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Fly like an Eagle

Steve Benson
Aspen Times Staff Writer

When Manu asked me if I was ready for a wing-over, I told him I was. But then I didn’t really know what a wing-over entailed.

I quickly discovered it’s like free-falling on a steroid-boosted roller coaster, only you’re 2,000 feet above ground in a paraglider.

It was that first hard spin, the one that shot my stomach into my throat and turned my knuckles white, that was the most shocking. I had thought the takeoff – from Walsh’s run near the top of Aspen Mountain at 10,800 feet – would be the greatest rush of my Aspen Paragliding experience. I was wrong.

Run by Aspen Expeditions, Aspen Paragliding has been operating guided trips from Aspen and Snowmass ski areas for about 13 years. Manu, whose real name is Emmanuel Depallen, is a Swiss native who got into the sport in the 1980s, when the equipment was sketchy and the flying dangerous. He’s been guiding for Aspen Paragliding for five years. Having logged thousands of flights over the past two decades, I trusted Manu.

For the first 30 minutes of the tandem flight, Manu and I gently ascended to 12,000 feet in a circular climb. When morning sun heats the valley floor and the eastern face of Aspen mountain, thermal waves begin to rise through the lower atmosphere, creating a lift that paragliders can ride. Manu has ridden these thermal waves to 18,000 feet, the legal limit for paragliders. He wouldn’t comment on whether he’d flown above that limit.

Circling above the North Star Preserve on a cloudless morning was magical. Rusty red canyon walls contrasted with the lingering white on the higher peaks and the deep green of the valley floors – remnants of a snowy winter and wet spring.

It was during our gradual descent that Manu asked me if I was up for the “full experience of paragliding” – meaning spiral dives and wing-overs.

A spiral dive, which is pretty self-explanatory, refers to a pilot-controlled spiral descent. A wing-over, on the other hand, is more like a flip, or a series of flips. This maneuver, which actually inverts the pilot and his passenger, can produce a G-force between 2 and 3. To better understand what that means, picture a dog with its head hanging out the win-

dow of a speeding car. At least, that’s how I felt, as if my cheeks were flapping against my ears. In reality, it’s just a great rush.

And that’s what Aspen Paragliding is all about – giving clients a great adrenaline rush. Well, that and safety.

With an impeccable safety record – no fatalities in close to 15 years of operation – it’s one of the safest paragliding operations in the country.

The guys in charge

The man behind it all is Dick Jackson. The owner of Aspen Expeditions (AE), Jackson created Aspen Paragliding in 1990. Now, he and his pilots fly four times a day in the summer and about 125 times total in the winter. All flights depend on the weather. Morning flights take off from Walsh’s, while afternoon and evening flights leave from Ruthie’s, on the west side of Aspen Mountain. Flights also take off from Snowmass Ski Area.

Jackson bought AE in 1976, and has since turned it into a world-renowned guide service. “It’s come a little way since then,” Jackson said. “I bought it for $200, and got a Rolodex file, a P.O. box and a bag of shoes.”

Jackson is the president of the board of American Mountain Guides and a certified UIAGM and AMGA mountain guide, meaning he is certified to guide trips in the United States and abroad. AE offers guided rock climbing, mountaineering, wilderness and paragliding trips in the summer, and ice climbing, backcountry skiing, and avalanche education courses in the winter.

Aside from the Aspen area, AE offers guided trips in Arizona and Chamonix, France.

On the morning of my flight, I met Alex Palmaz, Jackson’s partner for three years, at the Paragliding headquarters above the Butcher’s Block near City Market in Aspen. Back in the early 1990s, Palmaz used to deliver a traffic report over KSPN radio – from his paraglider. It’s possible Palmaz has spent a little too much time at high altitude.

Time to fly, time to drink

Outside the shop, a large truck full of men, one woman, and a pile of paragliding packs and equipment sat on the side of the street. After signing releases and fitting into helmets, we were off. A mix of clients, guides and soloists, the group included about a dozen people.

As we drove up the Summer Road on Aspen Mountain, we passed a blind man hiking. Palmaz told me that Aspen Paragliding will take anybody willing to fly. Their past clients include the blind, paraplegics, 90-year-olds and 3-year-olds.

If there’s enough room, Aspen Paragliding offers rides to any licensed paraglider pilots. Most people take four or five tandem flights before soloing and eventually becoming licensed. You must be 18 years old to get a license.

The youngest licensed paraglider pilot in Aspen, Patrick Henry, was in the back of the truck with us that morning. Now 17, Henry was certified at the age of 12. Five years ago, there was no age requirement. But Erin Lally, one of a few licensed lady paraglider pilot in Aspen, says it’s because Henry’s “hooked-up.” Henry comes from a family of fanatical pilots. “This is what I’m good at,” he said.

Lally, 19, has spent “every vacation” in Aspen since she was a little girl. Now a student at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., she took her first tandem flight five years ago and was immediately hooked. Living in Aspen for the summer, Lally tries to fly twice a day. On that morning she logged her 63rd flight.

“It’s definitely a big, big passion,” Lally said, “it gets me through some rough days at home.”

After piling out of the truck, we took a short walk down Walsh’s run to the launching area. Soloists and guides began unpacking and untangling their equipment and laying it out across the mountainside. Slowly, one by one, guides and soloists began taking off. The launch point was above a precariously steep, 200-foot drop-off on the side of Walsh’s.

Before I knew it, only Manu, myself and Henry remained on the mountain. The sky was dotted with paragliders surfing the thermal waves.

Henry then decided it was time to make his move, but as he began running downhill to take off, a gust of wind caught his sail, twisting his lines. Beside me, under his breath, I could hear Manu muttering, “No, Patrick, no.” But using his experience, Henry calmly regained control, just steps away from the ledge. At this point, I pondered the negative side of gravity.

With a harness between my legs, a seat of straps and fabric beneath my butt, and Manu strapped to my back, we slowly ran down the hill and caught air.

As we played in the thermal lifts, Manu told me that eagles and hawks, drawn by curiosity, occasionally soar beside paragliders on their flights. In the European Alps, he told me, there were so many hawks near one particular takeoff that paragliders were asked to move to another location. People were concerned the paragliders were infringing on the hawks’ territory, he said, but “the birds just followed us to the other spot.”

Below us I could see Henry pulling spiral dives and wing-overs, just like a hawk.

Back at Paragliding headquarters, a sign hangs over the door with the Latin phrase, “Nunc Est Bibendum.” Translated it means, “Now it’s time to drink.”

Jackson told me that it hangs there for a good reason.

“It kind of expresses how people feel after their experience,” he said, “an amazing rush from paragliding.”

Tandem trips with Aspen Paragliding cost $175 per person, with flights lasting about half an hour, depending on wind and weather.

Steve Benson’s e-mail address is sbenson@aspentimes.com


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