This is a short video that my girlfriend and I made training acro in Austria last summer.
The acro pilots will see that we’re still pretty rough, and everyone will appreciate the poor footage quality! But it helps to tell the story.
This is a short video that my girlfriend and I made training acro in Austria last summer.
The acro pilots will see that we’re still pretty rough, and everyone will appreciate the poor footage quality! But it helps to tell the story.
I am a bird trapped in a cage
Picking my feathers
Gone mad with rage
Once I flew high above great twilight cloud
Conquered my fear
Lived strong and proud
Now I have slipped into the great depth below
My body is sluggish
My mind it moves slow
There is no freedom for the likes of me
This life is a trial
My soul yearns to be free
No strength to be gained from things that have passed
Here in the moment
No memory can last
But if I am patient and if I am true
This cage will be broken
This sentence past due
And so while you laugh as you stare through the bars
My strength returns to me
I am made of the stars
You cannot control me though my body’s confined
My spirit eternal
No bars round my mind
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
Time to refuel
In July of 2011, having spent exactly a year traveling the world to fly, paddle, and climb, my meager reserve was completely spent. No choice but to get to work and fuel back up. It took a long time to re-organize my thoughts after complete travel immersion, but eventually I re-assimilated and was ready to get to work. I jumped at the offer by previous employer Black Diamond Equipment to spend a month in Asia working on ski production. So just as my feet were planted again, I was back in orbit traveling to the facility of a vendor-partner who was executing BD ski production at the time.
Working in Asian factories is challenging on many levels: long days, cultural and communication difficulties, deadline and costing pressures, and of course the vast distance from home. However the most significant personal challenge is the existential complication of working offshore in the contemporary global and economic landscape. I am just a ski bum from the Atomic City – talented enough as a thinker and engineer – who through a series of events driven by my passion as a skier found myself on the floors of an Asian factory. Again. This was my 10th trip to Asia, 8th trip as engineering representative for BD. Same as always I was careful to use the opportunity to expand my awareness and understanding of the world, while working hard to create something with purpose. In this case skis.
The Urban Wilderness of Hong Kong
On the weekends, I took a train back to Hong Kong to re-set in the transitional HK culture that is the result of so many years of British Colonialism. Hong Kong is easily navigated by a Westerner, has a spectacular subway and bus system, and is literally surrounded by spectacular expanses of urban wilderness. BD has a small apartment on Hong Kong Island, from which one can quickly access hundreds of miles of beautiful jungle trails with springs, streams, pools, and side-country wilderness. Yet from deep in the urban wilderness you can often look out and see the tops of some of the richest buildings in the world poking above the trees in the distance.
HK is also known for having interesting paragliding in the steep, jungled, coastal terrain, so of course I brought my travel kit. I had a couple good flights throughout the month, including a thermal session and several drop-out laps at Lantou Island. Being a ‘point-rat’ from SLC my flying techniques were unfamiliar to the local crew – I spend as much time as possible with my feet above my wing – and it took a while for them to warm up to me. But eventually we found our common ground, and I was even invited on the HK club’s annual winter trip to Taiwan.
Inland and Up
At the end of the month, with traction gained at the ski factory, I boarded a plane heading inland and up. Unbeknownst to my supervisor I had flown to Hong Kong on a two-month ticket, and arranged to spend the month of August volunteering as a whitewater mentor in Lhasa with the guiding company Tibet Wind Horse Adventure. Tibet’s only whitewater guiding operation, Wind Horse Adventure is a highly esteemed guiding operation for all variety of Tibetan adventure and culture trips. Additionally, they have ties to profound figures in the western world such as my personal inspiration Robert Thurman, the renowned western scholar of Tibetan Buddhism. I had established the contact with Wind Horse the previous year while traveling through Tibet with my girlfriend on a budget tour. Access to Lhasa is challenging – even as a paying tourist – so the prospect of spending a month exploring the Tibetan vibration with a decent level of autonomy was too good to be true.
