind conditions then ran down the hill. It only took about 3 steps and the glider was over us and catching the wind. Almost instantly we were airborne. It felt like the air currents literally sucked us up into the sky. I screamed, "Woo-hoo" as we blasted over the tree tops and arched upward.

I was flying!

Alex steered the chute towards another tandem pilot who was spiraling higher into the atmosphere. "You see that red Glider," he pointed, "He's caught a thermal and we're gonna follow him."

A minute later we hit the unseen air current and immediately began rising. A small electronic device that measures rate of climb and descent began beeping wildly. "The faster the beeping, the faster we're climbing." Alex explained.

I could feel the tug of the chute carrying us higher and I was pressed into my seat. But even as the monitoring device beeped in my ear and we rapidly gained altitude, the entire experience was like riding a lawn chair through the sky. With harnesses to either side of me and a cushion seat below, I sat comfortably with nothing more to do than take in the 360 degree mountain view. As we chased the other glider skyward I sat in awe of the absolute beauty surrounding me... I had never seen my beloved Rocky Mountains like this before!

Alex pointed out Pearl Pass to the south, a famous 4 wheel drive trail that has a significant place in early Mountain Biking lore. He also pointed out a house below us that was purchased by a guy who made a ton of money off of Yahoo! stock. 20 million was the sale price, and I'm sure the guy simply wrote a check right on the spot.

Eventually we stopped rising into the atmosphere. Looking back at the launch site, I could see other gliders just taking off. They were far below our altitude. In fact, we were higher than all the mountain peaks in the general area-- only the 14er's in the distance looked higher. Then Alex gave me a quick lesson on how to steer the Glider. He allowed me to make a few turns by pulling on the cables, causing the glider to sweep back and forth.

After the lesson, I asked him if we could do a rapid spiral descent. With a maniacal laugh he said, "Hold on!"

By pulling on the right cord and creating a huge amount of drag on that side of the airfoil, he set the glider into a downward spin. The chute was no longer above us, it was out to the side as we corkscrewed round and round and dropped like a rock. Alex and I shot out almost perpendicular to the ground and the centripetal force pulled me hard into my seat. For a moment my stomach felt like someone was standing on it and I might soon hurl. Through the laughter I finally yelled, "Enough, enough!"

I know Alex heard me, but my plea was ignored. We spiraled downward several more revolutions and I held on to the harness with nothing less than a death grip. I couldn't stop laughing, but in my mind I knew that a couple more spins and I was going to puke.

He pulled us out of the spiral and the glider was in level flight once again. My stomach slowly climbed out of my ass-crack and back into its normal position. My guts readjusted and welcomed it back. I felt jittery, but couldn't stop laughing. Immediately I wanted to do it again.

Our altitude was too low for another spiral, so we took a little tour to the north over down town Aspen, then turned south again working our way to the landing point. As we approached the landing field, I could see Rom's glider touch down. Earlier he and his pilot had passed by while we were both maneuvering the thermal. Now we were following them in the landing pattern, back to good ol' terra firma.

Alex gave me the 20 second schpiel about the landing, telling me to hit the ground running. "It will only be about ten yards or so and we'll come to a stop," he said.

We approached the field of tall grass, swept over it, then gently touched down. My legs took 6 or 7 fast steps and were at a complete stop... standing up no less! Overall, it wasn't much different than walking off an escalator.

Rom and Adam were already on the ground and out of their gear, while their pilots were busy packing the gliders into bags in prep for the ride back to town. The second I was disconnected I rushed over to them and all three of us jabbered on and on bout our flights. Needless to say we were all pumped on adrenaline by the experience and couldn't stop talking about how cool it had been.

I cannot recommend Paragliding enough. It's a blast and a half.