Tools of The XC Trade

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Gavin McClurg | 20th May 2013

I avoided paragliding consciously for over ten years. Many good friends were pilots, all of them continuously prodded me to make my first jump. It looked like a blast, something I’d probably take to; but I also kept hearing the old saying that “there are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.” Accidents seemed frequent with rather…long term consequences. I’m a total adrenaline junky. I don’t have a very good “stop” button. If a conservative, methodical approach was required to be safe then paragliding was not the sport for me. I dreamed of flying, but kept my feet on the ground. 

But then I started hearing stories about pilots going places. It seemed preposterous- actually launching in one location and landing somewhere entirely different. I heard crazy stories about taking long train rides home after epic flights across the Alps in Europe. Landing in different countries than you took off from. Right here at home in the Northwest a friend went out one day and circumnavigated Mt. Hood then threw some acro over the Columbia Gorge before landing in his front yard! This was too much to resist. I had to see what this flying thing was all about. 

That was back in 2006. Since I got my license and my first small taste of cross country flying my flying addiction grows with every season. Whenever I get an opportunity I chase distance. I often compare the sport to a game of chess in the sky. One wrong move and the game is over. But it’s not a game. The endless decisions and resulting potentially serious consequences lead to the most exhilarating, sometimes scary, and always quite absurd thing I’ve ever done. I haven’t had a flight yet where at some point I didn’t think, “I cannot believe I’m doing this!” My pursuit has brought me to the highest mountains of the world in the Himalaya; to the Atlas mountains of Morocco; across the deserts of Namibia; all across Europe; and recently on an XC binge trip across the Sierras with a few of the finest pilots in the world, to date the longest biv vol expedition in North America, one we dubbed “The Sierra Safari”, a successful attempt at flying the full length of the Sierra range in California. 

This summer I was fortunate to fly in my first World Cup in Sun Valley. I still consider myself a novice XC pilot and the opportunity to fly with some of the best pilots in the world was an incredible opportunity to hone my skills. Before the competition began a series of amazing US distance records were set, all by pilots also competing in the World Cup. Matt Beechinor flew nearly 190 miles from Baldy Mountain in Sun Valley, eclipsing the previous record. Then just a few weeks later Nate Scales, launching from the same site in Sun Valley went even further into Montana, flying 199 miles. Not to be outdone, Nick Greece and Jon Hunt took off from Jackson Hole and flew a remarkable 204 miles. These are all distances that until very recently were thought impossible in mountain flying. 

So when these exceptional pilots, as well as 3 time X-Alps competitor Honza Rejmanik; the flying “guru” Bill Belcourt; and world champion Russell Ogden started talking at the Open Distance Nationals in Sun Valley, I took notes. At the top of my notes I scribbled “Tools of the XC Trade.” No matter where you are in your flying career, and what you hope to accomplish; having the right kit is the first place to start. And by “kit” I don’t just mean equipment but everything that is required to go far and fly safe. Here’s what the best in the biz recommend. 

1) Attitude 

Bill Belcourt said it best. “When you’re going XC you have to always look for reasons to fly, not land.” This one sounds simple and obvious. But this is not the approach of nearly every XC pilot. Usually when we are in the air we look for signs to stop. Hunger, fatigue, fear, wind, cold, etc. Bill isn’t recommending we stop being conscious pilots and ignore things like deteriorating weather or realizing that we just aren’t in the right head space to make good decisions. What he is recommending is that when the right day happens, which isn’t always one we can identify from a weather report, but something that happens two hours into a flight (not one of the pilots listed above knew they were on to a potentially record breaking day when they launched) is that you’ve got to “bring it”, as Bill likes to say when these days come along. To “bring it” you’ve got to have the right attitude. You’ve got to be belligerent, confident, and you’ve got to make great decisions. You’ve got to “bring it” when you get low on the lee side and your wing feels like holding onto a roller coaster. You’ve got to “bring it” when you’ve got a potential landing area beneath you and a sea of trees ahead and have no idea where you are. The only way to get in this kind of head space to begin with is to fly all the time. Hours in the air teaches attitude. Get some.

2) “When in doubt, go deeper.” 

