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Over Clouds and Stone

I feel the wind on my face turn into a deeper shade of cold as I am engulfed in the clouds.  The sky around me turns white and all the cares and fears of my world disappear. We call this silent place in the clouds the “white room” and no matter how many times you enter its presence, it never gets old.  I emerge from the featureless white and stare down the high alpine knife edge glowing in the sun.  As the green slopes of the high alpine drop away into the blue hues of rock I am reminded once again why I love to fly in the French Alps. I have been lucky enough to fly in most regions of the Alps; from Austria and Switzerland, to Italy and France, but for some reason this remote corner of France somehow always feels like coming home.

Being here with some of my best friends makes the experience so much richer. So grateful for Gary, Jane and Paul for inviting us back into their home for a week. This time around I decided to capture my experiences with video more than just images or words.  Hope you enjoy the change of pace.

Day 1-Travel Day.
We have been awake for over 30 hours as we rolled into this remote corner of the Alps. The weather looks promising, but we are all so tired.  Nevertheless, we decide to venture up to the nearby slopes of Mens and get in a quick flight.  The thermals are working and we spend the next few hours flying along the granite mountain range. The flight is a quick reminder as to why we are here and that sleep and food should always take a back seat to adventure.

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Flying the evening thermals….so tired I can barely think.

Day 2-Into the Clouds.
After a short morning hike in the mountains above the house we launch into the first thermals of the day.  The surrounding mountains are beautiful. We fly around the hillsides and across the valley for a couple hours. Once the valley winds pick up we head back over to Mens to try and fly to the top of the mountains and across a unique alpine spine.  The thermals are working, and the clouds start forming.  The next several hours turn into a magical experience in the clouds and across the alpine mountains. A perfect day for flying!

Day 3-Exploring the Sites.
With bad weather we make the most of the day hiking through canyons, over rivers, up cliff faces and even down into the caves of blackness. It has been an awesome day, despite that really, really block of stinky cheese.

Day 4-La Grave….or is it The Grave?
It is 5:30 a.m. as we all huddle around the glow of the laptop discussing the weather for the day.  It looks to be very windy and rainy today, but a small region may have some potential. It is worth the risk, so by 6:00 we are in the van driving the curvy roads as the rain continues to fall.  As we enter the deep glacial valley I see the thick dark clouds and realize the day is likely done.  By 8:30 we are on the gondola that leads up to La Meije and the clouds are starting to break.  By 9:15 the sky is dead calm, sunny, and the morning mist has mostly burned off. The deep blue of the hanging glaciers taunt and excite us to get ready to fly.  We know the valley winds are going to kick in early, so we waste no time in getting ready to fly across these iconic glaciers and into the valley below.

I punch off first, followed by Keenan, Paul, Clark, then Gary. The flight is amazing!  A calm sled run really, but often those can be the best flights of a trip.  By the time we end up on the valley floor the valley winds are just starting to pick up….perfect timing.  We grab a nice French lunch on the patio below the beautiful mountains above, then venture back to home base.

Day 5-The Challenge
The weather looks promising today so we decide to get an early start and head up to the Col above Noyer.  I have had my eyes on this range for the last 5 years, so I am excited to actually have the weather working in our favor today. There is a slight inversion in the valley, but with the first puffs of morning air we venture into the sky to see if we can get across the mountain range heading north.  It becomes a very short 20 minute flight down into the valley with no productive lift.  We all agree to head back up and try it again.  The valley winds are conflicting and the air is not feeling very organized. Paul and Gary quickly take off with similar results as the previous flight. We talk amongst ourselves about the impending valley winds, and try to come to some decision.  The air is feeling more productive, so I head into the sky alone and hook a very small, but productive thermal and am able to climb high above launch and into the mountains.  Paul offers a $20 challenge to whomever can get all the way back home.  I accept, and begin flying the ridge line back to the north.  A few peaks behind me now and the lift vanishes.  I extend my glide against the cliffs hoping for something, but nothing offers me any luck.  As I turn down the valley I slam into the valley winds. Nothing too strong, but my glide performance is diminished significantly. I realize I have to get back across the glacial river towards the highway, or it is going to be a long, cold and wet hike. I just squeak over the river and land in a nearby field next to the highway. I find a nice place in the shade to relax until the van arrives.  No $20 for me today, but the challenge was fun and resulted in a rather enjoyable mountain flight.

Conclusion
In the end, the days were filled with flying, but more important they were filled with friendships.  I so enjoying flying and adventuring with this small group of friends. We have been known as the DEAF Crew for years now, and although we do not fly with each other as often as we used to, the good times, adventures, love  and respect endures.  Already looking forward to the next adventure!

