Wings of Nylon

By George Bell (
Written January 1989
Published in Rock & Ice #33 (Sep/Oct 1989)

Copyright © 1999 by DW Photography

It's just an average fall day at the ski resort Superbagneres in the French Pyrenees. Under a calm and cloudless sky, the empty lifts and grassy slopes await the first snowstorm of the season. The lazy clang of cow bells marks the drift of a herd across a distant meadow. But the ski area is not deserted. A line of cars growls up the steep grade below, gaining 4000 feet in the trip up from the picturesque town of Luchon. A grassy knoll at the end of the road gives an excellent view of the town and surrounding mountains. Inside the circle of curious onlookers are a dozen people unpacking and stretching across the ground what look like huge brightly colored kites. Most Americans would recognize the delta-wing hang glider, but not the more numerous paraglider, or parapente, as the French call them.

A parapente is a modified parachute which glides through the air as it descends. While parachutes are normally deployed in free fall, a parapente is designed to be flown from a high point of ground like a hang glider. I watch one pilot as she carefully lays out the fabric or canopy and untangles the nest of thin lines that connect it to a seat harness. With less than a minute of preparation, she is clipped into the harness and ready to go. To get the parapente into the air, she uses the same trick that every kite-flying kid knows: grasping the lines, she begins running down the slope. Like a huge kite, the parapente jerks into the air behind her. The parapente canopy is composed of anywhere from 7 to 11 "cells", or "caissons". These are tubes of fabric open at one end, and forward motion inflates them like wind socks. Along its length, each cell is tapered so that it has an airfoil shape. The cells are sewn together to form a giant inflatable wing, and the pilot hangs from this wing by numerous guy lines. As she reaches a point where the slope steepens slightly, she is airborne, joining the dozen parapentes and hang gliders that are already visible circling above the town.

It looks easy, but is it really? This morning I will find out, as I have arranged for a parapente lesson, and today we take our first long flight. Finally I locate Serge, the head instructor, emptying a pile of day packs out of his battered and overheating car. I greet him in the few words of French I know, and with a smile he hands me a pack and walkie-talkie. The pack seems ordinary and innocent enough, but inside it is the $2,000 aircraft that will shortly take me a thousand feet off the ground. I am glad to have the walkie-talkie, which will be my electronic umbilical chord to the instructors.

It is the third day of the parapente course. In the previous two days I have taken a dozen or so short flights, and not without incident. Takeoffs, in particular, have been a problem. Twisted lines and my own fear of running off into space resulted in a few slides down the grass, a hyper- extended finger and bruised ego. As I begin the familiar process of laying out the canopy, Serge gestures at the town below, and an excited babble of French fills the air. I search in vain for my French friend Frank, who has been my interpreter. Eventually it dawns on me that Serge is describing the landing site to the class. The language barrier compounds ten-fold my own fears and doubts about paragliding, and hatches a storm of stomach butterflies. How can this wrinkled 8 pound nylon contraption carry me safely down a 4000 ft drop? Guarding the bottom of the slope is a web of electric lines, and the valley below brims with buildings, fences and trees. My inexperience and fear combine to create images of myself crashing into and hanging off of every one of these obstacles.

How did I get into this suicidal predicament? I think back to how this crazy idea began. Last summer, Frank and I traveled to Peru's Cordillera Blanca. Although he did not have much climbing experience, Frank had a confident and fearless attitude, and learned quickly from example. He was an expert Hackey-Sacker, and took every opportunity to practice. On the pointed summit of 20,750' Chopicalqui, Frank surprised us all as he produced the usual toy, and began to bat it around with his crampon laden double boots. He was hoping to set an altitude record for Hackey- Sacking, but I felt he was lucky not to catch a front point and trip into the abyss. I saw in Frank the excitement of learning a new sport, and his interest in combining it with one that he already knew. During the knee pounding descent I told Frank what I knew about paragliding.

The combination of alpinism and paragliding has always appealed to me. In size and weight, a packed parapente is about equivalent to an average two man tent. The thought of carrying one on an ascent and then using it to glide effortlessly down comes to mind immediately. In the continuing trend toward ascents of ever increasing difficulty, the descent has evolved into either a mere slog to be endured, or a terrifying series of dubious rappels. Here the parapente has the potential of providing not only a fast way down, but an entirely new dimension to climbing. European alpinists have for several years now used parapentes for instant descents of some of the classic walls in the Alps. Quick paraglider descents have made it possible to climb several difficult faces in one day. If paragliding was allowed in Yosemite, speed climbing records for multiple ascents could be improved considerably. The Europeans were also the first to realize the potential of para-alpinism in the Himalaya. At least three 8000 meter peaks have seen paraglider descents. Last fall, Jean-Marc Boivin completed the ultimate paraglider descent in his flight from the summit of Mt. Everest.

In Europe, particularly France, paragliding has become extremely popular. With their tremendous relief and system of telepheriques, the Alps are a veritable paragliding paradise. There are dozens of parapente schools throughout the country, offering classes at the inexpensive rate of around $30 a day. When Frank called with the lure of a trip to Europe combined with a parapente lesson, it was an offer I could not refuse.

Ahead of me now was a gently sloping field of grass, and the tilt of a ribbon hanging off a bamboo pole indicated a slight headwind. I had been careful to set up in a place where I could not see the electric wires below, and my fear had contracted into a hard knot in my stomach. Each student had a walkie-talkie so that the instructors could talk to them once airborne. The flight took over ten minutes and there were as many as five students in the air at one time. With all the other parapentes outside the class, it was a complicated job of air traffic control. After checking my lines and that my walkie-talkie was on, Serge indicated that I could go.

