In search of the negative: Acro paragliding in Gerlitzen, Austria

Acro flying over Ossiacher Lake in Gerlitzen, Austria

Acro paragliding is an aerobatic discipline of canopy flight involving the accumulation and manipulation of energy in order to perform a wide variety of maneuvers.  Top pilots on modern gliders have progressed far beyond the basics of wingovers, spirals, loops, and full stalls, to gain mastery over increasingly complex techniques such as ‘helicopter-connections’ and the ‘infinite tumble’.  Acro flying is a unique obsession that draws a small but diverse crowd to congregate at a limited number of ideal training sights scattered around the globe.  The acro tribe.

Gerlitzen crew on launch

Having ‘grown my wings’ so to say at the Point of the Mountain in SLC, I was given an early exposure to acro, as the Point is one of the best sights to train in the States.  However, it was not until spending a winter training over the safety of Lake Fewa Tal in Nepal that I was able to break in to my full-stall and thus open the door to acro paragliding.  The seed of obsession was planted, and the underlying focus of my life has since been to learn to fly backwards on a big nylon sack (which is hard to explain to the establishment).  After hearing whispers of an ideal place to train in the Austrian Alps, we once again re-shuffled our obligations and priorities in order to line up 5 weeks in Gerlitzen, Austria this July.

I flew out early to first spend 3 weeks in China working on our new ski factory with BD.  Then I flew direct from Hong Kong to meet my girl Caroline at the airport in Munich.  Re-united once again, we spent a few days flying with good friends in the beautiful German

Thermaling over the castle in Fussen, Germany

town of Fussen.  Flights from the radical launch at Tegelberg offer thermal climbs over a medieval castle – an aesthetic experience that draws scores of tourists for tandem flights.  After catching our breath, we made our way through Tirol to Gerlitzen, Austria where our good Scottish friend Andy lined up an abandoned caravan for us to camp in for the summer.  We dragged in to Camp Candy late at night and passed out in our dilapidated new home for a night of restless sleep.

What awaited us in the light of the next day was both inspiring and humbling.  Surrounded by peaks and deep green forest we were introduced to some of the local crew, which included pilots from around the globe and some Tirolian standouts who are in the ranks of the worlds best.  On the gondola ride up to launch, we watched as the lake and landing shrank into the distance below.  From launch, we flew out along the ridge then over the lake with roughly 900 meters of height, then adjusted our position over the water for wind drift so that if you have a problem and throw your rescue you will land in the soft water.  From there we hucked – dropping out but taking care to avoid other gliders above and below as it can be quite busy in ‘the box.’  With roughly 150 meters of height remaining, we returned over the trees to the landing, packed up as quickly as possible, piled in where we fit in, and headed back to the gondola to do it again.  At a full pace, 6 or 7 laps in a day are possible, enough for physical and mental exhaustion.

Waiting for a hole in the cloud

When we first arrived, the whole scenario was pretty overwhelming.  My skills were rusty, the scene was new, and by the nature of showing up to a male-dominant sight with a beautiful girlfriend the dudes were sizing me up – and in the discipline at hand I was quite small.  Even more intimidating was watching from above on our first day as one of the Tirolian crew fell in to his canopy while infinite-tumbling.  Watching his POV footage at camp that night, he was shrink-wrapped in his canopy with one hand tangled in lines so that it was tied above his head, and he was only able to get a rescue out with the other hand and throw it clear at the last second.  Just the first day and I was ready to tuck my tail and run away.

Twisted in to an ugly mess over the lake

And it only got worse.  On the third day, while trying an acro glider of significantly higher performance than what I was used to and attempting helicopters which I had no mastery of, I took a bunch of twists that I didn’t know how to deal with and threw my rescue.  Being in the lake isn’t such a big deal, but you’re really not supposed to do it on someone else’s glider.  Floating in Ossiacher Lake, the borrowed glider jelly-fishing in the water around me and the inflated rescue parachute dragging me slowly along with the wind, I was broken down to the ultimate low – I did not belong, was not capable.  Again.

 

Soon the rescue boat pulled up, and I climbed aboard in the first steps towards my slow reconstruction.  The buxom Austrian girl on the patrol boat, perhaps sensing my dejectedness, stripped down to a skimpy bikini and dove in to the water to gently manipulate the glider as we pulled it on board.  Back at the dock, my girlfriend was waiting along with a New Zealand couple that we had met the previous day.  It’s hard to express appropriate gratitude towards someone you just met that has helped you when you are down.  Help they did, and as we dried my kit and re-packed my rescue, Craig Taylor talked me through my mistakes and recommended a training strategy towards my Helico goal.

Soaring in San Simeone, Italy

So from a base of deeper humility, I set out once again in search of the negative.  I bought the glider; a black-on-black-on-black Thriller; and started from scratch learning how to fly the little hot-rod and working on the basics.  As we warmed up to the scene we found ourselves surrounded by a group of like-minded people – global vagrants who find deep purpose in dancing with the wind.  We bonded and got used to the lifestyle – up early, laps until the lift closed, swimming in the lake, dinner, and then evening shenanigans (heavily based around the ping-pong table) before retiring to do it again the next day.  When the weather went bad, we took road trips to Italy to fly San Semeoni, a huge soaring mountain at the Southern front of the Alps, accessed by a treacherous old war-time road and surrounded by vineyards below.  When the rain came – pouring down in sheets like nothing I have seen before – we simply hung around trying not to go mad!

Waiting out the rain in our caravan

For the last week of our trip, the conditions cleared and we were rewarded with some magnificent cloud flights launching and flying out above a sea of fog, then dropping out through a hole to the lake.

Flying out over clouds to drop out through the hole

For both my girlfriend and I, our focus on fundamentals paid off, so that by the time we left we were starting to accomplish our goals for the trip.  For my girlfriend, that meant big clean wingovers and more than a hundred full-stalls.  For me, it was finally gaining some sense and awareness within the helicopter, as well as big dynamic full-stalls and dynamic SATS bordering on Tumbling.  We said goodbye through some fun and ridiculous times with our new friends and a stealth night-flight under the full moon.  Finally, a bunch of the crew left for the World Cup comp nearby at Zell Am Sie and the place emptied out.  I flew up to the last second, narrowly avoiding the lake suck on my last flight, and then caught a night train to Munich to head back out in to the world.

Dynamic full-stall

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