Golden to Canmore, August 13, 2004
110K, Gin Zoom, Kim Csizmazia chasing.
(photo at left on glide near Mt. Biddle).
Every time I've driven from the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains to the western side I've always wondered what it would be like to fly over the Rockies. In a car you enter the mountains at about Canmore, head south for an hour to Lake Louise then west for another hour before finally dropping down into Golden and the Rocky Mountain Trench. There is not one moment on the entire drive where wild mountains don't stand as though in picture frames through the car windows. The stunning, glaciated terrain is powerful to anyone; that's why most all of it is in a cluster of national parks, which means it's illegal to launch or land there. It's OK to fly across them, but it's a long way... As a climber I've stood on the summits of many of the peaks on days where it seemed perfect for flying, and others where it seemed crazy windy although the clouds looked OK. These mountains are unlike anything in the US Rockies or Europe; they are wilder, more glaciated and far less populated. There are only two roads that cross the range in 100K, and big timber makes landing in the valley bottoms a sporting proposition. Often the only "open" areas are filled with wild rivers that would be fatal to land in; better to go for the trees. When you drive across the Rockies there are some meadows beside the road, but would you get busted if you landed in them? And the roads don't exactly follow the logical flying lines anyhow, which means at times you could be a full day's hike if you landed out. Not surprisingly, the first flight over the Rockies was done by Willi Muller on his hang glider in 1984. Surprisingly, he took a relatively deep line away from the highway; it would have been interesting to land or hike a hang glider out of there!
In 1995 Eric Oddy and Peter McClaren braved all these variables and became the first to fly over the Canadian Rockies. Eric landed on Canadian Pacific Railway property near Lake Louise with the theory that CPR “property” wasn’t in Banff National Park, while on the same day Peter landed just on the Banff Park Boundary 10K from Canmore. In 2002 Chris Muller became the first to make the complete crossing, flying another 40K out of the Parks to land on the plains near Morley. If launching and landing in the parks were legal it would be a fantastic place to fly; the Lake Louise ski resort alone would probably be among the very best sites anywhere in the world. I find it hard to stomach the idea that a ski area is OK in a national park but that somehow a paraglider isn’t. It’s not like we have a big environmental impact even in a worst-case high-speed landing. Perhaps one day the parks will change their laws, an increasing number of park’s employees are pilots..
Part of the draw to flying across the Rockies is how much of the flight you can see when flying one of the best "classic" XC routes in the world, the 100+K flight from Golden south down the Rocky Mountain trench to Radium and Canal Flats. It's a near-continuous ridge line of big peaks that face directly into the sun, and when you hit about 3500 meters you can look east and see the 50-70K of wild peaks across the Rockies. I've done the classic flight a half dozen times and flown shorter sections of it many more times. Each time I would look east and want to just turn and go, but never did. Why? Fear of the unknown mainly, but also it was just so much easier to keep flying south along a perfect ridge, with lots of landing fields and a good road. I also live in Canmore, and many days that are perfect on the western side of the range are very windy on the eastern side. For some reason the upper winds definitely accelerate as they move east and out toward the plains, but perversely the lower level winds often start blowing hard from the east. So in Canmore the ridge tops are very windy from the west, but the valleys tend to be windy from the east. We still fly there a lot, but conditions are far less reliable than in Golden (not to mention that we have to hike 1000M up to launch, something one local pilot has done more than 20 times this season).
On Thursday, August 12, the forecast looked perfect for trying the trans-Rockies flight, but I was supposed to go alpine climbing on the weekend. Every hour I checked the upper wind forecast, and every hour it looked lighter and better. I was supposed to be doing a lot of things, but soon the maps were spread out on the floor and I was running routes in my mind. I bailed on my good friend and alpine climbing partner Raphael Slawinski with the comment that, "Sorry, it is the day of the season to try this flight I've always wanted to do." I think he understood the compulsion.
Friday morning my girlfriend, Kim Csizmazia, my friend J. and I drove over to Golden. Kim's flying her new Oasis and wanted to get a flight in before the day got too hectic, and she had a good one. However, a strong inversion was shutting down the lift, and it wasn't until about 2:00 that the development started over Golden. Kim, J and I took a last good luck at the maps and decided that with the light northwest it would be reasonable to go for it if the inversion broke. I stuffed a sleeping bag into my harness along with the usual mountain survival stuff and laid out the "Zoomerang." I've been flying this glider a lot lately, it glides extremely well, thermals like it's on rails and would provide an extra margin of security if I had to land in rowdy conditions in a remote area. I also wanted to be able to enjoy the flight, take pictures and relax more in the air. My "normal" wing is a Boomerang, but the Zoom has impressed me, plus I just wanted a bit more security and ease of use. There is no cell phone coverage deep in the Rockies, and no hope of reaching Kim in the van by radio, so you're on your own. The Zoom inspired my confidence.
