“Are you ok?” the chairlift operator asked as I scrambled to my feet after bailing hard exiting the chair lift at the top of Panorama Mountain Resort in Invermere, British Columbia. I decided to credit his concerned expression to my current situation, not his worry over how this clearly inept skier would be making it off the top of the mountain. After all, we were surrounded by black diamond runs, and even calling me a novice skier is generous.
“I’m fine,” I assured him. “I promise I won’t be skiing down any of these runs.” It was true – I had no plans to ski down. I intended to fly.
Max Fanderl is a strapping German-Canadian who eats, sleeps and breathes the rugged life. He pilots single engine aircraft, has taught paragliding around the globe for 29 years, builds beautiful log cabins and along with his wife Penny, runs Columbia River Kayak & Canoe. Having learned stand up paddle boarding and kayaking under his tutelage, I jumped at the chance to try a winter tandem paraglide with “Flying Max.”
Paragliding uses a lightweight fabric wing comprised of interconnected baffled, with the pilot sitting in chair like harness suspended below. The wing shape is maintained by the suspension lines, the pressure of air entering vents in the front and the aerodynamic forces of the air flowing over the outside. Pilots use thermals to gain altitude, then glide down to the next available thermal.
“January and February are super smooth months to fly due the cold dense air,” says Fanderl. “March brings the nice, wide and smooth thermals that allow paragliders to make cross country flights.”
Panorama offers two launch sites for winter fliers. The first and most popular site is about two thirds of the way up the mountain, at the top of the Roller Coaster run. This is an easy, but shallow, launch site. The more challenging launch is the steeper summit launch on Roy’s Run, and this is where we took off – eventually.
With Fanderl strapped behind me and the wing spread out on the snow behind us, we had two messy false starts before nailing an exhilarating take off. One minute we were hurtling straight down moguls at the very limit of my ability to stay upright, and moments later we were airborne – sans my right ski, which had flipped off on take-off.
The view was spectacular, with the resort and the runs spread out below in an incredible vista. On the hill, there had been no discernible wind at all, but in the air, the thermals were loud and blustery. “No wind is the best day,” explained Fanderl. “It’s all about the thermals. You can stay up for up to 12 hours a day and travel up to 300 kilometres when the thermals are right.” Though normally somewhat fearful of heights, the glide was so smooth I had no fear at all. A little sharp swooping sent just the right amount of adrenaline coursing through my veins, as Fanderl navigated us in a full 360 to point out various mountains and ski runs.
After twelve glorious minutes of flight, we approached the Panorama Golf Course, where the snow covered driving range our destination. We landed more smoothly than I imagined we would, especially given my missing ski.
Confident skiers should have no problem with winter paragliding, but absolute rookies may want to start their paragliding experience in the summer instead. During warmer months, tandem fliers glide into the Columbia Valley overlooking Lake Windermere and the Columbia River Wetlands from the launch point on Mt. Swansea – skis not required.
If you go:
Flying Max offers winter and summer tandem paragliding trips.