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Hearing of the Wind

Last Saturday as I was flying above the north facing walls of Mount Olympus, a mass of violent spinning air slammed into my wing like a freight train. It was in that moment of heightened awareness I was reminded of a tip I learned many years ago. A tip that today allowed me to ‘catch’ my wing before it even tried to collapse.

Flying towards the walls of Mount Olympus on the Wasatch Mountain Range
Flying towards the walls of Mount Olympus on the Wasatch Mountain Range

Through the years I have learned that paragliding is a pursuit ruled by the human senses. Although air is initially invisible to the untrained eye, we learn to make decisions based on elements we can actually see and feel. As we advance in our flying careers we begin to see and feel the invisible air in a whole new way. We learn to watch the birds, the clouds, and the leaves sparkling in the breeze. We learn to feel the air in new ways, like the difference between base wind, thermals, edges, cores, and which direction the air is spinning. A combination of all these senses teach us how the air moves across terrain, and in turn helps us become better and safer pilots.

Several years ago when I was just learning to “see” the air around me and fumbling my way in and out of mountain thermals, a fellow pilot gave me a quick tip. He told me to make sure I always had a helmet where I could ‘hear’ the air with no obstructions. I thought that was an odd comment, but has proven to be pure gold in the advancement of my flying. Ever since that day I began to really notice how the air not only felt, but how certain air actually sounded. While flying high above the sparkling leaves and out of sight of many visual triggers, this tip allows me to actually hear an approaching thermal, or hear a mass of turbulent air coming my way long before I feel it.

That leads me back to Saturday. I could hear the turbulent air approaching like a freight train, and knew by the way it sounded that it could mean only one thing. I tightened up the controls and was able to catch the wing surge before I actually felt it. If I would have waited until I felt the surge, it would have been be too late, and I would now be telling you a story about collapse recovery. Time after after time listening to the air has proven to be a valuable tool in my free-flight toolbox.

When it comes to paragliding, we should always remember to use all our senses, including listening, to better make decisions and thus more clearly “see” the air around us. By listening to the air while flying you can glean large amounts of information to help you make safer and more reliable decisions. If you are struggling with, or just learning how to thermal fly, try using a helmet where you can hear the swirling air around you….then of course, listen!

Happy flying, and I hope to see you high above the mountains soon.

2017-01-27

Recovery

Out of the corner of my eye I see a small flutter of brown. I turn my head to see a bald eagle just off the tip of my wing turning back towards the mountains. I lean hard, bank my glider and follow his lead. Moments later we are met with dynamic rising air, pushing us upwards. With wing tips locked together we rapidly climb upwards, with each circle leaving the snow covered landscape below. This is not an uncommon occurrence in my life, it seems to happen all the time, but in this particuarly intimate moment with nature, I take a deep breath and realize how lucky I truly am.

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Last flight. The next day I could not walk.

Back in October of last year my legs and feet suddenly began to hurt.  At first it felt like really sore muscles. No big deal, so I kept pushing harder and harder, but as the days passed my condition rapidly deteriorated. I remember stepping out of a truck on a high mountain launch site, barely able to walk. That flight was breathtaking, beautiful, rugged, and memorable in so many ways.  The next morning, I could no longer walk. The pain and inflammation in my feet, legs and back was so overwhelming that my body could no longer stand upright, let alone push itself forward.

After countless doctor visits, I was still nowhere. Things spiraled out of control and I soon found myself in the Emergency Room fighting this mysterious illness. That led to several days in the hospital, along with every possible test known to mankind. I had my fair share of needles, blood tests, MRI machines, and head scratching doctors.  From back specialists to orthopedic doctors, oncology to infectious disease specialists; nobody could determine the root cause.  Eventually I ended up in the Rheumatology department. It was here I finally had some real answers, some actual proof, and more importantly a pathway to moving forward.  Unfortunately, there was so much damage in the tendons and soft tissues of my feet that healing was going to be a slow process.

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There were many dark days in pain sector 9, but I found hope and healing in the kindness of my friends. So many were eager to lend a kind hand, a listening ear, or just a few minutes of distraction. Even with all the help around me, I knew I had to do my part too.  So, each day I would try and walk just a little. I remember how excited I was when I walked 150 steps in a single day. Each day I continued to walk, step by step, looking, hoping, and praying for the opportunity to someday hike and fly above the mountains again.

2017-03-09
Circling with Bald Eagles again.

As I circle wing tip to wing tip with this majestic bald eagle I realize how lucky I truly am. Blessed for the opportunity to fly once again.  I am not fully recovered as I will never be fully rid of this disease.  Hard as it may seem, it is just something I must now learn to live with each day.  I may be hiking a little slower these days, but I am hiking again, flying again, and trying to enjoy the simple sensations that this amazing life on this amazing earth provides.

(For better or worst, I film stuff. This short video captures a few scenes during my recovery process. Not a great film, but a journal entry)

Recovery from DEAF Crew on Vimeo.