Bigger, Boulder Adventure
Paragliding adventure through Working Stints
There was a time in my life when all I wanted to do was travel the world. At first I let other, more responsible, things like paying a mortgage get in the way but eventually the urge could be ignored no longer. I sold all my possessions and headed off into the big world. No firm agenda, just a plane ticket and a Lonely Planet guide. Which tells you what sort of trip that was. I backpacked a well-worn path through the cities of Europe and rediscovered global history in a way no classroom could ever get through to me. I did that for 7 months before settling in London for a few years. Those years in London allowed me to continue the travel, albeit in a much more abbreviated and agenda-driven manner, until I discovered paragliding. And that was the end of city-focused travel for me.
You see, that paragliding course I signed up for was based in a little village called La Motte du Caire, in France. A village I had no business to be in, apart from learning to paraglide. Along with a bunch of like-minded, adventurous people we shook our heads in amazement at the town’s one pub that would open only when someone went to find the publican. We practiced our French on the supermarket owner, who laughed at our attempts and ensured we left with something edible for lunch. And we wandered the streets in the afternoons when it was too windy to fly, feeling like we had slipped into a Stella Artois commercial. It was an experience like few I had found backpacking, and suddenly I wanted nothing more to do with big cities. So I collected my paragliding licence, packed my bags and left London.
There was a bit more to the reasons for my departure from London, and since I moved back to Sydney, clearly I wasn’t really escaping cities, but paragliding was definitely the trigger for a big change in my life. Many changes, actually, but the one I want to explore today is global adventure through paragliding.
Since attaining my paragliding licence I have flown in many places throughout the world — South Africa, Canada, USA, France, Indonesia and Australia. That’s not a terribly impressive list of exotic countries, but the places I went to in those countries were places I would have no business to be in if it weren’t for paragliding. The problem with most paragliding holidays is that we tend to use annual leave, which is limited to 2–4 weeks for a single trip. The chances of getting great paragliding weather in just 2 short weeks is 50–50. Maybe we’ll get 1 week of great paragliding. Sometimes we get luckier, sometimes we get unluckier. Quite by accident, I have discovered a different sort of paragliding adventure — working stints. This allows me to locate myself in a new place for a long enough period to not only ensure I am there for lots of good paragliding days, but I also get to know the local community and everything else the area has to offer.
A working stint involves taking a job in another place for a few months — say 3 to 6 months. The length of time doesn’t really matter although I think you need a minimum of 3 months to start to get to know a place. It’s important to feel like you are not moving permanently to this place — at least not yet. Knowing that you have a limited amount of time here spurs you on to make the most of your time. I have been on a working stint that gradually got extended from 5 weeks to 6 months, and noticed how much I managed to pack into my time compared to another colleague who had moved to the same place permanently. She spent more time missing home, with the feeling that she had all the time in the world to explore all that was on offer in that new place. I felt like I was on limited time and spent at least every second weekend away, whilst making sure I took advantage of my local weekends the best I could. To be fair though, the global paragliding community makes working stints so much easier. You have a reason to make friends quickly, and normally a club to go find those friends.
A year or so ago I worked in Boulder, Colorado (USA) for 3 months. Boulder is a relatively small city of 100,000 people at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, pretty much smack-bang in the centre of the USA. It marks the end of the wild west terrain and the start of the farming flatlands to the east. I should mention here that I work in tech. Boulder is a town dominated by snow-loving outdoor enthusiasts, recently invaded by tech-loving outdoor enthusiasts. There are a few towns like this in the US (Bend, Oregon being another) where tech companies are starting to set up campuses in towns embedded in outdoor activities. If you work in tech, these towns are awesome. They offer well-paying, professional work a luxuriously short distance from paragliding sites and mountain-biking tracks (my second love). Sign me up. Which I did. Ok, the way it worked was that a colleague who owned a software consultancy offered me a job in their Sydney office with the first 3 months in the Boulder office. Largely, at my expense. This is an important thing to note because stints are not free (unless you get very lucky) but they are well worth the cost. And you might want to consider requesting a stint, and being prepared to pay for it — but more on that later.
So I arrived in Boulder with about 100kg of luggage including a paraglider, a mountain bike and anything else I could fit into a single suitcase that I would need for 3 months. I had met a Boulder paraglider pilot previously out in Australia and we had stayed in touch. My first job, once I was settled in my itsy-bitsy-teeny-weeny AirBnB, was to contact him and make sure I was ready to fly. With local club membership sorted I met Johannes at Boulder’s local flying site on the north side of town on my second day in Boulder. Now, I wouldn’t say Boulder is high on the list in the annual Cross Country Magazine Travel Guide. Actually, it’s probably never been mentioned. The launch site is relatively low at around 250m higher than the LZ, which makes snagging that first thermal somewhat critical. To make the most of this site you need time to dial into it — getting to know the triggers you can rely on, reading the weather and being available to fly when everything looks good. I had some Australian friends visit for a couple of weeks and they were suitably unimpressed with the site, unable to exploit any great cross-country flights. Boulder is not really the place to visit for a short, pure-paragliding visit. You will miss out on everything the place has to offer.