To start I would be safety boating for a guided raft trip on the Reting Tsangpo with a group of international expat executives. Jed Weingarten was to guide the trip, and I was eager to make the acquaintance of such a profound figure from the kayaking world. We all met up at the Lhasa airport, and together spent a couple days adjusting to the altitude in Lhasa while checking out the classic sights. Then we loaded a heap of gear into the trucks and rambled off in to the hills.
The forces of nature were resisting our efforts, and as we left the streets of Lhasa behind we entered a storm that did not abate for the entire trip. The remote roads along the approach became hopelessly muddy and wet, so that our trucks were repeatedly stuck. Brutal winds tore at our tents and shelters. All the while the flow of the river slowly increased from the rain, to reach an eventual torrent that was breaking out of the banks of the Reting Tsangpo.
The whitewater on the river packed a surprising punch at such volumes, and was fast enough to flush all the way through to the Reting Monastery in a single day. Despite (and because of) some tribulations, it was not an experience that will soon be forgotten by anyone involved.
Back in Lhasa, I spent the next three weeks working on river safety and kayak skills with the local river guides of Tibet Wind Horse Adventures. We practiced a quiver of knots, simulated pin and rescue scenarios, swam in a pool, swam rapids on the local river, and worked on kayak techniques and paddle strokes. Together with the guides, we also explored some of the surrounding valleys and soaked in the local hot springs. In the evenings, I pounded out ski training laps with the young athletic standout Norbu, hiking from town to surrounding temples and local summits – often over 15,000ft!
However, what remains most clearly fixed in my mind are the Kora laps around the Jokung Temple, often late into the dark rainy nights. Kora is the meditative walk practiced by the Tibetans – always clockwise and often accompanied with prayer beads and wheels – around any spiritual monument or temple. The Jokung Temple is a non-descript yet pivotally important monument in Tibetan Buddhism. The ancient temple is built on the sight of the slaying of a giant Ogress, who had restricted the spread of Dharma throughout Tibet. While I generally avoid attachment to the specifics of lore and scripture, my mind is sufficiently tuned to subtle energies to pick up the reverberating wavelengths broadcast by countless generations of meditation that have encircled this barycenter.
At the end of the month, we loaded up the Green Machine and took a trip out to the Drigung Chu for a final weekend of whitewater and hot springs on a little gem located up a remote Tibetan valley. The Drigung River offered us a perfect opportunity to practice our new skills in a wild and beautiful setting.
We spent the night at the Drigung Hot springs, which are set in a magnificent alpine valley surrounded by a Tibetan Nunnery.
While the waters are reputed to have healing properties, the squalor of our discount room surely diminished the effects..
The next day we finished with a final lap on the river, then loaded up the green machine to head back to Lhasa.
I spun a few final laps of Kora around the Jokung, trying to solidify my feeble mind against the candy-coated mayhem that awaited me on the other end of a trans-pacific flight. With the duality of excitement and remorse that is the traveler’s plight, I boarded a plane and set off on the radical trans-Himalayan flight to begin the journey towards my home, my girl, and my dog once again.
While flying is a relatively new focus, kayaking has been a lifelong pursuit and a defining aspect of my existence. When life led me away from river country to the paraglide mecca of SLC, it was quite natural that I learned to fly. The two activities share striking similarities – both crafts are controlled by the hips in opposition with a blade (the tips of the wing on the glider), and both involve harnessing the chaos of a dynamic fluid/gaseous medium. However the differences are also quite stark: the obvious difference of being a boat versus a wing in water versus air; the energetic difference that the dynamics of water are driven by gravity whereas the dynamics of air are driven primarily by the heat of the sun; and subtly but very significantly the difference in the state of the mind and the energy of mental focus.
During my recent two point five weeks in Oregon, I had the opportunity to do some of both.
