Adrenalin rises as he closes in.
He commits and his body drops.
Break. Flight. Freedom. Life.
The sport gained international attention in France in 2005, but originated in the Alps where test pilots for a wing manufacturing company, Gin Gliders, were looking for ways to improve parachute wings.
Speed-flying, similar to other free-flight sports, doesn't rely on motor-power for flight. Its closest cousins are paragliding and skydiving. However, speed-flying is set apart by allowing skiers to remain in constant contact with the snow, says Chris Santacroce, the only U.S. importer for speed-flying equipment, at Super Fly, a specialized free-flight store in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Unlike what most people imagine, speed-flyers don't require a helicopter to get up to ideal terrain. All it takes is a few chairlifts and a hike into the backcountry or out-of-bounds areas, as the sport can be enjoyed on terrain from flat to vertical extreme, Santacroce says.
As for necessary speed-flying gear, Roten says most skiers already have half of the basics - backcountry, or powder skis and avalanche equipment for safety. A harness and wing are the remaining components to speed-flying.
Slightly bigger than the size of a picnic table, speed-flying wings are composed of material similar to that of a sky diving parachute. The lines are cleaner, which makes for a smoother glide, explains Santacroce. Harnesses made for speed-flying are comparable to those for rock-climbing except they are more substantial and comfortable for skiing.
Beginning speed-flyers should have experience skiing and know how to paraglide or use a parachute. Experience with other wing sports such as kite-surfing, skydiving, or downhill speed sports definitely helps, Roten says.
"Someone who does a lot of downhill sports knows more about speed, staying close to the terrain, how to react instinctively and play with the mountain," Roten says. "It doesn't mean that someone who's been paragliding for years will be better than someone who hasn't - it just can help. Say some crazy downhill mountain biker could be better because he is used to speed and the terrain. It's a thing of mentality and how you approach the sport."
Beginners learning how to speed-fly should start on a small hill with a bigger wing, Roten suggests. A larger wing has more drag, carries less speed and has a larger margin for breaking. As the skier gains speed, the wing automatically lifts. With enough momentum, the skier can jump by pulling on the break toggles.
"When you know how to play with the wing on top of your head, go to a steeper slope," Roten says. "If you have the right place to start, I tell you everyone can do it - I mean most people who can ski, or are willing to learn how to ski, can do this sport because you can choose your slope."
For more advanced speed-flyers who want to ski steep terrain, Roten says a smaller wing with a "bad glide" would enable for more skiing and less gliding. Roten says each wing can handle a margin of angles. If there is too much angle, the wing will stall and won't create lift. If the angle is too small, the wing will collapse.
Like downhill skiing, speed-flyers check their line down a slope before committing. Rock ledges, turns and drop-offs must be considered.
"With a big mountain, where you have lots of terrain you don't know and can't see from the top, check it out," he says. "Check the mountain so you make sure when you fly around the corner you know you won't come across any bad surprises such as trees or an exposed rock face."
The speed that wings can gather may be dangerous in unfamiliar terrain, especially for a beginner or intermediate flyer used to only flying at 20 to 30 miles per hour.
"Wings can gain a speed from 30 mph to 80 mph depending on its size. A 15-square-meter wing is a beginner size and much slower than, say, an 8-square-meter wing," Roten cautions.
Like most extreme sports, the reward of speed-flying comes with risks. This is true for even the most advanced sports enthusiasts pushing their skills to the next level.
"The most important thing is to know the limits and how far you can go," Roten says. "As far as I can look back, I try to find limits. How much faster can I go? How much closer to the stone can I fly? Can I touch it? If I have a bad feeling then I will back off and take it easy. In the end it has to do with, for sure, reaching my goals but at the same time have fun with it and not force it."
In some countries speed-flyers must have a paragliding license. Because the sport is still in its beginning stages, guidelines and requirements differ among countries.
"Because ski areas don't know much about speed-flying [in the U.S.], you have to go off-piste, or to out-of-bounds areas because of liability reasons," says Santacroce.
Here in the Northwest, ski resorts such as Mount Baker and Crystal Mountain are following suit and speed-fliers must seek the backcountry.
"Even where it is allowed in-bounds, many times it is necessary to hike a good distance away from designated runs where there aren't other skiers or snowboarders. It would be too crowded and dangerous otherwise," Roten says. "Besides, the powder is better where people haven't gotten to it yet."
Roten encourages speed-flying enthusiasts to search out places ideal for the sport. Although the world is well explored, it hasn't been explored in terms of speed-flying.
"That's the best part about a new sport," Roten says. "You get to go out and explore different mountains to see if they are good. You don't know. You have to go find it."
And he found it at Whistler Blackcomb.
Flying over the shadows of trees, lengthening as the sun sets, Roten remembers how the cool air rushed against his ears while he gripped his break toggles. As the red Columbia wing descends, he closes his eyes once again, grateful that the sky is not so far away.