What to Expect Your First Time Paragliding

When we set our sights on our last month of this summer road trip, we mentally ticked off the states and activities that we'd be enjoying straight down to our last day, August 25. And while we've done some pretty rad stuff, like a hot air balloon ride, driving a rally car, and hiking till we couldn't anymore, neither one of us had any idea what to expect for our last adventure: Paragliding.

"Is it, like, a mix between skydiving and base jumping?" I asked Matt. "Do you think we're going to have to jump off a cliff?"

Happily, I've since found out, the answer to both those questions is a resounding, emphatic no.

Roughly two days ago, we took a detour from our originally planned location (Durango) to the snow-dusted mountains of Telluride. It's exactly how you'd imagine an old Colorado ski town to look: A slurry of old brick buildings nudged in between western-style saloons with two dozens beers on tap; Outdoor retailers like Patagonia and Bootdoctors with their doors open, at the ready; Freckled females and rosy-cheeked men, those outdoorsy types, riding bikes around town or heading up to the peaks. Just for fun. On a Tuesday.

For all these wonderful things we saw and felt in this small town, it's a wonder why it wasn't more crowded like the other ski towns we passed through, like Jackson Hole or Vail or Big Sky or Tahoe. Instead, it still manages to retain its small-town, down-to-Earth atmosphere while those mountains we were talking about earlier routinely steal the spotlight.

Which brings me back to paragliding. That, and that alone, was the sole reason we came to Telluride. 

We opted for a flight with Telluride Paragliding LLC. Our instructor, Ryan, met us at the top of the free (taxpayer provided) gondola at St. Sophia. On his back was a massively oversized backpack which housed his parachute, two harnesses, an emergency parachute, waivers and helmets. The Federal Aviation Administration does not require certification, though to operate in Telluride the town does. As he fanned out the parachute and checked, then re-checked the lines, he explained to us exactly what he was doing and what to expect from our tandem flight.

I went first. After strapping into a full-body harness (they're left loose so you can stand up comfortably), I stood in front of Ryan and we started jogging down a steep hillside in a rather awkward way. About five steps in, we broke out into a full run (slightly less awkward). The parachute filled with air and the two of us were lifted off the ground. It was as if my toes were skimming the tops of the trees as we floated very gently down over Telluride.

The flight was only about six minutes, but I couldn't stop smiling the entire time.

Matt was next. After waiting about an hour at the landing site while Ryan rode the gondola back up the mountain and got everything prepared a second time, I saw the parachute shoot up and out over the treetops toward the peak. I watched as they floated and turned, descending toward the open field I was standing in. Then, just like that, it was done.