Taking the high road
Post Independent Staff
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
ABOVE GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado – While most of us take I-70 to get to the Front Range, local Adventure Paragliding guides Peter Thompson and A.J. Frye would rather avoid the traffic.
On Aug. 12, the duo took flight from up Main Elk Canyon, north of New Castle, and didn’t set foot on the ground until they reached Aspen Park, 122 aerial miles later, breaking the Colorado record for distance in a glider.
The previous record of 120 miles was set in 2001.
Thompson and Frye maneuvered their gliders over the Flat Tops Wilderness, passing by Eagle, then over the Sawatch Range, north of Leadville, over the Climax Mine and past the backside of Breckenridge, finally landing in Aspen Park, south of Evergreen, along Highway 285.
Total time in the air: 5 hours and 25 minutes.
“It’s tough to stay in the air that long,” Thompson said. “With a trip as far as this one, there are literally thousands of decisions to make.
“The air above the mountains can get rough,” he added. “Your glider could collapse on you, but we have a lot of experience flying our rigs. The rigs are very high performance and very demanding, but we know what conditions to look for.”
Adventure Paragliding owner Pine Pienaar and Aspen Paragliding guide Gabor Ferenczi also joined in the fun, but cut their flights short – Pienaar landing in Vail and Ferenczi landing near Silverthorne.
The record is currently the only one in Colorado simultaneously held by two people.
Four days prior, Thompson and Frye unsuccessfully attempted to break the record, soaring 1181⁄2 miles. Falling short only strengthened their desire to break the record.
“We’ve always done this for fun,” Thompson said. “But breaking this record has definitely been a goal.”
Thompson is in his third year working for Adventure Paragliding and Frye is in his second. They spend about four months a year living in the valley.
The pair have been friends since their high school days in southwestern Pennsylvania.
Thompson, 26, has been paragliding for eight years now. He first took flight at the Erbacon strip mine near Elkins, W.V.
Frye, also 26, who has been paragliding for 12 years, purchased a glider and they took it up to the strip mine to take flight, but a local paragliding guide, Dwayne McCourt, advised them against using their glider.
“He said ‘you can’t fly that here,'” Thompson said. “We felt that we could, but that was an 18-year-old’s mentality at the time.”
McCourt agreed to take them out and Thompson, like Frye, knew he had found his calling.
Heading west for college – Thompson at Montana State and Frye at Colorado College – paragliding opportunities were abundant.
Thompson spent time flying at Jackson Hole, Wyo., and in Montana.
“The winters in Montana were so monstrous, so harsh that it was tough to fly there,” said Thompson.
Frye also spent time at Jackson Hole, flying there for three years, as well as stints in the Owens Valley, near Bishop, Calif., southern Arizona, Oregon, and eventually the Western Slope of Colorado.
In 2008, Frye was named Serial Class West Coast Champion at a competition in Oregon. A few months later, Frye took third at the U.S. Paragliding Championships in Owens Valley, while Thompson took fourth.
Since first taking flight, paragliding has taken Thompson and Frye around the world in search of new challenges. Thompson has flown in Canada, Thailand, India, Australia and Nepal.
While in Nepal, Thompson flew as a tandem pilot for 4 months.
While living in France, Frye flew in the South Alps and last June, he took a cinematographer up in the Peruvian Andes for the shooting of Sweetgrass Productions’ new film Solitaire, “a Backcountry Skiing, Snowboarding, and Telemark Film,” which premiers in Denver Sept. 15.
Glenwood Springs offers nearly perfect conditions for taking out clients for tandem rides. Pilots usually take flight from off of Red Mountain in the mornings and make their flights from atop Lookout Mountain in the afternoon.
“Glenwood is an excellent, consistent site to make flights from,” Thompson said. “The winds are super consistent, which makes it a very safe location to paraglide.”
Big flights, however, take off from Main Elk Canyon, “which really makes you work to get to the big peaks near the Continental Divide,” said Frye.
Planning is everything when attempting a long flight. Experience and the right equipment are essential for success, as well as a little help from Mother Nature.
“Good days are when the weather is consistent,” Thompson said. “You need to make sure you have good weather for 100-plus miles … when all the cards align, the weather is in the 90th percentile.”
Thompson and Frye used Ozone gliders on their record-breaking flight. These aerodynamic rigs are designed for speed and performance.
“We probably wouldn’t have broken the record without the new technology, which greatly reduces drag.” Frye said.
When attempting a long flight, a pilot can be assailed both physically and mentally by the high-altitude conditions.
Temperatures are generally in the 30s and oxygen levels are much lower at altitudes between 15,000 and 18,000 feet – pilots cannot fly over 17,999 feet, however, due to commercial airspace restrictions – and tailwinds can propel a cross-country pilot at speeds up to 60 mph.
“When you are at altitude for such a long flight, there are tremendous highs and lows,” Thompson said. “You must assess the weather, and avoid thunderheads, but also look for the good thermals to keep afloat.”
Paragliders can rise at a rate of 1,000 to 2,000 feet per minute and can “spiral” descend at 2,000 feet per minute. However, large thunderheads are to be avoided as they can lift a glider by nearly 4,000 feet per minute.
“Large thunderheads are essentially a gigantic vacuum,” Frye said.
While flying, a pilot has his or her hands above their head while using the controls.
“Your hands often go numb due to the cold and having them raised over your head,” said Frye. “More than once I’ve had a bad case of the ‘screaming barfies’ … and you wear more clothes then you ever would while skiing.”
The recent perfect weather conditions have made it a good two weeks for paragliding in the West.
“This good stint of stable weather led to record-breaking flights in Wyoming, Idaho and Utah,” Frye said.
“Just a day or two ago a pilot set the U.S. foot launch distance record in Utah of 173 miles.”
“This weather pattern is the paragliding equivalent of a 30-inch powder day,” Thompson added.
Frye’s girlfriend – and part-time tandem passenger and retrieval driver – Camille Shanahan received a phone call from Frye a couple of hours after they had taken off. He thought they could break the record, but needed a ride home after the attempt.
“I had to dial her number with my tongue because my hands were frozen,” Frye said.
Frye and Thompson use the SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger, which allows Shanahan to monitor their location from a computer. Soon Shanahan was on I-70 headed towards the Front Range.
“It was such a great comfort knowing that Camille was coming to pick us up,” Thompson said.
“You can run across some really interesting people if you have to hitch a ride back over the mountains,” Frye added with a smile.
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