Para-alpinism is the sport of climbing mountains and then using a paraglider to fly down. It is an exhilarating and committing sport. It is usually the best in Fall. The colours are rich. The bugs are gone and the winds are light but still buoyant enough to stay up in the right conditions.
This is certainly the case on a spectacular October day as Sam Waddington and I, joined by a third amigo, Brad Henry, huff and puff our way up the steep slopes of Mt. Macfarlane's west ridge. This gnarly trail was created by a paraglider pilot whose sole aim was to get high into the alpine as quickly and efficiently as possible for the purpose of flying a wing from the alpine meadows located 1900 meters up. This is not a trail I would want to hike down as it averages 25% or steeper in grade. Some parts require a little hand work to hold onto the rocks with steep drop-offs.
With ten to fifteen kilograms on our backs, we sweat and grunt our way up for three hours through forest, which gradually becomes more open and rocky, the cedars and firs give way to lodge pole pines at the higher elevation.
Sam's political experiences on Chilliwack City Council help distract us from the discomfort of trudging up the seemingly never-ending trail. Eventually, we break out into open alpine meadow with a stunning view of the mountains leading south to the magnificent spire of Mt. Slesse, a native word for "fang". The sun-warmed slopes have a light breeze blowing up carrying a subtle pine scent that is like a pheromone to alpinists. An old faded piece of ribbon confirms that we are at the launch site which faces due west. The dramatic American and Canadian border peaks with their northeast slopes reveal the rough blue ice of a large and receding glacier tower high across the Slesse valley. Far below us we can see the Slesse Creek from which we have ascended already in shadow as the sun moves west.
|The endless trudge|
We sit in the warm sunshine and take time to rehydrate, devouring some of Brad's homemade land jaeger sausage and shooting a few pics and clips before getting our flying gear organized.
The steep, heather slope will make a relatively easy launch but we need to carefully check our lines for twigs and sharp rocks before inflating our wings. Brad offers to go first to "test the conditions" and report back to us by radio. After sorting out a line tangle, he stands still for a few minutes, holding his risers and waits for a gentle puff of upward moving air. Brad leans forward and his white and orange wing pendulums into the sky, heading north across the short valley to the next sunny spine where we have just watched two ravens and an eagle working light lift a few minutes earlier. Brad is able to maintain his altitude for several minutes by turning in the rising air he encounters on the spine.
|Launch at last|
|Lunch before launch|
|All systems go|
Sam launches next and like Brad, flies over to the spine and begins working the available lift, bobbing up and down as he tries to stay in the core of the thermals. I offer some radio guidance to Sam as he has not done much thermalling but he seems pretty adept at keeping his glider in the lift so I abandon him to prepare my own wing for take off.
The Boys Take to the Sky
The Boys Take to the Sky
|I've got a feeling this is going to be good!|
Nothing feels as good as lifting off into the air after battling gravity for hours; knowing that now one only has to relax, enjoy the ride and use one's bird sense to prolong the flight as long as possible. As I contour around to the same spine as the boys have been working, I begin to feel those familiar tugs on my lines that indicate a thermal. The feeling is translated down from the canopy eight meters above through the nylon risers that connect the glider to the harness and from this feeling, I work my magic. At first, I am lifted up but fly through the narrow column of rising air and sink on the other side but my now my mind is mentally mapping out the thermal and each time I swing around, my period of lift lasts longer. Figure eight turns used at the beginning to avoid smashing into the rocky ridge beside me eventually give way to full, tight 360 degree circles. I begin to wind up through the thermal and the ridge drops below me with dizzying speed. I drift with the thermal to the east and soon I am over the un-named peak north of Macfarlane. Now I can see Lower Pierce Lake, a deep sapphire blue jewel in a verdant green cup. And, to its south, poured into a much rockier talus cup, lies the ever beautiful bahama blue Upper Pierce Lake.
With this kind of altitude I radio the guys and tell them that I am heading south back towards Mt. Macfarlane and seconds later I am buzzing by the bright red cone that marks the summit pyramid where I find more lift along the ridge to the south. Soon I am spinning above the peak. This encourages me to continue playing along the dramatic spine. I soar over to Crossover Peak which I last climbed twenty-nine years ago on a big day adventure before I knew that there was a fabric aircraft that could fly me to glorious summits like this.
As I dance in the air along the rusty ridge, I glimpse a bright white object perched on ledge far below me and gasp as I recognize a huge billy goat oblivious to the large orange bird flying over it. When I yodel down, the goat slowly looks up but seems non-plussed by my presence.
I quickly lose interest in the Billy because now a dream-come-true is within reach. I am soaring over Parkes Peak and the massif that is Mt. Slesse is only a few hundred meters away. The autumn sun continues to warm the western slopes below me and it is easy to bob along and find lift in the huge bowl from which climbers ascend Slesse's standard route. I can see the steep trail zig-zagging its way up through heather and scree from the ridge below me. Slowly I soar Slesse's Northwest ridge sharing the air with a huge immature eagle transiting from north to south. Compared with the peaks I have just passed, Slesse is like some huge ogre rising dark and ominous from the meadows below.
Try as I might, I can't find significant lift here and after scouring the rock face and maintaining for several minutes, I turn back for Macfarlane almost four kilometres away and bob my way back in the buoyant air. The billy goat scuttles down the scree slope this time as I pass over him. The boys are packed up far below in the landing area and rather than scratch all the way down to join them, I radio down that I am going to fly out to main Chilliwack Valley and land as far west as I can.
The air is smooth and liftless once I depart the Macfarlane ridge. I fly a straight line westward out over the Chilliwack River and begin to assess landing options which is somewhat difficult with the sun in my eyes. Eventually, I spy the old Mt. Thurston Prison site which some parafriends have told me is an easy clearing to land in. The glide out is effortless but there seems to be an uncomfortable number of tall trees around and in the middle of the old prison site so I pass it by hoping to glide all the way to Slesse Park where we sometimes land after flying Elk Mountain. The sun continues to hinder me. I can't see with all the glare and consider landing on a long gravel bar near the road but the thought of landing on boulders deters me, so I turn back and commit to the old prison. The approach is a little tricky...I descend along an old road approaching from east to west and have to be careful to keep my wing away from the tall trees on either side, slowing the paraglider down to nearly a stall to keep from overshooting the field. In the end I touch down with lots of room to spare but from the ground I can immediately see that approaching south to north would have been easier and safer. The first landing in any area is always the trickiest!
Meanwhile, Sam and Brad are already driving along Chilliwack Lake Road and fifteen minutes after landing, I am relaxing in Brad's truck with a cold beverage and what I hope will be the most spectacular footage I have ever taken from my helmet cam which was on for the entire flight. Alas, that night I am dismayed to discover that all of the files showing my flight are corrupted and unreadable. For days now, I have been trying out various file repair programs as well as sending out all calls to experts who might be able to recover these files.
So far, no success, but this disappointment motivates me to write a more detailed-than-usual description of this adventure and I hope the reader is able to get a little sense of what it is like to soar with eagles at Mt. Slesse.
As for a movie version of this tale? Not looking promising.... I guess we'll just have to climb back up and do it again! Where do I sign up?