In addition to the warm up on the North Umpqua with my girlfriend, I also did a handful of laps on the local town stretch of the Deschutes river ‘Meadow Camp’ in Bend. Together with my dog Odie, we would drop my boat and drive the shuttle, then jog along the river back up to my boat at the put-in. Odie has quite a bit of experience running the banks of rivers, so that once we establish him up on the trail I can bomb down the main current in my boat while he runs the trail. I tweet my whistle often enough that he can keep tabs on my position as the trail winds along the river. It’s definitely one of his favorite activities and he maintains a huge dog-face plastered on his handsome mug. But after a few laps on the quality class IV, I was ready for more.
Therein lies my kayaking dilemma: I paddle just barely enough to maintain my skills so that I desire more challenge, but not enough that I am super sharp and dialed stepping up to stout class V. A recurring event over the last 5 years is that I find myself nervously climbing in my boat at the top of a challenging class V run, with the primary mental assurance being that ‘a year ago I was able to do this..’ It’s not much to stand on.
But so it was that I found myself in central Oregon desiring more challenging whitewater. So I loaded up my creek boat and headed North, pulled in particular by the gravitation of the Little White Salmon, which is notorious for being one of the highest quality steep creek runs anywhere. As I drove, the battle between attraction towards the river and repulsion from my unpreparedness played itself out time and again in my thoughts. But still I drove on.
As it turned out my friend Jed Weingarten, whom I met in Tibet last summer, happened to be in the area to shoot photos of a downriver race that was going on at the Little White at exactly that time. More than 50 radical young kayakers from around the globe were gathered outside of Hood River to race down this steep creek, and I missed them by just a day. But I caught up with Jed and company in Portland, and the following day Jed was granted a hall pass and agreed to route me through a lap. Jed is a Little White veteran and part of the core LW crew – having run the river for nearly 20 years – there is no one better to follow down the steep rapids.
We drove up the Columbia gorge from Portland in Kingston style, so that by the time we reached the takeout and had a quick look at the migrating salmon at the Little White Salmon fish hatchery observatory, I was deeply engrossed in the pulse of the water..
Up at the put-in preparing to start, the mental pressure continued to bear down upon me, but I did my best to keep it cool. After a little bit of quick boogey-water, the first rapid is a ½ mile long continuous class V boulder garden. Too complex to describe, I was instructed to “follow me” through the line, so I just stuck to Jed’s tail and kept it pointed down river. At the next rapid, ‘Boulder Sluice’, we jumped out to have a look at the intro down a narrow alley and off a kicker, which then disappeared over a horizon line underneath a large log. “There will be a big boulder when you land”, he said, “you’ll see.”
Climbing back in to my boat I was verging on complete over-load and break down. Too much pressure. Just at that moment, I remembered that in only a few short days I would be boarding a plane and heading back in to the land of business and industry. How deeply I would yearn for that freedom and fear – absolutely nothing in the universe but complete immersion in the experience in such a wild, beautiful place. And just like that, the fear that I had been holding at bay for 3 days was transformed in to fuel. I belong here. I snapped my skirt on, splashed some water in my face, and peeled out down the spout, around the corner, down the alley, and off the kicker “just to the left of where it’s breaking,” like Jed had said. Launching off the kicker and under the log, the landing next to the boulder came in to view. Rowdy as could be, and she was clean!
From that point onwards I was on. Floating in the eddy above each new rapid, Jed would describe the line below and finish with “but it’s really best if you just follow me.” We bombed through rowdy boulder gardens, boofed over massive holes, and dropped beautiful waterfalls in to soft, clear-blue bubbly pools. My run wasn’t perfect, but I did my best to stick to Jed’s lines and was clean enough.
We walked the legendary ‘Spirit Falls’, a beautiful but tricky 33 foot waterfall that has been known to hand out some beatings. Freshening up below the falls, with only one rapid left to go, I finally pulled out out my camera so that I could film the last rapid – Master Blaster.
The Little White Salmon river is one of the best class V kayak runs on the planet. Fueled up from the awesome experience, I had just a few short days to re-package my life and put in some heavy bonding time with my dog before boarding a plane for 12 weeks out in orbit.
