Antonio Olivero: Hiking a Tenmile Canyon avalanche slide to paraglide off Peak 6
COPPER MOUNTAIN — The hardest part of my first paraglide wasn’t the nerves I felt as I stood harnessed, tethered to a fabric wing at the top of the Tenmile Range. To be frank, there was no time for fear while looking down through my ski goggles at the 2,500-plus-foot descent to our landing spot.
Rather, in true Summit County fashion, it was the 2,800-foot hike up over 1 1/2 miles of avalanche debris to get to our jump location.
I suppose, if you want to jump off a cliff here in the Rocky Mountains, you’re going to need to climb a mountain first. Earn your turns isn’t just for skiing. It’s for paragliding and speed flying as well, as a collection of about a half-dozen Summit County locals can attest to.
My sky-high sherpa on this day was Charlie Martin, one of those locals who makes it a habit of jumping off mountains routinely throughout the warmer months. I got in contact with Charlie through Breckenridge do-everything mountain man Teague Holmes. Teague, an accomplished ultra runner and ski mountaineer — among other athletic hobbies — also flies.
On this chilly late-August morning, though, Teague wouldn’t be with Charlie and me. As Teague, Charlie and I convened at the gravel parking lot across from Copper Mountain, Teague took off to race up the mountain. Halfway on our hike up the mountain, we’d see him speed-flying down.
Charlie, 28, got into paragliding about five years ago when watching a ski film that featured a skier paragliding and skiing. After learning how to fly in Utah, the then-Colorado Springs resident began flying at such spots as Vail and Loveland passes and Quandary Peak, where he met the original flier in the county, Mark Koob of Frisco.
Over time, Charlie began to fly off more and more spots, such as Williams Fork Mountain near Heeney, Bellyache Ridge in Edwards, and Mayflower Gulch and Peak 6 by the Tenmile Range.
“So we slowly started building the community,” Charlie said. “We were more vocal about it than people in the past, started roping more people into it, and it kind of just grew from there.”
Charlie eventually learned how to fly a tandem paraglide, which allowed for my opportunity to fly that brisk Wednesday morning. As we departed the Copper gravel lot, Charlie and I each humped heavy packs with all of the necessary equipment to fly. After about five minutes of hiking a trail, Charlie turned sharply 90 degrees to the left.
“This tree signifies where we hike up,” he said.
Over the next two hours, Charlie and I hiked up one of the avalanche chutes on the Copper Mountain side of the canyon known to the fliers as K2. From a summer full of flying, the trail was relatively well bushwhacked through the lingering avalanche debris from this winter’s slides. Still, the hike up was strenuous. Steep pitches became steeper pitches as we rose above tree line climbing the final few hundred feet of the 2,800-foot ascent.
On the way up, Charlie checked the wind several times, ripping up pieces of grass to see which way they blew. All through the process, no matter how hard this hike was, Charlie reminded me of the golden rule.
“The wind is great now,” he said, “but if we get to the top and it changes, be ready not to jump.”
With that in my head, we reached the 12,500-foot-plus summit of Peak 6. Charlie laid out the wing on the perfectly-sloped Alpine hillside. The wind was “perfect,” he said. He harnessed me in, taught me how to take off, and we were in the air before I knew it.
The ride, as Charlie put it, was “buttery.” As we took off, we spotted mountain bikers cresting the Miner’s Creek trail between Peaks 5 and 6. We saw the lingering sunrise illuminate Grays and Torreys Peaks to the east. We saw as far as Mount Elbert in the other direction.
After we landed without a hitch, my sneakers comfortably sliding through the parking lot gravel, Charlie said this was one of the best tandems he’d ever flown. He then recapped why Peak 6 is such a perfect spot to paraglide.
“It’s relatively low consequence, and you can launch really high up on the ridge if the wind is light,” he said. “You can launch by tree line if the wind is a little stronger. As for winds in that canyon, really early morning you get cold air draining from Vail Pass and Fremont Pass down to Frisco, so it’s really predictable. You almost always know which direction the wind is coming from.”
That morning, Charlie certainly was blowing right along with the wind.
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