Glide or Die

Local adventurer and filmmaker Cedar Wright combines skills in climbing and paragliding to visit untouched terrain in high peaks around the world

09282023 Webcover

Becoming one of the most recognized professional climbers in the U.S. takes an affinity for the unknown.

You might say that’s one of Cedar Wright’s strengths. He followed a love of climbing to Yosemite National Park where, over the course of the last two decades, he has nailed multiple 5.13 first ascents and speed records, and became one of the few people to have free climbed El Capitan in a day. His daring and impressive feats have landed him a spot on the North Face climbing team. 

“Just the scale of everything there is so massive,” Wright says about the Karakoram mountain range. “And so as a paraglider pilot, it’s sort of the ultimate place that you could go fly a paraglider. Just the relief and the drama of those mountains — there’s nothing else like it.” 
Images courtesy Cedar Wright.

And when he isn’t sending climbs in the Sierra Nevada mountains, Wright’s tenacious spirit for adventure has led him to expeditions on all seven continents.

“I love adventure. I love exploring new places,” says the National Geographic Explorer from his home in Boulder. “I love the give and take of doing something extreme, but in a way that feels within the lines of ‘I’m going to come back safely.’”

With this ethos as his guiding principle, Wright gravitated to another sport: paragliding. 

After picking up the activity nearly a decade ago, he holds the longest flight record out of Boulder, when he flew from the Wonderland Lake launch site to Wheatland, Wyoming, about 150 miles away. He has also reached 18,000 feet of altitude — the highest a paraglider can legally fly in Colorado — cocooned under his glider.  

Boulder and the Centennial State are his training grounds for “the big leagues.” Earlier this summer, Wright combined his rare skill set in an ambitious escapade to Pakistan’s Hunza Valley region in the Karakoram mountain range. He wanted to test a seldom-used concept called paralpinism, or fly-to-climb. 

“We were able to get up in the morning, walk up to launch, thermal up [fly] to 18,000 feet, glide over 20 miles to this mountain cirque, land, climb a granite spire, and then get back for dinner the same way,” he says. “So it’s pretty incredible. I really want to do more of that.”

Wright says paralpinism is in its infancy. Few around the world use the approach — it’s highly dangerous, requires specialized expertise and favorable weather patterns — but for those with the necessary prowess, paralpinism creates a path to mountain landscapes that were previously inaccessible. 

“It’s the future,” says Wright, “and it’s cool to put my toe in that water a little bit and be a part of something that still hasn’t really been explored.”

Wright airborne in the Karakoram mountains.

Eyes to the sky 

Perhaps the most head-turning accomplishment in paralpinism happened in the summer of 2022, when British mountain guide Will Sim and German alpinist Fabi Buhl made the first ascent of the Gulmit Tower, a formation that sits at nearly 20,000 feet in the Hunza Valley. 

The peak hadn’t previously been climbed because of a dangerous ascent to the base of the tower through avalanche-prone areas, seracs and rockfall. Some estimated it would take four or five days to establish a basecamp on the mountain this way. 

But on June 26, Sim and Buhl flew their paragliders from the town of Karimabad to the base of the Gulmit Tower in a few hours. After a tedious ascent and descent back to their paragliders at base camp, they launched back off the mountain toward Karimabad. 

In total, the expedition took 30 hours. 

“When it works, it is totally magic,” Sim says. “It’s an amazing way to be in the mountains.”

The Karakoram mountain range, where both Sim and Wright are practicing paralpinism, has the greatest concentration of high mountains in the world. 

The range has an average elevation of about 20,000 feet; four peaks — including K2, the world’s second tallest mountain — stretch above 26,000 feet. The topography is characterized by craggy peaks and steep slopes.  

David Chen, Wright’s climbing partner, on a granite spire after landing. Now, Wright wants to use his paraglider to access even tougher climbs.

The area’s high cloud base, typically above 22,000 feet, makes it possible for paragliders to take rising hot air, known as thermals, straight to some of the highest peaks. 

Wright says paragliding in Pakistan is intimidating and psychological, and success hinges on being comfortable flying thousands of feet in the air alongside massive rock faces, with narrow margins between glory and devastation.  

“You can be instantly transported to some really extreme and inhospitable spots. So you do have to be on your shit,” Wright says. “If you were to crash in the wrong spot, that’s it, you’re dead.”

There are parallels between Wright’s climbing career and his skill as a paraglider. 

“It’s got a little bit of a free solo feeling to it, because yeah, there’s no bolts,” he says. “I mean, it’s just you in the sky. And so if you really screw up, you’re gonna hit the ground.”

On top of the mastery of both climbing and paragliding, there’s also a star-aligning moment of ideal weather and aerological patterns necessary for flight. 

“When it works, it works,” says Sim. “But the potential for it to go wrong is insanely high. When we’re landing on these mountains … if we can’t take off again to get home, we’re really marooned in a very tricky situation.”

And that’s happened before. Another pioneer of the sport, Antione Girard, was forced to stay an extra night on Spantik because of bad weather in 2018, then had to take off in a snowstorm because of limited food supply and degrading health. 

“You just have to be really respectful of the conditions and not put yourself in [circumstances] that are going to kill you,” Wright says. 

Wright says navigating variable weather and finding invisible thermals in the high mountains, while staying in a “good margin of safety,” is an art form.

‘It’s all to be done’

Although he says it’s hard to know, Sim guesses there are about 30 people in the world testing the boundaries of paralpinism. And there’s still a lot to learn.

“We’re just making it up as we go along at the moment, we really are just soldiers to be experimented on,” he says. “We’re trying to work out how it works. … Everything that we do, even if it’s more or less a failure, is progress at the moment, because we’re understanding how to carry our stuff in the air. We’re understanding how to land at high altitude and takeoff at high altitude. We’re understanding more every year, but it’s so early on. It’s just very experimental.” 

Sim has also explored pairing paragliding with skiing, which is where he thinks more of the future of the concept lies, to get first descents off hard-to-reach high mountain peaks. 

“It’s basically like heli-skiing, but way cooler because it’s … far more skillful,” he says.

Sim says interest in paralpinism “is at an all time high.” In two years, he predicts there could be four times as many climbers and skiers paragliding, doing even “harder and bigger” objectives than what he’s accomplished. 

Since Wright scratched the surface, he’s hooked. 

“Now I want to go back and do some bigger objectives in that style, now that I’ve got the basics down,” he says. “I’m gonna try to go bigger.”

The award-winning filmmaker documented his journey, and is working on a film to share the experience. He plans on releasing it this winter. 

Sim, like Wright, sees nothing but potential in paralpinism. 

“It’s all to be done,” he says. “This is just the beginning.”