On the Wings of the Mountain Gods
Hang gliding and paragliding in Montana
Nick Franczyk soars over Missoula after launching his hang glider from the summit of Mount Sentinal. Photo By: Anne Sherwood
Craig Johnson, a new hang glider, prepares his wing for flight. Photo By: Anne Sherwood
Andy McRae, a paragliding instructor from Bozeman launches off the Story Hills for early spring practice in Bozeman, Montana. Photo By: Anne Sherwood
Photographer Anne Sherwood's feet float as Andy McRae, a paragliding instructor from Bozeman, flies them over downtown Missoula. Photo By: Anne Sherwood
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Life is also simpler now that Missoula hang glider pilots have their favorite launch site back. Complaints from an air traffic controller at the Missoula airport led to a closure of the Forest Service access gate to Mount Sentinel in October, 2006 — despite amicable relations with the airport, town, and university for more than 30 years prior to that. “Several of us were fairly convinced that we lost the site for good,” says Shapiro, whose hang gliding business depends on the access.
An outcry came not only from the 50 or so hang glider pilots who call Montana home, but from the citizens of Missoula. Even though most of them would never soar high above town, Missoulians felt that hang gliders helped stamp the city with its unique personality, and it wasn’t something they cared to let go of so easily.
“Most of the people in town realize that it’s a pretty special situation where they get to see us fly,” says Nick Franczyk, whose documentary To Live is to Fly brought attention to the issue. “I knew it was, before I was flying. I’d look up here and see these guys flying and say, ‘Wow, that is unbelievable. We are so lucky that we have the topography that allows that to happen, right here in town.’”
After nine months of closure and much searching for the city’s soul, the launch site reopened in July, 2007.
Shapiro and I glided south from the launch site, gradually descending to a rolling landing near the University of Montana golf course. I returned to Bozeman elated — I had hang glided!
But the feeling didn’t last. I contacted Will Lanier, who had been gliding in the Bozeman/Livingston area since the late ‘70s, and described my flight. He derisively referred to it as a “sled ride,” the name given to a flight that lacks gravity-defying qualities.
“You’re missing out,” he said. “You haven’t done it yet.”
Lanier explained that my downhill ride was common; due to the whims of Montana weather, it’s unlikely for anyone to have success on the first try.
“You can go five times and never fly. And then all of a sudden, you’re on the sixth time, you’re launching, suddenly the day turns on and you’re 100 miles away from where you took off, five, six, seven hours later. And that’s pretty exciting.”
Lanier suggested I make the acquaintance of Andy Macrae, the owner of Bozeman Paragliding. Despite the sometimes-testy relationship between sturdy-framed hang gliders and the slow-moving, puffy paragliders, Lanier and Macrae teamed up in 2005 for repeated trips to the Hi-Line near Shelby. There, with the help of launching from Macrae’s truck-driven payout winch and 5,000 feet of line, they both broke that year’s distance flight records for the state, with Lanier soaring 113 miles and Macrae landing just past Chinook with 125 miles.
Meeting at Bozeman’s “M” trailhead, Macrae explains that the beauty of paragliding lies in the portability of the nylon wing. He routinely takes his 50-pound paraglider pack into places the heavier and more cumbersome hang gliders would not go: Emigrant Peak in the Absarokas, Mount Blackmore in the Gallatin Range, and Mount Sacagawea in the Bridgers.
Flying over Montana’s unsurpassed topography is its own reward — soaring up to 18,000 feet, a pilot can see 150 miles. But that reward requires a lot of patience. Waiting for the wind to pick up or slow down, or the warm thermals to develop, or to have a beautiful day dissolve into gray clouds and storms just comes with the territory. Macrae visits Valle de Bravo, Mexico, every January, which he describes as a sort of paragliding paradise where five or six hour flights are routine.
“Compared to here,” Macrae says, “where 10 or 15 days a year it’s as good as every day is down there.”
As if to prove his point, Macrae determines that the winds at the “M” aren’t right for flying, and we move on to a different site. The myth that comes to mind is not that of Icarus, but Sisyphus.
The tale comes more into focus as I watch Macrae painstakingly lay out his chute at the Story Hills launch site overlooking Bozeman. He meticulously makes sure that none of the dozens of different-colored strings are crossed, then stands on top of the hill, harnessed in, waiting. He may wait as long as an hour, he says, for the wind to be just right. Then, at the perfect moment, he runs, the chute fills with air, and he floats ... for about 15 seconds, before landing abruptly at the bottom of the small hill. Another sled ride. Macrae carefully folds the chute into the pack, and trudges back up the hill to try it again.
He lets me try it with him in a tandem rig, and once again I’m strapped into a harness, connected to a wing and a man. We wait. Clearly this is a day without thermals, and the wind is just barely there at all. We have one false start, and then wait some more.
Finally, “Run, run, run, run, run, run!” And we’re off! Slowly floating over the hillside, it’s clear that gravity will win this battle. But for a few moments there is the concentration and the endorphins and joy and the sublime, and the feeling that if I could, I would also aim for the sun.
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