For as long as I can remember I have stood on the edge of cliffs. I face into the wind and lift my arms, look into the distance and allow myself to imagine that I am soaring like a bird.
I resolved to learn to fly after watching paragliders and their human payload along Auckland’s west coast riding on the breeze as surfers rode the waves beneath.
My first flight was on a gentle sun-baked slope in Shakespear Regional Park, at the tip of the Whangaparaoa Peninsula just north of metropolitan Auckland.
In front of me lay a red and green nylon sheet and a tangle of Kevlar lines. After talking myself through the procedure, I faced downhill, my wing laid out behind me, pulled on my A-risers and started to run. The setting wing soon slowed my forward momentum and after a short but sustained pull, my feet lost contact with the ground. My wing and risers took the weight of the harness and I was airborne.
This brief first flight was more Richard Pearse than Richard Branson, but I felt the allure and promise of free, unpowered flight.
Paragliding had its genesis in parachuting. But the first time a parachute was used for anything other than slowing freefall was for surveillance at sea. During WWI, Royal Navy submarines would lash a conscript to a parachute, sail into the wind, and pay out the line so that the seaman had a vastly increased visible horizon.
However, real progress on a gliding parachute wasn’t made for another half century when, in 1963, Canadian-born Domina Jalbert invented the ram air canopy—sectioned cells in an aerofoil shape with an open leading edge and a closed trailing edge—the design on which all modern paragliders are modelled.
Jalbert patented his Parafoil design, but for all its industrial and para-military purposes—including a sail wing developed for NASA for the recovery of space capsules—it found most success in the avid recreational market.
Paragliding was brought to Queenstown in the early 1980s by French enthusiasts and consequently it was known here as parapenting for a long time. Today, 498 pilots are registered with the New Zealand Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association.
“Training and flying in New Zealand was pretty raw in the early days,” recalls Eva Walton-Keim, a former training manager for the association.
“I remember watching a couple of guys launching a first-time pilot. The instructors led this guy to the edge of the cliff and literally threw him off. No radio communications, nothing. I could see the fear in the guy’s eyes.”
After flying and instructing in Germany for a number of years, Walton-Keim helped to develop the training standards in New Zealand—procedures she now employs at her own school, Wings and Waves, in Auckland.
I travelled to the dune system at Karioitahi, just north of Port Waikato, for my second lesson with Walton-Keim, this time practising controlling the wing on the ground and the myriad adjustments a pilot can effect by pulling on the control lines in different ways.
Wings vary in shape and size according to performance—the speed at which you intend to fly, the conditions you fly in, your weight and whether you’re interested in acrobatics or performance gliding—but they all share the same basic aerofoil cross-section to generate lift.
The pilot controls lift by changing the aspect or angle of attack of the wing using control lines. “A-risers” are attached to the leading edge and have the effect of reducing the angle of attack and increasing speed. Brake lines are attached to the trailing edge. Pulling on the brakes increases lift and reduces speed in much the same way as an aircraft uses flaps—brake one side and the wing will turn in that direction, brake both sides and the angle of attack will increase and produce lift.
Theoretically. There was only one way to find out for sure. I sidled up to the edge of the cliff, and stepped off.
Instead of crashing into the flax and matagouri below, a smooth updraft cradled my wing and I was flying in the sea breeze. I turned into the wind, gained height, pulled my left riser and started to travel south. There was no ceremony, no fanfare, just a crackle over the radio from Walton-Keim advising me how and where to land.
My mind buzzed. “Pick a point. Sit up. Lean forward. Hang from harness. Brake. In-to-the-wind. Slow down. Slow down. Don’t stall. Arms up. Brake. Flare. Prepare to hit the ground. Look to the horizon. Stall. Start running.”
And that was it. I had landed on my feet. I stopped running, turned and collapsed my canopy. My heart was pounding but my head was clear.
During that short flight, I had thought of nothing but the present moment and what might happen next. Any thought of life beyond this experience—my job, my family, the frenzied parade of everyday life—had vanished. I had to rely entirely on myself. And it felt exhilarating.
