You’ve seen their wings in the sky, paragliders, gently circling. From the ground, their decent seems slow and inevitable. In the sky, there is much to think about. Beyond the beauty of the view and the cool rush of the wind, weather is fickle and their planned descent is not guaranteed.
Bruce Hamler was one of the first pioneers of paragliding in Alaska but helping to start a sport in Alaska wasn’t his intention.
While employed at REI in the 1980s he worked with climbing legend Vern Tejas, who has the fame of climbing the Seven Summits, the biggest mountains on each continent.
Tejas returned from a European trip with a paraglider but no experience flying it. For climbers, the utility of a paraglider was obvious; it allowed them to bypass the hazardous climb down the slope.
“The thought of climbing or skiing and then flying down was very appealing,” Hamler said.
Hamler was enthusiastic about trying it. They picked a spot that Hamler admits he would not take a student now and skied to get up to speed for a launch. He instantly fell in love with the feeling.
“I flew nine times that day because it was so much fun to glide that I kept going back up the hill. I remember going home that night,” Hamler continued with a laugh, “and collapsing on the couch and waking up the next day morning just so sore! But, the motivation to get back up there and fly again was indescribable.”
Both veteran and novice paragliders love the sport for the views, for the adrenaline, and for the freedom of flying on the wind. Their stories are truly one-of-a-kind.
Heidi Halverson, who recently earned her Para-2 (P2) rating, remembers flying in Hatcher’s Pass when an eagle flew directly at her. At first, she thought it was going to attack her, but it veered off and began riding the thermal updraft with her as she looked over the mountains.
“There was this moment of fear, and then I realized it just wanted to fly with me!” Halverson said.
Hamler has seen the sport undergo great change from its nonexistent status to a recognized sport in Alaska with approximately 100 members registered with the Arctic Air Walkers. Hamler has made hundreds of flights and has had the privilege to enjoy views while riding thermal updrafts that very few can enjoy while being in the elements.
He has seen whales from the sky, the sweeping landscape in summer and winter, and eagles lock their talons in their mating ritual as they plummet to the earth. At the same time, paragliders do not take the potential dangers lightly.
While still flying, Hamler instructs new paragliders (called pilots) about how to safely enjoy the experience. As can be imagined, safety is an issue at the forefront of many participants’ minds and for good reason.
Though the experience is rewarding, gliding through the air with nothing but a paraglider and a backup parachute comes with its inherent risks. For example, weather can change quickly where paragliders start their flights.
Halverson remembers climbing higher and higher in Hatcher’s Pass, till she realized she was much higher than she had intended to go. She could see over the mountains and all her attempts at descending failed. Eventually, she managed to return to the safety of her car, where she slept for two hours from the adrenaline rush.
“One of the fascinating things about the sport is that it integrates a lot of different things,” Hamler said. “You have to have an intimate understanding of metrology and how the movement of air is effected by the sun, how topography impacts you and changing weather conditions occur. You see how well weathermen predict weather. Well, our life depends on it so you have to make a commitment to understanding the weather.”
Of keen importance to paragliders is not just the macro-level of metrology but micro-level metrology wherein the pilot can predict what will happen in a small area, like when wind hits a specific ridge.
In order to minimize the risk, paragliders are restricted from flying in certain weather conditions based on their level of rating. For example, Para-1 (P1) are restricted to flying in winds no faster than 12mph.
Ultimately, though, the safety of each individual comes down to the decisions made by that pilot about whether the conditions are appropriate for that pilot’s skill level and equipment.
“The biggest challenge, and the question for whom it doesn’t matter if you’re a beginner or advanced pilot, is just answering the question ‘Should I fly or not? Are the conditions appropriate for my skill level?’” Hamler continued, “The key thing really is just judgment and how you assess risk versus fun.”
Getting into it
For those willing to follow the necessary precautions, and who complete the mandatory training, the open skies await! Luckily, Alaska has numerous locations for paragliding, one of the most popular of which being from Mount Baldy in Eagle River.
Hamler urges those interested in obtaining their pilot’s license to first pay the $125-$175 for a tandem flight with an instructor. This will give the person a good idea if this is something to which they want to commit the time and money required to jump solo.