I failed to snag a thermal on that first flight and had a pretty quick sleddie to the landing paddock. Keen to get my feet off the ground for longer, I headed back up and tried again. That time I got nice and high and this gave me a chance to look around. Boulder sits at the base of the foothills on the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains (known as the Front Range), which runs roughly north-south. The launch site is 90% of the way up a foothill ridge with the snow-capped Rocky’s looming many ridges behind to the west. Out in front of launch are flatlands, occasionally punctuated by the odd hill, all the way past Denver and beyond Colorado’s eastern state boundary. Denver is about 50km south east of Boulder and comes with some pretty hefty air traffic. You can fly east and avoid airspace but, with the Rocky’s JUST THERE, there is better flying to be had along the ridge. The other thing about Boulder or any of the Front Range sites in Colorado is that you are flying in the lee. Every day the wind will come from the west over the Rocky’s, but because these mountains are so high, you won’t necessarily feel the effect of that wind at 4,400m unless it mixes down. So, the locals have some key meteorological indexes that they watch to make sure it’s safe to fly. This includes pressure differentials from either side of the Rocky’s, which also tells you how much fun you are likely to have. This is key local knowledge to have! So having got up high, some of the other pilots flew north or south and left me to ponder what to do next. I hadn’t collected many pilot phone numbers and wasn’t sure how I might get home, should I fly XC, so I just landed and met some more pilots in the LZ. And started collecting phone numbers :)
Over the next few weekends, I managed to unlock the secrets of staying up (there’s a rock wall near the higher launch option that ALWAYS gives great lift if it’s on) and I got to know more local pilots. I found, however, that I was meeting a lot of pilots who had reasons not to fly too far from Boulder. Some of them were flying between job shifts; some had families and could only dedicate a few hours to flying, some were just happy to fly the Boulder site. I wasn’t meeting many XC pilots. I asked around and found a couple who mostly flew during the weekdays, but I really wanted some weekend warriors who were keen for XC. In other places I had visited, there were forums and Facebook pages and you only needed to mention XC and you’d have people offering to car-share to some site that weekend. The community in Boulder was less dependent on those channels I had become accustomed to using, and after posting a plea on Facebook for anyone flying XC to contact me with zero response, I took drastic but effective measures. I reviewed flights people had posted on Leonardo and XContest from the area in recent weeks and noted the names of the pilots flying routes I was keen to attempt. Then I stalked them on Facebook and begged them to take me with them on the next opportunity. In the least-creepy way possible. It worked — I found a couple of guys who were happy to show me around. And this also got me down to Golden, 50km south of Boulder where they launch from another site called Lookout.
Having unlocked the secret of staying up at Boulder and having found some XC-loving pilots, I then managed to unlock a few more secrets. One being that summer is not the best time of year to fly in Boulder, due to the summer monsoon. Fall (autumn) is the epic time of year. My time in Boulder was precisely for the summer months. <Research Fail>. Monsoon might be a strong term to use but basically during summer in Boulder most afternoons overdevelop and thunderstorm. So the issue then becomes wanting to get in the air early – not before the thermals are working, but not so late that the storms come in. Oh, and monsoonal weather also comes hand in hand with regular inversions that cap the ceiling and get in the way of good XC flying. So you’ve got to watch the forecast and deal with inversions. Next issue is that whilst Boulder is a small city, it’s still a city with lots of urbanised areas. Because launch is on the northern edge of town, there is a definite pull to fly north to Lyons but the scenic pull is south past other launches to Golden and beyond. To get anywhere you need to be able to get high enough to cross deep canyons. My experience in the Owens Valley, the year prior, taught me that you never want to find yourself in a canyon — the winds will venturi through them and they will be affected by rotor with very few places to land. So I had lots of flights boating around Boulder and Golden, not flying much XC.
This all sounds a little disappointing for a dead-keen XC pilot, but the biggest problem for the paraglider pilot is mostly what to do when the weather is not right for flying. And here is where Boulder really shines.
My work colleagues were into climbing, mountain biking and hiking. Not a climber myself, I threw myself at any opportunity to be shown the local mountain bike trails. And that was a baptism of fire! What we call mountain biking in Sydney (or at least what I had experienced) was what a Coloradian would call trail riding. Mountain bike riding involves mountains! And rocks! And lots of up-hill! I got fit real fast. Having been introduced to the basics of mountain biking and embarrassed myself in front of my work colleagues, I then signed myself up to a women’s riding group who would ride a different trail every Friday evening in the summer. I can’t believe there was a part of me that was worried that a women’s riding group might be a bit lame. Hahahahahaha. Lame, they were not. Kind, they were. A great bunch of people who continually encouraged me despite my lack of skills. Skills that were improving each week, however. The trails they took me on were nothing short of beautiful. I should add that, as an introvert, signing up to a riding group I found online was intimidating. But one thing about the Americans is that they will give you kudos for just showing up. And they will always make you feel welcome. Those rides are up there with my best memories of Boulder.
