This post is part of the Global Rescue “No Restrictions” series, where we take a look at extreme sports and activities that many of our members have taken part in — or plan to. Unlike other providers, Global Rescue memberships do not exclude or restrict adventure activities, whether cave diving, sky diving, heli-skiing, BASE jumping and beyond.
Gavin McClurg, a Global Rescue member, has racked up plenty of paragliding firsts.
In 2014, he completed the first paragliding traverse of the Canadian Rockies, the longest series of connected flights currently ever flown at 1,200 kilometers (745 miles) over 18 days. In 2015, he was the first American to ever complete the Red Bull X-Alps competition, a 1,000-kilometer (620-mile) paragliding/foot race across the Alps. In 2016, he became the first person to traverse the full length of the Alaskan Range over 37 days, completing the last third of the 700-kilometer (430-mile) route entirely solo. And, until recently being usurped in 2020, he had previously held North America’s foot-launch distance record (387 kilometers/240 miles) since 2013.
So, it’s hard to believe that, after taking his first few tandem paragliding flights back in 2004, McClurg, admittedly, wasn’t very impressed with the free-flying sport.
“I thought it was kind of boring,” laughs the 49-year-old from Ketchum, Idaho, and all-around adventure athlete who has kayaked first descents across Central America and sailed around the world — twice.
“But once I got to take control myself and learned I could fly these really long distances through deep valleys and over major mountains and land somewhere I had no idea where that would be, I was addicted. It’s spectacular, scary and sublime all at the same time — the ultimate freedom and greatest adventure.”
Welcome to the wild world of cross country paragliding, a sport that combines elite paragliding and backpacking skills to travel great distances in some of the most beautiful — but sometimes, unforgiving and unpredictable — destinations.
The Essential Equipment for Any Type of Paragliding
There is no engine associated with paragliding, which, to the uninitiated, can seem hard to believe given the speeds at which paragliders can climb (up to 2,000 feet per minute) and glide and distances (up to 50 miles an hour) that can be achieved. Foot-launched by the pilot from a hillside, the aircraft consists of core elements:
- The Wing or Canopy: While resembling any old parachute to a layman, the canopy of a paraglider functions quite differently. Elliptical in shape when filled with air, it’s designed to generate lift to travel upwards and forwards with great maneuverability, whereas a normal parachute is round and designed to arrest a fall as you travel downwards.
“Wings are an amazing aircraft. There’s no engine; we just use air masses to travel,” says McClurg, who also manages a website dedicated to all-things paragliding called Cloudbase Mayhem. “But, at the end of the day, they really are just pieces of plastic.”
- The Lines and the Risers: Connecting the pilot to the wing are a series of lines (30 or more), which come together in clusters on either side of the pilot in what’s known as “risers.” These risers are what the pilot uses to control their flight, including the slowing and steering of the structure.
- The Harness: Attached to the risers and the wing, the harness is essentially a seat made of strong webbing and lined with side and back protection. There are different types of harnesses for different types of paragliding disciplines, but in cross country paragliding, pilots use pod harnesses as they are better suited for long-haul flights.
The Differences in the Cross Country Paragliding Discipline
Gavin McClurg was the first person to traverse the full length of the Alaskan Range. It took more than 37 days. Photo courtesy of Gavin McClurg / © Jody MacDonald
While there are different types of paragliding, including hill soaring (using ridge lift and thermals to fly hills), high-wind soaring (flying dune winds on the coast of countries like Denmark, the Netherlands, Portugal and France) and freestyle and acrobatic (a stunt-filled variation), there are a few essential skill sets that separate long-distance paragliding from the rest:
- Thermalling: In order to fly such far distances and for several hours at a time (sometimes more than 10 hours), gliders must be skilled in what’s known as “thermalling.” Because without it, you’re not getting very far.
Thermals are columns of rising warm air that pilots must locate — often using a flight instrument known as a vario, but they also rely on birds, clouds and their own sensations. “It’s a lot of feeling of forces that you can’t see,” said McClurg, who was first introduced to the sport by his longtime friend and acclaimed adventure photographer, Jody MacDonald.
Pilots then use the thermal to ascend, before eventually gliding off to find the next. It’s about a 9:1 ratio, meaning that if a pilot climbs 1,000 meters up, he/she can glide about 9,000 meters to the next thermal. “Then it’s climb up and glide again, climb up and glide again,” said McClurg. “That’s how you travel distances.”
