Paragliders and Modern Alpinism

Publication Year: 1988.

Paragliders and Modern Alpinism

John Bouchard

PARAGLIDERS OR PARAPENTES, as they are known in France, are the most radical development in alpine climbing since the ice-tool revolution in the seventies. Just as the new ice tools opened countless possibilities for more new exploits, paragliding is redefining the limits of what is possible in the mountains.

Weighing as little as four pounds, they take up as much room as a small sleeping bag. They resemble the conventional RAM AIR sky-diving canopies, but they use a different material, airfoil and plan-form. Their rate of descent is around 600 to 900 feet per minute and so a 5000-foot descent can be made effortlessly in under ten minutes. For take-off you need a 30-foot-wide area which is at least 20 feet long and 18° steep. You lay the canopy on its back, arrange the lines, tie in, snap it over your head, run a few steps and you are airborne. A paraglider can also be used for bivouacs.

During the last few years they have been the key element in arousing excitement for the enchainement or linking of more than one alpine wall. In the past helicopters were used to accomplish this and because of it few were interested. Christophe Profit used a parapente to descend the Walker Spur in his winter solo enchainement of the north faces of the Matterhorn, Eiger and Grandes Jorasses. Jean Marc Boivin used one to link in one day the Triolet, Courtes and Droites north faces. And even more extraordinary was the exploit of Jean Troillet and Erhard Loretan. A few months after climbing Everest in 36 hours from their Tibetan Base Camp, they used parapentes to attempt ten north faces in a row, starting with the Eiger and finishing with the Matterhorn.

They have also been used to eliminate tedious and painful descents like those from Mont Blanc or Mont Blanc de Talcul. With paragliders, climbers have left Chamonix in the morning, climbed a Brenva-Face route and flown to Chamonix that same afternoon. In the Himalaya, climbers have flown from the summits of Gasherbrum II, the Nameless Tower and Cho Oyu, among others. In South America, climbers have used them to descend from Chimborazo and Aconcagua. In the United States, they have been used to fly off Half Dome, El Capitan, the Grand Teton, Mount St. Helens and Denali.

Here in the United States, the liability issue and government safety regulations are a definite hindrance. To learn safely, you need a clear steep area like a ski slope and no ski area is willing to risk a lawsuit. National Parks prohibit this type of flying and enforce the rules with severe penalties. This is unfortunate, since paragliders are well suited to places like the Tetons and Yosemite. In contrast, European climbers have year-round lifts to use and unrestricted access to suitable terrain. In a few months, they can get several hundred thousand vertical feet and more than a hundred hours of flying, while here in the United States we would need many years to do this. One direct consequence, in my opinion, is our almost absurd casualty rate. With no places to practice, beginners (though usually very experienced climbers) attempt flights in dangerous areas under uncertain conditions with predictable results. Regardless of the rules, laws and risks, you can be guaranteed that if European climbers are flying off climbs to make these spectacular enchainements, top American alpinists are going to try as well.

The big drawbacks are the amount of time needed to learn and the obvious danger of flying. You can’t use paragliders on all climbs, just as you can’t use crampons on the Nose of El Capitan. Learning to manipulate the canopy is fairly simple and can be learned in a few nours. But hundreds of hours of air time are needed to read the wind conditions and air currents and to fly safely in the mountains. It is also essential to fly in many different areas. It isn’t like learning to rappel. It is more like learning to ski. You cannot take it lightly; you must devote very many hours to learning it.

Paragliders will affect American climbing in a few ways. First, they bring home the idea of enchainement. Big walls are not getting any bigger, the mountains are not getting any higher, but climbers are getting better. Obviously, we can’t change the routes to make them harder, nor can we make them longer. But we can link several routes to open a whole new world of adventure. Second, they make some descents easier. Curry Village is now five easy minutes from the summit of Half Dome. Lupine Meadows are now six minutes from the top of the Grand Teton. The road is now three minutes from the base of Castleton Tower. Third, they will renew interest in alpine climbing and heighten a sensitivity to the mountain environment. The best flights are the big flights and, as the younger climbers learn to use paragliders, they will want to make flights in the Sierra, the Cascades, the Tetons and other ranges. They will have to climb the classic routes and in the process they will gain a tremendous amount of alpine experience. More important, they cannot help but learn to respect the fragility of the terrain.

This will all happen, but it will take time. Who would have guessed in 1970 what type of icicles and frozen waterfalls would be routinely ascended a few years later? Just learning to fly will take several years. At the same time the technology will improve, as ice tools did. The canopies will get a bit lighter and fly a bit further. Once again, climbers have shown that when everything seems to have been done, just when all the new climbs seem to be mechanically alike, a wild flair has returned.