Nov 6, 2020 | ACTIVE LIFE | By Tia Vierling | Photos by Bibi Powers
When I saw the email notification pop up on my phone, I scrambled to grab my laptop. The first few words of the subject line had caught my eye: Intro to Paragliding Course.
The first time I remember hearing about the possibility of taking paragliding, an opportunity facilitated by Colorado College’s very own Outdoor Education program, was late last year. Ever since, I’d kept an eye out for more emails; this time, I got lucky, snagging one of four spots.
I didn’t know much about paragliding before our first of three sessions; I had little to no experience with aerial recreation. I arrived at the predetermined meeting spot at 7:50 a.m. on a Saturday morning, chilled to the bone and excited enough that it didn’t matter. I’d worn eye protection and gloves as instructed; I was ready to fly.
As it turned out, I would need to be patient when it came to actually getting off the ground. Our instructor, an expert with more than a decade of paragliding experience, started us off with the basics: putting on our harnesses. The harnesses made us look like ants. Alongside a backpack that held our reserve parachutes and various bags and cords, a puffy “seat” of material was attached to the backs of our thighs, there to cushion a rough landing.
Once we were harnessed, we hooked up to our “wings” — impressive swatches of fabric that typically span between 25 and 40 feet. My instructor laid my wing out on the ground behind me. When the wind was right, I drove forward, running as fast as I could to get the wing inflated. Once I got it over my head, my instructor yelled “charge!” and I sprinted forward as fast as I could to simulate actual takeoff.
My first day of paragliding also served as my first introduction to a less dramatic part of the sport: para-waiting. After a morning balancing waiting and practicing takeoff, I was ready for next Saturday, when it would be time to fly. By the next weekend, I was prepared — and excited. The weather proved much more temperate this time around, requiring at most a light jacket. We perched atop a hill covered in prickly bushes and scraggly weeds. Our instructor set up a windsock at the bottom to help us gauge the breeze.
“Who wants to go first?” he asked.
I shrugged. “I’ll do it.”
I could feel my nerves jangling as I hooked in, eying the hill before me. It descended at a steep grade — I would have to trust my wing. I inflated my wing and took off down the hill, letting the wind do much of the work. Like a rock over water, I skipped off the ground once, then twice, landing hard at the bottom of the hill. Luckily, my harness took most of the force of my rough landing; adrenaline buzzing, I dragged myself back up the hill to try again.
My second attempt wasn’t much better. Nervous after my first try, I tripped and lost my balance; I ended up sliding halfway down the hill on the seat of my harness. The grass was soft enough that it wasn’t half bad.
On attempt No. 3, I took a deep breath, then ran as hard as I could, putting as much power into my wing as I could manage. To my surprise, I lifted off the ground, my legs still pinwheeling like I was trying to run in thin air. For the first time, I was flying. I glided forward until it was time to “flare” my wing, slowing myself down for the landing. My fourth (and final) attempt was my best of the lot: I got a few seconds of airtime and landed light as a feather. I’m certainly no paragliding master. If anything, I still feel like a toddler of the sport, figuring out how to manage the brakes, lines, and wing. But I’m looking forward to our last session as a group and the last few moments of flight I’ll experience — and as for whether I’d recommend the course, I’d say to keep a close eye on your email.