Getting high is easy for a lot of Coloradans. But staying high can be a challenge.
Such is the case with paragliding — where pilots navigate technical weather patterns searching for thermal lifts (rising hot air) that push the aircraft higher for hours in the clouds.
Without finding thermal lifts, a launch from Boulder’s Wonderland Lake site means a four-minute “sled ride.”
But it’s not just the elevation that’s appealing to paragliders.
“You ever wanted to be a bird?” asks Sebastian Nider, a pilot in Boulder, answering what he likes about paragliding. “There’s no way you can get closer to it than paragliding. You are in the most simple human aircraft ever built.”
That aircraft consists of a lightweight wing with no rigid structure. After launching off a slope by foot, the pilot steers from below in a seated position.
“Nothing feels cooler than to be hanging 10,000 feet above the ground from a couple pieces of nylon,” says Nider.
Nider is part of a growing community of paragliders in Boulder, a place not historically known for the sport. Today there are 300 members of the Rocky Mountain Hang Gliding Paragliding Association’s (RMHPA) Boulder chapter, and it’s growing.
Brian Doub is an instructor at Red Tail Paragliding, one of the handful of paragliding companies in Boulder. He says he’s flown in at least 13 countries over his 22-year career as a pilot after first learning in England.
“Boulder is unique,” he says. “We have a saying here in the Boulder paragliding community that if you can fly in Boulder, you can fly anywhere,” as he describes weather patterns and launch environments that can make it tough to take to the air.
There’s only one launch site in Boulder County (Wonderland Lake), made up of four individual launches, all facing east. Northeast winds are ideal for flying at that location, but the prevailing winds move southwest. This can lead to turbulence as winds move over the hill, 600 feet above the Foothills Community Park landing site.
Emergency landings are possible in other non-designated areas, but pilots could contend with upset landowners or a ticket from authorities.
Pilots undergo rigorous training before their first flight. At Red Tail Paragliding, Doub puts students through ground handling sessions so they learn how to control the wing before getting in the air. He says whenever he helps someone on their first flight, which is typically off the 300-foot launch, it takes him back to his own first flight.
“It’s so much fun to see the work they’ve put in pay off in a safe launch and landing,” he says. “You get a lot of yelling and screaming at the top of their lungs, they’re so excited.”
Nider remembers his first flight, but he wasn’t too nervous about it.
“You could be a sack of potatoes and the thing will fly,” he says.
Preparing for launch
At Foothills Community Park, Mauricio Fleitas, the owner and lead instructor of Boulder Paragliding, is preparing for a flight with Ganga Amrat, one of his first tandem clients of the season, which typically runs from May through September. Amrat isn’t learning how to fly solo, but wants the in-air experience.
“I like a lot of adventure, so that’s why I’m paragliding today,” he says. “I’m excited, and a little bit scared.”
The two get dropped off via Uber on Pine Needle Road behind the ridge from the Boulder South launch site. Getting a ride is the only alternative to get there besides hiking up. They walk the rest of the way, which takes about 15 minutes — a courtesy to residents in the area.
Fleitas is consistently analyzing weather conditions for the perfect combination of wind speed — about 10 mph — and direction on the way to the launch site. By the time the two are ready to launch, they have to wait for these conditions — “para-waiting,” as Fleitas calls it. A group of paragliders are at the Boulder North launch site doing the same.
When the moment comes, Fleitas pulls the wing up behind them and the two sprint down the hill. Before you can blink, they’re in flight.
While paragliding is gaining attention in the U.S., it’s more popular in other places like Europe. There, pilots describe a culture that is more understanding of their sport, where landowners and governments often provide more flexibility in launch and landing sites.
Dusty Miller grew up in Boulder and works for RMHPA to ensure access to free flight. That includes maintaining positive relationships with landowners and government officials by regularly organizing trail maintenance events and meeting with Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks. He’s grateful to be part of the community.
“It’s amazing being a part of this growing sport that is still relatively new,” he says. “It’s this exciting, uncharted frontier, where it’s just starting to really gain some traction, and more and more people are realizing that this is something they can do.”
Miller is working with the city to open new launches as the paragliding community grows, comparing the current one launch site option for paragliders to a mountain biking community with one trail. While he says those conversations are positive, factors like protecting native grasses or burrowing owls have prevented the establishment of additional sites.
Despite this, Boulder is starting to make a name for itself as a destination for paragliders — where the tricky conditions and low elevation launches are becoming a proving ground of sorts for veteran pilots.
Miller calls Boulder a “world-class” site because it requires more skill to find lift than a typical launch site, and there isn’t as much time to do it because of the low elevation launch. This helps create lots of talented pilots in the community, Miller says.
Around here, it’s all about distance for experienced pilots. So far, there have been 13 flights from Wonderland Lake to Wyoming, which is nearly 100 miles.
Not everyone who flies is aiming for distance, though. Some enjoy it for the views.
“Flying in beautiful Boulder Colorado allows you to experience the magic of seeing the Rocky Mountains from above, the whole city from above, the Flatirons and the Continental Divide,” says Fleitas.
To really understand what it’s like and why they do it, Nider encourages participation.
“I think one of the biggest ways you can connect with the community is for people to just try it,” he says. “It’s not as dangerous as it may seem and it’s very beautiful.”
On a sunny day in Boulder, it’s typical to see a few paragliders high in the sky. Those who participate in the sport are hooked after their first launch.
“As I tell my students, I really haven’t come down since,” says Doub.