May 07 2012
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Just Winging It

Just Winging It
by Kelly Joines

The late afternoon sun lends a warm glow to the snow on Whistler Blackcomb. The deepening bluebird sky is rich and heavy, creating the illusion it is closer than usual. The weather is perfect - exactly the spring skiing conditions 28-year-old Mathias Roten hoped for during his flight from his home in Thun, Switzerland.

Roten lifts his face toward the sky to feel the steady wind on his bronze cheeks. His dark eyes close in meditation. The only sound is that of the air rushing in his ears. He opens his eyes and looks down, past his red Atomic skis, at a line he's been scoping out all day. Outlined by Whistler's tall cedars and firs, this line poses new challenges in a terrain unlike that of the familiar steep dropoffs and rock beds in the Alps.

Roten drops into his line. Ever conscious of tree wells, he weaves through the grand, snow-laden bark giants. Gaining speed, he heads for clearing, only to find that it drops into more treetops below. He has no time to think, only enough to react by instinct.

Adrenalin rises as he closes in.

He commits and his body drops.

Break. Flight. Freedom. Life.

As he pulls down on his circular break toggles, parachute wings lift his body above the trees. Red, eight-meter wings soar above him, cutting in and out of the sun's dimming rays. On top of the wings, Columbia flies, merging into the all-too-close bluebird sky. Roten is flying - speed-flying.

He recalls this day vividly as it presented the thrill of tackling new terrain in one of the newest snow sports. Speed-flying, known in some countries as speed-riding, combines skills of freestyle skiing, paragliding and skydiving. All that is needed are skis, wings and a thrill for downhill speed sports.


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.


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Extreme Sport

This article is about speed flying. As I understand, this is an extreme type of sport which has recently come into the radar of the general public. At the same time, this has been developing since the 1970s. Some adrenaline junkies looking for new challenges started fooling around with parachutes and even hang gliding equipment. Then, they started using mountains and a variety of slopes to fool around with their new equipment.

Eventually, someone had the bright idea to try and use hang gliding equipment as they were skiing down a mountain. This is essentially how the sport started. At least this is what I gather from my research.

As things began to develop, there was a need to develop better equipment. This led to the development of the first actual speed flying canopy. This piece of equipment is actually known as a wing. The first wing developed was called the Gin Nano. The name of the company which developed this wing was called Gin Gliders.

Back in 2005 a number of the pioneers of speed flying got together in France for the purposes of testing the Nano and some other equipment. It must have been a very satisfying feeling to be one of those original test pilots, knowing that they were in the process of making history. Additionally, I think of the courage they must have had, being willing to try out this equipment in conditions such as the French Alps.

The sport is basically a combination of skiing and hang gliding or parasailing. Actually, if you are interested in learning more, there are a number of really cool videos that can be found online. Some of them are really impressive and have incredible views of the mountains, scenery and exactly what the athletes see as they go about their run.

Speed flying does not rely on any type of motor to achieve flight. It is just the athlete and his wing. While the sport is a combination of several others, one of the more unique features is that an athlete may choose to remain in near constant contact with the snow. It is actually really up to the athlete himself and what type of equipment he has chosen. I would imagine that if someone had a real flair for adventure and was not tremendously attached to skis, they might even want to use a snow board instead. I think that would certainly be an interesting innovation.

The one caution I would offer is that this is still a very risky and dangerous sport. The pilot is normally kept within close proximity to the mountain and a number of unseen obstacles. Combine this with the high speed and a lack of instant maneuverability and you have all the elements needed for a lot of injury and death. I actually learned that over the last few years there have been at least 25 deaths at this sport. Many of these were high profile, very experienced pilots. Even the world champion from 2007 through 2011 died in a freak accident, when his parachute failed to open.

Explaining what this sport is all about.

As an extreme sports junkie, I have been asked by more than a few people exactly what speed flying is all about. Typically, they have seen a video with a lot of high flying professionals going down the sheer face of a mountain at breath taking speeds. Or, they may have read a blurb on the internet that was next to information about their treasured x games or something similar.

So, what is this sport all about?

Speed flying is basically a way that athletes have combined the sports of skiing, hang gliding and paragliding. An athlete will go down the side of a mountain using skis and what is known as a wing. The wing is actually like a modified paraglider. As they attack the mountain, they actually are able to fly slightly above the snow. From time to time, they will be in contact with the snow, making skiing a huge part of this activity.

Many people wonder where folks do something like this. Certainly it is not sanctioned by most of the major ski resorts. This is true. In fact, almost none of the ski resorts will allow someone to do this on their own. This means that anyone wanting to try something like this will need to go to out of bounds areas.

Doing your speed flying in out of bounds area can be quite an experience. For one thing, you will not be near other skiers or snowboarders. Additionally, the powder is better in such areas where it has not been disturbed. Just be advised that certain states and countries will require a speed flyer to have a paragliding license.

Personally, I think that someone interested in doing this on their own should really consider getting good training. While this is most certainly a relatively new sport, there are a number of quality schools throughout the world. I learned that there are actually over 100 certified instructors.

One of the most important things to consider before heading out is to match your equipment to your experience and interest level. For example, if you are an experienced skier (and you definitely should be before even attempting this) and a little weak on your gliding, consider using a smaller wing. The smaller wing will typically not provide for very good gliding ability. This means that you will in contact with the mountain and the snow much more, allowing for a more ski like experience.

Also, be sure to inspect the mountain on the way up. This is especially true with a large mountain where you cannot see the terrain from the top. Experienced pilots, like skiers, need to plan out their line, or the path that they intend to take down the mountain. It is important to know what type of terrain you will be facing in order to best plan out that line. Keeping these tips in mind will help ensure a good run every time.