The first thing you realize about paragliding is that it isn’t anything like falling. The sport looks so much like skydiving or BASE jumping—a tiny human tethered to what greenhorns would call a parachute, a few feet of crinkly fabric to stall gravity.
But hike up Tiger Mountain on a spring day and you’ll see that a paraglide launch is no nosedive. A pilot unfurls his wing and takes a few strides: step, step, step, and then the human goes…up.
Tiger’s launch, two clearings cut into the forest 1,500 feet over Issaquah, makes up one of the top paraglide sites in the country. When the weather is right, the sky above the wooded hills fills with multicolored gliders, like an invasion by the world’s cheeriest paratroopers.
“You harness the power of wind and the sun and nature,” says Owen Shoemaker, a Seattle-area instructor. He wouldn’t even call it an extreme sport. “We’re not jumping off cliffs, we’re just kind of…using a kite.”
“You develop a relationship with clouds in this sport.”
Noah Briller, an experienced paragliding pilot, reads the skyline like hieroglyphics as we sit among a half dozen paragliders on the Tiger Astroturf, most with heads tipped skyward.
This is the part of paragliding they call para-waiting. When I-90 drivers see pilots looping through the air above them, they probably think they’re watching reckless thrill seekers. But here at the launch site, paragliders are sprawled like teenagers in a suburban basement, some wrapped in their tissue-thin glider fabric for warmth. Chatter bounces between dirty jokes and meteorological nerdery.
Most of us would call this a partly sunny, decent Northwest day; Briller reads the air currents and proclaims it so-so for flight. Pilots gain lift from thermals, or small, warm pockets of air that drift upward from the ground. Clouds taller than they are wide are a sign of atmospheric instability, which is a good thing, but today too many are as flat as underbaked cookies.
Briller, who performs MRIs at UW Medical Centers by day, tracks dew points and air pressure before every flight, even consulting models constructed by a UW atmospheric science supercomputer. Today he points out one cloud that could suck a pilot up into a whiteout—not only dangerous but, by Federal Aviation Administration visual flight rules, illegal.
“On the ground it looks like a fluffy bunny cloud,” he says, “but in the air, it’s like rawr!” We lounge atop Tiger awaiting a telltale sign that it’s time to fly: Bald eagles and hawks coast in circles, riding the same thermals we’re after.
In a tandem flight, the newbie goes out in front of the experienced pilot, both strapped to harnesses that fit like backpacks with built-in seats. The glider, or wing, fills with air like a kite, and then it’s a short run off the slope until our feet pedal uselessly in open air. Here we have to stay under 5,000 feet per the FAA, but pilots can soar higher than Mount Rainier when they’re clear of airliner flight paths.
Our flight is remarkably stable, more like a Ferris wheel ride than a roller coaster. The tips of Tiger Mountain’s brushy Douglas firs are right underfoot, cold air whooshing past and obscuring sound. A hawk eyes us suspiciously as we pass. The sensation is more vivid than flying in a small plane and more serene than peeking over a precipice. This is a sport, if one defines sport as something active one does for fun. But it feels more like meditation that takes place outside your head.
Paragliding originated, like so many great things, with Leonardo da Vinci. The United States Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association notes that the renaissance man sketched parachutes way back in the fifteenth century; NASA aeronautical engineers took up the reins in the 1960s while developing space capsule recovery. Then the Europeans made it a sport, and by the mid-1980s former hang glider pilots, loath to carry heavy equipment, embraced the lightweight way to noodle through the air.
Marc Chirico was one such early adopter, flying in France before coming to Issaquah and building the Tiger Mountain launch in the early 1990s. His Seattle Paragliding School is a kind of home base for many area pilots, located on Issaquah-Hobart Road next to the field that serves as the landing zone. There are only about 5,500 pilots in the country, and Seattle is one of the few spots where they converge.
Chirico’s outfit doesn’t offer rides, exactly; tandem experiences are instructional, per USHPA rules, and pilots operate under FAA rules like any other aircraft. But beginners range from grade schoolers to the elderly, and in summer Chirico’s instructors fly almost every day. A shuttle runs to the launch, but some hike in via the Chirico Trail, a 1.8-mile route he bushwhacked up Tiger.
It took us about an hour to climb the 1,700 feet to Tiger launch on foot and half that time to soar down. That’s a short flight for Briller, who’s flown across the North Cascades and through the Himalayas; on a good day he’ll take off from Tiger, gain lift, and soar to Enumclaw or Snoqualmie Pass. (Paragliding rule one: Always pack your ID in case you land near a bar.)
But time stretches while we’re afloat. We can see cars snaking up the Issaquah Highlands and the snowy foot of Mount Rainier under far-off cloud cover. Landing is abrupt but easy; one minute we’re airborne, the next we’re jogging awkward steps across the landing zone.
Shoemaker likens flights to gambling, the pilots always in search of a thermal boost to extend the flight a bit longer, for a little more time among the raptors. “You think, I just need one more climb to get back up to cloud base,” he says. “Even if you’re not religious you’re sitting there praying.”
Other ways to take flight.
Eliav Cohen got hooked on hot-air-balloon flight at a young age and apprenticed under a French pilot before buying his own balloon. He offers luxury flights up a river valley toward Mount Rainier and considers fresh-baked croissants and champagne to be an integral part of the experience. seattleballooning.com
It takes just 30 minutes of training before first-timers can step out of a plane and fall into the air southeast of Everett. The truly brave can opt for a 12,000-foot start to their tandem, which increases the oh-shit session from a 30-second free fall to a full minute. skydivesnohomish.com