Taking a deep breath, I leaned forward against the lines. With the now familiar whoosh, the canopy filled behind me. I glanced upward to make sure I was directly under the wing and began running down the slope. I had found that my best takeoffs occurred when I concentrated on sprinting straight down the slope, rather than trying to anticipate when I was going to take off. Suddenly my feet were spinning in air; I had been literally pulled off my feet. The electric wires, which my eye now fixed upon, swept past harmlessly a good hundred feet below.

Turning a hang glider is accomplished by carefully shifting your weight. In contrast, steering a paraglider is as simple as steering a car. You hold a steering line in each hand, and to turn left you pull your left hand down, which slows the left side of the wing. Through a burst of static I could hear Serge, "Left ... LEFT ... Good, now 'ead for za swimming pool! Good Luck!" The pool was an easily identifiable feature near the landing site, and in the air ahead flew three other paragliders. Through my walkie- talkie, I could hear the instructor at the landing site guiding the first student in.

In the air a paraglider flies itself with little attention to the controls needed. As I neared the landing site, an instructor guided me in over the walkie-talkie. Despite my fears, the only real danger was that the instructor would forget to switch to English. To land a parapente, you stall the entire wing by pulling both steering lines down together. If you time this perfectly, the impact is no greater than stepping out of a chair. Most landings were less graceful, but on a flat field they were never difficult.

It was a relief to reach the ground, and I paired up with another student to pack up our precious aircraft. We could only communicate haltingly through our common language, Spanish. The students did not fit in with the daredevil image the sport has in this country. Engineers, teachers, accountants-they were just ordinary people on a four day vacation.

The ride had been exhilarating, and only later did I realize a more subtle danger in its simplicity. It was easy to convince myself that I now knew how to fly, when in fact I had merely followed directions from the walkie-talkie.

In the world of one man aircraft, a parapente is the equivalent of the space shuttle. Compared to a hang glider (with a 10:1 glide ratio), it sinks like a rock with at most a 4:1 glide ratio. This accounts for much of the danger of these devices. Some of the instructors had been injured parapenting, and I asked them what had gone wrong. For various reasons, most had underestimated their soaring range and had crashed before they reached their intended landing area. To become proficient at paragliding, you must learn to recognize dangerous combinations of wind, weather, and terrain. Like skiing in avelanche terrain, you must learn to look for warning signs. As with skiing, it is foolish to let your enthusiasm make your decisions for you. Sometimes the only safe decision is not to fly at all. In the context of climbing, this indicates that you can not plan on a paraglider descent; you must always be willing to walk down.

It is important to realize that these devices must be taken seriously. Paragliding is a sport in its own right, and it takes as much time, energy and considerably more money to perfect than climbing. You need to accumulate a lot of air time before you are ready to combine flying with climbing. A neophyte pilot stuffing a parapente in his pack for a quick descent off a climb is like a novice climber immediately free soloing 5.8's-pretty risky, although he might survive anyway.

In the U.S., liability issues have slowed the growth of paragliding. Most ski areas and land owners are unwilling to allow paragliders to jump from their hills. The reception of paragliders in the well established hang gliding community has not always been warm. Initially, paragliding is easier to learn than hang gliding, but it is easy to become overconfident. With fewer restrictions on them, paragliders have clashed with hang gliders competing for the same jump sites.

Recently, there have been a number of changes for the better. The recently formed American Paragliding Association (APA) has been recognized by the official body which oversees hang gliding in this country (USHGA). A certification system similar to the hang ratings used by hang gliders is being drawn up. It is now possible to take a paragliding course from an APA certified instructor in nearly any area of the country. In order to practice at most hang gliding sites, you must obtain liability insurance through USHGA. For paraglider pilots, liability insurance will be available through the APA.

Liability issues have crept into the climbing scene, but are relatively minor in comparison. Ironically, though he is tied to the ground by the safety of a belay rope, the climber in Yosemite has far more freedom to practice his sport than the hang gliders (and would be paragliders) floating overhead. Historical precedents are important here, and the fact that paragliding is developing along the lines established by hang gliding should be taken as a positive sign. Though we may be frustrated by the increasing tangle of liability restrictions, the time spent practicing paragliding is well worth the effort. For the portability of the paraglider seems certain to ensure its place as an essential tool for the extreme alpinist.

Postscript: This article is somewhat dated, for example glide ratios for state of the art paragliders are now around 8:1, the APA and USHGA have merged, and hang gliders have been banned from Yosemite Valley. In 1995, after one of my paragliding instructors (Granger Banks) was almost killed in an accident, my enthusiasm for the sport was considerably dampened. Paragliding probably isn't any more dangerous than rock/ice climbing or backcountry skiing but it takes just as much dedication and practice to be safe.

The Rocky Mountain region has some of the bumpiest and most hazardous air in the US for paragliders. Coastal areas offer safer paragliding because sea breezes tend to be very consistent and smooth. My favorite paragliding memories were surfing silky smooth sea breezes for hours (or, to be accurate - attempting to, while more experienced pilots did) at Pt. Reyes north of San Francisco. In my opinion, paragliding off high mountains is the most hazardous place to practice the sport. I held a Class I Paragliding license from 1989 to 1996 but I haven't paraglided since 1993.

In 2007, a good friend Judy Karpeichik was killed in a paragliding accident. Ironically, this ocurred while she was taking part in a safety clinic over Pueblo Reservoir.

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