Boulder Paragliding Hike and Fly Lap Record
As an adventure junkie who’s tried just about every sport that exists, paragliding is one of the most liberating activities I’ve ever discovered. From the beginning of time humans have looked to the sky with envy as we’ve watched birds circling high above us, and now we’ve finally harnessed the technology to launch off a mountain with nothing but strings and fabric to join our feathered ancestors in the skies. To those who have never experienced free flight before, the only way to truly describe the sensation of soaring through the clouds is that ‘it seems too good to be true.’
When I first got into the sport, my goal as a paraglider was never to break records or compete with others; rather I was lured by the freedom flying has to offer. Freedom in so many ways that had never even occurred to me before… Suddenly flying opened the door to endless opportunities as an athlete who loves the outdoors. I have always been a trail runner, mountaineer, hiker, backpacker, and adventure lover, but there are only so many places a trail will lead you and only so many miles you can run before you have to turn around or loop your way to the finish line, whether that’s your car, your camp, your house, etc.
What paragliding offers; however, is a one way ticket on foot followed by a beautiful and exhilarating experience of flying to your final destination. No longer did I have to plan out-and-back runs from car to car, instead I could bring a wing on my back and take the trail as deep into the mountains as I wanted, then take out my paraglider and fly my way back to my car. I could now focus all my energy on the activity I loved, which is pushing myself on the uphill and exploring the remote corners of beautiful mountain ranges without worrying about saving enough time for a long run back or the ankle pounding downhill slog back to the start. Flying has changed the way I adventure, from my perspective of what’s possible in a single day push to my love for experiencing the world from both the ground and the air.
My hometown of Boulder is a decent spot for flying, but I’ve always thought of it more as a great training hill because of its relatively short approach and easy access for doing laps. From bottom to top it’s roughly 600 vertical feet which makes for great hike on the well established trail to the launch. On hot summer days with strong thermals you will often see a handful of pilots on launch waiting for the perfect wind cycle, but occasionally the weather is stable with low winds and those are the days I love most. I have always pushed myself to see how many laps I could do in a day and for years I’ve dreamt of pulling off a 10,000 vertical foot day, but on each attempt I’ve been thwarted by shifting winds or changing weather after just 10 or so laps (a feat that takes about 5 hours or more on its own). It’s soul crushing after putting that much effort in, only to be turned away not because of your lack of strength or determination, but because of the fragile and ever changing weather conditions that can turn paragliding from safe to perilous.
On the morning of October 25th, 2021, I checked the weather forecast and the prediction was for mild east winds throughout the entire day – perfect for hike and fly laps! I grabbed my light weight wing, plenty of snacks and water, and hit the trail ready for a long day ahead. I’ve learned not to get my hopes up for 10,000 feet because the forecast can change in an instant, but I enjoy pushing myself physically and there’s nothing better than racking in miles of uphill elevation without the strain of even a single knee-pounding step downhill (at least in my book).
Through past trials I’ve gotten my system completely dialed, which is broken down into four parts – hiking, unpacking and launching, flying, landing and packing up. In fact I’ve got the entire process to be so efficient that what used to take me 30+ minutes per lap now takes me between 16-18 minutes per lap when I’m pushing full speed.
In my pack I have only the wing, which is attached to my harness at all times. All snacks and water are in exterior pockets so when the time comes to pull the wing out, there’s only one thing I have to concentrate on. When I get to launch, I pull the wing out, lay it flat, sort the lines, and kite it up above head to make sure it’s safe and ready to fly. Next I turn around and run full speed since there is usually very light wind on these calm days which makes for a faster take off speed. After launching, I look for the quickest line back to the landing zone, trying to avoid flying over any bumps in terrain that might trigger thermals and send me up when my goal is to get back to the ground as quickly as possible. The second I land I take my backpack off, ball the wing up and shove it inside the pack. I make sure the backpack I bring for these speed projects is much larger than the wing I fly, that way it’s easy and effortless to shove everything inside quickly. My helmet and harness are on the entire time to save time between laps, and once my wing is packed away I start hiking up again.
On October 25th I finally reached my goal of 10,000 vertical feet of hike + fly after completing 18 laps on the north Boulder hill, a new site record (previously 12 laps). The feat took 6 hours and 55 minutes and the total elevation gain was 10,708 feet. I’m extremely thankful the weather cooperated throughout the entire day because I find that to be the biggest obstacle between failure and success on these long flying days. It was one of the best paragliding feats of my career, and I hope that by leaving the door open for 20+ laps someone out there is crazy enough to join me on this journey of pushing the limits for what’s possible in a day of hike and fly out here in Boulder Colorado.