Take 5: Colorado paragliders talk 13,000-foot launch pads at Loveland Pass, Machine Gun Ridge | SummitDaily.com

Take 5: Colorado paragliders talk 13,000-foot launch pads at Loveland Pass, Machine Gun Ridge

You don't need to be a trained airplane pilot to pick up paragliding, but it doesn't hurt.

About 20 years ago, former commercial pilot Chuck Savall stepped outside the cozy confines of a cockpit and into the seemingly perilous seat of a hang glider. Even though he was armed with an in-depth knowledge of air currents, wind patterns and thermals — all powered by the sun and all familiar to him after decades of piloting — that first experience was still like nothing he'd ever felt before.

"It's probably the most bird-like flying you'll ever do," the Wisconsin native remembered, describing how the horizontal seat and straps keep a pilot suspended, face-down, over the ground hundreds of feet below.

He was instantly hooked.

Now retired and living in Dillon, Savall still logs a few hours in the hang glider every year, but these days, he's more likely to head out to a local peak like Buffalo Mountain, Vail Pass or Loveland Pass with his paragliding equipment. For starters, his paraglider is lighter and less cumbersome than a bulky hang glider, meaning he gets to enjoy a leisurely hike and exhilarating flight in the same day. It's also more versatile: Come wintertime, he swaps out a large paragliding wing (aka parachute-like attachment) for a smaller, faster "speed-flying" wing, which is perfect for strapping on a pair of skis to rip around

From the ground, paragliding is the sort of insane-looking sport featured over and over again in Warren Miller films from the French Alps, where the gliding community is massive, but both hang gliding and paragliding have been slow to catch on in North America. While there are pockets of gliders in Colorado, California and Utah, including Savall's friend and Red Bull X-Alps competitor Dawn Westrum, gliding remains a niche hobby with a small following.

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But that doesn't stop folks like Savall from impressing tourists and locals alike by soaring high over alpine ridges, roads and interstates from summer to winter. In the downtime between flights and monsoon rains, Savall talked with the Summit Daily sports desk about paragliding in Colorado, his piloting background and why the rest of the world fades away as soon as he leaves the ground.

Summit Daily News: I've got to start at the top: How does someone go from your "typical" mountain sports — skiing, snowboarding, biking — to paragliding?

Chuck Savall: I actually started out with hang gliding. I did that because I was living part-time in Florida and had time on my hands, so I went to the local place where they teach that. It was just another step in the aviation world.

SDN: Do you think being an airline pilot helped you get into paragliding?

CS: When you fly a powered aircraft, and especially as an airline pilot, it becomes so repetitious that it becomes like driving the bus. We joke about it: "You're driving the bus." You have to fly conservatively, so when you get into free flight — anything without a motor — that's when it becomes more dynamic and more interesting for me. You're still leaving the ground and flying, and a lot of pilots get into aviation for the thrill of flying. We like the idea of leaving the ground, and when you do a free-flight sport it's just so much more committing, because every time you fly you have to land somewhere safely without a motor. You don't have any options for mistakes — you can't push a throttle up and try again.

SDN: How does hang gliding compare to paragliding? Are they pretty much the same thing on different equipment?

CS: It (hang gliding) is more cumbersome because the equipment is bulkier and harder to set up, but it's probably the most bird-like flying you'll ever do. The wings are structured like bird's wings and you're laying in a prone position, like a bird's body, and when you start looking around, you're not seeing anything but sky. It's incredible.

With paragliding, it's much more portable. People who were hang-glider pilots transition to this so that you don't need to have a special rack, you don't need a couple people to help you set things up. This is a 35 or 40-pound pack you can throw on your back and hike up a hill.

SDN: What do you remember from your first time paragliding? Was it love at first flight?

CS: The ease of it. Once you have your gear all set up, you lay your bag on the ground and five minutes later you're flying. It's really quick and it's just very user friendly. Being that I had transitioned from hang gliding, with that bird-like feeling, the paragliding is actually more like a guy who launches balloons. You're sitting in that upright position, so it feels more like you're hanging from something, instead of lying in a prone position.

SDN: Is the learning curve steep, whether or not you're a trained pilot?

CS: Not really. It's a fairly easy sport to learn, at least the flying part — managing the wing and taking off. You can really learn this in a week, the basic skills. If you went and flew every day for a week, you could learn the sport. But learning to fly in the mountains and different weather conditions, that's when you advance your skills. It becomes more of a sport then and that can take years (to perfect).

