S O A R S U B J E C T
A First Timer’s Guide To Paragliding
As the brightly colored U’s dip and soar, I am fairly certain my life is about to end. Oh sure, paragliding is the closest you can get to flying. It’s also the closest you can get to suicide, but no one talks about that. I mean, come on. You’re jumping off a cliff and hoping you fly. Once I see that grassy ledge, I can’t get Third Eye Blind’s “Jumper” out of my head. So, there’s that.
Leonardo Da Vinci said, “Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.” I skydived recently and wholeheartedly agree. Still, as Billy, my paragliding instructor, goes over the how-tos of jumping off the cliff, I think, “Yep, this definitely is the most stupid thing I’ve ever done.” Not the water balloon launcher at the police station thing, not that fiasco at the sorority with the ambulance. This.
Let’s be clear. I went paragliding, not hang gliding, and I went tandem, because I am not Chuck Norris. With hang gliding (one of the oldest forms of free flight), the pilot flies a light, non-motorized hang glider while his or her body is suspended from the airframe by a harness. The pilot’s control is exercised by shifting their body weight against the bar of the aircraft.
In contrast, all you need for paragliding is a parachute and a seated harness. Ninety-nine percent of the tandem flights done at Torrey Pines Gliderport are paragliding tandems. Some say that the lying down position of hang gliding is more exhilarating, but paragliding wings are capable of many of the same aerial acrobatics as hang gliders, plus a few more. Most importantly, paragliding is a little easier to pick up than hang gliding is. Paragliding’s portability and simplicity also makes it considerably easier for jumpers to access soaring sites. In 2011, there were 5, 000 paragliding pilots in the United States, and the sport is rapidly increasing in popularity. The sport is most popular in Europe, particularly in France.
While Billy secures my harness, I try my hardest not to pee my pants. I catch my image in a glassy door. It’s super flattering. I look like a half caterpillar, half hermit crab. I am carrying my soon-to-be seat on my rear end, and it basically looks like a giant diaper. Even our very lovely photographer calls it such. I can’t really walk, so I waddle closer to the ledge that Third Eye Blind is wishing I would step back from.
Billy tells me that when he lifts the parachute, I should, “Run forward, no matter how much resistance comes from behind.” I do as I am told, and the result is a cartoon-style, running-in-place movement that persists until we float off the ground. I am relieved. I don’t have to actually run off the cliff. I don’t think my psyche could handle that.
Upon arrival at the Gliderport, you may have to wait for the wind (in the industry they call it ram air) to pick up. This is a non-issue, because we would hang out here even if we weren’t paragliding. There are eats at the Cliff Hanger Cafe, a menu which boasts everything from more upscale pesto chicken sandwiches to ice cream bars. For the caffeine-addicts among us, there’s java, so grab a coffee, some lawn, or a picnic bench and drink up the seascape. San Diego scenery always spoils us, but these views truly give the best ones a run for their money.
We float away from Torrey Pines Gliderport, and I don’t know what I expected, but what I get is a scene out of “The Neverending Story.” We are sliding by cliffs so closely, and so slowly! I am convinced this is how Bastien felt riding Falcor, and Billy is basically (extremely graciously) being Falcor right now. I am giving him a lot of “Faster, fasters!!” and “Higher, highers!!” I have rewound 15 years in age, and I am now 11. When I ask, “Do you do any tricks?” he says, “Why, yes. Would you like to do some?” Would I ever. Which brings me to…
The Torrey Pines cliffs have featured soaring aircraft since the 1930s. The site has been so important to aviation that many people call Torrey Pines Gliderport the “Kitty Hawk of the West.” Many famous aviators earned their wings here. On February 24, 1930, Charles Lindbergh used the lift from Torrey Pines to fly a sail plane all the way from Mt. Soledad along the coast to Del Mar, establishing a new distance record. During World War II, the Gliderport was transformed into the US Army Camp Callan, an anti-aircraft artillery training facility. Torrey Pines Gliderport has been the location of several national and international soaring records since 1946, and it’s listed on both the California and National Registers of Historic Places. Today, it’s a home for sail planes, paragliding and hang gliding, but a rich aeronautical history lies just behind that.
Paragliding is dream-like. I’ve skydived and bungee jumped, so I was expecting a similar experience. Paragliding is like neither. Rather, it’s like—and cue the Lebowski voice on this one: it’s like riding a lazy river in the sky, man. Your senses aren’t overwhelmed like they are in skydiving. There are no loud noises, no WHOOSHING. You are sitting comfy, so you really just float along, taking it all in.
Rides can last up to 25 minutes but average around 20. The trip could last longer or shorter depending on weather conditions. Come during the hours of 1pm to 3pm, 1pm being the prime time to fly. Fall and winter boast the best wind, but Billy says his favorite time to fly is in the spring and summer. In the spring and summer, the Gliderport is open all day from 9am to 5pm and sometimes even later.
As we fly closely over a 150 million dollar mansion, Billy points out it’s topiary filled with exotic birds and it’s Hearst Castle-style swimming pool. We watch beach goers climb up sandy steps from Black’s Beach. Someone had written, “I love you!” in huge, block lettering in the sand. We did loops around the cliffs, and circled back toward the Torrey Pines Golf Course where a foursome putted peacefully. Two crows played a game with a rock, one throwing it up in the air and the other catching it. Bodies scattered around the edges of the cliffs, many lying down, watching us and waving. As we passed other paragliders in the air, Billy gave a lot of happy “Yews! And “Hey, Matt/Mike/Suzys!”
Then, Billy asked me a question that threatened to ruin not just my day, but also my life. “Do you have your cell phone? You should take a picture.” Billy and I are having our first fight, and it’s bad. No, Billy. I do not have my cell phone, because I did not know that was an option! Extreme sports and cell phones never mix, and I had just assumed they weren’t allowed on this ride. Which brings me to…
It’s time to land, and I am genuinely sad. Zoo, shmoo. Sea World, smeaworld. This is the coolest thing I have ever done in San Diego, and since I am a born and bred San Diegan, that’s kind of saying something. Billy tells me to put my arms straight out in front of me, which makes sense. My arms are there to help me not break my face. “You’ve got to run when we land, ” he says urgently. I hate this part. “Okay, got it, ” I try to say bravely, though I am the total opposite. The run is a little scary, but it’s over in a second, and we made it. I survived, and I am the happiest of happy campers. What are you waiting for? Go get your glide on!
Natalie Holtz is a writer living in San Diego. She received her BA in English Literature from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2010. A word sleuth and book junkie, she prefers paper over e-books and loves few things more than surfing four to five-foot waves. You can follow her projects in process on her blog: www.thesurferstokeproject.com.