In flight over Tiger Mountain. © Lowell Skoog
  On a Wing and a Prayer  
  The Mountaineering Roots of Northwest Paragliding  
  by Lowell Skoog  


end in the reserves

Not long after Jeff Splittgerber’s death, paragliding began to change. Flying from difficult summits, which had captivated climbers at first, was viewed with skepticism. “It wasn’t practical as a descent tool,” Jonathan Carpenter concluded. “The stories started coming back. It wasn’t just us. You heard that people in Chamonix and people in the Himalaya and everywhere else... killed themselves or... something was not working.”

Michael Koerner flies Mount Si. © Scott Northey
Michael Koerner flies Mount Si. © Scott Northey Enlarge

In a 1992 interview in Rock & Ice magazine, Carpenter’s friend Mark Twight was blunt about it. “John Bouchard will hate me for this,” he said, “but it’s useless for climbing. It’s the most seductive thing to say, ‘Oh man, I’m so wasted, I’ll just fly down.’ But the conditions are rarely right. I never got over my fear. I’d be on top, and I’d throw up. The most fun for me was packing my parachute after I landed—’Wow, I lived.’”

Climbers continued to fly off mountains, but they realized that the practical summits were walk-ups rather than technical climbs. To maximize the chance of flying a peak, you needed to plan the entire trip around flying conditions. Successful paragliding was something you did as an end in itself, not as an adjunct to mountaineering.

Canopy performance, especially glide ratio, improved rapidly after 1988. Soaring, often at established hang gliding sites, became the main attraction for newcomers to the sport. Paragliders became larger and their lines grew longer, undesirable characteristics for alpine launches. The best performing gliders were more susceptible to turbulence, so pilots began flying with reserve parachutes. Harnesses became bigger and heavier, sprouting foam pads and even airbags to absorb crashes. Ultralight harnesses and canopies for mountain flying remained available, but by the mid-1990s they were regarded as specialist tools.

Following the 1988 North American Paragliding Championships at Leavenworth, John Bouchard and a few others organized the American Paragliding Association (APA). The APA, which merged with the United States Hang Gliding Association in 1992, began to set standards for paragliding instruction. Marc Chirico, a former hang glider pilot who learned paragliding in France, established a paragliding school in Seattle shortly after Jeff Splittgerber’s death. Mike Eberle, who began instructing with Splittgerber in 1988, worked with Chirico for several months then established his own school. Chirico and Eberle became the first APA certified instructors in Washington in the fall of 1990.

Steve Ahlrich paragliding from Mount Ellinor. © Lowell Skoog
Steve Ahlrich paragliding from Mount Ellinor. © Lowell Skoog Enlarge

Northwest climbers (including myself) continued to take up paragliding in the early 1990s. But the days of friends teaching friends or learning from a videotape faded into the past. Virtually all the new pilots and instructors in the early 1990s learned to fly with either Marc Chirico or Mike Eberle.

Chirico was a master promoter. He ran advertisements in Seattle newspapers that began, “Have you ever dreamed of flying?” He arranged dozens of media spots. His most successful promotion was a 1989 episode of KING-TV’s Evening Magazine, televised in Seattle. He launched host Penny LeGate off Raptor Ridge near Leavenworth. His school received 250 phone calls after that show. Paragliding was re-branded from a daredevil sport for mountain climbers into something anyone could do. Gary Paulin, one of Chirico’s former students, founded the Northwest Paragliding Club in Seattle in November 1990. The ranks of paraglider pilots grew steadily in the 1990s.

Many climbers who started flying in the 1980s drifted away from paragliding as it changed from a mountaineering sport into an aviation sport. Todd Bibler, a Seattle climber who took up paragliding in Colorado in 1987, observed that most of the climbers he started flying with had crashes or bad scares and stopped flying around 1990. In his part of Colorado, he was the only pre-1990 flier who stuck with the sport. To a lesser degree, a similar thing happened in the Northwest. After several scrapes, Julie Brugger decided, “You know what? I’m really a climber, not a paraglider. If I keep doing this, I’m going to hurt myself bad enough that I can’t climb. So I better stop.”

Michael Koerner, who pioneered a string of Cascade descents in 1988-89, stopped flying around the end of 1990. A climber at heart, he realized that he wasn’t doing climbs with his paraglider, just slogs or hang gliding sites. He wasn’t interested in joining a club, and he saw that the equipment was changing rapidly, like boardsailing had done in a few years earlier. “It was a huge amount of fun per minute,” Michael explained, “but not that many minutes of fun.” With his free time limited by his medical practice and family commitments, he decided that climbing and skiing offered a better payback.

Mark Shipman never lost his enthusiasm for paragliding and he continues to fly today. “Although I don’t fly nearly as much as I did at one time,” he says, “I still can’t shake the addiction.” In 1990, as the sport was changing in the Northwest, Shipman helped point the way toward the future. On August 23, he made the first big cross-country paragliding flight in Washington, launching from Chelan Butte. Climbing in thermals high over the butte, he crossed the Columbia River and flew over the flatlands for 24 miles, landing beyond the town of Mansfield. Chelan Butte had for years been the Northwest’s premier cross-country site for hang gliders. Shipman’s flight demonstrated that paragliders could fly cross-country there too.