SDN: You've made some serious friends through paragliding, including pro multi-sport athletes like Dawn Westrum, who has made it farther at the X-Alps adventure race than any female in history. What do you like about the gliding community — the people you meet?

CS: It's a shared feeling of adventure, a spirit of adventure. What's interesting to me is the diversity of the crowd — anywhere from young, young people to 80-year-old guys still doing the sport. It's (also) not that physically demanding if you decide to take a car or a chairlift to a launch. There are many walks of life, and it doesn't matter what else you do in life, when you're paragliding, you're focused on paragliding. You are so in the moment and you have to be. Every minute that you're flying a paraglider, you're making decisions about, "Where am I going next? Where will I land?"

SDN: What sets Summit County paragliding apart from other areas?

CS: Well, it's mountains, and mountain flying adds a big dynamic. We have to study meteorology the same as a pilot, but we study what's called micrometeorology. We're looking at every peak and valley in the area and how the wind that's coming through there is making dangerous places to fly and safe places to fly. It's like a pilot or a backcountry skier — they're going to check the general weather forecast. Is it windy, not windy? Sunny, not sunny? You try to guess what's going to happen around this peak 100 feet ahead of you, or this rock that's sticking out of a mountain that could generate a thermal.

SDN: Do you feel confident reading those microclimates at this point?

CS: I do and it's because I've been doing it for so long. We have different levels in the sport, and as you progress to higher levels you have to study those things more, look at the meteorology, all of that. When you're a beginner pilot, you want to be in big, open areas without a lot of weather shifts.

SDN: Where in the world is paragliding the best? It seems like mountains are a natural fit, but then again lots of people do it over flat (and forgiving) terrain lie the ocean.

CS: The best paragliding in the U.S. is up around Salt Lake (City), where they have a very active community. Southern California also has a very active community. But across the world, really, it's southern France and across the Alps. Turkey also has good paragliding, and then Chile has a legendary place to fly along the coast and the Atacama Desert. Australia also has a big community with competitions — pretty much anywhere you find mountains, you'll find paragliding.

My personal favorite is southern France, mostly because it's such a big community. I'd say there are probably 5,000 active pilots in the U.S. and in France alone there are probably 20,000. The sites are more developed, but the big part of it is the liability issues. If I took off in the United States and landed in some farmer's field with no permission to land there, he's probably going to come out with a shotgun and lawyer. If I land in a farmer's field in France, he'll probably come out with wine and his dog. He might even be a paraglider himself.

SDN: Where do you launch from around Colorado?

CS: In Colorado, you can't always launch from a ski resort. Most of them won't let you. Actually, Copper is one of the few ski resorts that lets gliders fly from the top of the chairlifts. (Editor's note: Only members of the Rocky Mountain Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association have access to the resort. See sidebar.)

We go anywhere you can get high on a Jeep road. If we can find something with steep slopes — maybe a steep slope like a blue ski hill, that's wide open and faces into the wind — that's what we like. We can take off in anything up to 15 miles per hour, but as soon as a little wind comes up it has to be in your face, so the places we fly tend to be into a prevailing wind.

Paragliding in Summit County

Have a wing but don’t know where to go? It’s not as simple as looking up and picking the tallest, closest peak. Local paraglider Chuck Savall recommends a few of his favorite locations in and around Summit County:

Summer

Loveland Pass: Access via U.S. Highway 6 at the Continental Divide

Buffalo Mountain: Access via the Buffalo Cabin Trailhead at the top of the Wildernest neighborhood

Peak 5 and Peak 6: Access via Wheeler Pass via the Peak 9 access road at Breckenridge Resort

Williams Ridge: Access from 6 miles up Williams Peak Road, found about 1 mile past Green Mountain Reservoir on Highway 9 (25 miles north of Silverthorne)

Copper Mountain: Access is limited to members of the Rocky Mountain Hang Gliding and Paragliding Assocation (learn more online at RMHPA.org)

Winter

Vail Pass, Ptarmigan Mountain and Machine Gun Ridge: Access via snowmobile above the Vail Pass rest area

Loveland Pass: Access via U.S. Highway 6 at the Continental Divide

Beyond Summit

Kenosha Pass: Access via U.S. Forest Service Road 126, found about 15-20 minutes northeast of Fairplay on U.S Highway 285