High flyers: Pemberton skies fill with paragliders for national competition

Event kicked off last Saturday (July 22) and runs until July 29

The Paragliding Nationals in Pemberton had a soaring start last Sunday (July 23), with hot and sunny flying conditions projected to bring the competition to new heights this week.

Paragliding is a weather-reliant sport. On Saturday competing pilots lost a practice day due to rain, and Sunday started cloudy and extra windy, delaying the start of the task. But by early afternoon competitors were finally given the all clear for running starts off the launch site in the Mackenzie mountain biking area. Almost 100 colourful wings quickly caught wind one by one and buoyed over mountains.

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“So far so good,” said organizer Guy Herrington, after the last pilot had taken off from the launch site in the Mackenzie mountain biking area. “The skies opened up and it was good to fly. We had a flawless launch. Everyone is having fun.”

Locals placed well on Sunday — with B.C. flyer Brett Hazlett competing in the open class course in first place on Sunday and Claudia Schwab coming first in the women’s class. Sunday marked the first day of the competition, which continues until July 29.

Each day pilots will compete on a GPS-tracked course, hitting certain landmarks in the sky without sinking early to accumulate points.

Comparisons to other outdoor sports abound in the paragliding community — Herrington describes the race course as a “sailing race in the sky” while another participant compared the invisible wind currents to navigating eddies in a kayak. While paragliding is undeniably an adrenaline sport, several volunteers and competitors described the serenity of soaring above the mountains and fields as “sky yoga.”

Herrington said around 90 pilots have registered in the competition, with a little less than half from Canada.

Other competitors drove up from the United States, but some travelled even farther — including a paragliding team from Taiwan.

Aside from the rained out practice day, the Pemberton weather will hopefully impress international visitors with good conditions. The rest of the week is predicted to be hot and sunny, perfect for generating soaring thermals.

Pemberton, with its deep valleys and dramatic mountain scenery, is one of the best spots in Canada for paragliding. Still, Herrington said the sport is more popular in Asia and Europe.

“It’s huge in Europe, it’s huge in Asia, it’s unfortunate but we need to build it here,” he said. “British Columbia has the largest paragliding club in the country, and we have some key people who have been in our community for a long time, so it’s valuable to have that experience to draw from.”

Local pilot Oni Aho was participating in the launch on Sunday.

He said the paragliding nationals offer a challenge for experienced pilots, and a chance to test skills in a relatively independent sport.

“Events like this bring the same pilots back year to year, it helps keep the energy up,” he said. “The community is relatively small in Canada, we all pretty much know each other.”

Aho first learned to fly while on tour with Cirque Du Soleil in Brazil. When he returned to British Columbia, settling down in a place with good flying conditions was a big consideration. He’s lived, and flied, in Pemberton for the past 10 years.

For the many who appreciate the area’s mountain views and rolling farmland from the ground, Aho recommends the view from the sky.

“The views are amazing from the top,” he said. “It’s about being in the present moment. The air moves like water. Piloting is like reacting in a flow of air as it happens.”

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