In fact, when an expert paraglider hooks into a good thermal, their climb can reach speeds of up to 2,000 feet per minute — to put that into perspective, a Black Hawk helicopter has a rate of climb of 1,315 feet per minute.
- Constant Cluing into the Conditions: Beyond pristine piloting skills, cross country paragliders also need extreme knowledge of air law, flying regulations and aviation maps (for any restricted airspace), so they can plan their flight accordingly. Constant monitoring of wind speeds, cloud development, barometric pressure and overall weather is essential before flying, otherwise, you could get pushed into an area you don’t want to be or lose control.
“If you get too close to a big cumulonimbus cloud, you can get sucked up into it. Once you get sucked up into a cloud, you’re going as far as that hot air is going,” says McClurg.
- Backcountry Camping/Backpacking Skills: Vol-bivouac is a French term that translates to “fly camping” — and it’s pretty much just that, requiring cross country paragliders to carry all the gear they need on their backs to survive when they head off for days or even weeks into the wilds. And while McClurg says cross country paragliding “is more mental than physical,” you can’t deny you have to be in some serious shape to hike and fly, day after day.
During a paragliding expedition, it’s common for McClurg to hike several marathons, all with a 30-pound pack on his back. During the 2015 Red Bull X-Alps, he flew 1,560 kilometers, walked 498 kilometers and scaled 52,000 meters of vertical ascent on foot — all over the course of 10 days.
The Risks & Rewards of Cross Country Paragliding
McClurg taking a much-needed break at the Rohn Roadhouse Safety Cabin during his Alaska traverse. Photo courtesy of Gavin McClurg / © Jody MacDonald
“I’ve been able to see some wild destinations in the world that, on foot, would be impossible to access,” says McClurg. “I’ve been to places I’m not sure another pilot will ever pass through again. There’s something special about that.”
But as exciting and rare as drifting above these destinations may be, it also comes with its fair share of risks.
“When you go into these really deep places, there are few places to put a glider down. You’re basically breaking all the rules of paragliding, like never fly over a place, if you don’t have a landing option, but in cross country, that’s not going to happen. We have to fly over a lot of terrain where we can’t land.”
And he’s had close calls, too, like landing in a river in the Dominican Republic and walking out over a series of massive waterfalls, hitting the ground too hard and banging up his mouth in the Canadian Rockies, and getting caught in a gust front in the Wallis of Switzerland.
Top Cross Country Paragliding Destinations
Want to take a tandem flight? Or simply watch the pros while you stay safely securely to the ground below? Here are a handful of cross country paragliding destinations around the world.
- Sun Valley, Idaho: This region in Central Idaho boasts nearly a million acres of rugged wilderness and mountain ranges. Popular launch sites include Bald Mountain or King Mountain over in the Big Lost range.
- Golden, Canada: Located in the heart of the Canadian Rockies, Golden is known as a place where numerous pilots achieve their best personal flights. The sites of Mount 7 and Columbia Valley are well known for incredible thermal conditions and excellent cross country opportunities.
- Col de Bleyne, France: Serving as the starting point for several record cross country flights (many ending in Switzerland), this site in the Southeast Alps of France features ideal thermal activity for flying large triangles (meaning you fly to three turn points and return to the original start point).
- Quixada, Brazil: While famous as the launch site for some of the world’s longest paragliding flights, this region on Brazil’s northeast coast is not for the faint of heart with strong winds and other harsh conditions.
- Ager, Spain: Located on the edge of the Pyrenees and home to deep river gorges, lakes, rocky terrain and flat land, Ager is known for its long season and reliable flying conditions that draw cross country pros and beginners alike.
- Kruševo, Macedonia: A mix of flatland and mountain terrain make this region — the highest in Macedonia sitting at 1,350 meters — a great location for all levels of cross country pilots: wooded hills to the west of the valley mean fewer intimidating conditions, while incredible thermals can be found over the rocky rides to the east.
No Restrictions on Activities
Whether you’re cave diving, BASE jumping, heli-skiing, skydiving, free diving or more, remember to plan, prepare and get a Global Rescue membership for peace of mind. Unlike other providers, Global Rescue memberships do not exclude or restrict adventure activities. It’s part of our “No Restrictions” approach to travel — and that includes COVID-19, too.
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