Did I mention Boulder is a mere hour’s drive away from the Rocky Mountains National Park? Having learned by now that Coloradians are hard-core when it comes to outdoor activities, I researched and chose some EASY hikes to do in the Rocky’s. National Parks are a little regimented in the US. They have a lot of rules and their rangers are armed, which seems to indicate they mean business. Not exactly sure why they are armed, however the rules are there because National Parks are crazy busy in summer. You drive to the main parking lot of a National Park, and then you catch a shuttle bus to the trailhead. I found myself at 8am on a Saturday morning waiting with about 200 people for the shuttle bus. I’m not exaggerating. This was not a holiday weekend and the weather forecast was not awesome. However, the buses were frequent and I was deposited at my trailhead 30 minutes later with only 20 other hikers, who were left behind as soon as I hiked past the short scenic loop. My hike was about 4 hours and it was OMG beautiful. The easy grade was just challenging enough for me but still got me out to some gorgeous spots.
Back in Boulder, though, you don’t have to drive for a few hours to find great hiking. I took a small AirBnB granny flat at the base of a local hiking trail up a hill called Flagstaff, and I made it my business to try to hike it at least once a week before work in the mornings. It was a 2.5 hour return trip with a 475m elevation change and not only did it keep me fit, but it was great way to start the day. The trail climbed up a hill immediately to the north of the Flatirons — an impressive few slabs of rock that dominated the Boulder vista. Every time I hiked up that trail I would gaze over the Flatirons and wonder what it would look like from the air. My goal before leaving Boulder was to fly over the Flatirons.
It took me 2.5 months to do it, and I admit I was beginning to panic that it wouldn’t happen. Our office had a great view of the Flatirons and many times I would spy a paraglider flying over them, impatient that I had to be working on a day with the right conditions. But one Saturday, after an early morning mountain bike ride with my boss, I turned up to the launch, pleased as punch at the prospect of fitting into 2 of my favourite sports into one day. We launched and the usual inversion was present, however some pilots were punching through it. For an hour and a half I boated around trying to get as high as I could, and eventually headed off south to attempt the first big canyon crossing across Boulder Canyon. It’s a pretty committing crossing because you have to leave behind your last legal landing area and either make it across onto the Flatirons or land at the base in Open Space land. Which you will get fined for or arrested if caught landing there. I’m not kidding. Local pilots told me that the Flatirons themselves rarely work as triggers, and the urban border with the Open Space land tends to work better. On this day, however I snagged a low climb on the far side of the canyon and climbed up above the Flatirons, sailing over them with no problems. I had a little party in the air, taking lots of photos, having achieved a goal I’d dreamed about so many times!
The truth was, however, that the Flatirons looked much more impressive from the ground. The flight from there was super-easy — clouds were forming along the range and all I had to do was fly under them, careful not to get sucked up. I passed all the landmarks I had observed on numerous drives down to Golden and at last came up upon Lookout launch. It was still a flyable time of day but I was a bit unsettled to find no one flying Lookout when I got there. Conditions were different down there — stronger winds and not as lifty. I decided to land because I had no idea about retrieve and really wanted some company before heading further south. It was a challenge to land, and Lookout’s landing options are not the kindest. Upon landing I saw someone in the usual paraglider parking area and rushed down to talk to them. Turned out I probably could have kept going south as the XC pilots had long since headed down there. I had hoped the pilot in the parking lot would be heading to Boulder and give me a ride but alas, he was heading back to Denver. “Just call an Uber”, he suggested. So I packed up my gear and, in true Boulder-style, I called an Uber and was retrieved from my adventure for a mere $30. My driver was super excited about my day’s adventure, to boot.
So I achieved my goal to fly over the Flatirons but felt like the Rockies had to offer more than just Front Range flying. I knew there must be spectacular flying in the heart of the Rockies. So again, I referred back Leonardo and scoured the area for where people were flying. I saw a familiar name in the list — a paraglider pilot I had met at a competition told me to look this guy up if I wanted to fly the best site in the Rocky’s. So, once again, I found him on Facebook, got in touch and worked out a plan to get out there.
