sunnudagur, mars 01, 2009

first flight

Now, for something completely different: Yesterday marked the beginning of the paragliding season for me. This is a sport that, although is pretty much undisputably the best way to spend time outside of the bedroom, has only become really popular in Alpine Europe and some other pockets around the world.* That is probably because it is a new sport, having been developed in the 1980s and with advances in equipment this decade that have made it safer and more accessible.

Iceland has a small following of just about everything one could imagine, and this includes the sport of paragliding. We have around 30 local pilots, and (but of course) an Icelandic-language name for the sport, svifvængjaflug. The Land is itself somewhat of an untapped paragliding paradise, what with treeless landing areas almost every way you look, and mountain launch sites and soaring ridges leading off in all directions.

I am new to the sport, having taken my first lessons here last summer. After a few evenings of struggling with the wing (which when not inflated basically amounts to a big floppy bag of high-tech cloth) on level ground, I was able to take some small runs down a training hill, gaining a few feet of altitude. It doesn't take long to learn the basics. Then it's off to one of the foothills that surrounds Reykjavík for the first flights of more than a few seconds.

The group that met yesterday on top of Hafrafell, the local flying site, were some of the "young bloods": a handful of pilots with a few months to a few years of flying experience. Some of them had already been over at Bláfjöll, one of the local ski areas, where they had epic winter soaring flights. When that taller mountain clouded over, the party moved north a few clicks to Hafrafell. There was the usual top-of-mountain wind-measuring, cloud-scrutinizing, and smack-talking. And then one by one we unpacked our wings and flew down.

My flight was a classic "sled ride", meaning a straight, smooth glide to the landing area. There was no wind blowing up the slope to provide any ridge lift that would keep me aloft. So gliding down through 145 meters (475 feet) of clear, still air took me all of 2 minutes. Leaning from side to side in the seat makes the wing overhead steer in big lazy turns, and I was practicing this weight shifting in my new harness. A couple of these slow turns, a straight final approach, and the wing set my feet gently down among frozen clumps of pasture grass. It was like stepping out of the sky into a winter field. The whole thing lasted only 120 seconds or so, but I will be savoring that string of mental snapshots long into the week.

*Americans, as an example, seem to hear the word "paragliding" and imagine getting dragged around by a motorboat, floating under a WWII Army surplus parachute. Sorry, not the same thing, fellas. (That's "parasailing.") But the sport is practiced there too, see for example this site.


Anonymous Nafnlaus said...

I can't wait to read your write-up of your first soaring flights...

It's taken a while for me to work out why it's so difficult to describe the sensations of paragliding, but finally I realised why. Humans simply don't have the words, because we have not evolved them. We haven't evolved the words because we can't fly. Ask someone how it feels to breathe water, or to see in the dark, or to move eight legs, and they'll be stuck for words.

The closest I can get is to imagine my wildest, most thrilling flying dream (usually after too much late-night blue cheese). The thrill, the freedom, the buzz of that dream is about an order of magnitude less intense that paragliding.

Blogger JB said...

Yo Biskupinn, is you somehow insinuatin' I did a bad job in the descriptin'?

You are 100% right, I also struggle to describe the feeling of flying. I was describing the feeling of landing the other day to my dad. The feeling of stepping back into a world you know from a world of free movement in 3 dimensions. We spend all of our lives in 2-D, and even after the excitement of flight, it's reassuring to be back there in the world we know.

And I agree, the reality in this case is better than the dreams.


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