Bruce Tracy continued to seek adventurous flights, and in 1992 he met a kindred spirit in Dave Kruglinski. Kruglinski started flying in 1989 and took instruction from Marc Chirico and Mike Eberle. He was tall and easy going, with a slightly awkward gait. To his friends he seemed rather like a sea bird, clumsy on land but graceful in the air. His tendency to misjudge landing directions earned him the nickname, “Downwind Dave.” A former climber, Dave relished mountain flights and site pioneering. He repeated several of the flights scouted by Bruce Tracy and Michael Koerner and pioneered many of his own, including Thorpe Mountain, Dirtyface Peak, Green Mountain (Suiattle River), Hidden Lake Peak, Mount Defiance, Sourdough Mountain, and Mount Dickerman.

Flight from Crystal Peak. Photo © Mark Dale
Flight from Crystal Peak. Photo © Mark Dale Enlarge

Downwind Dave’s taste for exploration went hand-in-hand with a knack for misadventures. On a flight from Mount Mercer in the Chilliwack Valley, B.C., he landed in a Canadian Forces rifle range. Standing on the takeoff, his friends watched in horror as he touched down in the middle of a live fire zone. They called urgently on the radio but got no reply for several anxious minutes. Finally Dave’s voice crackled on the air. “Downwind Dave here,” he said. “I’m fine, but the soldiers are very angry.”

In 1994, Dave enlisted Bruce Tracy and Dave Verbois for a classic North Cascade outing. His plan was to hike from the Twisp River up War Creek to the Sawtooth Crest, 6000 feet above Lake Chelan. Launching from the crest, they would fly to the lake and land triumphantly at the remote village of Stehekin. From there they’d cruise on the Chelan ferry back home. “I can remember,” said Verbois, “I said, ‘Dave, have you really checked that area out? Is there a good launch site?’ And Dave said, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve checked it all out.’ That lying rascal. He hadn’t been up there. He just figured we’d find something, you know.”

Arriving at the crest, hot and dehydrated, the three adventurers found nowhere to launch. They scrambled north toward Purple Mountain, where Verbois found a gully that seemed reasonable. His launch and flight went well enough until he encountered a fierce down-valley wind that was whipping up white caps on the lake surface. His glider was tossed back and forth and up and down, so he aimed for some bushy young trees and crash landed a mile above the lake. Kruglinski and Tracy found a better launch and flew all the way to lake level, but for the last several thousand feet, in a vicious headwind, they descended flying backwards. Tracy splashed down in the lake and swam to shore, while Kruglinski managed to reach the head of the lake and landed knee-deep in a swamp.

The climbers with whom I learned to fly pioneered many mountain flights in the early 1990s. But the outstanding descent of this period was made by a Canadian, Clayton Friesen. Friesen was one of a hardy band of Canadian fliers introduced to paragliding by Maxim deJong, a Vancouver area climber. During the winter of 1991 or 1992, Friesen flew from 9,131ft Mount Shuksan, the most famous non-volcanic peak in the Cascade Range. Friesen was skiing one day at the Mount Baker ski area and he saw that the flying conditions were perfect. He drove back home to Chilliwack, got his equipment, and showed up at the ski area later that evening. Climbing through the night, he ascended the North Face of Mount Shuksan carrying his paraglider and mountaineering skis. He set up his glider on a steep snowfield below the summit pyramid, packing snow around the edges to hold the canopy in place. Then he launched on skis and flew back to the Mount Baker ski area.

Delvin Crabtree, a Bellingham-area paraglider pilot who related this story, remembered that hundreds of people at the ski area witnessed Friesen’s flight. Crabtree considered it a staggering feat, but he acknowledged that Friesen was a risk taker. In March 1992, Friesen and several friends flew from Macdonald Peak, just west of Chilliwack Lake in the North Cascades of British Columbia. Against the advice of his friends, Friesen tried to fly across the lake and splashed down in the frigid water. Witnesses reported that he drowned trying to recover his paraglider.

Cascade Descents After 1990

1990, July
Earl Peak
Mark Howe, Paul Southerland

1990, September 15
Hinkhouse Peak
Bruce Tracy

1991 or 1992, Winter
Mount Shuksan
Clayton Friesen

1992, April 19
Wamihaspi (Blue Lake) Peak
Lowell Skoog

1992, June 18
Big Craggy Peak
Bruce Tracy

1992, June 20
Thorpe Mountain
Dave Kruglinski

1992, June 27
Snoqualmie Mountain
Mark Dale, Ron McKenzie, Steve Stroming

1992, June 27
Dirtyface Peak
Dave Kruglinski

1992, August 12
Green Mountain (Suiattle River)
Dave Kruglinski

1992, September 10
Goat Peak (Mazama)
Bruce Tracy

1992, October 4
Carne Mountain
Mark Dale, Lowell Skoog

1993, August 11
Mount Maude
Jon Corriveau, Bill Mickel

1993, August 19
Hidden Lake Peak
Dave Kruglinski

1993, September 4
Mount Daniel
Jabe Blumenthal, Rick Gantman

1993, October 2
Mount Hardy
Mark Dale, Lowell Skoog

1994, July 14
Purple Mountain (Lake Chelan)
Dave Kruglinski, Bruce Tracy, Dave Verbois

1994, October 8
Crater Mountain
Lowell Skoog, Steve Stroming

1995, June 1
Mount Defiance
Dave Kruglinski

1996, August 7
Sourdough Mountain
Charles Chaffee, Jon Corriveau, Paul Klemond, Dave Kruglinski, Bill Mickel, one other

1996, September 26
Mount Dickerman
Carl Bevis, Paul Klemond, Dave Kruglinski

2001, August 26
Mailbox Peak
Brian Bergstedt, Mark Dale, Jim Lorenz, Steve Stroming

2002, October 26
Crystal Peak
Bryan Bergstedt, Mark Dale, Jim Lorenz

<<Prev | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | Next>>