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From paragliding and speed flying Sun Valley to ski tuning, Nordic Town USA, Baldy's Big Mountain Skiers and this Winter's Art Scene.

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Get a different view of the Valley by paragliding off Baldy

Garth Callahan flying high over the inversion. Courtesy Fly Sun Valley


Skiers talk a lot about “flying down Baldy.” But flying off Baldy? That’s the lingo of paragliders, lovers of a sport that’s less extreme than you might think.

“It does generate adrenaline, no matter how long you’ve been doing it,” says Chuck Smith, owner of Fly Sun Valley, which holds an exclusive permit to launch tandem paragliding trips off Bald Mountain. “Most people that we fly are people that don’t do any sort of extreme sports; maybe ski, or drive over the speed limit a bit.”

The tandem flights, which are offered during the summer and winter seasons, launch from the slopes at running speed, then glide and coast on air currents and thermals before landing gently in a field near the base of River Run. During the flight, clients are in an upright-seated position with the pilot just behind them—only a sail above keeps them afloat.

Unlike those used in hang gliding, a paragliding sail doesn’t have an internal frame, so they’re quite portable. And unlike parachuting, instead of leaping from a height, paragliders launch from gentle slopes, and by using up-drafting thermals they can stay in the air much longer than a BASE or plane jumper.

“When you do a tandem, it’s so quiet you can talk in a normal tone of voice to the other person,” says George Morgan, a retired airline pilot who lives in Greensboro, North Carolina. He fell in love with paragliding during a trip to Sun Valley in 2009, when he saw a glider come off the mountain, and immediately wanted to try it.

“I came down from that first flight, and I just knew it was something I wanted to pursue,” says Morgan, who has since purchased equipment and learned how to solo. “It lived up to everything I thought it would be and more. I’ve flown a lot of different airplanes, and there’s nothing like it.”

Most tandem flights stay under 14,000 feet (the launch points off Baldy are about 9,000), though paragliders are allowed to go up to 18,000 feet without getting prior permission from the Federal Aviation Administration. The most complicated—and potentially dangerous—part of paragliding is understanding and working with air currents, which are more difficult to anticipate in mountainous areas.

Few paragliders have the experience and credentials of Smith, 48, a Cape Cod, Massachusetts, native who has lived in Idaho for 11 years. He started using the equipment 25 years ago as a way to easily descend after mountaineering and quickly began competing. He earned the national championship in the sport in 1988, and has been instrumental in bringing paragliding competitions to Sun Valley. The mountain hosted the U.S. National Championships in 2006 and 2010 and in August will welcome the Paragliding World Cup—the U.S. has hosted the international event just once before.

It’s a coup for Sun Valley, but Smith is happy just introducing new people to the sport and estimates he has piloted more than 5,000 tandem flights.

“Being able to share that passion with people who haven’t done it before, that’s where I zeroed in on things,” he says, describing why he started teaching and offering tandem. It takes just a few sentences to learn all you need to know to be the passenger, but the rewards are, sometimes literally, breathtaking.

As Morgan explains, “I can’t tell you how neat it is to get into a thermal with a hawk or a buzzard. The view is unlike any other. You’re flying so close to the ridgetops and seeing a view of the mountains that so few people have ever seen. That’s the closest to being a bird
that you can be.”

And really, who hasn’t dreamed of flying? Fly Sun Valley can take that dream off your bucket list. -Ariel Hansen


Sun Valley Magazine encourages its readers to post thoughtful and respectful comments on all of our online stories. Your comments may be edited for length and language.

Dec 12, 2011 06:34 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

Nice but im really surprised Collin Collins wasn't mentioned.

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