The Early Days
by Bruce Tracy

"TRACE, I'll do a launch first so you have an idea how it's done," said Mark Shipman, standing with me on a small shoulder part way up Thimble Mountain, Wenatchee, summer of '87.

Mark had just stepped through his leg loops and secured the chest strap of his "harness," which was little more than a beefy version of a rock-climbing harness. He clipped in to his 16 square-meter Feral 7-cell sail, waited a few moments for an upslope zephyr, then executed the standard alpine launch. His glide ratio was at best 3:1, with a sink rate of at least 500 feet per minute. Mark landed 30 seconds later, daisy-chained the lines of the simple two-riser system, hiked up the hill quickly with his 8 pound wing, then laid it out for me.

After adjusting the harness and clipping in, another minute of instruction was offered. He emphasized pushing decisively on the front risers until airborne and remembering not to brake too soon on the landing approach to avoid the common neophyte error of stalling 10 feet off the deck. And so there I was, experiencing a few butterflies, unjustifiably I assumed, since Mark had demonstrated how simple it was by his own uneventful flight. With the next upslope rustle of grass, I launched the tiny wing with appropriate vigor, yelling "Fly or die!" but really meaning "Shit, WOW!"

The flight was every bit the rush I had expected, and this little sucker flew fast. As the ground rushed up, I disciplined myself: "Keep off the brakes till the last moment." Unfortunately, I hit the brakes just a few feet above the ground, thereby consigning my landing gear to effect almost all the deceleration. I carved two parallel ruts in the dirt before cartwheeling once or twice, I don't remember exactly. No sprains, nothing broken, I'd done it, YeeeHA! That wasn't to be the only time I'd end up wearing some dirt after blowing a take-off or landing. A month or two after my first flight, I blew a launch on the Leavenworth ski-jump hill after hitting a large bush just after take-off. The wing stalled, precipitating my doing a series of down slope rolls and cartwheels through brush and dirt. Witnesses deemed this a remarkable display; I promised myself I'd shun this absurd sport forever.

In those days, paragliding was a mountaineering sport. We didn't really consider the wing to be an aircraft, but rather just the ultimate fun-hogging way to descend a hill or a mountain. If you wanted to fly, you borrowed or bought a wing and just did it, usually after the kind of abbreviated instruction with which I started. Some folks bought wings then mostly figured out by themselves how to fly them.

By the time I convinced my wife, Marie-Dominique, to give this great new sport a try, November of '87, Jeff Splitgerber, our chief paragliding instigator, had begun to equip his students with a one-way radio. Nevertheless, Marie's one and only flight ended with a 15-foot parachutage to the ground after premature application of brakes. She sustained a serious dislocation of a wrist, requiring a complicated orthopedic stabilization procedure and a long convalescence. This was one of the early significant paragliding injuries in the country at the time when only a couple hundred Americans had been introduced to this sport.

Interest in flying these primitive little wings grew among the climbing community in the Wenatchee area to maybe ten participants by mid '88. Clusters of paragliders (we didn't yet think of the term "pilot") sprang up in Southern California with John Yates, in Salt Lake with Fred and Claudia Stockwell, and in New England with John Bouchard who was the primary source of our flying gear at that time. Another manufacturer on the scene in 1988 was Summit Magic, but there weren't any European names yet available to us, even though ITV and other manufacturers were releasing better performing wings.

In 1987, a number of first flights were being made by Mark Shipman and Jeff Splitgerber from Northwest mountains like Mt. St. Helens (6/87), Mt. Adams (8/87), Mt. Cashmere (9/87) and others. Jeff organized the first North American Paragliding Competition in July of 1988. About fifteen participants succeeded in launching off the 1900 foot high Raptor Ridge near Leavenworth, for 3-1/2 to 5 minute long flights. Spot landing was the primary task. Out of the approximately fifteen participants, there were three significant injuries consequent to flying into rotors. The most grievous of these injuries was to my paragliding mentor, Mark, who sustained C-2 and T-12 vertebral body fractures.

So, having seen how wonderfully carefree this sport was, and not being one to learn too much from others' mistakes, I purchased my first paraglider through Jeff Splitgerber, late July of '88. It was a Feral Elliptical 10-cell, twenty square meters, the best available wing in the States at that time, with a formidable (maybe) 4:1 glide. Soaring was occasionally possible, but thermalling was certainly not. After less than twenty very short flights with it, I was launching off alpine sites like Slate Peak. In August of that year, I decided I must fly one of the highest vertical drops in Eastern Washington, that being the east face of Chopaka Mountain. That spectacular flight off a broken rocky ridge yielded a phenomenal 13-1/4 minute, 6500 foot descent. That audacious flight still stands out as one of my most memorable paragliding experiences.

Just three months later, December 18, 1988, Jeff died shortly after launching an ITV Gemma off Thimble Mountain. He was not helmeted, and died primarily from head injuries. Jeff's death was the first North American paragliding fatality. It finally woke us up (somewhat) to the fact that there really were problems with our knowledge, equipment, attitudes and ambitions. Somehow, I managed to survive my early (and more recent) years in this sport without having to endure significant injury. I certainly had an ample share of good luck back then to mitigate some my flying impulsiveness and naivete.

This story first appeared in the Northwest Paragliding Club newsletter. Reprinted with permission of the author. For a remembrance of Bruce Tracy, click here.

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