Airtime is Golden
by Lowell Skoog

For most pilots, the Canadian Paragliding Championships at Golden, British Columbia are not about competing. They are about exceeding your personal best, about pursuing dreams.

Willi Muller knew that. As organizer of the 1994 event, he announced in advance that the first two days would be open distance, any direction, any launch time. The emphasis was on each pilot flying as far and as well as they could, rather than racing the other pilots. The third day would be a race to goal so participants could head home early.

I flew at Golden two years ago. At that time I had less than a year of paragliding experience. I managed one 32 kilometer cross country flight, but mostly I was intimidated by the place. This year my goal was to fly cross country without scaring myself. If I improved my personal best, that would be great, but not essential.

Golden is superbly suited for cross country flying. The town is located in the Rocky Mountain Trench, the great valley that runs northwest to southeast between the Columbia Mountains and the Canadian Rockies. From Mt. Seven, the peak rising above Golden, the front range of the Rockies extends south at around 9000 feet for hundreds of kilometers . The 2500 foot valley has many fields within gliding distance of the range and a paved road provides easy retrieval.

This is not to imply that flying at Golden is trivial. The thermals can be as strong as anywhere and the mountains are very rugged. There are many places along the range where you simply DO NOT want to go down. Even if you survive a crash landing on the peaks, you may face a full day of difficult travel to hike out. The Canadian Rockies are wild mountains. If you don't fly with a wide safety margin, you're likely to scare yourself, or worse.

Day 1 - Wildfires

Steve Stroming and I left Seattle on Monday, July 25. My plan was to fly for five days (through the first day of competition) then join three friends who were driving up from Seattle for a week of climbing in the Selkirks.

Driving the Coquihalla Highway toward Kamloops, we saw the first of many forest fires. Thunderstorms on Sunday night had started wildfires throughout the Northwest. The Kamloops fire looked like an A-bomb. Grey-orange smoke billowed up from the flames. When the superheated air condensed it triggered a cumulus cloud that boiled skyward like something out of Dante's Inferno.

Day 2 - Windblown

There were only a few pilots at the Golden campground when we arrived. Most would arrive later in the week. We met a group of Vancouver pilots--Gary, Darren, Peter, Matt and "Airtime Pat"--and coordinated a ride up the mountain. Pat was easy to find. He drove a beater Toyota with a red and white bullseye on the hood that said, "SPOT LAND HERE!"

At the 7500 foot paraglider launch it was windy--too windy to launch paragliders. We arrived at noon and settled in for a long wait. In mid-afternoon a hang glider flew from the lower launch and headed south, dodging some scary looking black clouds. We heard later that he flew over 200 kilometers that day.

Pat and Darren hiked down around 7 PM. The rest of us waited until after 9 PM for a fly-down. At the Nicholson landing zone the mosquitos ate us for dinner.

Day 3 - Dream flights

The forecast on Wednesday was excellent and we hiked to the paraglider launch with high anticipation. Airtime Pat psyched himself up. "I wanna get spanked!" he said. "I wanna go far!" Pat had made several long flights the previous week and obviously didn't mind a bit of turbulence.

Around 1:30 PM a couple of experienced paraglider pilots flew from the lower hang glider launch and worked their way up to our level. Peter MacLaren of Vancouver and Eric Oddy of Golden didn't need to hike to the upper launch to make sure they got up over Mt. Seven. Several of our group launched and joined them.

As I was laying out my glider, I heard the call, "Reserve deployment!" I looked up and saw Airtime Pat at least a thousand feet above Mt. Seven, floating down under reserve. He later described being in a 2000+ foot per minute thermal when he suffered a big collapse and spin. One of his trim-tabs slipped, making recovery difficult and prompting his deployment. Luckily he landed in a brushy gully behind the mountain with absolutely no damage. In a moment he was on the radio in an excited voice asking if anyone on launch knew how to repack a reserve. He eventually hiked back to launch, stuffed the reserve in his backpack, and flew down to Nicholson. Only one of his wishes had come true.

With trepidation, I launched and worked hard to get above Mt. Seven. I spent a solid hour getting to 11,700 feet before gliding across the gap to the next peak. I think the difference between this flight and my previous ones at Golden was patience. I didn't pass up any usable lift. I knew from experience that if I hurried downrange hoping for a better thermal, I would find myself scratching in places that I didn't want to scratch. I resolved that if I couldn't maintain adequate clearance from the cliffs, I would fly out and land in the valley.

This strategy worked. Several times I glided over a peak feeling for lift and thinking to myself, "If that last spur doesn't work, I'm outta here." And it worked! I kept plugging away, setting what I thought must be a record for slowness, and eventually landing near the town of Edgewater, about 75 kilometers from where I started.

My wrist altimeter recorded the flight: 5 hours, 30 thermals, 12,700 feet maximum altitude, 38,400 feet of climbing. I had encountered 1300 feet per minute lift but had only one minor collapse. I was worn out, but I hadn't gotten into any scary situations, so I felt very good about the day.

