Winter is coming, and that generally means an onset of short days, cold weather, and snow. Some of us have a lifestyle that allows for a migration to warmer launches and landings, chasing long days and lift year round. Most pilots stay put, and many regions in the US conducive to flying are also great for skiing. The Wasatch, Sawtooths, Tetons, Cascades, Sierra Nevada and all over Colorado offer great paragliding and get plenty of snow in the winter. To scratch that flying itch, some people like to take a sled ride or a speed flight and launch on skis. The benefits of ski-launching are numerous, but it is a very multi-faceted equation with as much depth to it as any other discipline of flight. A newcomer can be easily overwhelmed or simply not know what they don’t know.
In order to fly down, one must start up high. In the U.S., ski resorts do not allow users to ride the lifts and fly inbounds. This leaves the backcountry open, which introduces the tricky game of snow travel and avalanche education. Winter also necessitates an entirely different set of gear. Skis, boots, poles, avalanche gear, extra layers, gloves, and everything else must be carefully selected, and you must consider how these interact with flying gear. In terms of terrain, dealing with snow rather than rocks, dirt, and shrubs is a beautiful double-edged sword, and the pros and cons of it can be discussed endlessly amongst enthusiasts depending on the day and the weather. It is just as dynamic as air, but changes on the scale of hours rather than minutes.
Jackson Hole, Aspen Highlands, and Park City Mountain offer lift access to backcountry gates with great flights, but all of these involve backcountry travel skills. Vail Pass in Colorado is known to be a reasonable place to practice ski launching with the use of a snowmobile for repeated laps, but requires a friend with a sled to spend the day shuttling you up the hill. Very limited options for mechanized transport to the top of the hill leave earning airtime by foot a much easier pursuit with many more doors open.
Skiing out the gate, taking a snowmobile or putting one foot in front of the other all expose us to unpatrolled and uncontrolled territory. One of the biggest cruxes to backcountry skiing is travel in avalanche terrain. Not only is launch and landing a potential place to trigger a slide, but the entire way up is also hazardous. Just like the air, being on one side of a ridge can have entirely different consequences than the other side. Gullies, rollovers, cliff bands and other terrain features all come with their own set of problems. Coupled with the weather of the day and how the snow has built up in various layers and evolved over the season makes for a very dynamic equation. So dynamic that Montana State University offers graduate degrees in snow science and World War II artillery is used to mitigate avalanche risk along roads.
An American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) Level 1 avalanche class could be considered comparable to a P2 in that it provides the user with enough knowledge to begin to venture out into the world, but the intricacies of weather and snow take a lifetime to learn, just like paragliding. According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, the US has averaged twenty-nine avalanche deaths per year in the past ten years. It is highly recommended that somebody seeking out their first ski-launching adventures take an avalanche course that covers decision making, how to interpret information about snow, terrain choices and nothing less. Information on where to take these classes can be found by looking up your local avalanche information center’s website. The perils of avalanches are intimidating enough, but flying adds another factor. In the event of a slide, a wing and set of lines can potentially act as an anchor or inhibit some of the best-practice techniques for avalanche survival.
The added gear for winter travel adds a huge amount of questions. Many hike and fly harnesses are self contained enough for summer travel, but adding a shovel, probe, ski poles, a wing and everything else often exceeds the capacity of a reversible hike and fly harness. Ski poles and/or an ice axe strapped to the back of a bag can potentially interfere with inflation and the wing coming over head. Ski tips and tails, bindings and boot buckles can snag lines during setup or inflation if not managed properly, causing frustration at best, or a botched launch and injury at worst. Using the buddy system to double check where lines are on launch and that everything is as clean as possible is incredibly valuable. In flight, the added weight of skis can produce an unwanted pendulum effect especially during highly banked turns and barrel rolls.
Having the sleekest, most compact, easy to use gear in the world doesn’t matter if the user does not know how to use it proficiently. Some of the un-initiated have been heard saying “I only need to ski for a hundred feet, then I’ll be in the air and just fine”, much to the chagrin of more experienced pilots. They’re not wrong, and they might even get away with it a few times before they realize that being an expert skier first has many advantages. The most obvious benefit is that if flying is not an option, the best and most efficient way back to the car is to ski. Much of the terrain that is prime for flying over is un-groomed, black diamond terrain. Even the most benign launches and landings have flight paths over these areas of the mountain. Also, taking a half-step to the side while getting the wing overhead is much more difficult with skis on, sliding downhill. It is far easier and safer to think about flying the wing while your body takes care of the skiing part. It is better to have both skill sets feel automatic before combining them. In the event of a botched launch that ends up in injury, a highly proficient skier is much more capable of self-rescue. The most sunny, bluebird days of winter are a harsh environment to have an injury. Immobility due to an injury can lead to hypothermia as friends or SAR can take hours to reach an injured skier or pilot.
Flying with a friend or instructor on launch is always a good idea, and traveling in avalanche terrain necessitates a partner for rescue purposes. The intersection of backcountry skiers and pilots is very small. Formal instruction in the US seems incredibly limited, as the number of people doing it is far fewer than those who foot launch. Going to Europe and seeking instruction there is an option for some, but for others, asking a friend to help show them the subtleties in exchange for burritos at the end of the day is the most viable option. Those who have the skills are the only ones who can give them away, and seeking mentorship can be daunting when comparatively so few people ski launch, and very few of those want to exclusively teach. Regularly foot launching with people who ski launch, being enthusiastic about learning, and making it easy for them to impart their knowledge will pay itself back in spades. Nobody knows everything, and bringing something to the table, even just a good attitude, will make invitation to a ski launch much more likely.
Ski launching is a blast. While winter air doesn’t provide the same opportunities to thermal, flying down a mountain is still fun. Boulder fields in the summer become smoothed over launches and landing zones when covered with snow. Winter air is often smooth and still. Skis make running on launch and landing a non-issue, and small, very fast wings become easy to launch and land, even with a slight tailwind. Flying over friends as they ski below and the magic moment between skiing and flying is a feeling that can only be experienced. There are a huge number of factors a curious pilot and skier must take into account before combining the two, but the rewards can be greater than the sum of the parts.