Paragliding – Surfing the Mountain Air

Hello fellow adventurers. Please welcome my husband Mike for his debut guest post. Mike wanted to share his love for all things flying, and in particular, his most recent passion – Paragliding. If you’ve ever been curious about soaring above the mountains, then read on.

Summer 2021

I was born into a mountaineering family. Many people know my dad Franz Dopf who grew up in Austria and was a technical climbing pioneer on Mount Yamnuska. Every weekend growing up, my family went hiking, climbing, skiing, camping or just headed out to the mountains. I love the mountains. They feed my soul. But…there was always something missing. 

Every time I saw a plane fly over I got chills down my spine. I would look up into the clouds and be so envious of those chosen few who called those hallowed skies their playground. So I started out as any young lad of no means did, and built model airplanes out of balsa wood. I joined the air cadets. I was #1 in my class, which earned me a trip to Gimli, Manitoba for Cadet glider camp. At fourteen, I earned my glider pilot license. When my eyesight prevented me from joining the Royal Canadian Air Force, I begged my parents for powered aircraft flying lessons for my 18th birthday. Around that time, I took an intro to paragliding course. Unfortunately, paragliding wasn’t fast enough or cool enough for a young speed demon.

Then I went to university, started a furniture manufacturing business, and only went flying in my dreams. I continued my mountaineering apprenticeship by putting in long days climbing and backcountry skiing in the mountains. But still, I yearned for the sky.

When I met my wife Alisen, she wanted the mountains. Badly.  We hiked, climbed and skied at every opportunity. Thankfully, Alisen was in tune with me enough to know that something was missing in my life.  Not that flying wasn’t in our lives. On our first date, I rented a Zlin acrobatics plane and we did loops, rolls and other maneuvers for hours.

This is Mike checking over the Zlin before our aerobatics flight.

After watching The Thomas Crown Affair, I offered to take Alisen soaring. After flying the gliders for a while, I then trained as a tow pilot, hauling the gliders up into the air. Just like that, I was back into flying. 

This clip from the movie The Thomas Crown Affair got Alisen interested in flying.

After gliding and towing for a few years, I joined the local powered flying club. I bought into a Cessna 150, and then a Cessna 177B Cardinal.

At this point, Alisen could see that I needed to have this flying itch scratched – a lot – and that flying was getting expensive. So I got my commercial license and dove into the world of professional flying. After a few hard years, I am at the airline of my dreams, flying as a captain on a 78 passenger turboprop.

We still spend our free time in the mountains, but I am now finally in a place where I can put my obsession with the mountains and flying together. This is my journey to surf the mountain air.

Paragliding Instruction

I wanted to be instructed by the best paragliding coach I could find, and that is Max Fanderl, a four time X-Alps Race competitor. He is based in Invermere, BC, which is right next to our family cabin just below Mount Swansea. In Canada, private paragliding is regulated by the national association HPAC. I signed up for the P1 and P2 license training courses.

I spent the first couple of days in ground school at the airport. Max has put together one of the best, most professional ground schools I have ever had the joy of attending. As I’ve attended my fair share of ground schools over the years, I know what I’m talking about. It was focused towards paragliding but also gave a great foundation for further learning. One of my instructors is Kris Chasse, who is training to compete in the World Paragliding Aerobatic Championships.

After ground school, I finally had some time to take the plunge!  Our daughters were heading off to university in Ontario and Alisen was furthering her craft at the Alpine Club of Canada’s General Mountaineering Camp. I called up Max and I blocked out a week to focus on learning to fly paragliders.

The Practice Hill

I spent countless hours trudging up the short practice hill for a way too short 30 second glide back down. This was necessary practice to gain the muscle memory I would need to fly off a mountain.

Mike packing up his wing at the base of the practice hill.
Photo credit: Mackenzie Dopf

Every paragliding flight is a solo ride, so it is best to start slow. It was hot – about 35 degrees Celsius.  It was dry, and dusty.  There were thousands of large grasshoppers everywhere! I dragged my butt up that hill 20 times over the next few days. The flights were low to the ground and very short, but oh so sweet!

My daughter Mackenzie kindly braved the heat, wind, dust, sharp dry grass and grasshoppers to help me lay out my wing between flights.

Mount Swansea – the Real Deal!

Then came The Day. The day I would finally graduate from the practice hill to the real deal – flying off Mount Swansea.

The valley air was still – not a breath of wind. The forest fire smoke hung low, and diffused the early morning sun as it rose over the end of the lake.  I got the call.  “Could you meet us at the landing zone at 0700?”  Can I?  I was out the door and on my way before I finished my coffee!

It was here that I met some of the local pilots. Paragliding is a very social affair, and there is always someone who wants to meet up.  We all piled into one truck for the ride up Mount Swansea.  It is a steep, washboard logging road that takes us to just below the summit. Some unlucky dude will pull the short straw and have to drive the truck back down instead of flying. The ride up is full of banter.  Everyone is excited and happy to be going flying. Paragliding pilots make friends really quickly, as it is a very small community.

We get out of the truck and put on our packs.  We are carrying up our wings, harness, helmet, radio, and personal supplies like water and clothing. As a rank newbie, I have the beginner kit that weights about 15 kilograms, but the very lightweight hike and fly gear can get that down to around 8 kilograms.

Mike heading back up the short practice hill. This is the heavy and bulky beginner kit.

It is a fifteen minute steep hike to the summit. I am sure that I will become very familiar with this route in the coming days. We break out on the knob of the summit.  There is a weather station and an out house.

Looking across to the north summit of Mount Swansea from the South summit. The big green weather station marks the top.

