Soaring, Utah Style
Paragliding can offer a new kind of magic as a break in the middle of a ski vacation.
Madison Rose Ostergren knows the feeling of skiing hard for three or four days in a row. She raced on the United States Alpine team and for Salt Lake City’s Westminster University before shifting her focus to powder skiing and more adventure. One fall day, things lined up nicely for her to take flight for her first time at Draper’s Point of the Mountain Flight Park.
Overlooking the Salt Lake Valley with the Wasatch towering to the east, the view was beautiful. Paraglider pilots were laying out their gear, completing pre-flight checks, and gracefully leaving the earth right before her eyes. It looked a bit like surfing to Ostergren, and it was as if she had arrived at the beach when the waves were just right. It was time to have some fun.
She showed up with no information. She hadn’t even checked out the sport on YouTube. Paragliding just sounded fun, and she just said “yes.” After 10 minutes of talking with tandem pilot Chris Santacroce, Ostergren had a decent grasp on what to do and how to relax. “I trusted the instructors a lot,” she said.
What the pilots trust is that everybody makes a different kind of noise the first time they fly, and it’s the job of the pilot to listen.
What she didn’t know is that Santacroce has been flying at Point of the Mountain since 1989. For years, he traveled the world as a professional paragliding pilot, attending events and competitions. Now he focuses on running one of the highest-end paragliding schools in the country. He also started the nonprofit Project Airtime to provide free flights to anybody with adaptive needs.
Ostergren received a pen and a waiver form, and after answering a few questions and signing, she handed over the clipboard and clicked herself into a harness. Two buckles snapped together to form secure leg straps, and two more made a satisfying click to form a waist strap. Santacroce performed preflight checks, ensuring Ostergren understood what she needed to do in order to have a successful launch. He gave a tug on the lines, the wing inflated, and they walked off the hill into the air.
"He gave a tug on the lines, the wing inflated, and they walked off the hill into the air."
“Immediately, as we took off, I had this release of all nervousness and it was really smooth and from then on out, we were just flying and it was awesome,” Ostergren said. Paragliding is one of the most intimate ways to experience flight. You’re seated, with toes in the air and a breeze on the face similar to a chairlift, but with the freedom to fly almost anywhere your heart desires.
Ostergren’s release of nervousness as her feet left the ground was heard not only by Santacroce, but also by the spectators on the ground. She was giggling and hollering. Ostergren may have been experiencing freeflight for her first time, but Santacroce might have had more fun as he listened to her joy.
Santacroce and Ostergren flew up and away from where they launched. As the air travels from Utah Valley to Salt Lake Valley in the morning and Salt Lake Valley to Utah Valley in the evening, it flows up Steep Mountain’s face, similar to water moving up the slope in an indoor surfing machine. It’s in this area of rising air that paragliders and hang gliders love to spend their time.
Ostergren loved her time in this magic area of the air. “As we got higher up and a little colder, the views were amazing,” she said.
Throughout the flight, Ostergren let Santacroce know that she likes a bit of a thrill. The option to crank a couple of turns was available, and high above the valley Ostergren let out some hoots and hollers as she felt the G-forces build for a moment. “The pressure in the big turns was so sick,” she said. “It was like arcing a ski really hard in the snow.” Instead of being above the arc of the ski, Ostergren got to be below the arc of the turn, much like the feeling of being at the bottom of a big swing set. As the sun sank a little bit lower in the sky and started to light Lone Peak up to the east with pink, it was time for the landing.
The pilot and passenger maneuvered to just the right spot and executed necessary pre-landing checks. Ostergren stretched her legs out, ready to touch down. Santacroce expertly positioned them to land within 30 feet of her car, a convenient place to greet the earth. At the last moment, he flared the glider, and the two of them gently settled back to the grass. A massive smile split both Ostergren and Santacroce’s faces. Harness buckles came undone, carabiners were opened, and then Ostergren turned around to give Santacroce a big high five. Her eyes shone.
"I felt really connected to the air. I felt really one with the air while moving."
Just like the post-ski experience, some paraglider pilots like to stick around after flights to enjoy the adventure a little bit longer. They spend time with friends, snack on treats, and banter about the highs and lows of a flight. Paragliding often happens at one end or the other of a day, and watching the alpenglow grow on Lone Peak and the other high peaks of the Wasatch while the sun sets is a beautiful sight, every time.
Ostergren compared the flow of paragliding to skiing. “When you make turns, the body position and control feels similar to the way you would finesse the top and apex of a ski turn,” she said. “The centrifugal force and pull of everything felt similar. The other thing is the freedom and the feeling of really being free and feeling the wind against your face.”
"When you make turns, the body position and control feels similar to the way you would finesse the top and apex of a ski turn."
For a skier who seeks adrenaline, paragliding was a nice change of pace. Despite the initial thrill of stepping off a mountain into the air, paragliding was a lot more calming than she expected it would be, and Ostergren says her sense of time vanished in the air. She wanted her dad to try a tandem flight soon, because he would love something so “smooth and calming, almost like a mediation.”
After the gear was packed up, the sun had set, and high-fives dispersed, it finally felt like it was time to go. Ostergren cruised off down Steep Mountain Drive with fresh feeling legs and a new perspective.