Soaring on Silk

Dixon White teaches students how to use parachutes to go up as well as down.

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As the mid-day sun bakes a south-facing slope in the flight park, White sits, sweating from a dozen sprints up and down the hill, his hands on novices’ harnesses and brake lines. “A lot of my friends who used to instruct beginners have quit,” he says. “They can’t take this running down the hill.” White watches the tilted slopes for riffles in the wheatgrass and sage, signs of thermals releasing. “This is closer to what surfers do than aviators,” says White. “Waiting, watching, gauging. Wanting a ride.” He considers that momentarily, then says, “It’s also like scuba diving, where you put people in an element where they have no reference points. There’s nothing they’ve done before that transfers. People who try this have never done anything remotely like it in their life.”

DeVietti, on the other hand, has drawn upon his experience flying airplanes. Working your way up into the sky on thermals is an experience at least fleetingly familiar to light airplane fliers, and many a fixed-wing pilot knows that the difference between the lifting mass and the ambient air can be very dramatic. Indeed, paraglider wings can temporarily deflate on the side entering the shear between turbulent and calm air. It is at this point that an inexperienced paraglider pilot may put the glider into a steep bank, pull the wing under himself, and become “gift-wrapped,” says DeVietti. If that happens, “you hope you’re high and have time to sort the situation out and regain normal flight.” If not, the pilot can deploy his reserve canopy.

“Small plane pilots want to get through thermals; paragliders make their living in them,” continues DeVietti. “Once you get through the rough edge, they can be big, and you’re in there with three or four friends. Or they can be small and hot and fast and you make tight turns that still get your wingtips into the sporty edges and you are working real hard to stay inside them. It’s like flying inside a Pringles can. Your wing is going asymmetric on the edges and you bounce around a bunch.” Fifty-percent-asymmetric wing deflations can occur and become less disconcerting as a pilot grows confident in the wing’s recovery characteristics.

White lays his hand on a patch of soil between stalks of mowed bunch grass. Using his wristwatch thermometer, he determines that the ground temperature is 114 degrees. “The whole valley is cooking up bubbles of warm air,” he says, smiling. The thermals, which had been releasing roughly every 15 minutes for the last couple hours, are whooshing uphill more often and much more forcefully. The air is too sporty now for beginners, so White loads everyone back in his big white Ford crew cab and heads down the hill.

He drops the students off at the picnic tables under the big maples at the school’s ranchhouse and points at the wooded, rocky throat that defines Hay Canyon opposite us and tells us to look up in a few minutes. He explains that he, Brett, Ryan, Doug, and Denise will drive back up, hike another 600 feet to the top of the mountain, and launch.

Half an hour later, from the picnic tables, we see them cutting S-curves up there, searching around for thermals. They rise and then glide down close to the ridges that lead into Hay Canyon. They continue rising and gliding, five humans within shouting distance of one another at 11,000 feet.

After they land, we learn that Zaenglein and Swan linked together a progression of thermals and glides that took them 35 miles over the eastern-most jags of the northern Cascade mountain range at altitudes above 13,700 feet. (The two men were not carrying oxygen since they had not expected to fly so high. But it is not uncommon for paragliding pilots to carry oxygen if they anticipate flying above 12,000 feet for sustained periods.) They landed at a ski area and hitchhiked home. Says Swan: “You can’t just extract what you want from the weather, but sometimes you get more than you hoped for.”

At one point Swan was 4,000 feet lower than Zaenglein, gliding ever closer to the slopes below in search of a thermal to carry him back up to Zaenglein’s altitude. “I was kicking treetops, stuck in a shaded mountainside and sinking,” says Swan. “Thought I’d get dirted”—meaning he’d land where he didn’t want to. Swan had visions of getting hung up in a tree, tearing his $3,600 paraglider, perhaps falling a hundred feet to the ground, and being 15 miles from the nearest road. “I flew in the shade, lower and lower, and finally got around a corner of this ridge, and there was some sunshine and a rocky slope heating up and I worked that back up,” says Swan. White jacks Swan up a bit: “Today you were in no-man’s land. You did something no one else has ever done. Just be very, very satisfied.”

During the week that I studied with White, the human genome mapping was completed. He rhapsodized one evening, while balanced on the tightwire he has set up outside the school’s ranchhouse, about how someday humans would fly without fabric wings, presumably through some genetic manipulation he hopes to see in his lifetime. It was hard to listen to such an uncharacteristically wacky discourse. I asked him if he believed that there is a risk-taking gene, expecting him to launch a lecture on how safe this sport could be with a thorough knowledge of weather and equipment and the appropriate attitude, etc. “Of course there is,” he said. “That’s a definite gene, a necessary gene. Human society didn’t evolve without risk-takers.”

White once walked 1,000 feet up a cable that suspends a ski chairlift at Aspen, Colorado. I got a little snotty and asked him if that was an example of a risk that moved society forward. He looked down at me patiently from the tightwire, upon which he had been balancing for more than half an hour. “We’re explorers,” he said. “We are testing the outer reaches. Good explorers aren’t adrenaline junkies. They prepare themselves as fully as they can, and then head out there.”

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