500 Miles to Nowhere: The story behind the film

Word by Gavin McClurg
Photos by Jody MacDonald

Some of you probably followed the Sierra Safari, our bivvy flying expedition from the southern end of the Sierras to Lakeview, Oregon last year.  We got some of the team back together this year, but amended the personnel a bit, opting for less people who all have a similar approach to big distance flying.  We were four pilots in total:  Nick Greece, myself, Nate Scales and Matt Beechinor; each of whom have held the foot launch record in North America for some period over the last 13 months, all but Nick’s set from Bald Mountain, Sun Valley.  The route chosen was once again an incredibly aesthetic line of about 500 miles, and we’d learn quite a bit more technical and difficult than what we did in the Sierras, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Nick, Gavin and Matt soar outside Zion. Photo Jody MacDonald

The plan was to start at Hurricane Ridge, south of Cedar City, Utah and follow the Wasatch range north, across Star Valley to Jackson Hole.  The route would be magnificent if we could pull it off.  Skirting Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon; flying over some of the most impressive and committing ranges in North America; camping thousands of feet over the city lights of Salt Lake…  We felt confident that with good weather we could pull it off.

We began as always months before the start and the big decision we had to make was not on what gear to bring; to have a chase vehicle or not; or how to modify our kit from the lessons of the Sierra trip; but on whether or not to just do it sans sponsorship and fund the expedition out-of-pocket or to take on sponsors which helps with costs but also radically increases the work load- and can often change the trip entirely.

Not an easy decision.  One I’ve made many times in the past, but still it doesn’t get any easier.   There is no doubt that the decision we made did effect the trip, although in my humble opinion while it seriously increased the work load it didn’t detract from the flying.  But I know this opinion probably isn’t shared with everyone on the team.

Mike Jones, Prepping for the day’s shoot

A few weeks before we set off we landed a deal with Outside TV to shoot a short piece about the expedition.  This put us into serious scramble mode.  With a TV deal, we could get more sponsors.  And this would no longer be a strap on some GoPro cameras and do some filming and hope for the best.  We needed a proper crew.  Nick and I hit the pavement hard, beginning with the OR show in Salt Lake.  Pretty soon we had some awesome companies lined up to help the mission come to life.  NiviukBlack Diamond EquipmentGoPro, PatagoniaKAVUKEENGoal ZeroPocketfuelKlymitSharkiesFirst AscentCayman Jack, and Beyond Coastal.  Then I contacted my good friend Mike Jones, who is one of the best DP’s (Director of Photography) in the business.  He’d just wrapped a shoot with Travis Rice in Jackson for Toyota and was available, and the dude is like a gazelle with a RED camera- there isn’t anyone better in remote environments with serious gear.  His friend Jeremy Cannon was shooting a big Hollywood feature, but he’d prefer to roam around in the desert with a 35 pound RED camera and his skateboard (dude is TALENTED!) as well, and suddenly we didn’t just have a crew, we had cameras and talent that paragliding has never seen.  For a long time I’ve thought that no one has ever captured what it’s like to go deep, to fly big committing lines.  If we could capture this on film, we could share why it is we like to go high.

Gavin preps equipment for the millionth time, day one

Just as we were walking out the door, after a number of false starts that first the weather caused, and then the realization that my truck wasn’t nearly large enough to hold all the kit, which transpired in a midnight construction of a huge box on the roof before heading south from Sun Valley Gerry Moffatt, our roommate and production expert said a few words that for me at least, changed everything.  “Gavin, remember you’re going to shoot a film, you’re not going on a flying trip.”  In the biz they call it “getting it in the can”.  We had a job to do.  Ideally, the two things were not mutually exclusive.  Time would tell.

The US version of the “Niviuk Mobile” finds some trouble

The team convened in Salt Lake and the mad dash was truly on.  A visit to Black Diamond / Bill Belcourts to get our bivvy sacs and walking poles and a mountain of gear we’d shipped there from Amazon- a pile of GoPro Cameras, mounts, shoes.  Off to the store to fill the cooler with food.  REI for last-minute gear.  And then what would become the theme of the trip- DRIVE.  And drive some more.

