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Altitude at Elevation

Flying at Sun Valley paragliding nationals


Lawn dart, grassy skid, ballet hop, pancake flip and Fosbury Flop were signature landings in the park at the south end of Wall Street in Stanley, the first goal for the final part of the 2010 U.S. Paragliding Nationals hosted in Ketchum last week.

The competition with a "race to goal" format began in Chelan, Wash., earlier this summer and is a set of daily cross-country flight tasks, in which pilots ride thermals and course through the air, much like sailors, tagging aerial checkpoints, columns of air reaching up to 18,000 feet en route to speedy approaches at each day's final goal.

At 3:45 p.m. on Sept. 2, after three hours of catching thermal lifts from the tops of infinite peaks between Bald Mountain and Stanley, former Ketchum resident, paragliding world champion and Czech citizen Martin Orlik ("Orlik" is Czech for "eagle") finessed his last bubble of air before plopping in a patch of sagebrush a mere step from the park's grassy center. He was close, but he did not win the day's task despite a soaring effort

After launching to a brilliant dog-fight above Baldy, one competitor yelled, "I love you man," as the fliers started the first of two aerial races made up of a gaggle of other international pilots last week. The three-hour race began at 12:45 p.m., when a cloud of colorful wings simultaneously turned north. The seemingly clumsy landings of professional pilots who arrived in Stanley after crossing Galena Summit, revealed the wear and tear of flying at high altitude above four mountain ranges on a day of high pressure--which creates greater turbulence--said veteran paraglider Walter Neser of South Africa.

Earlier in the week, when weather shut down the first three days of competition, Neser launched base-jumper Brad Geary for a stunt above paragliding headquarters in Atkinson's Park. During free time, pilots also enjoyed Wagon Days, mountain biking, trail running, fly-fishing--all extra-curricular activities that add to a week-long event where action depends on mother nature's mood.

"I travel the world--South America, Asia, Europe and North America--to fly," said Vancouver, B.C.-based Polish pilot Pavel Boryniec as he and other pilots waited for the task of the first day's race to be announced. Boryniec came to Sun Valley not only to compete, but also in the capacity of reviewer to check that Sun Valley has the necessary amenities to host a segment of the 2011 World Cup.

"It is a lifelong process becoming a paragliding pilot ... meteorology, air-loss, learning how the equipment works, topography, radio communications, safety, CPR and rescue, climbing trees to free lines ... there are so many aspects to flying. It makes you an overall better-rounded human being," Boryniec said.

Pilots from around the globe traveled to Sun Valley to compete, and the competition is making U.S. pilots better, raising skills to the level of the best international pilots, said Anchorage-based flier Jack Brown.

"Now he is in sink," Neser said at the finish in Stanley, pointing out a rapidly descending pilot as he described the intricacies of relying on the Earth's reflection of solar radiation to pump the sails. "There is nothing more he can do to stay in the air."

At least half the field of each day's race bails out before landing at the final goal, which is measured by a kilometer diameter safety buffer, after which pilots are obliged to lay off the speed and circle for a landing somewhere within the 400 meter diameter finish area.

"I think I got fifth today, but I was real close," said Brad Gunnuscio of Salt Lake City as he stripped off the layers of insulation that protect pilots from cold temperatures at high elevations. Gunnuscio is the reigning 2009 national champ and showed perhaps the finest landing of the day.

"I was cruising along and got in a place where I had to be patient. When you compete your focus is on [finding thermal lift], but every once in a while I have to look around. [Redfish Lake] over here is beautiful."

"The thermals were just gone. But, then I saw what I think was a golden eagle rising up ... that bird totally saved me," Gunnuscio said.

The day's victor was Nick Greece of Jackson, Wyo., the U.S. Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association's magazine editor.

"On good days we'll crack off 100 miles," Greece said, adding that he is looking forward to traveling to Turkey for the final races of international competition for 2010.

Part of the excitement at the finish is seeing just who makes it to the final goal, said Jug Deep Aggarwal, who organizes 17 tasks a year in the San Francisco Bay Area--home to likely the largest population of paragliding pilots.

"Our aim is to get junior pilots in the air," Aggarwal said, adding that part of the fun in paragliding is that everyone is an international competitor. Many American pilots originally came from other countries and vice-versa. "In the air there is only one language ... finding the thermal and getting away."

On the race to Challis, tourists reported seeing dozens of fliers sinking out of the sky around 6 p.m., just shy of the day's goal when the Earth's heat could no longer keep them aloft. Among them was Venezuelan pilot Jorge Atramiz , exhausted after running out of supplemental oxygen and coming from his home base at sea level on Oahu.

"I fly with feeling. This is a unique flight. It's just so huge all around. Being able to conquer the peaks, really go slow and enjoy the view," he said.

Not only pilots enjoyed the views provided by the sport pilots call "vacation competition," which means they are largely self-funded.

"I was working in Hulen Meadows on Friday and I looked up to see a rainbow of color," said Hailey resident Michelle Meixner. "It was so magical to see them all flying north above Griffin Butte. I thought, 'When will I ever see something so beautiful in the sky again?'"

It might be soon.

"I look forward to coming back here for the Paragliding World Cup next year," Boryniec said, giving his final estimate for the possibility of international competition in Sun Valley in 2011.