UM paragliders find new heights as sport grows

First seen in Montana Kaimin / photo by Daniel Duensing

The neon-colored paraglider wings with humans dangling from them are a well-known addition to mornings and evenings in Missoula, with fliers descending from mist as the sun sets behind Mount Jumbo and Mount Sentinel.

This past week, as the light turned golden and a half moon peeked over the Clark Fork Valley, more than 20 paragliders crisscrossed the sky as they descended from Mount Jumbo.

Harnessed under 20-foot wings, UM paragliding club students and members flew off the top of the mountain, landing near the L on Mount Jumbo. Paragliding has been part of Missoula since the late ‘70s, and if new student sign-ups for the UM Paragliding Club and new paragliding schools starting in the city mean anything, the sport is experiencing a burst in popularity.

Carson Cantrell, the 22-year-old president of the UM Paragliding Club, said once people start paragliding, they eat, sleep, and breathe the sport. Flying is addictive. There is a running joke about pilots being sent to paragliding rehab — they do get high after all.

Cantrell said the club has 20 official members and the interest in the sport by students has skyrocketed this year.

The paragliders use radios to communicate while taking off, flying and landing. The UM club, the only collegiate paragliding club in the country, is part of a larger paragliding community in Missoula.

The pilots go through training to get flightcertified through the United States Paragliding Association, and the UM club puts interested students in touch with local paragliding instructors if they want to learn how to fly. The students start by tandem flying with instructors, followed by solo flying with radio coaching.

Cantrell said paragliding is the cheapest form of flight, but a basic setup costs around $2,000. “It is a small price for a lot of fun,” Cantrell said. The pilots use body weight and brake lines to control their flight and search for air thermals, which are rising warm air currents used to climb altitude.

Flights can be anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour depending on the weather conditions and the number of thermals a pilot can catch. The pilots fly bundled up in coats, hats and ski goggles. The air above Missoula is frigid compared to the sunny ground.

Taylor Schiltz, a 26-year-old UM first-year elementary graduate student, began flying this year.

“The feeling of flight is unlike anything else you’ll feel,” she said. Schiltz gets confidence from being alone in the sky that she didn’t have before learning to paraglide. It’s a confidence that carries into her daily life. It is tough and scary to be alone and harnessed into a paragliding wing, and when Schiltz lands safe on the ground, she feels an overwhelming sense of bliss.

The emotions connected to flying bind the paragliding community tightly throughout the entire U.S., the pilots said.

Hang-gliding in the ‘70s led to a Missoula paragliding community as the sport evolved. Paragliders said the proximity to the take-off spots for flying makes Missoula a nationally unique spot. Nowhere else are you able to walk out the door and hike to two different takeoff sites within a half hour. Mount Sentinel is the oldest registered and longest- running inland hang-gliding site in America, according to Missoula’s hang-gliding and paragliding organization.

The all-season sport depends on good weather conditions, particularly wind speed, to allow paragliders to fly. The depth of weather knowledge necessary to fly made Julien Prevot, a 20-year-old UM junior, dive into learning about meteorology. Prevot has flown all over the world since high school.

“It’s such a magical sport,” Prevot said. “You are flying in something you can’t see.”

The serious consequences of paragliding have resulted in Prevot intimately knowing himself and his limits. He is afraid of heights — standing at the top of a tall staircase makes him anxious — but the harness he straps into for flights makes the heights he reaches above Missoula safe to him.

“Everyone dreams of flying as kids,” Cantrell said. “As a paraglider, you have the ability to step off a mountain and fly.”

The golden fall light faded into evening as the whoops and hollers of the landing paragliders echoed up and down Mount Jumbo, both from the relief of landing and the exhilaration of flight. One thing was for sure, the pilots were having the most fun of anyone on a Wednesday evening in Missoula.