Paragliding in San Gil, Colombia
By Andrew Marston
With next to no instruction, save for “run when I tell you to” and “if you don’t run when I tell you to, we could crash”, Chelsea and I find ourselves being fitted into what look like very saggy backpacks.
When we ask what they’re for, we’re told they’re like airbags to soften the landing.
As we examine each other’s saggy backpack and watchas our pilots untangle the dozens of lines on each of the large kite-like parachutes spread out on the ground, Chelsea asks me earnestly, “what the hell are we doing?”
Our paragliding takeoff area is about an hour and a half drive from the adventure sports destination of San Gil, Colombia,and is at the top of a large hill with a spectacular view of the surrounding valley.
Once the parachutes are sorted out, I’m directed to stand in front of my pilot Andres, who is a head shorter than me and looks like he could be sixteen.
He clips a couple carabiners to loops on the shoulder straps of my saggy backpack and makes some minor adjustments.
Although he seems satisfied, I’m left wondering why the straps between my legs are flopping around so loosely – there’s easily room down there for two or three more of me.
I ask Andres if they should be tighter, to which he responds, “todo bien” (it’s all good) and flashes me a confident smile, exposing his shiny set of braces. “What the hell am I doing?” I ask myself silently.
A Steep Drop
With the two of us standing too close for my liking to the edge of the hill and facing a steep drop into the valley below, we wait patiently for the right breeze to come along.
A few drafts come and go, slightly stirring the chute behind us from its otherwise motionless “pile of dirty laundry” arrangement.
Finally a stronger breeze comes along and Andresyanks on his fistfuls of cord, causing the chute to open up and quickly start making its way up over our heads. Before I realize what’s happening, we’re both running down the hill and all I can think is “don’t stop running!!” After only six or seven strides
After only six or seven strides I ‘m now running in the air while instinctively belting out a “woooooooo!” and the scary part is over. Andres instructs me to sit back, at which point I realize that my saggy backpack also doubles as a super comfy hammock chair.
We spend the next few minutes soaring through the air and enjoying the breathtaking scenery. As we glide through the valley, descending slowly toward the houses and trees below, I begin to think that we’re bound to fall way short of the promised forty-minute flight. My mind is running through the scenario of our impending crash-landing
My mind is running through the scenario of our impending crash-landing when a sudden updraft takes hold of us and sends us spiraling up and over the surrounding hills.
What I thought was going to be an adrenaline-pumping ride turns out to be an incredibly relaxed and surreal experience, smoothly soaring at about 25 or 30 km/h while taking in the scenery and checking out the passing groups of vultures and eagles. As we meander around over the countryside, I begin to realize the name of the game: thermals.
As we meander around over the countryside, I begin to realize the name of the game: thermals. These ever-shifting updrafts are the key to staying in the air.
Andres explains that the easiest way to find a thermal is to look for the birds; we spot a cluster of vultures circling in the distance and adjust our course. Once we ‘re just under the birds Andres pulls down on the right cord, throwing us into a slow clockwise spin and keeping us in the sweet spot as we climb up into the puffy white clouds.
Where Will We Land?
Fifteen minutes into the flight I ask Andres where we’ll be landing, assuming he’d indicate one of the clearings near the river at the bottom of the valley. To my surprise, he points down to the very spot we took off from.
I never expected it to work like this, being able to ride a thermal up and then slowly glide back down, constantly on the hunt for our next lift. Andres tells me that on a good day he can keep it up for six or more hours – incredible!
We chat a bit and I learn that he’s 22 years old and has been paragliding for six years: while I was trying to cram Christmas lights back into their boxes at a retail store for minimum wage, this kid was making a living flying tourists around under a giant parachute. Sometimes life just isn’t fair.
After about half an hour of flying around, we get a call on the radio from our man on the ground warning us that it’s started to rain at our takeoff/landing spot.
Andres has a quick radio exchange with the other pilot and they decide on a change of plans: we’ll be heading to their alternate landing spot in the hopes of outrunning the rain.
This is a cool bonus for us since it means we’ll get to explore a bit of the countryside instead of being limited to the one area. We shift our course toward a large hill in the distance.
Andres explains that we won’t be doing any more spinning and playing around since we’ll need to keep all the altitude we can to reach the landing spot – it’s all business from here.
For the next twenty minutes we continue in a straight line, taking us over the distant hill and a large escarpment as we slowly but surely lose altitude. Grey clouds begin to move in and a cool wind picks up, raising goosebumps on my exposed arms and legs.
We pass through a low wispy cloud and lose sight of our surroundings for a few moments. Finally, Andres points to a clearing atop a smaller hill ahead in the distance – our target.
Another few minutes pass and it’s looking pretty clear that we don’t have the altitude to make the hill. As a last hope we scan the horizon for birds, but the only ones around seem to be making their way back to the valley we came from. Looks like we’ll have to improvise…
As I can recall from my tandem skydiving experience a few years ago, while you’re flying around up high it hardly seems like you’re falling at all, the ground just seems impossibly far away. In those last ten or twenty seconds, though, the ground comes right up out of nowhere, rapidly swelling upward toward your dangling feet.
This time around was the same: one second I’m waving at a group of kids running and shouting up at us from the houses below, and the next Andres is shouting for me to keep my feet up and out in front of me as we skirt just above a barbed wire fence and then plop softly down into the dirt.
We’d landed in a clearing that looked like a cattle-grazing area. I’d lost sight of Chelsea in my confusion, but after getting free of my straps and back on my feet I have a quick look around.
About a hundred meters ahead of us I spot what looks like a parachute tangled up in a small grove of trees. What the…?
Sure enough, as I approach I spot Chelsea and her pilot standing beside the tree, brushing a newly acquired collection of dirt and leaves from themselves. Luckily, no real damage has been done save for a decent scrape on the back of Chelsea’s arm, a couple new tears in her favorite tank top, and the breaking of her pilot’s alleged streak of fifteen years accident-free.
As the two pilots work on rescuing the tangled chute from the tree, Chelsea describes what happened.
They’d been on a good line to land on the mostly clear ground beside the trees but at the last second a gust of wind grabbed their chute and swung them around directly into a tree. Chelsea points out a branch about as thick as my wrist that was snapped clean off.
Somehow, as she found herself on a collision course with the branch she’d managed to get her feet in the way, breaking it and absorbing most of the blow, likely saving herself from a second adventure to the nearest hospital.
As we work on gathering ourselves and packing up the chutes, the rain finally catches up to us. We run for the shelter of a nearby house and wait in the porch for our ride to come find us (“we’re near a couple of white houses on a dirt road near the bottom of a hill…”).
As we wait, we decide that, although the flight was an incredible experience, lasting just over an hour and covering almost fifteen kilometers, paragliding probably isn’t something we’ll need to do again.
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