J. is a relatively new pilot but solid. He can keep his Gangster open and has proved that he can survive about anything, so he decided to go for it as well. I launched at about 2:15, which is a bit late but the day was slow to start. At 2500M there was a strong inversion; I banged off of it for a while taking some deflations before moving over the top of Mount Seven and climbing to 3500M in the company of two hawks at about 4m/s. Not that strong, but it was rowdy going through the inversion. J. took a bit of time to get off launch, so I waited at base for him until my cloud turned to strong sink. Time to go, he'll figure it out. We had planned to fly south to Parson then make our first jump east, but the development looked so good directly east that I went directly over the Kicking Horse Canyon. There is no place to land for the first 10K of this canyon except over-grown logging slash on the steep hillsides, but I was high enough to glide over all this and connect into the ridge. As I neared the ridge I took a hard surge, then boom, beam me to base at about 3800M. Yeah!! No big victory, but I was on my way east and high. The glide across the highway 1 and into the Ottertail range was awesome, a small street popped with me and I arrived at Mount Vaux in a good position. A large glacier lay to the south, and I could hear rocks and ice falling off it as I glided by and into a huge rocky wall in the sun. Boom, base at 4000M, and the whole Ottertail range lay to the south with the magnificent Goodsirs standing tall over everything. The Goodsirs dominate the skyline when you're gliding the classic Golden-Canal flats route, it felt great to look at them from a more equal perspective. I don't know how many times I'd looked at these mountains from the west and thought, "What would it be like to be there?" Answer: "It's GOOD!"
The 1 goes east-northeast here, but the development was better a bit south and east. This meant flying into roadless terrain in the National Park with limited landing options, but you've got to have faith in the clouds. Half bar, Zoom zooming, off into what I think are some of the wildest, most scenic peaks in the Canadian Rockies. As I glided into the south end of Mount Owen there wasn't much to land in except the bottom of avalanche paths, so for one of the few times in my flying career I decided to ignore the landing zones completely, it simplified things. Besides, the clouds said there was no way I was going to sink out. As I reached Mount Owen the clouds above it went soft, oh oh. I ridge soared for maybe 10 minutes right on top of the peak before a ripper came through and I railed up to 4100M as a cloud formed around me. It doesn't get any better than that! At this altitude I still had a choice of gliding out toward highway 1, but the development said head east, so off I went. I came over the top of Mount Biddle at 3800M and had a terrific view of Lake MacArthur and Lake O'Hara down to the left. There are good trails and meadows in this area, so I started to feel relaxed. Even if I somehow bombed out here it was going to be OK. From Mt. Biddle it was very nice glide along a high altitude spine with Mt. Victoria and the Lake Louise valley to my left and the Moraine Lake cirque down to the right. How many days have I spent climbing, running, and just wandering in this area? To look down on it from 3,500M somehow closed the circle. When I was small kid my parents often took the family up into these valleys, who would have thought that 35 years later I would fly over them on strings and fabric?
Soon Mt. Temple was front and center. Of all the mountains in the Rockies this is the one I've most wanted to fly right over. It dominates Lake Louise and the area, a massive sharp tooth of a mountain. I once stood on its summit and felt the strong cycles rip up from all sides and wondered what it would be like to bite into them with my wing. The cloud above it said game on, and as I glided into it I could see climbers toiling upwards. The west face was baking, and sure enough the vario went nuts. I love it when it starts making weird new noises, it feels like kicking ass on a video game or something. The air was making those wild, "Shizzt, Whoosh" noises as I climbed, and the variances in the climb rate were extreme. Up for a few second at 12m/s, then go over the falls as it fell to "only" 6m/s. I went weightless a few times but was still climbing fast, it was the thermal of the summer for me and among the strongest I've ever climbed in. Just below base I finally found something just too wild for any wing and went weightless in an interesting way that ended with the wing squished up like an abused taco above me. Hmmm.... Not seeing anything worthwhile to do I did nothing until it came out in a nice horseshoe but with a lot of rotation. Cool, bang the breaks, "CRACK," bit of a spiral, heart rate maxed, tick the edge of the cloud (what, I'm still climbing??), remember to breathe, go on glide. I snapped a few photos of the top of Temple and headed east toward Panorama ridge. There was more wind here and it was somewhat confused in the air, but back to base again with the large Bow Valley spread out below me. Perfect is a strong word, but it fit the day’s flying so far!