Lights, Camera, …ACTION! Photo Jody MacDonald 

We posted up at the very cool Summit Mountain Lodge and Resort for night #1 outside of Cedar City and hit the road again the next morning for Hurricane Ridge, where we were joined by Uncle Tony who would graciously make himself our driving slave for the next two days.  And that’s when the “plan” went to hell.

For the next 8 days the entire crew got very, very little sleep.  We put nearly 3,000 miles on the truck and we chased it old school style.  And by that I mean we did what paragliders normally do- chase the good weather.  Instead of flying the route in a sexy line of linked flights with our very slimmed down kits and bivvying every night we ran from weather and hid in motels.  The monsoon was too big, and too fast, driving in with force from the south.  We couldn’t outrun it even on the ground, and trust me- we gave it our very best.  We had some nice flights, but none of them of a required distance to get to nicer weather up north.  In every sense of the word we were having an adventure, it just wasn’t the one we thought we would have.  Yvon Chouinard famously said “It’s not an Adventure until something goes wrong.”  Well we were having ours!  But the mood of the trip couldn’t have been better.  We were all having a blast and we did eventually make it to Jackson Hole, but unfortunately not under wing.  I for one had never even flown Jackson, and we arrived on a perfect day.  Nate Scales, who’s been flying for over 20 years and has flown Jackson many times had never flown to the Grand and back and I knew that if the filming got in the way that day, he’d happily just escape the circus and punch it out.

Nate in the foreground, Gavin over the peak.  Photo Jody MacDonald

Meanwhile though, the shooting was going way better than planned.  The two RED cameras had been humming nearly non-stop. Mike and Jeremy never stopped working and their endless fire kept us motivated to keep chasing.  Personally even though were weren’t getting what we came to get, it was still exactly where I wanted to be.  To have an opportunity to fly with these guys, to see how a proper shoot takes place, to wander through such amazing country…everything was just fine by me.

Farmer and Mike prep for launch with the RED. Oxygen ready.

Our flight in Jackson was frustrating and phenomenal at the same time.  Both Mike and Jody would be going up tandem so they could shoot from the sky.  We made a plan that the rest of us, on much sportier wings would do everything we could to help the tandems get up.  Mark the thermals, then get out of the way and stay below.  But with the RED camera adding 35 pounds Farmer’s already heavy load he couldn’t make the climbs for the planned flight out to the Grand and back, something that had never been shot.  Jody’s pilot, Josh Riggs had a little more luck as she’s lighter and her gear weighs less, but eventually Josh got pretty tired of working so hard and our shooters were on the deck.  Nate decided the flying was more important than the shooting and headed off, and I followed shortly after.  He was right- imagine soaring up the west side of Grand Teton, waving at the climbers on top, and returning to land in the village with plenty of height for some fun acro.  A day to remember!

The next day the rain caught up to us yet again and the mood took a big swing to negative.  Nate decided he’d had enough and needed to return to Sun Valley to get back to work.  Jeremy needed to get back to LA to his movie shoot.  Our team was taking some hits.  But Jody, Nick, Farmer, Mike and I were still on board.  The adventure hadn’t quite run it’s course.  Our first days down at Hurricane hadn’t worked out and Zion was beckoning.  Jody and Mike, with their love for the lens and getting the shot were keen to give it another try, and none of us really wanted to go home, so we jumped back in the truck and drove right back to where it all started.

And then we nailed it.

Nick on launch

Nick banks towards the Heli

That helicopter you see there has Jody, Jeremy and Mike hanging out of it.  They shot this scene of the perfect glass off at Hurricane ridge at sunset on the last day of the shoot.  Thanks so much to the sponsors and everyone who supported us on the expedition.  We’re already planning the next!

Watch the film here:

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