The air is feinting and jabbing like an angry middleweight. High above Lake Tahoe, on a rocky, juniper-studded hillside, Kevin Kuhns and Ben Mitchell are taking body blow after body blow, waiting for the wind to relax its guard, let the gloves down for a moment, and allow for a launch into Lake Tahoe’s world-renowned air.

But on a launch point named after Craig Beck’s classic 1970s ski flick ‘Daydreams,’ Mother Nature is turning this late June launch into more of a hair-raising, adrenaline-filled, wake-up-sweating affair than languid fantasy.

Gust after unpredictable gust buffet both Kuhns and Mitchell before the wind grabs Mitchell’s paragliding canopy, snaps it taught, and literally throws him into the air. He sweeps over the top of two gnarled junipers, catches a thermal and rises high into the sky, silently carried by invisible currents toward Kings Beach.

Advertisement

Mitchell’s launch embodies the allure of motorless flight in one of nature’s most jaw-dropping natural amphitheaters. It is serenity mixed with danger. Unparalleled beauty combined with heart-stopping challenge. It is the same intoxicating cocktail of adrenaline and sublime transcendence that has attracted daredevils, inventors, and dreamers to the sky for centuries.

THE SIERRA AIR

Paragliders take to the sky across the nation in some of the most unlikely locations, like Florida and Texas. But the Sierra Nevada is the Wild West of motorless flying. Everything is bigger — the challenge, the reward, the danger. Pacific air powers over the crest of the Sierra Nevada and is supercharged by Nevada’s desert heat, producing elevator shaft–like thermals that can lift hang gliders and paragliders 14,000 feet in the air and allow them to fly for more than 150 miles.

‘A lot of the biggest air around is in California,’ said Mitchell, who also BASE jumps, works as a heli-ski guide, and is a certified mountain guide. ‘The Sierra is well-known for big, booming thermals. You have to be on your game.’

Seasoned fliers quickly learn to read the air. Kuhns, who has been flying for 11 years, looks into the invisible space between mountains, lake, and clouds, and where others see emptiness, he notices thermals and downdrafts, perfect lift or threatening danger.

To understand the mechanics of air movement you have to be attuned to everything in the surrounding environment. Warming rocks and forests release heat that creates thermals. Prevailing winds provide lift but can also push a paraglider backward or stall them. Strong differences in air density can create ‘walls’ of air that are difficult to penetrate. Ridges push air upward. Lakes typically radiate no heat, and therefore cause gliders traveling over them to sink.

As counterintuitive as it sounds, one of a flier’s greatest fears is being pulled up uncontrollably into the sky, rather than being pushed to the ground. Strong lift under cumulous or cumulonimbus clouds called ‘cloud suck’ can rapidly thrust paragliders or hang gliders into the stratosphere up to altitudes where jumbo jets cruise. In one famous incident, a German paraglider flew into a thunderhead in Australia in 2007, was sucked up to 32,600 feet, and passed out due to lack of oxygen. She regained consciousness after nearly an hour in the thunderhead, having drifted past apple-sized hail and lightning bolts. Covered in ice and hypothermic but still drifting through the sky, she was able to land safely.

‘Gust fronts’ can hurtle a pilot to the ground. And strong gusts of air can collapse a paraglider’s wing, sending a pilot into a dangerous spiral.

But the air has its gifts as well as dangers — perfect thermals, and a phenomenon called ‘glass off,’ when the stored heat on a hillside is released into the cooling evening air, providing a perfect, gentle evening wave of air to ride.

Lake Tahoe’s summers of light winds, sunny days, and few thunderstorms mean that local pilots can log hundreds of days of flight in ideal conditions.

FREQUENT FLIERS

Just like Tahoe’s snowy steeps attract professional skiers and snowboarders, the area’s air attracts an entire subculture of paragliders and hang gliders.

Alex Cuddy travels the world competing in hang gliding competitions, but every summer he’s back flying the Sierra Nevada. Cuddy teaches for Reno-based Thermal Sky Sports, which teaches hang gliding off of Slide Mountain near Mt. Rose Ski Resort.
At 22, Cuddy is already establishing himself as a young star in the hang gliding community. He recently flew the longest flight of his career outside of the area — a 198-mile journey that took five hours and 47 minutes.

