By Sadie Babits

Sun Valley, Idaho recently hosted a world cup competition—for paragliding. World-class paragliding pilots flocked to Bald Mountain to test their skills, tactics, and speed by gliding over the mountainous region.

Paragliding requires a massive sail, connected to a pilot with nylon ropes. When the wind catches the sail, a pilot can maneuver through the air like a bird. Paragliding movements resemble those of hawks with outstretched wings. Both circle the air, seemingly without effort.

“It’s a euphoric moment, the moment your feet leave the ground and gravity goes away from you and you float off,” said Russell Ogden, a British paragliding pilot, who described himself as “addicted” to the feeling of flying. “A lot of people think we jump off into a void, but we don’t at all.”

It’s a euphoric moment, the moment your feet leave the ground and gravity goes away from you and you float off.
– Russell Ogden, British paragliding pilot

For the World Cup in Sun Valley, Ogden and 100 of the world’s best pilots crowded into the ski lodge on top of Bald Mountain to learn the day’s route, or what paragliders call the “task.”  The pilots plugged coordinates into their GPS units and prepared to fly to the town of Arco, some 75 miles away.

“Sun Valley is a world class flying site,” said Mike Pfau, an avid paraglider from Sun Valley who organized the World Cup event. “We have a big mountainous terrain. The U.S. distance record was set and broken twice off the hill this year.”

The current U.S. mountain record is nearly 200 miles, and was set by a local pilot who took off from Bald Mountain, known as “Baldy” to locals.  Pfau said the conditions for the World Cup race were nice for the launch window, which lasted 20 minutes.

The route ran from Baldy east toward a ridge called “Mind Bender,” then south to the small community of Picabo. From there, gliders went on to Blizzard Mountain and finally landed in Arco.  To prepare for his run, Ogden used oxygen to adapt to the altitude, which reached 18,000 feet in some places.

“I’ve lost many friends and people injure themselves,” Ogden said, who has 15 years of paragliding experience. “There’s a risk of getting a little bit out of your depth when you don’t have the skills or experience. Nothing replaces experience in this game.”

Each paraglider had a live-tracking electronic device attached to the harness of the glider, which allowed organizers to locate participants using the Internet.

Ogden prepared himself for accidents, and carried oxygen and water with him in case he had to touch down somewhere. He won a World Cup event in Turkey a few years ago, and when he’s not competing, he works as a test pilot for a company that makes paragliders.

Ulric Jessop of the Paragliding World Cup Association monitored the pilots’ movements.

“We work really hard to keep the pilots safe, to avoid flying in dangerous places and to stop the task if it looks like it’s getting dangerous,” he said.

Jessop, who has been a paraglider for 20 years, said technology has made paragliding more safe than it was in the 1980s, but still not entirely an accident-free sport.

“The two most fragile or scariest moments of a flight are the launch and landing when you are closest to the ground,” said Pfau.