“So we just run right off the mountain?” I asked, a bit incredulously.
“Just head towards the cliff. Ready? Run!” my tandem instructor Gustavo shouted.
It was more like a waddle than a run towards the edge, thanks to the somewhat awkward position of the tandem harness connecting my lower back to Gustavo’s stomach area. As we headed towards the end of the sloping top of the mountain towards the drop off, the parachute that was dragging behind us on the ground suddenly filled with air. Gently, almost effortlessly, the parachute extended above us and the Earth fell away as we slipped into sky, mere feet away from the end of the mountain face. Gustavo and I were air bound, paragliding over the beautiful Chilean countryside.
Paragliding: The Run Down
The glider (and instructor in the case of tandem rides) is attached at the waist to an oblong, usually colorful, parachute. Near each hip is a ring connecting dozens of strong, nylon strings to different parts of the parachute for steering purposes. Once riders catch the wind off the mountain, handholds at head-level allow the pilot to manipulate the wind to go higher, lower, faster and slower. Although the instructors are in the know about exactly what gusts to catch for the best rides, tandem riders can try out steering if the wind is steady and calm that day.
Rides usually last between 30 minutes and an hour, the length depending on the wind that day and the size of the group. Like any weather-based sport, expect possible delays. If the wind slacks off, temporarily or otherwise, there is nothing to do but play the waiting game. Tandem rides need more wind than single riders, so local professionals or new pilots who arrived later may be some of the first to ride.
After the marvelously quiet and somewhat chilly ride, the descent begins. There is usually a course, or target, that highlights the area for a safe landing, clear of trees, big rocks and other obstacles. After a leisurely ride back down to the Earth, gliding back and forth in front of the selected area, the riders land solidly on their feet. Sometimes after the initial connection to the ground, especially with tandem riders, there is a short jog after the initial connection to Earth to help maintain balance.
The Thrill Factor
More so than any other adventure sport that I’ve tried, paragliding is the most like flying. Like a bird that moves as one with the wind, the entire point of paragliding is to enjoy the breathtaking views of the countryside (or city-side, in some places). Unlike when you are parachuting after skydiving, whose harness isn’t positioned for long-term descents, paragliders are 100% comfortable. The harness is configured so the riders are in a sitting position, with support focused on the lower back and upper thighs, giving the freedom to admire any part of the 360 degree view.
Because of the calm nature, I wouldn’t classify paragliding as a high adrenaline adventure sport. It is thrilling; being 1,500 feet or more above the ground is not an everyday occurrence, and the idea of running towards the end of the mountain to catch an updraft is excitingly counterintuitive. But paragliding is floating, and the majority of the time spent near the clouds is a wonderfully soft ride.
But, as my instructor Gustavo said, there is a “rock and roll” option for those wanting a quick burst of high excitement. With his assistance, I pulled with all my might on right side of the parachute and we went into an exhilarating downward spiral. We became almost parallel to the ground- I could barely tell what direction was up and what direction was down- but I never felt as if we were out of control. The adrenaline rush was a nice change from the gentle pace of the rest of the ride.
If tandem paragliding really strikes your fancy, there are classes to obtain a solo pilot’s certificate. Instruction is done through a school or private training course and is broken into two parts: air school and ground school, similar to soloing an airplane. On the ground, students learn how to properly launch themselves off the mountain and correctly inflate and handle the parachute. You will also learn how to steer, land and learn the basic principles of basic weather patterns.
Once these skills are developed, then the students are off on their solo flights, often on the first day of a typical two-day, eight-hours per day, training session. New pilots are connected via radio to the instructor on the ground to help with any issues that may arise. Once the solo is completed, students can go on to more advanced courses to refine skills and concentrate on specializations like acrobatics or target landing. In the paragliding community, which struck me as particularly tight-knit, there are many competitions and social events for friends and family.