After close supervision and instruction for 30 flights, I was declared competent enough to practise on different launch sites. But as I was to find out, I still had much to learn.
I took off from Mike’s launch at Muriwai on a perfect, buoyant day. The airflow was swinging from westerly to north-westerly and was at the stronger end of the wind speed prudent for my wing. I flew easily south to the Te Henga Ramp on the northern headland of O’Neill Bay, and from the movement of the trees and flax below, it appeared that there was lift in the bay, so I flew in. I rued this decision immediately.
My wing twisted and shuddered. I was sinking fast. The wind had shifted slightly to the north and I was fighting to stay out of turbulent air.
Though a paraglider inhabits the air, it is fundamentally physically connected to the earth as well. Without cliffs to lift air currents flowing in from the Tasman, the paraglider would never get airborne. Without the heat of the land, thermals would never elevate a wing. Without land, the air is no place for a paraglider. And my next lesson would be in geography, imparted by the land itself.
As the sun heats the ground, energy is transferred to the air by convection causing thermals. Yet the sea remains cool, dragging air inland as a seabreeze. As air curls over the seacliff, it causes turbulence downwind in the form of rotating air, or rotor—vortices of air which sit beneath the band of ridge lift operating in front and high above the hill or cliff.
For the paraglider pilot, rotor represents an invisible and shifting hazard. At best, you will be bounced around or thrown behind the hill. At worst, your wing will collapse and you will be thrown to the ground.
The turbulence I encountered at O’Neill Bay made it impossible to fly back into smooth coastal lift. Instead, I spent a few uncomfortable minutes flying back along the bowl above the bay. On the southern end I found lift, but slammed into more rotor when returning north.
After a few unsuccessful sweeps, I decided to land where there was more stable lift on the southern ridge. To avoid getting tangled in wire, I flew slightly behind the fence that runs along the lip of the ridgeline, but it was too far back. Another rotor had me in its clutches. This time it stole the air from under my wing and I dropped out of the sky.
At some point all novices need to graduate from the nurturing environment of school. Luckily, all I suffered was punctured pride, a small price to pay for a masterclass in geography and airmanship.
Fundamentally, adventure is aligned closely with exploration, discovery and pushing back frontiers.
Why fly cross-country in dangerous and complicated mountain air when you can fly in comfortable coastal air? The answer is the same as that given for climbing higher mountains, sailing solo at higher latitudes, paddling higher-grade rapids, surfing bigger waves or exploring the enigmas of science.
Receiving instruction in an extreme or unexplored classroom is high on the list of motivations. The adventurer seeks greater challenge to gain greater insight, greater clarity and greater mastery of his environment.
But it runs deeper than that.
In his 1757 treatise on aesthetics, philosopher Edmund Burke outlined a distinction between the sublime and the beautiful. He described beauty as a meadow in flower and the sublime as an awesome mountain scene. According to Burke, the awe of the mountain scene elicits passions of might and terror that have the potential to raise intense feelings of fear and excitement. And in explaining why people engage with risk, he suggested that, “If the pain and terror are so modified as not to be actually noxious… they are capable of producing delight; not pleasure, but a sort of delightful horror, a sort of tranquillity tinged with terror, which, as it belongs to self-preservation, is one of the strongest of all passions.”
Extreme-sports athletes such as base jumpers, paragliding pilots and mountaineers seem hardwired to respond to this “delightful horror”. On the surface, these outliers are anathema to a society that increasingly values control, safety, security and predictability. But when we delve a little deeper, we see that those who engage in risk don’t pursue risk, they merely see it as a by-product of what they do.
One pilot well versed in the fine balance of risk and reward is Wolfgang Wimmer, who runs his own paragliding business in Austria and regularly visits New Zealand to work as a tandem pilot in Wanaka. A few days before we met, he had climbed Mt Aspiring and flown off the top.