This dicey little jingle was told to me by Nick Greece on a flying expedition in Haiti this winter, and belongs in many ways in the Attitude category, but it’s listed on it’s own here because no other words have had such a radical effect on my personal flying. Obviously this isn’t necessarily safe advice, and not the advice you’re going to learn when getting your pilot’s license. But when you make the jump from small XC flights to the longer, more committing XC flights a big change in approach is needed. The key is simply to believe it can be done. Don’t for a second abandon all the critical observations that are required for successful distance flying (triggers, wind, clouds, time of day, sun, heating, etc.) when you are about to make a decision to go deep. These expert pilots are not suggesting that you just blindly go into tiger territory. But if you want to go far, you’re going to have to abandon the rule that you should never fly over terrain where you can’t land. That’s a negative, and in this game- you need positives. You’ve got to be thinking about making great moves, and you’ve got to be ready to make them for 6, 7, 8, or even more hours. Which leads me nicely into…

3) Training

To sit in the saddle for more than six hours, flying in active air over complicated exposed terrain isn’t something a low hours pilot can or should do. All of the pilots mentioned above spoke in length about the importance of physical and mental training. One of the tasks at the Sun Valley World Cup was 196 kilometers, the longest task ever set at a World Cup. The pilots who were used to flying for 5 hours or longer were like little kids at Halloween chomping at the bit to sink their teeth into the task at hand. But a lot of pilots were really scared, and these were some of the best pilots in the world. A guy like Honza Rejmanik doesn’t think too much about the downside of going into remote terrain because he knows he has the physical ability to get himself out. Russ Ogden is a long-time test pilot for Ozone. Which means he’s constantly doing SIV on purpose. He’s never once thrown his reserve. This isn’t because he’s lucky, it’s because when the shit hits the fan he knows what to do. Nate Scales was adamant that cross training in other sports was as important as flying itself. So, clearly being physically fit is key. But no less important is to be mentally tough. Being mentally tough comes from hours in the air. Disaster is the inevitable outcome if you can hold it together for six hours, but decide to push on for another hour when you’re starting to become mentally unglued. Every pilot spoke in length about how critical it is to do regular SIV training, and regular ground handling. If you spend a long time in the air, things will ALWAYS go wrong- you’ve got to be prepared for it. So…

4) Be Prepared

Preparedness was something I only just started figuring out. For years I thought I had a great routine of basically dehydrating myself the morning of an XC day so I wouldn’t have to urinate. Once again Nick Greece came to my rescue. He told me “what sport exists where NOT eating and NOT drinking would be recommended?” Paragliding requires first and foremost good decision making. Brains only work well if they are well lubricated and well fed. You’re not going to pull off low saves or glide well if you’re sugar starved. Be hydrated fully before you launch. Eat a solid breakfast. Don’t drink too much the night before. Get a full night sleep. Drink regularly during your flight, and eat something with high caloric content every hour. Bananas are my favorite, and I never launch without a few packs of Sharkies energy treats and a Red Bull or some kind of liquid kick in my flight deck. Wear enough cloths- many a flight is ended due to cold, and this should just never happen. Use a condom catheter (boys) or a diaper (girls). Develop systems for all of this that works.

If you’re going to be flying in the western United States or Canada, or taking a trip to the Himalayas, don’t even think about it without using supplemental oxygen. Climbs to 18,000 feet aren’t common, but they can certainly happen, and this summer they did frequently. Until recently the “hard core” element in distance flying shunned the use of oxygen. Matt Beechinor was one of them, consistently flying to altitudes near and above the death zone without ever feeling the need for O2. Until one day at a relatively low altitude of 13,000 feet, far below where he was used to flying he started getting hypoxic. Matt postulates that the reason might have been a little too much coffee that morning; or maybe too little sleep; or it could have been the hike up and the resulting dehydration…The point is each day is different and his story of losing the ability to communicate, then losing the feeling in his hands and then his limbs is terrifying. Imagine trying to fly in extremely thermic conditions with no feeling whatsoever in your arms! 

Finally, nowadays we have one other remarkable resource that the previous generation did not. Google Earth. Spend a LOT of time on XContest and Leonardo studying track logs for where you plan to fly and you’ll find your distances will make a big jump. Read Berkhard Martens “Thermal Flying” no less than 3 times cover to cover. Then read it again. 

