Paragliding: An Exercise in Outdoor Adventure
Recently I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about how I can simultaneously challenge myself, try new things and make the most of the beautiful Vancouver summer. The Grouse Grind was the first rung on my ladder to outdoor adventure, but this still wasn’t enough. Don’t get me wrong, getting up the mountain was hard. Very hard. But not in the same league as getting down the mountain strapped into an oversized kite. You got it, I wanted to paraglide. I knew the longer I thought about it the more likely I’d be to talk myself out of it, so when my latest visitors and I planned a trip to Grouse Mountain I got straight on the phone and shelled out $199 plus tax. Done. No backing out.
As it turns out, I wasn’t as tempted to back out as I thought I would be. It’s important at this stage to note that I’m pretty afraid of heights. I have trouble looking over high balconies, and sports like abseiling or bungee jumping scare the hell out of me. Tandem paragliding was my way to tackle this fear in a supervised, safe and hopefully fun environment. Being the research geek that I am, the first thing I did after booking my session (deliberately not before) was to Wikipedia paragliding. Apparently the paraglide is designed in such a way that makes equipment failure just about impossible. Good news. This does however mean that the vast, vast majority of paragliding accidents are down to pilot error. Hmmmm. I closed my eyes and prayed for a good ‘un.
The morning of my flight rolled around, and I was surprisingly calm. My stomach was twisting more at the thought of hiking the Grouse Grind for a second time (oh no, I wasn’t taking the gondola up or down the mountain that day) than of throwing myself off the side of a mountain. I didn’t even feel a twinge of fear when the time came to meet my instructor, Todd, and attach myself to a paraglide. I started to tell him how nervous I was that I wasn’t nervous, but he interrupted me to tell me to walk forward, and before I could finish my sentence we were in the air.
This may sound like a cliché, but it really, really didn’t feel real. I felt like I was sitting on a very comfortable chair looking over a matt painting of the North Vancouver shoreline. I was holding onto the straps on either side of my harness and I felt very secure, even though I knew deep down that these strips of plastic wouldn’t help me one bit if we did start plummeting towards the ground. We started off slowly and circled the resort a few times before Todd asked me if I wanted to have a go at steering. I jumped at the chance and took the handles for myself, feeling the air resistance and attempting to keep in a straight line. I was feeling very proud of myself before I remembered the Wikipedia article, and my brain started screaming those two all important words: pilot error. The sudden realisation that I was the pilot and had the own potential to cause my own death (and take Todd down with me) was enough for me to relinquish the reins, and we continued on our way.
As we got closer to the landing spot, Todd took some photos using an elaborate gadget that was essentially a camera on the end of a very long pole. He also shot some video footage of us doing some very sharp turns, during which I frequently found myself staring face down at the ground with the parachute beneath me. All of a sudden we were coming into land, and my feet were on the grass of Cleveland Park, a short bus ride back to the base of the mountain. My flight lasted around 15 minutes, but the photos and video will last a lifetime. Or at least they’d better at $40 for the set.
I’m really, really glad that I bit the bullet and took a risk with an experience that might have scared me, but in some ways my flight was a little anti-climactic. I wasn’t anywhere near as scared as I thought I would be, even in the air, and I don’t feel I really challenged myself as much as I could. Which brings me back to my second-to-worst nightmare: Skydiving. Can I bring myself to jump out of a plane after watching Sarah Barnes’ gruesome death at the hands of a sabotaged parachute in Hollyoaks? The more I think about my number-one-worst nightmare, bungee jumping, the more I think that I might just be able to pluck up the courage. There’s a skydiving company in Whistler you say? Well perhaps I could be tempted…