“I like to fly and land in beautiful places, to enjoy the silence,” he says. “I feel like a bird.” Then, with a grin, he adds, “I like the G-forces.”
He promised to demonstrate, with me strapped to his chest.
Six hundred metres above the Matukituki Valley, Wimmer took several wraps of his brake lines and pulled sharply down. We swung like a pendulum under the wing until stalling. The wing collapsed and folded into a full cravat—an elegant term for the inelegant wing shape formed when the wing tip gets wrapped up in the suspension lines. Eerily silent, we hung suspended for a moment, weightless until gravity pulled us back to reality. Wimmer released the brake as we fell below the wing. The wing re-inflated and pitched forward. The right wing tip puffed and tangled in the outside lines. With a few sharp tugs on the stabilising lines, the wing’s symmetry was restored and risks of going into a spin mitigated.
Then Wimmer pulled on the left brake. Released. Pulled the right brake. Rhythmically alternating, rocking from wing over to wing over. The acceleration buried me deep into my harness and the horizon leaped from horizontal to perpendicular as we were hurled from side to side.
We stabilised. Our pitch flattened. The swinging ceased and Wimmer set us into a spiral, gentle at first, then gradually tighter—the wing as axle and us riding the tangent, drawing a great helix in the sky as we descended. The gravitational forces started to build. I attempted to keep track of where I was in space. I picked a point on the horizon and tried to hold it, turning my head as I went past that point and then re-orienting to the same point on the subsequent pass. We kept accelerating. “Gs” kept building.
I felt my weight double, treble and more as the gravitational forces on the outside of the corkscrew manoeuvre exceeded three Gs. Tensing and flexing to hold my limbs in place, I felt the weight of three or more people driving me into my harness. Rotating head movements jerked with extra effort as we surpassed four Gs. I briefly lost my point of reference. I felt my eyes roll back in my head and my brain started to feel heavy inside my skull. My head continued to jerk its way forward, back and side to side as I relocated the horizon.
Then relief. We slowed and dropped back to a more usual orientation. Wimmer dropped the right wing tip and we slid into a negative spin known as a SAT, after the Safety Acro Team that invented it. The spin was faster but the gravitational forces less.
In a SAT, the pivot point lies between the wing and pilot, and we were going backwards. I felt I knew where I was in space—somehow seeing where you have been is easier than looking forward at the world in a flat spin.
We pulled out of the manoeuvres a few hundred metres above the ground, but there was no time to reflect. Pick a point to land. Assess wind direction. After sliding to a stop, our singular focus transformed into a euphoric release—time appeared slower, observations felt sharper, more detailed.
“Why don’t we do that off Mt Cook?” I suggested in jubilation.
Wimmer laughed, and in deep Austrian brogue said, “I like this idea.”
Mountaineer Rob Hall was among the pioneer paragliders who could see the benefits of a safe, rapid descent. Hall made experimental flights off Canterbury’s Port Hills and Mt Hutt in the early 1980s. In the summer of 1986, he became the first to fly off the summit of Aoraki/Mt Cook.
But doing this is not without risk. Big mountains such as those in the Southern Alps generate localised weather. Over a short distance, winds can routinely range from dead calm to 70 km/h. This is due to complex interactions between physical geography, fluid dynamics and meteorology.
The cross-country pilot relies on thermals—long skinny bubbles of comparatively warm rising air that are released from the ground when they reach a critical size. In valleys, thermals hug the slopes and flow uphill, colliding with bumps and contours which cause the stream of rising air to drag and tumble like water running over pebbles in a stream.
Surfaces heat differently according to their attitude to the sun and the properties of the surface. A rock surface perpendicular to the sun will absorb heat and cause convection. An ice field on the shady side of a hill will release cool dense air that sinks.
If a valley has both of these features it is very likely that the winds will corkscrew down the valley as they are heated on one side and cooled on the other. Yet it is not totally disordered, but rather builds and falls throughout the day in a rhythm according to the physical principles of heat exchange. Earlier in the day, there is less energy, less volatility and, as a result, more predictability. As the day proceeds, more energy enters the system and it becomes more dynamic.
