Hatcher Pass tandem paragliding adventure is a trip to remember
As I drove up the windy gravel road, past the Hatcher Pass cabins, I thought to myself, “What the hell did I get myself into?” I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know if I would start freaking out as soon as the instructor strapped on my harness, or if I would break my ankle trying to land. Of course, none of that happened. Instead I was calm and collected from the beginning to the end of what would be the best moment of my time so far in Alaska.
A hill that blinded my sight of the valley finally opened up, exposing the never-ending mountains rolling into the sunlight. It was then that I saw two dots in the air: paragliders, effortlessly sailing through the wind.
A few minutes later I arrived to the top of a hill where the paragliders were launching, one by one go, down the valley. I strapped on my hiking boots and went up the hill toward the thrill-seekers.
Sitting around the launch site were all men, most with large, furry beards, in their mid-20s to early 30s sitting back with smiles on their faces. They encouraged each other with each jump off the cliff. One had a large speaker the size of a carry-on suitcase, playing ’60s rock music. Another wore a neon pink onesie that could be seen for miles in the air. This playful and surprisingly calm crowd is the face of the growing sport.
Kauai resident Adam Finn is a helicopter pilot- staying in Alaska for a summer job. He has only been paragliding since 2013.
“Running is the best part,” he said. Finn, among many paragliders in the group, was a hiker first, and sought paragliding because it made the mountain descents much more exciting.
“Being able to fly down, not walk down, was a turn-on for sure,” he said.
Instructor Jake Schlapfer, sporting a radio strapped to his chest, gave a pep talk to one of his students before his first solo flight. Before, takeoff all the paraglider can do is take a deep breath and started running – and that’s what he did. With a push from Schlapfer, he was led down the hill into the air.
Moments later, Schlapfer was back on the radio, guiding his student into a perfect ride. “Pull to the left….Pull to the left… there you go.”
As he landed, there was a good 30 seconds of silence, and everyone’s eyes were glued to the student’s landing. Then the paraglider came on the radio, ‘That was really fun!’
Laughter filled the air, cutting the silence, as everyone celebrated the success.
Now, it was my turn. At this point, I was ready to go after watching the others fly. First, we spread the parawing onto the ground and laid the strings flat onto the mountain. While I was harnessing the seat onto my back, I was standing about seven feet from the edge of the cliff. Schlapfer started instructing me about how the flight would play out. He told me how to sit into the seat for the duration of the run but instead my mind could only think about the ride itself. As soon as he said, ‘Do you got it?’ I nodded my head and bit my lip.
Then we strapped the paraglider to my back, and we were ready to go.
I took a deep breath as Schlapfer counted down, ‘3..2..1..’ As soon as he said go, I started running as hard and as fast as I could. The lines were pulling tighter and tighter as the paraglider filled with air. Schlapfer yelled, telling me to run faster as we got closer to the cliff. Then my left foot stepped off the cliff and my feet lifted up off the mountain. Just like that, I was flying.