‘Tahoe is cool because it breeds a younger generation of extreme sports,’ said Cuddy.

Like friends bumping into each other in a lift line on a powder day, Cuddy and a group of frequent fliers regularly see each other at local launch points on sunny summer days. Paragliders and hang gliders are a unique crowd. They are thrill seekers, but cannot be cavalier. Many have an acuity for engineering or physics, since flying at its most fundamental is governed by the physics of wings and air.

The flying crowd is divided into two segments — paragliding and hang gliding. While in other parts of the country a fierce rivalry has developed between the two, that sentiment is mostly absent in Tahoe.

Paragliders, with their easily packed equipment, have the advantage in reaching out-of-the-way mountain peaks. The canopy of their paragliders are free of any rigid, metal components, and they rely on the air to inflate the wing and provide them the lift to fly. Hang gliders’ rigid, metal frames make their rigs less portable, but allow them to fly in slightly less ideal conditions than paragliders. Recently, an offshoot of paragliding called speedflying has gained popularity. Speedflying employs a smaller canopy and typically causes a pilot to move faster and much closer to the terrain.

Dana Nelson is a hang glider pilot who moved to Tahoe specifically for the flying. The daughter of renowned hang glider Linda Salamone, Nelson has been around the sport since she was eight years old. She remembers her childhood job helping her mother train for international cross-country hang gliding competitions: a kind of hang gliding chauffuer.

‘I was driving cars well before it was acceptable for me to be driving cars, going to pick her up at landings,’ said Nelson.

Last November, Nelson packed up, left her job teaching hang gliding in Kitty Hawk, N.C., and moved to Tahoe.

She had known Cuddy from the competition circuit and knew she wanted to challenge herself with bigger terrain and more powerful air. So far, she has not been disappointed.

‘We heard the flying was completely amazing, and it has lived up to expectations,’ said Nelson.

THE FANTASY OF FLIGHT

The allure of flight is a powerful force that runs throughout human history. Before the Wright brothers’ famed 1903 flight, history is littered with disastrous attempts to take to the sky. In 1003, an Arabian lexicographer named Jauhari climbed to the top of a mosque rooftop with a rudimentary glider and launched to his death. Seven years later, an English Benedictine monk, who would later be nicknamed ‘Elmer the Flying Monk,’ repeated Jauhari’s routine hundreds of miles away, with only a slightly less catastrophic outcome. Elmer is said to have glided for several hundred feet before a crash landing crippled him for life.

The grim track record of early attempts at flight did not deter new generations of experimenters, who tried to lift off with everything from gunpowder-powered rocket ships to machines with flapping wings. Each comic, ill-fated, or tragic attempt underlines the eternal, and almost visceral, appeal of floating in air.

Today’s fliers experience the same nearly spiritual experience in a much safer environment.

‘For me it is the calmness and the quiet when you are up there,’ said Nelson. ‘You have to be so aware of your surroundings while you are up there. You have to be ‘on’ the whole time.’

Nelson remembers one particular flight where she began spiraling upward in a powerful thermal high above the Nevada desert. As she circled higher and higher, she noticed a tumbleweed circling with her, lifted by a strong column of sun-soaked air, perfectly keeping pace with her ascent.

‘That separation from the world below you is something you can’t find outside of flying,’ said Nelson. ‘It is something you find without a motor.’

~ Comment on this story below.

Author

  • David Bunker

    David Bunker almost dropped out of journalism school to hunt non-native rats on an uninhabited Pacific island. Instead, he graduated college and launched into a career of dump truck driving and ditch digging before taking up writing as a profession. He’s written for newspapers and magazines across the West and won numerous first place awards in the California and Nevada press associations.

    Connect with David

    Visit:
    M-Tu, Th-Fr 9:30am - 6pm
    10317 Riverside Dr
    Truckee, CA 96161

Advertisement
Previous articleBig Band in the Little City
Next articleSocialize Your Puppy Now and Receive Dividends Later