5) Equipment

  1. Cross Country wing and accordion bag
  2. Pod Harness
  3. Jersey and warm cloths
  4. SPOT Device
  5. Oxygen system
  6. Condom Catheter
  7. Flight deck:  Garmin GPS, Flytec 6030 + 6015 backup, Samsung Galaxy 5.0 Tablet with XC Soar, Locus Maps
  8. Food and sunblock
  9. Headlamp (Princeton Tec)
  10. Full Face Helmet with Push to Talk (Thermal Tracker)
  11. Radio + extra batteries
  12. Hydration
  13. Balaklava
  14. Wing repair kit
  15. Heated gloves
  16. First Aid Kit
 

To go far and be safe all of the above is absolutely critical, but nothing is as important as having the right gear. Paragliding is indeed dangerous, and cross country flying can push the dangerous Richter scale right to the limit, but there’s a lot we can do to mitigate the risks. On the last day of the Sun Valley World Cup an experienced pilot from the UK crashed and disappeared. A major search and rescue effort was launched immediately but the terrain was so remote and difficult he wasn’t found for two nights, and then only by a small miracle. He was badly injured but will have a full recovery. In a word, he was lucky. Had he had just one relatively cheap piece of equipment (SPOT) he could have been located in minutes and saved hundreds of man hours, thousands of dollars of expense and radically improved his chances. Equipment choices of course change depending on the kind of cross country flying you’ll be doing. Going 200km in the Alps is a lot different than going 200km across Montana. Competition flying is a lot different than bivy flying. On the Sierra Safari none of us had pods as we had to carry a ton of gear, but also wanted to be light enough that if we had to hike for a day or longer to get out we could. During the World Cup I was carrying 15kg of ballast- which would certainly not go over well on a 10 hour hike out on a bivy expedition. Ask for advice from those who know more, there’s not a lot of room for ego in paragliding. Regardless of where you are in your XC career, here’s a pretty comprehensive list for the days where you could go big:

FLIGHT DECK/ ELECTRONICS:

 

• Vario (with written visible reminders taped onto it for pre-flight checks: ie helmet buckle, harness buckles, oxygen turned on). This little trick I learned from the XC master Josh Cohn. During the World Cup I launched three days in a row and forgot to buckle my helmet. Sometimes we need reminders for really simple things. 
• Back up helmet or flight deck vario (optional)
• Smart phone with downloaded maps
• GPS
• SPOT
• Radio
• Push to Talk (PTT) communications installed with speaker mic protected from wind
• A pencil or tool velcroed to your flight deck that can be used to press the buttons on your instruments when you’re way high. Take your gloves off at 18,000 feet and you’ll lose the ability to use your hands in seconds. 

SAFETY:

• Full face helmet
• Oxygen plus delivery system (if flying above 10,000 feet, should be considered. Above 15,000 feet should be SERIOUSLY considered)

CLOTHING/ COMFORT:

• Warm Gloves (consider battery operated)
• Long underwear
• Sunscreen
• Lip balm
• Food
• Snacks
• Ballast bag
• Hose hydration system (ie platypus or similar)
• Down jacket
• Wind Jersey

 

OTHER OBVIOUS and NON-OBVIOUS EQUIPMENT:

• Concertina bag (saves your nice XC wing plastics)
• Lap top (for studying XContest and Leonardo routes during off days)
• Pod (keeps the legs warm, and radically improves air dynamics = glide)
• XC Wing- DO NOT fly a wing above your ability, but a wing specific to cross country flying cannot be emphasized enough. 
• Reserve
• Trekking poles (optional, but they are really nice if you land deep!)
• Leatherman
• Hook knife
• Condom catheter or diaper
• Extra food (for an unplanned night or two out)

EMERGENCY KIT:

• Extra radio battery, extra phone battery
• Satellite phone (if you will be in areas where there is no cell reception, which is practically everywhere when paragliding)
• Space blanket
• Signaling mirror
• Bivy sack (to be used with your wing in case you get caught out)
• Small wing repair kit
• Basic first aid kit- pain pills, ace bandage, first aid tape, epi pen, lighter, iodine (for water purification and injuries)
• Pancho
• Head lamp
• Tree kit (depending on where you fly)
• Matches

 

As the flying community witnessed this summer, we’re only beginning to realize the possibilities. Enormous improvements in wing design, skilled pilots pushing the limits, and a growing understanding of the tools we can and should use will lead to flights that right now can barely be imagined. Fly far, fly safe!

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Gavin McClurg
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