Succesful expeditions start with good planning – and good pilots. Ours had four who have all set distance records. They also take a different mindset, that starts with a willingness to fly into areas without landing options, with enough kit on your back to survive for a couple of days.
Our mission this year was to fly 500 miles (800km) in a series of linked flights from southern Utah, near Hurricane Ridge, outside of Zion, to Jackson Hole across the Wasatch Range and Star Valley. We came up with a name: “500 miles to Jackson.” As the title of this article suggests, our mission became something else entirely.
The Rocky Mountains run from the southern tip of Chile to the northern tip of Alaska, the longest unbroken chain of mountains on Earth. “Remote” is an inadequate description. No place requires more commitment, as discovered in last year's Paragliding World Cup when Guy Anderson, a British pilot, disappeared for two days.
Weather is unpredictable. Thermals are strong. Bases are high, often well over our legal limit of 18,000 feet (5,500m). Supplemental oxygen is highly recommended. Winds come out of nowhere and blow hard.
I’ve flown more in the European Alps than at home and I can’t say that flying in the Alps is easier; it’s just different. In Europe, there are trains and buses to take you home. In the American West there are dirt roads, and a truck might appear once or twice a day.
In paragliding, there is always an element of literally winging it, and no amount of planning overcomes weather. Highly unstable and moisture-rich air was being swept up from the Gulf of Mexico, 2,400km away. Instead of small white puffy cumulus clouds in the afternoon we had massive nimbus clouds and a scary explosion of lightning. Beautiful from the ground, terrifying from the air.
We flew a bit here and there, but inevitably were forced to run. Forecasts showed drier conditions up north but our paragliders were too slow to get there as we’d planned (in the air) so we modified the expedition at first by 100 miles (160km), driving north.
But the weather caught up so we modified it again. 400 miles (640km) to Jackson…300 miles (480km) to Jackson… Eventually these modifications became a joke. We were paragliding how it is typically done, driving to launches that held promise and seeing what we could make of the conditions. We kept on north until we did eventually reach Jackson, but not by air.
We scored a beautiful flight out to the Grand Teton and back, a rarely-flown route of 30 miles (48km) in big mountains and then the rain caught up as it had every day and we were grounded again. And that’s when everything changed. Rather than admitting defeat we regrouped and realised while it wasn’t what we imagined, the adventure was still pretty radical. Great friends, great flying, and a lot of unknown.
So we altered the mission, renamed it “500 miles to Nowhere” and got back in the truck and drove all the way back to where it all started, at Hurricane Ridge. At that point it didn’t matter. We were now on the wings of a proper journey, riding it wherever and at whatever pace the weather dictated.
Get more from Gavin McClurg in his expert talk, “How to avoid a storm”, and follow Red Bull Adventure on Facebook for more great stories.