Now Taking Off: The Aerial (Sports) Revolution
Skydivers are fond of saying that the ground, not the sky, is the limit. They’re wrong about that; the ground is now just the beginning of it all. Never in human history have there been more ways to launch yourself into the air. YouTube is an endless repository for the head-cam-filmed antics of the aerial revolution. Anyone who hasn’t yet watched the videos of wingsuited BASE jumpers contouring along the cliffs of Norway probably lacks a computer or a TV. Or a phone. Or friends.
The first human-piloted gliders flew about 200 years ago, and when you look at pictures of them it’s clear that back then the word “glide” really meant “falling with a slightly forward motion.” Modern gliders—now called sailplanes—can go more than 50 kilometers from an altitude of one kilometer above the ground, or to put it another way, have a glide ratio of 50:1. Interestingly, flying squirrels—with fur wings—and their human impersonators—with nylon wings—both have a glide ratio of about 2:1. (Insert pun about nuts here.)
My first “flights” occurred when I was a young kid on the windy plains of Calgary. I would run while my kite tugged hard at my small arms. Usually the string broke or I fell down, but occasionally I would stay in the air slightly longer than my jumping ability dictated.
In 2009, after nearly four decades of playing with ever-bigger kites, I was racing across a frozen lake on my skis while tethered to a massive kite in the sky. I pulled hard on the lines, the kite shot over my head, and I was suddenly 35 feet in the air and way, way past the point of knowing what to do in that situation. Fortunately, the resulting knee surgery went well, and I’m now addicted to kite skiing.
These days there are pilots (or are they skiers or kiters?) who kite up snowy alpine valleys, catch outlandishly huge air, and then fly hundreds or even thousands of feet above the ground, as only paragliders and hang-gliders used to be able to do. I heard of one guy who launched his kite on the water and, eventually, crashed at a horrible rate of speed into a brick building well inland. Was he flying or kiting? Kite surfers in Squamish often seem to spend more time in the air than on the water, and I’m waiting for the day when I’m climbing on the Squamish Chief and have a BASE jumper, kiter and paraglider pilot all fly by me at some point during the ascent.
New sports continue to evolve, as outdoor athletes combine things like climbing and BASE jumping, and alpinism and paragliding (paralpinism). The latest “my mother is gonna hate this” game is speed riding. Speed riders use a very small paraglider (or is it a kite with short lines or a parachute with a better glide ratio?) to combine downhill skiing and flying. You can ski the snow patches and then boost into the air and glide at a ratio of about 4:1 to jump the rocks. The first speed-riding video that really freaked me and my friends out was of two people bombing down the Eiger in Switzerland (check it out here). That’s like playing high-speed human checkers between the white snow and black rock patches.
As if just speed riding wasn’t enough, some people are now taking terrain-park tricks and thinking large-scale. France’s Antoine Montant recently cranked it up a notch by heading to Mont Blanc and grinding his skis on the cables of the Aiguille Du Midi téléphérique while hanging from his speed wing.
Even the traditional sport of paragliding has changed massively in recent years. My modern light gear weighs less than 10 pounds, and I can fly off almost any mountain in the world with that. The paragliding distance record has gone from 423 kilometers—when I set it in 2002—to more than 500 kilometers today. And modern paragliders glide at a ratio of around 12:1, which is better than hang gliders from 20 years ago. Hang-gliders are also dramatically better, although that sport has mainly gone to Florida to retire at the “flight parks” there.
I personally have quit hang-gliding, but I still fly my paraglider regularly and I snow kite when the snow is soft enough to mask the ground. And I’ve recently ordered a speed wing. But now I’m doing something that’s really hard—learning to fly a Cessna. There are way more rules than the only one I used to have: “Don’t crash.”
Will Gadd is a world-renowned ice climber, mountaineer and paraglider pilot. Read more from him—and catch up on his latest exploits—at willgadd.com.
This essay first appeared in explore.