Any delusions of sky-godhood were put to rest when we got back to camp. Peter MacLaren and Eric Oddy, last seen impossibly high east of Mt. Seven, had flown ACROSS the Canadian Rockies to Lake Louise. They had reached 16,000 feet, jumped enormous gaps, and flown two thousand feet over the summit Mt. Temple, one of the monarchs of the Rockies. After Eric landed near Lake Louise, Peter continued across the Bow Valley and flew another 80 kilometers southeast to Canmore. The mountaineers in our group just shook their heads in amazement. It might not be a distance record, but it was the most spectacular paragliding flight we had heard of in North America. Truly a dream flight.

Day 4 - It wasn't a fluke

Friends from Washington and Oregon were rolling into town. Thursday was very hazy, the result of the worst forest fires in decades. 150,000 acres were burning in central Washington alone.

The winds at launch were light again, but the haze suppressed the thermals until later in the afternoon. I launched after 4 PM and climbed quickly above Mt. Seven. I figured it was unrealistic to hope for another good flight, but I got one nonetheless. I followed the same strategy--be patient, get high, stay away from the rocks. I managed about 50 kilometers in about three hours.

Several memories stand out: Being joined south of Mt. Kapristo by my friend Steve after he made a great save. Flying with Marty DeVietti of Ellensburg on his first cross country flight past the "Coke bottle," a surreal looking radio tower in the middle of nowhere. Fleeing from a jaws-of-death canyon and finding myself low over a park-like meadow. The meadow was so beautiful that I wanted to stop for a picnic. But I found a thermal there--smooth, fat and tall--and the meadow receded thousands of feet below me as I made a most delightful save.

Day 5 - Windblown again

It was windy again on Friday. About twenty of us waited on launch for seven hours before flying down. There were so many Washington and Oregon pilots that it felt like another joint fly-in of the Northwest and Cascade Paragliding Clubs. Steve Roti and Marty Kaplan entertained dozing pilots by reading stories out of the NWPC newsletter.

Day 6 - The Magic Carpet (1st competition day)

Eighty-two pilots registered for the competition on Saturday. That was more than double the turnout in 1993. Unfortunately it was very windy most of the day. The young tigers, competition pilots from Alberta, British Columbia, and as far away as California and Colorado, launched in late afternoon and battled the turbulence. They flew north with the prevailing wind but most didn't get very far.

To the recreational pilots who asked, Willi Muller said, "Don't launch in this garbage. Wait until 7 PM. There should be a big glass-off tonight. Go south. You'll glide for miles." He was right.

Willi launched just after 7 and headed south. A number of recreational pilots, some of whom had never flown cross country before, followed him. Bob Hannah and Michelle Leialoha of Seattle launched tandem and tried to get high over Mt. Seven. Not having much success, they turned south and reached the next peak without losing any elevation. About 50 kilometers later they were still going up. A handful of other Northwest pilots including Marty DeVietti and Pete Reagan of Portland, Oregon did the same thing. After sunset, flying straight down the center of the valley, they had to fight to get down.

Many flyers decided not to go cross country that evening. I needed to pack for my climbing trip so I chose to stay near Mt. Seven taking photographs. When the glass-off kicked in, I boated around 9000 feet over the valley relaying messages between Pete Reagan and his chase driver. After 2-1/2 hours, trying to get down after sunset, I learned several things: Holding a B-line stall for more than 30 seconds is exhausting. After two dozen spirals, I'm ready to throw up. If you can't get down in the center of the valley, try the side.

I think what we experienced that night was more than just a glass-off, but I don't know what it was. Bernard Wagenbach of Switzerland won the day with a flight of 88.5 kilometers.

Days 7 and 8 - Wrap up

I dragged myself out of camp at 4:30 AM Sunday morning and left for the Selkirks with my climbing partners Will, John and Juan. I heard later that Sunday was another day of strong south winds and pilots had to work hard to make good distance. Chris Muller of Alberta, Boris Vejdovsky of Switzerland and Alex Curylo of Washington tied with flights of 75 kilometers.

Many Washington pilots headed home on Monday to return to work. It developed into a good day with 17 competitors completing the 41.5 kilometer race to Harrogate. Chris Muller won the day with a speed of 20.58 km/hour. This made him the overall winner followed by Peter MacLaren and Boris Vejdovsky. I came in dead last. I have the results to prove it.

But on Monday I didn't know any of this yet. My climbing partners and I reached the summit of Mt. Sir Sandford around noon. I pulled out my radio and called Mt. Seven, but got no response. Too early--nobody on the air yet. I gave a silent thought to the many pilots I had shared the air with and looked forward to meeting them again next year. Fly safe, my friends. Fly far.

Reluctantly, I turned my thoughts away from Golden. I grabbed my ice axe, nodded to Will at the other end of the rope, and we started our descent down the mountain.

Lowell Skoog is the editor (curator?) of the Alpenglow Gallery. This story was written for the Northwest Paragliding Club newsletter in 1994.

The Alpenglow Gallery