After spending 5 weeks in Southern China working to set up BD’s new ski factory, I flew to SLC completely exhausted and drained. The Rocky mountains welcomed me back in to her beautiful arms, and after so much time in the land of industry the first night under the stars at the cabin in the Wasatch was a deeply therapeutic experience. I spent two days in SLC, boxing up my life at the cabin, paragliding at the ‘South Side’ in the mornings, and doing a big synch-up at the BD headquarters. Then I loaded my car and headed west to meet up with my girl just as she was getting out of work in the field. Having spent less than two months together in the last year, our time together is extremely valuable. We were to have 8 days before she was off to new adventures, so I drove through the night so as to not waste an hour of our time. All of this transition and travel left me completely fried.
After arriving in Bend, OR, we spent a few days around town recuperating and working on media projects, as well as spending QT together with our little mongrel Odie. Then we loaded the boats and headed down to the North Umpqua River for a few days on the water with new friends. The river was a perfect level of challenge for Caroline, enough to to flip her a few times but not so much as to overwhelm. For me, the N. Umpqua offered some good surf and a chance to warm up and get my blades in the water. The highlights, however, were the awesome hot springs, the excellent camping with the dog, and the awesome communal vibes from our welcoming new friends.
Returning to Bend, the weather finally cleared so we headed out to fly Pine with Portland buddy Matt Henzi. We were a bit late to catch the best XC potential of the day, so Matt brought his tandem wing so that he could take Caroline for a flight in the rowdy desert air. Our flights were not long nor very successful, but it is always good to put the wing in the air especially at a new sight. After landing and retrieving, we drove around to the lower launch to wait for the evening glass off. As the energy from a hot day dissipates, the flowing air mass tends to unify and turn in to a clean, laminar flow of air – glass off. Pine faces perfectly to the North-West, the prominent direction of flow, so that the glass-off forms a beautiful standing wave of air up the face of the mountain. The Desert Air Riders – the eclectic local fly crew that ranges from radical acro and xc pilots, to long-timers who have survived more years of free-flight than I have years on earth – were out in force. Together they form a tight-knit community, and they have taken Caroline under their collective wing to help her grow strong in the air. The warmth of the welcome that I received there was outstanding. We had a great evening flight and then watched as the sunset sky danced with color over the distant Cascade peaks.
As quickly as it had started, the time with my girl drew to an end. I dropped her off at the airport to send her off on her next adventure sailing in the Bahamas. Then I headed back to Pine to kick it with her crew. We had another good evening glass-off for some more soaring and acro sessions.
The next day, the weather was lining up just right to offer good XC potential. Again Matt drove down from Portland, and together with Desert Air Riders Tim and John, we headed back up to the top launch at Pine for another go at an XC flight.
Whereas soaring glass-off as I described above involves ‘surfing’ a big standing wave in a ‘river’ of laminar flowing air, XC (cross country) or ‘thermal’ flying involves circling in rising bubbles of air (thermals) created by the heat from the sun so as to climb or gain altitude. Once high, the intention is to head down wind on ‘glide’ to search for another thermal in which to climb again. The pilot typically flies with an electronic instrument known as a vario, which helps the pilot to locate and center in on the lift of a rising thermal using a tonal spectrum of beeps (higher faster beeps for stronger lift, lower beeps for sink).
At the upper Pine launch, I tied little mongrel Odie up in the shade with his sleeping bag. We launched early as the thermal cycles were just beginning to come through. Tim quickly found a climb and disappeared. John and Matt stayed high over launch, waiting for me to scratch around and find some lift. Eventually I found a decent climb, and joined those two roughly a thousand feet over launch. After a short and unsuccessful glide I sank to only a couple hundred feet off the ground, so that I was primarily focused on my immediate landing options. Suddenly a cycle came through, so I sunk a wingtip in and started climbing. I hung on and the cycle stayed strong, and eventually I climbed back out to nearly 2000 feet off the dirt! Heading down wind to the east I could just see Matt as a tiny speck in the distance, dancing with a big cumulus cloud.
