Story and Photos by: Sean Merewood
The journey began at Glen Alps parking lot where we geared up for the hike, donning crampons, trekking poles, and layered clothing. As we hiked, Shaw pointed out “bail-outs,” places we could land if we were not able to reach the appointed landing zone.
When winter brings its cold, dark, icy hand down upon us, quite a few Alaskans go into their customary state of hibernation. It’s only natural. We become lethargic, more contemplative, and in a restful mood after squeezing every drop of activity from the light that we so took for granted back in the summer.
In this sleepy time, some among us choose a different path; one of epic adventures that begin with a good sweat, and end with cold icy tears of joy. Paragliding in our back yard on the front range above Anchorage provides ample opportunity for adventure – despite what the thermometer tells us.
I followed that path and found myself at Flattop with guide and paragliding companions Laddie Shaw, a former navy seal and veritable spark plug; Brad Crozier para-weatherman and hike-and-fly veteran; Rick Young, his girlfriend Kathy Case, and not-to-be forgotten canine companion; and Rick Peckham.
The journey began at Glen Alps parking lot where we geared up for the hike, donning
crampons, trekking poles, and layered clothing. As we hiked, Shaw pointed out “bail-outs,” places we could land if we were not able to reach the appointed landing zone.
My trekking pole proved to be a must with my 40-plus pound pack and bad knee. I wanted to hike and fly as much as I could before my surgery the following week. What better way to get a good hike in with my bad knee, by climbing up and flying down, avoiding the usually painful descent. “It’s more dangerous hiking up and down rather than flying,” my paragliding sensei Jake Schlapfer has observed.
As we climbed, Shaw surged ahead as the terrain became steeper, with Crozier close on his heels. Young literally disappeared from sight as he motored up the steep terrain. While I lagged behind them all, I took comfort watching Shaw moving with a nimble step up the face. He recently had a knee replacement, the surgery I would soon endure. Shaw was only out for five weeks before getting back to his paragliding passion. Maybe I’d be just as lucky.
If you see paragliders in the sky, it’s likely they are members of the Arctic Air Walkers, the local paragliding club, with roughly 80 members. The club consists of a diverse bunch of folks with varying opinions on what wing is best and where flying is most spectacular. The one common denominator: a common love for the sport and a willingness to help each other become better flyers.
My goal was to be a safer pilot in more conditions. The calm, stable air of winter is much easier to navigate than the rowdy air more typically found in the spring and summer, bolstered by thermic activity.
As such, a hike and fly in the winter is “a great time to learn,” said Schlapfer. “The air is dense, so we generally have better glide, and it’s a great time to learn to fly aircraft, from Supercubs to paragliders.”
Since the most dangerous times flying a paraglider are launching and landing, I wanted to practice these skills and stay current even in the winter. We had made it above Blueberry Hill as we rounded Half Peak on our journey to the top of Flattop. A beautiful vista opened up and afforded Shaw another talking point on emergency landing spots.
“There’s Goldenview there, and if you look to the right you can see South High,” he said. “Do you see the football field?”
Once we were to the top we took stock of the west launch, a good but very committing jump-off where the trail just crests Flattop. However, the winds weren’t right, making it too risky for this day. Undeterred, we trekked to the southeast, where a beautiful flat slope launch lay before us with ample room to lay out all four of our gliders. Shaw and Crozier discussed the flight plan one more time as we all clipped in. This was by far the most comfortable launch, with loads of space to bail out, but it was also situated on the other side of the mountain from the landing zone. The bail-outs just might come in handy here if we came up short and found ourselves on the south side of Blueberry Hill or on Canyon Road or some other non-intended route.
Crozier was the first to launch his wing, then Peckham, and Shaw. Finally, it was my turn. My wing was laid out perfectly for a forward launch, just the way I like it. I readied for the quick sprint over broken ground. A slight puff came up the ridge and I was off running briskly, not feeling my knee or any of the aches and pains exacted to my body on the way up. I kept running until my feet were kicking the air and I was off, with a quick turn to the right to make our way around the south side of the mountain.
I followed Shaw’s lead and enjoyed myself thoroughly as we rounded the bend. Shaw played peek-a boo by twisting himself in his harness to look back at us. As I followed him into the landing zone I felt the icy tears melt and run down my cheek. I landed with a perfect flair and whooped to Shaw. He had the biggest grin on. The others came in: Peckham had already touched down and Crozier hit spot-on the trail and curled his wing up to the cheers of a family, and finally Young came cruising in with Shaw looking on. It was the end of another successful and exhilarating day of flying, we all packed up and walked down.
I wasn’t looking forward to knee replacement surgery and the painful recovery that lay before me, but I knew the prospect of future paragliding adventures would get me through. ◆
Sean Merewood is the owner of Red Carpet
Photography and Photo Booth: www.facebook.com/akredcarpetevents, and an avid outdoorsman.