With so many variables at play, Wimmer’s proposed flight off New Zealand’s highest mountain required the most stable weather system possible. Along the Southern Alps, this occurs when two low-energy anticyclones sit either side of the Main Divide. This results in winds that are slightly fickle but low in energy. Reducing wind energy reduces rotor, or turbulence.
To combat the likelihood of higher winds, Wimmer decided to carry a new style of paraglider called a speed wing up Aoraki/Mt Cook. The reduced size of the canopy enables a pilot to take off at higher wind speeds and recover more quickly if the wing collapses due to turbulence. However, the flight time and glide angle are respectively shorter and steeper.
Climbing to the summit rocks of Cook, Wimmer experienced almost windless conditions. In the dark, only mild katabatic winds of cold high-density air tumbled down from the summit. But that would soon change.
When the first rays of sun struck the flanks of the Southern Alps, the atmospheric energies increased.
“When I came to the summit ridge it was a west to southwest wind,” recalled Wimmer. “I went half-way to middle peak and it was probably 40–45 km/h. Pretty strong. I would take off in 35–40 km/h wind, at the most, but not in the wrong direction.”
One hundred and fifty metres beneath the summit, Wimmer found the perfect take-off site, with a gentle breeze from the north. He laid out his wing, strapped himself into his harness and clipped on his wing.
“It was very important for me not to be in rotor, so I sat for 15 minutes observing the wind. For sure there is a little bit of risk. The winds were not perfect but they were acceptable.”
Looking down from Summit Ridge is intimidating enough. But running in crampons down the steep face of such a high peak is definitely not for the fainthearted. After making the decision to go, there is no longer any room for anxiety, fear or indecision.
“At the take-off, I pushed the risk somewhere behind me,” said Wimmer. “I was fully concentrated on the moment. I didn’t think about the risk or fears. I was very confident from the moment I made the decision. One thing is for sure, you don’t want to do this thing by half. I ran hard.”
After just two metres, he could feel the wing lifting steadily on his harness. A few more steps and he was flying.
The most difficult part of the flight may have been over, but it was no time to relax. As a rule, altitude is your friend. The higher you are, the more time you have to recover from mishaps. Hugging the ground gives speed flying its sense of excitement, but Wimmer expected turbulence off the back of the Bowie Ridge. Instead of staying only a few metres off the ground, he flew out from the mountain and tried to maintain a distance of about 200 m between him and the rocky ridge below.
“Then I was hit by turbulence,” said Wimmer.
“I was expecting it, but not that strong. When I looked up the wing sort of disappeared.”
In stable air, applying a little brake corrects a collapse. But you don’t want to linger in rotor, so it is better to fly out as fast as possible.
Wimmer accelerated out of the turbulence, then threw in some very quick turns to keep the pressure on his glider. “It all happened very quickly. After 10 seconds, I had cleared the turbulence and I had fallen to 100 m above the Bowie Ridge. I just had to land between the crevasses on the Grand Plateau.”
Wimmer flew in at about 70 km/h, flared into a stall just above the ground, took a few steps and became the first person to fly a speed wing off the summit of Aoraki/Mt Cook.
There was no one to greet him. No one to celebrate with him. He walked back to Plateau Hut, gathered his gear, changed wings and flew back in to Mt Cook village for morning tea.
I was back in Auckland preparing to return to work when Wimmer called. “The weather looks good. Rob and I want to fly off Tasman. Would you like to come?”
Rob van den Ham has built a career around flying. He has been based in New Zealand for the past decade but follows flying seasons around the globe, piloting some 900 tandem flights a year. Recently, he flew to 7455 m in the Karakorum Mountains, a range between Pakistan, India and China—potentially a new altitude record for a tandem paraglider.
I couldn’t refuse.
