Anyone who takes a tandem paragliding flight from the top of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort says it’s the highlight of his or her trip. Here, Jackson Hole Traveler editor Julie Butler describes her recent experience of “being a bird” while she faced and conquered some fears.
Taking a Leap of Faith
“I’m going to jump off the mountain this morning,” I texted my 23-year-old daughter two weeks ago.
“What?!” she immediately replied.
“Paragliding. I’m going paragliding. [Happy face emoji].”
“Thumbs up” emoji in response. At age 15, she had jumped off the mountain herself with Jackson Hole Paragliding. My youngest son had done the same when he was 9 years old. Now it was mommy’s turn.
When I would vacation out here and stay in Teton Village at the base of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, I'd watch in wonder as seemingly dozens of folks would float off the top of Rendezvous Mountain every morning like so many colorful butterflies. It was a magical delight to observe. I saw my former husband do it three times, plus the aforementioned children, but there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in you-know-where that I would ever hop aboard a tandem glider and jump into thin air. Nope.
A) I am afraid of heights, B) I also have a fear of flying, and C) I fall prey to motion sickness quite easily. Ergo, staying on solid ground in the Tetons was good enough for me, thank you very much. And then last summer my younger brother died. He was a guy who never met an adventure he didn’t like, so in the aftermath of his death I told myself I would adopt a more adventurous spirit myself: face and conquer fears and lap up all the fun that Jackson Hole has to offer locals and visitors alike. So on the one-year anniversary of his death, I found myself booking a tandem flight with Jackson Hole Paragliding.
Two years ago I treated my fiancé Chris to a flight and decided to gift him again so I’d have some moral support. He was still giddy about his first flying experience, so was very eager to have a second chance to paraglide.
What: Jackson Hole Paragliding
Where: Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, Snow King Mountain, several hike-and-fly locations in and around Jackson Hole
When: Early summer to first week October; late winter through first week April
How much: Mid-June to first week October, $395 (from Jackson Hole Mountain Resort)
What should I wear? A warm fleece and a windbreaker or shell, long pants, sneakers or other sturdy, closed toe shoes. And bring your camera or smartphone!
Who can do it? Guests must weigh between 40lbs and 220lbs and be physically fit enough to run.
Phone: 307-739-2626, or Scott Harris at 307-690-TRAM (8726)
According to Scott Harris, owner of Jackson Hole Paragliding, Jackson Hole is the best place in the country to paraglide.
“We have a flat valley and steep mountains—perfect for paragliding!” he says. “Plus the fact that here [Jackson Hole Mountain Resort] we have a tram and a gondola as launch points and across the valley, we have Snow King and all the other hike-and-fly areas. There's a lot of opportunity."
Scott’s friendly, calm and reassuring manner put me at ease. Ish. “Ease-ish” is how I would describe myself as we headed over to the tram dock from the Bridger Center where we had met to sign waivers and receive safety instructions.
“You'll be fine,” Scott said while squeezing my shoulder. “It’s going to be fun! You just walk, run, jump, sit back and relax!”
Walking fast into a run and jumping off a mountain did not sound the least bit relaxing. But I decided to trust him and was grateful he would be my pilot on this tandem flight into the void above Jackson Hole.
At the top of the tram, my legs felt a wee wobbly, but it is so crazy gorgeous up there and I just kept picturing my brother’s smiling face, which gave me courage. After being strapped and clicked into our respective harnesses, Chris and I took quick selfies and solo photos of each other and shouted our “I love you’s.” As I was buckling my safety helmet, Scott explained one more time that when he gave the signal we would walk and then start to run down the scree (a slope covered with small loose stones), towards the edge of the mountain. Once the sail of the glider fully picked up the air as we ran, he would sit first and then I would lean back and do the same.
Moments later, the wind blew just right and run-run-run-run … poof! We were flying!
“Woohoo!” Scott cried. “You’re doing it!”
The sky was breathtakingly bright blue, the sun warm and the mountain air was intoxicating from some 10,000 feet up. I glanced down at my dangling feet to the grassy and wildflower-covered ski slopes below. Suddenly, I realized I wasn’t feeling fearful at all of being up in the sky, flying like an eagle.
“Oh my God, wow, wow, wow!” I said over and over. The 360-degree view of Jackson Hole and the Tetons from a sky-high vantage point—unencumbered by airplane walls–is nearly indescribable. We soared; we turned gently this way and that. Scott would occasionally sail us over closer to Chris and his pilot, Cade Palmer, and Chris would aim his camera my way.
The smiles we exchanged said it all: “This. Is. Awesome!”
As we got near the bottom of the mountain and the grassy landing spot near the far entrance to Teton Village, Scott said, “Look at Chris! Cade’s doing acrobatics!”
As I watched, my stomach did some acrobatics of its own. Cade—one of the best acrobatic paraglider pilots in the U.S.A.—was twirling this glider upside down, then right side up again. The brightly-colored sail looped-dee-looped several times. As “holy crap!” as it looked, I knew Chris was loving it.
“We have some of the top, certified pilots,” Scott told me once we landed on terra firma. “A lot are ski bums who we teach to fly—they make excellent pilots. Flying involves the same training and risk assessments as skiing, as well as the athleticism."
Scott also says contrary to what many people may think, paragliding is actually very safe.
“Safety is very important to us," he says. "The gliders are safer than ever because of the advancements—lightweight fabric, lightweight lines—and because they’re lighter, they launch better, fly better, have a better glide ratio. Plus, our knowledge of flying is so much better.”
“I’ve been flying 25 years, so I’ve learned something,” he said with a grin and a wink.
And I learned something from the exhilarating experience, too: I discovered I could face my fears, take a literal leap of faith and be OK. As my late brother always used to say: “It’s all good.”
Pictured: Jackson Hole Traveler editor Julie Butler and Jackson Hole Paragliding owner Scott Harris happily hovering somewhere above Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.