The town was Glenwood Springs on the west side of the Rocky Mountains, about 3 hours drive across the mountain range from Boulder. I arrived early on a Saturday morning and, as my new contact was not in town that weekend, had instructions to meet up with the tandem operation and grab a ride up to the town launch from there. I was a little disappointed at the launch as I had something more challenging in mind, but the real point of this flight was to make contacts and prove to the locals that I was a competent pilot. The flight was just some extended ridge soaring and I landed after 20 minutes to ensure I was able to grab a ride back with the tandems back to my car. However, whilst in the LZ one of the tandem pilots offered to show me Aspen that afternoon. Aspen! That sounded like a real mountain area. So in return for the hour’s ride back to Aspen I got a tour around the ski village and beyond on the back of a motorcycle and then an afternoon flight off a ski slope in Aspen. It was fantastic. My flight was not long as one of my instruments was mis-reading and the wind was strong, so I chose to land early. But I had my introduction and felt fantastic about it. My new friend, Vic, then told me that a bunch of local pilots were organising to fly Skinny’s Ridge the next day — was I interested? Hell, yes. That was the site I’d been told to fly to get the true Rocky’s experience. We were approaching the end of summer and I was told that they’d only had the right conditions to fly this site 3–4 times that year. And I managed to get myself here on one of those weekends and hook up with the right people just in time! So I met up with the local pilots the next day and we squeezed ourselves into the back of a typically large American pickup truck and made the hour-long trip up to Skinny’s Ridge.
Now, Aspen is really in the heart of the Rocky’s and if you get high enough you can fly over some huge landscape. However, I am not that familiar with mountain flying. Having spent 3 months learning how to fly in leeside conditions and being fairly confident about that, I realised that in order to confidently and safely fly real mountains I probably wanted to base myself in Glenwood Springs for several months also. Skinny’s Ridge was where the western side of the Rocky Mountains started to dissipate into foothills. But you could fly to Aspen from there and beyond, so it was a great place to start from. And a great place to get a taste of mountain flying.
Skinny’s Ridge launch sits at an altitude of 2700m, 800m above the valley floor. It’s high. It’s nestled between 2 deep canyons with a fairly long glide out to the main valley. There are, however, quite a few landing options before the main valley. It’s intimidating because of its height but not too much of a problem for landing options. There were about 9 of us and I took off halfway through. I had an issue with my vario, however, and conditions were a little tricky. I flew away from the lift to deal with my vario and then had a more difficult time than most people to get on top of the ridge. But I got up and, boy, was it a rodeo-ride! Super-strong lift with sharp edges. Vic was still in the area and I followed him along the ridges towards Glenwood Springs, where my car was, which was also en-route to Aspen, my goal. But I didn’t find that I had much time to admire the view or consider the route to Aspen. I had my hands full just holding on to these thermals that would catapult me into the next inversion. It was a full-time job just keeping my wing open! Some of the other pilots had radioed to advise they were landing out in the main valley because it was too rough for them. I’m not sure if that made me feel better or worse, but at least I wasn’t alone in finding it rough. I saw Vic sail over the town of Glenwood Springs, en-route to Aspen, but all my resolve to keep flying to Aspen disappeared and I became focused on landing near my car at the LZ. It was 2pm at this stage and right in the peak of the most thermic time of day. I wanted down but it wasn’t easy. The local pilots had told me that the LZ was not a kind place when it was thermic, but it’s amazing what you can do if you have the will. I landed and immediately sat down in the shade for 15 minutes and basked in the joy of feeling solid, steady ground under me. One of the very experienced local pilots radioed to check in on me. When I told him I found it rough, he said that at this time of year today’s conditions were pretty typical. Right, so that’s what mountain flying is about. I had a lot to learn.
This adventure happened on the weekend before my visa was up and I had to return back to Australia. But, what a way to end it. In chasing some new flying I had experienced what it was like to live in a small town, next to massive mountains, in a different culture. I had learned how to ride mountains in the birthplace of mountain bike riding. I had found solace and peace in hiking mountains that were both remote and yet comfortably near civilisation. And I had made many new friends who were only too happy to show me their part of the world and embed me into that lifestyle. I had a great paragliding adventure but the icing on the cake was everything else that came with it. Which is why this is the type of adventure I am now chasing.
I said this working arrangement wasn’t free, but it didn’t really cost me anything either. Basically all I earned during this trip paid for my living expenses in Boulder (which is not a cheap town to live in). I’m not sure I would have been able to attain this opportunity if I had insisted all my expenses be paid, and it probably would have taken some wrangling if I had. To be somewhere on your own terms is incredibly liberating, and worth the personal cost to me. And now I know if I want to spend more time in Boulder. I actually do, but at the same time I want to try to repeat the exercise somewhere new and see what other adventures I can find! This is the second of this type of adventure (the first was in San Francisco a year earlier) – both in the USA as this has been a relatively easy country for me to work in for short stints. My next challenge is to do this in Europe, which I think will be harder but hey, what else am I going to do with my life :)