Within 48 hours we were in Plateau Hut. The weather system was not as stable as for Wimmer’s flight off Cook, and attempts to fly off Tasman were halted by gusty winds and rotten ice conditions. Our consolation would be to fly from Glacier Dome on the shoulder of Mt Tasman to the Ball Shelter road.
As we unfurled our wings on top of Glacier Dome, I felt as though we were entering Burke’s realm of the sublime. We were perched precariously on an austere dome of ice; ahead lay a void of cold katabatic air, to the rear the intimidating massifs of Cook and Tasman and to either side ice fields punctuated with yawning crevasses. Below us, the pristine Grand Plateau flowed into the turmoil of the Hochstetter Ice Fall under crushed ramparts of greywacke that flanked the massive scar made by the Tasman Glacier.
Our sense of insignificance and vulnerability was palpable.
“We fly on a very narrow strip of land in New Zealand,” van den Ham explained. “You get the sea breezes from both coasts, the valleys funnel winds in all directions. In a single flight you can get wind from all four directions. Then you have different wind directions at different altitudes, so it is hugely complicated. I have flown in Pakistan and India and you can fly with your eyes closed. You fly from ridge to ridge and you find lift and you go up. It is almost too easy. Here, it is incredibly challenging. You are calling on all your faculties and you are totally focused on matching your skills to the challenge—that is a really great zone to be in.”
We would certainly need all our faculties. The wing’s maximum carrying capacity was 230 kg. With gear, we were 235 kg. As an added complication, I had mounted my SLR camera in the wing.
The very light winds oscillated from anabatic to katabatic. We clipped in and waited for a consistent head wind. The grand scene seemed to increase our apprehension.
A breath of anabatic air tickled the tails of our streamers. Van den Ham called, “Go.” I leaned into my run. The wing bit the air as it filled. My camera lines tensed. Still running. From the corner of my eye I saw the shadow of the wing lift and set. Then the shadow changed as the wing folded from a perfect set to a terrible collapse. The lines holding my camera were set too short, sending the wing into a full stall. Van den Ham and I saw this at the same time and jumped to the ground, skidding to a halt.
We re-set the wing, increasing the length of my camera lines. The winds appeared to have shifted, so we changed our orientation—on a gentler slope, but directly in line with several small crevasses.
I watched the wind indicator, tried to discern patterns, suppressed unhelpful thoughts and concentrated on eliminating errors.
The streamers danced in our direction for a few seconds. Van den Ham called, “Ready.” I packaged any uncertainties and mentally posted them to the recesses of my mind. “Yep.”
Once the decision had been made, a sense of calm descended.
“Okay. This time. Go.”
I leaned away from the hill and started towards the cliff. I felt the wing bite. Running, we leaped the first crevasse. Regaining balance, I kept going. My heart raced. I felt upward pressure through my harness. Now sprinting. The precipice drew nearer. Twenty metres gone and still on ice. I kept pumping my legs. I felt more pressure through my harness. Directly ahead, a spire of rock began obscuring my view of the gaping valley. Van den Ham’s legs were off the ground and he was sitting in his harness. We were past the point of no return. My feet were still on the ground driving hard. Forty metres gone, only a few more to the abyss and less than 50 m to the rock buttress ahead. The ice disappeared beneath my feet. Finally, both of us were flying.
I hung for a moment, arms tangled in my harness and the shoulder straps of my pack. Dangling above the chasm below. Breathless.
Van den Ham flew us back towards the Grand Plateau. I pulled myself into sitting position, then started winding my camera up into the wing. By now we were approaching the fractured mess of the Hochstetter Glacier. The hardest part was behind us, ahead the sublime.
For the next few minutes, van den Ham and I basked in the peace and tranquillity of unpowered flight, sharing our playground with the terrible, mighty and sublime. No fear. No trepidation. Only bliss. We had successfully subjugated the trivial stresses and frustrations of daily routine and were living in the moment.
Flying off Glacier Dome was not the conquest of a mountain, rather an endeavour to bury the ordinary and explore the sublime, in places where others see only risk.