The wind is blowing about 15 km/h from the South. Perfect. A couple of the other pilots lay out their rigs, inflate and step off the edge into space. I am nervous, but oddly also very calm. I have been flying my entire life so I have confidence in my ability to fly.  But this is something new altogether.

Then, there is only me. I lay out my wing on the rocky ground, making sure none of the thin lines are snagged. I climb into my harness, checking and rechecking that the straps are connected properly. This is the only thing that holds me to the wing. I already have my helmet on. I look at my instructor Kris Chasse, and he gives my preparations a close inspection. All good. It’s go time. Gulp. I am facing a narrow col that drops away to the west ridge. The plan is for me to fly down the ridge until it turns into cliffs, and then turn out towards the lake and the landing zone.

The launch site with the wind sock below on the right. It takes steady nerves to walk off a perfectly good mountain into thin air.

I grab the A risers, the lines that control the leading edge of the wing, and give them a steady lift.  The wing comes up behind me and I can feel it lift me up. I push my torso forward and run towards the launch. Kris yells “Abort!!” The wing has launched crooked, and there is no chance of a safe launch. I pull the brakes and collapse the wing. The adrenaline is pumping now, and I am trying to stay calm as I lay out the wing again. This isn’t as easy as I had imagined it would be.

I stare down the line of the ridge, trying to focus on the muscle movements I need to safely launch myself off the mountain. I take a couple of deep breaths, focus my mind, and step forward. Kris yells that the wing inflation is good and for me to “Run run run!” So I run, leaning my chest against the harness and pushing as much speed forward as possible. I lift off slightly and then come back down. I am anticipating this, and am ready to keep running.

I run a couple more steps, but then there is a feeling like a giant hand has snatched me up and away from the mountain. I am flying! The ground drops away below me as I soar up over the forest below. I rise 25 feet, then 50 feet up. The wind is blowing past my body like I am on a bike speeding down a hill.

I realize that I am still dangling from the leg straps. I scooch back into my harness seat.  Ah, much better. This feels so much more more secure than dangling from the risers.

I very gently try to steer the wing by slowly pulling the brakes. It turns me out over the ridge. I risk a quick glance up at my wing for just a second, because it feels like I will fall out of the harness if I move around too much. The harness isn’t snug. It’s like sitting on a swing at the park. This is how it is supposed to be, but it still takes getting used to.

The paraglider is controlled by weight shift. I reach the end of the ridge and turn out towards the landing zone. I am now about 1,000 feet above the ground. I can feel every current in the air, tickling the tips of my wing and bouncing me in my harness. I am much more aware of the sense of speed, even though the paraglider is going 17.5 times slower than the Dash 8 I fly for a living.

Mike flying his paraglider, coming in for a landing. Photo credit: Kayla Dopf.

Soon enough, too soon, I have to think about landing.  My mind races through all the variables that I use on a daily basis: power, speed, pitch control, flaps, landing gear…  Unfortunately, none of that is available to me.  My glideslope is fixed, so I can only control where I touch down. I do a series of figure eight turns over the landing zone. When I feel that it is time, I make the final glide to the landing spot.

I push forward out of my harness so my legs now become my landing gear, dangling in space.  I wait, wait, wait until I see the ground starting to rush up at me. It’s now time to pull the brakes. I flair the wing out fully, just as my feet touch down softly. No need to even run. I turn towards the wing and collapse it to the ground. I am down.

That was such a rush. Pure pleasure. This is my true passion. This is also just the beginning. The journey of hiking and flying in the mountains is going to be a great adventure!

Watch this video of Mike flying off Mount Swansea. Keep you eyes peeled for the other paragliders coming down around him.

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Hey everyone!

I sure hope you liked my guest blog post. Please give it (and Mike) some love by clicking the Star button to “like” it. If you have any questions for Mike, please leave a comment. As always, please subscribe to my blog.

Alisen

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Posted in Adventures, Hiking
14 comments on “Paragliding – Surfing the Mountain Air
  1. What an adventurous family. Great post Mike 🙂

  2. Great story! That’s one mountain sport I will never do. Maggie

    • alisendopf says:

      Yeah, you and me both!!! I headed him off for years by making sure our kids were adults. They are now 19, so no more excuses. Now all the vacations have a paragliding angle to them. Sigh… At least that means all vacations will have a mountain or two in them, so that’s a win for me.

  3. Go, man, go! (You’re a much braver soul than I)

  4. Margaret McQuiston says:

    Great post! Thanks Mike. I could feel the adrenaline as I was reading it. That sport is a solid no from me too but loved to read Mike’s enthusiasm for it. Alisen, you should invite him back for another guest post…he’s got the gift for adventure writing!

    • alisendopf says:

      Oi! I know you’ve only met Mike maybe once or twice, but truly, the man doesn’t need a bigger ego. I’ll NOT be sharing this comment with him 🙂

      When you hear me talking about Mike’s Mistress Para… this is her 🙂
      Alisen

  5. Widdershins says:

    Bravo!!! 😀 … commented on your YouTube channel, and subbed. I’m ‘The Wunder-Lusters’, over there. 😀

  6. Jocelyn says:

    Wow! Great post and the video was amazing. Reminds me of dreams I had as a kid of flying.

    • alisendopf says:

      No way! Mike also had those dreams. I never did. Maybe flying is something you could look into? I aim to inspire and encourage people to follow their own adventures, whatever form those take. I am rooting for you!
      Alisen

  7. Sounds exhilarating and terrifying at the same time!!

    • alisendopf says:

      OMG! I know, right! I will be perfectly frank – I am terrified. You are not actually connected, you just sit in that little bucket of fabric. I’m terrified of heights, so I am not sure I will ever do this. But, hubby likes it. 🙂

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