Dancing With Giants
by Mark Dale

It was a classic Indian summer day of late September in the Oregon Cascades. The previous evening's coolness had been chased away by the gentle warmth of a sun filtered through thin high clouds. There was a distinct crispness in the air, spiced with the smell of Ponderosa pines and a hint of sage from the desert far in the distance.

This was the last day of my visit to the Bend area along with Lowell Skoog and his wife Stephanie Subak. With us were five others ascending the trail towards the summit of Mt. Bachelor in hopes of ending our three day paragliding adventure with a true mountain flight. The weekend had found us participating in the Cascade Paragliding Club fly-in at Pine Mountain, where we made many new friends and enjoyed a camaraderie that extended from world-class pilots to beginners. There seemed to be no bloated egos here. And the flying was fun!

Joining us on the trail were Steve Roti, Tina Pavelic, Phil Pohl, Frankie Watson and Karen Adams. All five were experienced pilots from Oregon. The eight of us wound our way through tall timber on the lower flanks of the mountain, eventually breaking out into the open, barren world of dark volcanic rock which nestled blinding patches of last winter's snow. The ski lifts were silent, but occasional sounds from construction below drifted up to us, a reminder that we were on a "civilized" mountain, but a mountain nonetheless, along with all the surprises and unpredictability that it entails.

After about an hour and a half we gathered at an elevation of 9000 feet near the top, about 2600 feet above the parking lot where we had started. The winds were light and seemed favorable, and Phil led us to a shallow snow slope that he had used on a previous flight here. As we began to lay out our wings in preparation to fly, the wind (once friendly) now became a little unsettled, at times blowing downslope. However, there were still enough upslope cycles to give us hope. Phil launched first and, other than a small wing tip deflation, had a fine departure. He was soon working thermals away from the mountain over the parking lot. Next Frankie flew and then Karen. We were starting to have problems with launching due to the infrequent and light upslope winds, coupled with the altitude. An occasional swirling gust would wrap a canopy into a ball. Conditions weren't improving. It was time to dance!

Dance, you say? Isn't paragliding really just a dance with giants, a three dimensional ballet with towering columns of rising air? The pilot launches onto the dance floor and tries to find a suitable partner. My first attempt to take the floor this day was stopped short by a line-over on my right wing tip. The second attempt worked although I flew into sinking air, barely clearing the flat bench in front of launch. Now it was time to find my invisible partner, and it wasn't long before I ran into her headlong. I was rudely jolted--my canopy rustled, twisted into unnatural shapes, and popped back out. Hmm, this isn't the one for me, I thought, a bit too rough and too close to the mountain. Let's search some more.

My next encounter was better. I had more clearance from the mountain's slope, and this partner was gentler. Now I began the dance, rising higher and higher, regaining all the elevation I had lost before. Swinging and circling, leaning and turning, lifted upwards till my partner tired, I would then fly away to begin the dance again and again. This was life distilled to its purest form, no distraction from the moment at hand, and a spiritual awareness that seems so hard to attain in our mundane day-to-day world. I drank in the spectacular surroundings, the dark evergreen carpet that was broken by surprising upthrusts of Broken Top, the Three Sisters, and Mt. Bachelor itself. Away to the east spread the hazy yellow desert of central Oregon. And there was Steve, who had launched after me, and he too was dancing the dance of life!

My thoughts were interrupted by a voice on the radio. It was Phil who had landed in the parking lot, and was reporting that a dust devil had just rushed through and things seemed a little "squirrely". I noticed that Steve was now making his approach to the landing area, and I thought it best that I do the same, before the dance below got too exciting. So I left my last partner behind and worked my way downwards, the forest soon appearing as distinct towering trees rather than the smooth carpet as seen from higher up. The sink alarm on my vario (set at 700 feet per minute descent) sounded several times as I approached the parking lot. Funny how such a large clearing in the woods can appear so much smaller from the air. Folding my wing tips for a steeper descent, I made my final turn, dropped below tree level, and reinflated the glider for a gentle landing into the welcoming arms of Mother Earth.

Those who had been lucky enough to fly were now reunited. We soon heard from Lowell over the radio that he, Stephanie and Tina were walking down due to worsening conditions. The wind was coming steadily over the back at launch, and occasional "snow devils" (alpine cousins of the more familiar dust devil) were passing through. Great wisdom was shown by their decision. Awaiting our friends' return, we five excitedly related our flights to one another, and later quietly contemplated our own experiences. And in thinking about it, I realized that the clock time by which we measure these flights (these dances) and write faithfully in our log books were really without meaning, for these parts of our existence are timeless, to be relived over and over and remembered throughout this lifetime in this world.

All around us the giants continued to dance.

Mark Dale is a Seattle, Washington paraglider pilot. This story first appeared in the Northwest Paragliding Club newsletter. Reprinted with permission of the author.

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