Companies that offer tandem jumps with an instructor include “Tandemonium” in Big Lake and “Midnight Sun Paragliding” in Anchorage.
If launching off into space and floating hundreds of feet off the ground with just a paraglider and a backup chute makes you a little nauseous, you are in the majority. Instead of seeing fear as a detriment, Hamler views it as a positive thing that aids in focusing the pilot.
“If you’re not afraid, something is wrong,” Hamler said. “I ask early students who are getting ready to launch, ‘Are you nervous? How do you feel?’ If there’s no anxiety at all, then they’re not thinking it through completely, and they need to be a little more focused.”
How much time does it take?
To become good at paragliding requires a significant commitment of time. First, there are the classes (more detail on those later) which demand two days’ worth to receive Para-1 rating. To receive Para-2, required for doing solo jumps, five days’ worth of training and a minimum of 25 flights is required.
After the classes, pilots need to be able to commit enough time to maintain their skills and ratings, which can be a significant commitment if you have small children, work full time or are a student.
Paragliding is not cheap. Just taking the classes for Para-2 usually comes out to approximately $2,000. Then you look at buying your own paraglider or “wing.” New wings cost $3000-$5000, depending upon the needs of the buyer. New harnesses and the reserve parachute are approximately $500.
Though expensive, Hamler points out that the cost of equipment for paragliding is comparable to snow machines, fishing boats, and motorcycles but with the benefit of using it year-round. Additionally, transporting a wing is much easier, considering that it packs down to about four pounds for easy carrying on any hike.
Earning your ratings
There are several places you can take classes to earn your ratings for being a paraglide pilot, such as Golden Eagle Paragliding, LLC, Midnight Sun Paragliding, Skydance Paragliding, and Pioneer Paragliding. Each successive rating gives the recipient increased freedom, with Para-2 being the goal of many new pilots because it enables them to fly without being under an instructor’s supervision.
Some of the best locations in Alaska for paragliding are familiar hiking destinations for many residents like Mount Baldy and Hatcher’s Pass. There are numerous other more remote locations that are ideal as well. Pilots must follow the regulations for their rating, which have restrictions on factors like the cloud cover, wind speeds, and proximity to structures.
Of paramount importance to new pilots is deciding what equipment they should purchase. Not only is it a significant monetary investment, but if the equipment is the only thing keeping participants from potentially falling hundreds of feet, its durability is paramount.
Hamler explained, “Normally, a pilot will replace a glider not because it’s worn out but because he wants a newer, better one. They don’t get a lot of wear and tear up here because it’s not a harsh desert environment with sharp rocks and thorns. So up here they hold really well because we launch off of snow which isn’t abrasive.”
With that being the case, most gliders last at least for five years.
Hamler said that the wings are test flown and adjusted prior to purchase. Each wing is classified A through D based upon the European system that assesses its maneuverability, speed, how it handles stalls and turns, etc.
“A” gliders are more stable and move slower, making them the only glider upon which you can train. Others prefer “B” and “C” gliders because they are faster but also less stable. “D” wings are reserved primarily for competition.
A person’s weight also heavily influences what wing they should purchase. Thus, finding a wing is much like getting a suit; find what works best to meet your needs and the occasion.
In conclusion, those who decide to paraglide this summer will meet many new friends and enjoy a one-of-a-kind experience.
“For me,” Hamler said, “nothing comes close to paragliding. I’ve been ballooning, I’ve been hang gliding, skydiving, I’ve been sailplaning, I’ve been sailing on the water, I ski, I bike, I white water canoe but nothing comes close to going up into the mountains and flying thermals with eagles while getting the view and being in the elements.”
To anyone considering paragliding, Hamler said, “It’s an age-old dream that man has had to fly, and now we live in a time where you can realize that dream. We are very, very lucky and I feel fortunate every time I get to fly, especially in Alaska.”
Jamin Goecker is a local realtor who loves doing all things Alaska. When he isn’t visiting with family and friends or enjoying the outdoors, he can be found writing fiction. Jaminwrites@gmail.com