I thought crossing the wide Bow Valley was going to be one of the cruxes, but there was enough lift in the middle that I came into Castle Mountain high and rode another ripper to base. It was now 5:30 and the conditions were perfect as they often are at that time of day: Strong but organized climbs, large areas of lift and buoyant glides. I have probably driven up and down the Bow Valley over a 1,000 times while going somewhere in the mountains, and every time I have looked at both sides of it and thought about flying. I won't have to do that again, I know what it's like. Castle is a huge rock solar oven, and I flew down the length of it at base, just dolphoning smoothly along. It was a long but good glide into the Ishbel/Corkscrew mountains; half bar, down at less than 2m/s, perfect. Back to base off of Mt. Cory with a great view of Banff, and for the first time I could see the mountains that mark out my home town around Canmore, Mount Rundle and Lady MacDonald. The development was weakening but still working and I glided straight over Banff and into Rundle at ridge level. I waved to a couple of climbers as I glided by them with the sharp shadow of my glider on the rocks, then rode light lift across the backside of Rundle and out of the National Park. Now if I landed it would be legal. It's legal to fly over the National Parks, just not land there, and I had done it.
As I peeled off Rundle and headed back across the Bow Valley I hit a strong east wind, and the development started falling apart. There was a hard blue haze over the plains to the east with not one single cloud, but I didn't care. On the glide over Canmore the wind kept picking up, and soon I had the bar stuffed to make any progress. As is often the case the air in the valley was turbulent from the different valley flows joining above Canmore, and I was impressed that the Zoom stayed inflated as I glided toward my house with the bar hammered. I often land in a small school yard about 100M from my house, but with the strong wind I opted to land beside highway 1 near Cougar Creek as it has no trees and is still only a 2-minute walk from home. I landed feeling like a guy who has just won the lottery, balled my wing up and started the short walk home. I hadn't worn enough clothes and I was absolutely frozen but grinning like the village idiot when my friend Barry Blanchard stuck his head out of his house and said, "Hey, you need a beer." He had seen me coming in, and soon we were sitting on his lawn. I hadn't talked to Kim in the van for a couple of hours as she had gone slower to chase J. (he had a great flight also but landed early). Just as I finished the first beer and started to warm up the radio crackled, she was in Banff and by the time the second beer was finished she was there with J.
This morning I can't stop grinning. A few others have done this flight and Chris Muller has gone farther out onto the plains so it's not the best flight across the Rockies in terms of distance, but this flight wasn't about trying to beat anyone else's flight. It was about having a goal and realizing a dream. It was about flying well in strong conditions in a remote area. It was about taking ten years of thinking about doing something and DOING it. It was about taking the stronger line in the middle of big mountains even if that line might mean a long walk from an uncertain landing area. It was about the joy of flying a simple set of strings and fabric that I can carry on my back but that carried me over my favorite mountains in the world. In the grand scheme of the "Important Things You Should Care About" it meant nothing but felt like everything.
A Brief History of Mount 7/Golden Flying
Alan Kane started flying on Mt. Seven in about 1975 with some friends.
In about 1984 Willie Muller flew to Banff on a hang glider in when it was still legal to land at the Banff Airport. In typical strong Willi fashion he flew the deep line straight over Mt. Victoria and the Chateau at the end of Lake Louise! He always flew with two cameras and reportedly has great photos of the lake and Château. Unfortunately paragliders and hang gliders were banned from landing or launching in the National Parks a few years later. The reasons for this ban are unclear, but it's still legal to fly over the National Parks. Nobody has actually been arrested for landing in the National Park despite rumors that several people have done so over the years.
In about '89 Willi and Chris Muller started flying their paragliders (Pro Design Kestrels) from Mt. Seven; the glide was so poor that making the Nicholson LZ was often speculative.
The first paragliders to fly the "classic" route down the Rocky Mountain Trench past Radium were Chris and Willi Muller and Sean Dougherty, who all flew about 101K down the range to Invermere for an official Canadian record. The following year Chris declared Canal Flats at 146K, which still stands as the official Canadian Record and was for a time the world declared goal record.
In '95 Eric Oddy and Peter McClaren became the first paragliders to fly over the Rockies; Eric landed on CPR property near Lake Louise with the theory that he wasn't "on" National Park land, while Peter McClaren landed on the Banff Park Boundary line the same day. McClaren is one of Canada's lesser-known pilots, but he has done many of the most serious and committing paragliding flights into the main Rockies ranges.
Chris Muller flew over the Rockies past Banff and landed near Morley in 2002, the first completely “legit” paraglider flight over the Rockies.
On glide over Mt. Biddle at about 3800M. Looking north, Lake O’Hara just visible under my arm.