Wind chill: Yukon paragliders take to the winter skies

Paragliders Russell Bamford, Sam Bamford and Trevor Mead-Robins approach the chairlift at Mount Sima in Whitehorse on February 13, 2021. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)Paragliders Russell Bamford, Sam Bamford and Trevor Mead-Robins approach the chairlift at Mount Sima in Whitehorse on February 13, 2021. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)
A paraglider soars above the trees at Mount Sima in Whitehorse on February 13, 2021. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)A paraglider soars above the trees at Mount Sima in Whitehorse on February 13, 2021. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)
A paraglider soars in the blue sky above Whitehorse on February 13, 2021. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)A paraglider soars in the blue sky above Whitehorse on February 13, 2021. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)
Paraglider Denise Faulhaber prepares to launch at the Upper South Launch at the top of Mount Sima on February 13, 2021.(Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)Paraglider Denise Faulhaber prepares to launch at the Upper South Launch at the top of Mount Sima on February 13, 2021.(Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)
Paragliding instructor Russell Bamford spreads out his wing while preparing to fly from the Upper South Launch at the top of Mount Sima on February 13, 2021. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)Paragliding instructor Russell Bamford spreads out his wing while preparing to fly from the Upper South Launch at the top of Mount Sima on February 13, 2021. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)

Windchill really starts to mean something when it’s -30 C and you’re sailing through the open air at 30km/hour.

Good gloves are essential for winter paragliding, says Association of Yukon Paragliding and Hang Gliding vice-president Trevor Mead-Robins, but otherwise, the sport is just another way to get outside.

Mead-Robins said his coldest ever flight was a crisp -45 C following a hike up Mount McIntyre in Whitehorse. Considering windchill, the air temperature was likely closer to -52 C.

“I mean, when it’s that cold, you know, what else are you going to do? It’s good to get outside and even though it might be cold, it’s usually sunny. You dress well, and you have thick gloves on, and you make sure you get into your harness early,” he said.

Despite the cold, paraglider Denise Faulhaber said winter paragliding can actually be easier for novice flyers because dense, cold air masses are simpler to navigate than unpredictable summer winds.

While summer flights tend to be longer, a shorter, consistent “sled flight” has its rewards.

“We call them sledders because they’re basically just like going from the top to the bottom of the hill without any elevation gain. We can have the most beautiful flights because the air is a little bit calmer. That’s my personal opinion. On the other hand, yes, it’s colder, but as long as you’re dressing really well it’s not that big of a deal,” she said.

“In the summer you have more turbulent air, so winter can be a great time for new pilots to learn,” said Faulhaber, who has been paragliding since 2018 and wants to encourage more women to participate in the sport.

This winter has been a first season for Martin Torres, who move to Whitehorse this year from Chile and began learning to paraglide.

“I really like it, it’s a real experience. I’m a climber as well, but it’s completely different. Being in there up there is like seeing the world with different eyes,” he said.

“It is cold in the winter but it’s kind of the same thing as skiing. It’s kind of the same thing If you ski or ice climb then it’s not colder than those sports,” he said.

The Yukon has a small but active paragliding community with around 30 consistent pilots, most based in Whitehorse and Dawson City.

While the sport is often associated with warm air masses that help flyers stay aloft for long flights, the air space above the Mount Sima ski hill is often busy with colourful wings during the winter months.

“The convenience of the chairlift, especially in winter, has been incredibly attractive. You can theoretically take off from work, zip up to the hill, go for a flight and a ski and be back within an hour,” Mead-Robins said. “Otherwise, it’s hiking up with snowshoes or skis and doing a lot of work to get up the hill for a very short flight.”

The partnership with the non-profit hill began in 2012. While the chairlift offered convenience to reach elevation, the area lacked a dedicated landing zone and required launch point maintenance to make the area more friendly for novice pilots.

In 2016, Mead-Robins and other local paragliders secured a formal permit to properly develop the landing site to the right of Mount Sima Road.

With cooperation between paragliders, trail builders and the Friends of Mount Sima there are now three launch sites accessible by chairlift.

To fly at Sima, pilots are required to have insurance, be members of HPAC, complete an orientation and sign a paragliding policy for the facility with details about launches and landing sites. Pilots are required to contact airport control when they start and finish flying.

Off the hill, the sport is still accessible in the winter by hiking, snowshoeing, skiing or splitboarding or with snowmobiles and winter access roads.

While thermals and warm winds can provide elevation in the summer, winter brings stronger ”dynamic lift” effects around ridges. Wind hitting a slope face is pushed upward, allowing pilots who are skilled at reading the wind to stay aloft for longer periods of time.

“With the ridge lift, which is more prevalent in winter, you can soar for quite some time with the eagles and the ravens and have several pilots in the air and for a beautiful scenic fly flight along the Yukon River,” said Mead-Robins.

As an instructor with Fly Yukon Paragliding, Mead-Robins has introduced many people to the sport.

While it does take some bravery to launch into the sky and financial commitment to get certified and geared up, Mead-Robins said the main requirement to start is a dream of taking to the air.

“I thought everyone in the world had dreams of flying, but apparently that’s not the case. I have found that the one thing all people that do paragliding have in common is they’ve had vivid flying dreams,” he said.

Contact Haley Ritchie at haley.ritchie@yukon-news.com

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