After a few more cycles of gliding downwind to find lift and then climbing until it was topped, I eventually sank out and smashed in to the sagebrush about 17 miles to the east of launch – meager by many standards but my longest flight yet in the United States. Matt, however, continued to head east and eventually North in to tiger country, to achieve his personal best flight of ~85 miles. We followed him in Tim’s truck, using occasional sightings and GPS updates to track him through the relative no-mans land north of highway 20. When he finally ran out of options and was forced to land, we were waiting in the meadow below goading him on the radio to throw down some acro moves on his Icepeak 6 racing glider to speed up the descent. For the record, the Icepeak 6 can SAT..
The return trip to our cars at Pine degraded in to a pseudo-epic as we followed forgotten back-roads over the mountains, but Tim’s military driving skills pulled us through in quick time. Soon enough I was back on launch watching mongrel Odie throw down a huge pair of party-pants as I released him from a 7-hour tether. Somehow, the poor beast forgets every time that I was the one who tied him up in the first place, and simply appreciates his release and my return..
Riding a train North through the French and Swiss countryside was a heartening experience. I have long been obsessed with transportation efficiency, and the European rail system is an absolute marvel. The next big squeeze is rapidly approaching, but there are systems and models available to give hope that we will be able to pull it off.
After a long day of travel, I rolled in to Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland, and dragged my behemoth ski/glider bag through the dark streets looking for the Horner Hotel and Pub. The Horner is known primarily as a BASE-jumpers haunt, and I had it recommended to me by a local speedride contact as the best dirt-bag option. Standing on the porch as I staggered up was a crew of Red Bull athletes known as the Red Bull Air Force, who had come to ‘BASE Paradise’ to celebrate the upcoming marriage of Andy Farrington. Several also had speedwings, and they had plans the next morning to meet up with the local speedride crew.
Early the next morning we all joined forces, and local athletes Toby Zumsteg, Patrick Pearson, and Ueli Kestenholz amongst many others, guided us around the various speedride zones at Schilthorn. The terrain was spectacular and the access fast and easy, but the most impressive part was the skills of the Swiss riders who have grown up in this remarkable playground. It was deeply humbling to hear them speak about the recent ‘dark winter’ of 2009, when they lost 8 friends to this very dangerous sport. The exceedingly rigorous discipline that the survivors had developed was one of the most striking lessons that I absorbed throughout my trip.
After our initial session the huge speedriding posse disbanded – the Swiss to their normal lives and the Red Bull crew to spend their time BASE jumping. A few days later a few of us joined back up, including ski celebrity JT Holmes who was also in time for the bachelor party. Very cool to spend the day riding with an athlete whom I have been watching for many years.
But the majority of my time in the region was spent solo, a frequent enough theme in my chaotic life. As the temps increased, much of the more radical terrain began to unleash in a flurry of wet slabs. Therefore the available time window was limited to the early mornings, before the solar heating made the snow unstable. This proved challenging, as it took some time each morning, flying solo, to warm up my body and my mind to make sense out of the madness of this activity.
Fortunately there was also some lower, significantly mellower terrain, which stayed safe throughout the day. This provided the perfect venue to push out laps in volume and focus on details, and by the end of my trip I was able to connect a bunch of South-Side-Slider skills to a lifetime of ski training.
My typical routine was to finish the day with a valley flight out over the box canyon of Lauterbrunnen, land in the grassy fields below, and pack up just in time to catch a train across the valley. Dropping my wing at the Horner along the way, I had enough time to put in 5 or 6 laps skiing the single remaining line with dry snow underneath the North face of the Eiger. The deep silence there at a lunch rock below one of the largest faces in the Alps is an experience that will continue to resonate for some time in my weary traveling soul.
A short story and some more pictures from La Grave and the Jungfrau Region are posted on Black Diamond’s Ski Journal.