Two Climbers Discover What It Takes to Fly Off an 18,000-Foot Peak
Things have gotten surreal. It’s 5 a.m. and I’m drunkenly stumbling in the snow with my old friend Matt Segal and my paragliding instructor, Matt Henzi.
“I’zz reewy windy,” Segal slurs with the linguistic acumen of someone who’s had two or three drinks too many. But, to be clear, we’re stone frigidly cold sober.
“It looks baaaad,” Henzi bleats sheepishly. Right on cue, a gust of wind nearly blows him over.
Out of awkward necessity, we huddle like penguins along with our ragtag film crew—which consists of Evan Bouche, Anneka Herndon, and Taylor Keating—and our hired porter. We’re standing at the 18,400-foot summit of Pico de Orizaba, the tallest mountain in Mexico, which also ranks a respectable third tallest in North America. I wrap my arms around Segal and spoon him as hard as I can for warmth. My typical masculine boundaries are cast to the icy wind as we shiver impatiently, anticipating the sunrise.
My stomach churns nervously. Here at the summit (the goal for most) we have no sense of success or accomplishment. Our objective isn’t the climb but the descent, and I have a deep, sinking feeling that our plan to fly lightweight paragliders off the peak is doomed to failure—or even worse, mortal danger.
“What the f*** are we doing here,” I mumble to no one in particular.
“Building character and working on our hypothermia,” Henzi says.
Considering that Segal and I took our first paragliding lesson with Henzi only eight months ago, the fact that we’re now poised to be the first people to fly completely off this behemoth of a mountain is patently ludicrous. Hubris, ambition, curiosity—they can be dangerous, but they can also be helpful.
It’s just unclear which way things are currently leaning.
Better Lucky Than Good
This isn’t my first hair-brained scheme with Matt Segal. We’ve shared a lot of adventures together, from establishing first ascents on wild limestone spires in China to exploring some of the most dangerous rock climbs in the world (they’re in the Czech Republic, in case you’re wondering … Seriously, don’t go there—but definitely go there).
No, this isn’t our first overzealous fools’ errand, but this mission, powered by our half-joking motto “Better lucky than good,” is vying to take the cake.
Especially if the wind dies down.
A couple of years ago, two professional-level paragliding pilots flew from Orizaba’s summit to the advanced basecamp at 14,000 feet. But our goal entails descending another 5,000 feet to the toe of the mountain—a complete unknown. And Segal and I are light-years away from pro. Or even intermediate, really.
“Three launch, but how many land?” I say in my best movie-trailer voice.
“Well, at least I’ll live,” Henzi jokes (he’s one of the best and most adventurous paragliding pilots in the country).
But our humor masks a huge responsibility and burden. Henzi has to give the thumbs up or down on whether it’s safe to launch our paragliders. Our lives are in his hands, poor bastard.
We call Henzi our “sensei.” After he coached Segal and I through our first flights in March, we looked to him on a daily basis for guidance in what is an incredibly complex and potentially lethal sport. Despite its risks, or perhaps because of them, Segal and I were instantly and fully hooked by the magic of unmotorized flight. I had become so addicted that I started calling it sky crack. It vied for a level of obsession I hadn’t experienced since learning to climb 22 years ago.
Not as Dangerous as BASE Jumping
So what is paragliding? Basically a paraglider is a parachute-shaped wing that has a large surface area and wing-like angle of attack that allows it to circle up in rising air like a bird.
They were originally used to descend from peaks, just as we’re trying to do, and this was my initial attraction to the sport: What climber hasn’t stood at the edge of a cliff and dreamed of flying down like a bird?
But in the journey to this point, I quickly realized how adventurous, diverse, and complex the modern-day version of the sport is. It’s more than just a descent. On a good day it’s possible to link together strong thermals (masses of heated, rising air released from the ground) and travel very long distances. It’s not uncommon to reach altitudes of 17,999 feet, the legal limit for a paraglider.
I really believe it’s one of the most adventurous sports in the world. You launch with a goal for your destination but with no real idea of where you’ll land. And on a strong spring day, the thermals can be like bucking broncos in the sky.
With about 10,000 pilots in the U.S., paragliding is a fringe sport that makes climbing look like baseball in terms of popularity. Although, to be fair, it’s about a thousand times more dangerous. You know you’re in a relatively risky sport when you say things like, “Well, it’s not as dangerous as BASE jumping.”
For me it’s important to acknowledge the real risk in my newfound obsession, and in many ways this risk make me a safer pilot.
Or so I tell myself.
A Paragliding Hot Spot
During three weeks in Valle de Bravo, Mexico, preparing for our flight off Orizaba, we logged some serious sky miles. Valle’s reliable thermals and flying conditions make it a winter hot spot for paragliders from around the world. At one point I found myself in a cloud with zero visibility at 13,000 feet, rocketing upward at over 4,000 feet a minute. It was a horrifically religious experience. I landed in a random village completely cracked out of my gourd, with no idea where I was, and ended up eating enchiladas with a very nice family as I chattered away about my experience to them in Spanglish.
Though Valle de Bravo was its own adventure, it wasn’t the main event, and during our entire stay we watched the weather, waiting for a good forecast. To launch our lightweight paragliders we w’d need winds of 20 miles per hour or less, a hard find when your launch point is in the jet stream.
Orizaba had other plans. For three weeks its winds clocked in at over 70 miles per hour (certain death when launching), and we started to hear talk of a hundred-year storm. Experienced Himalayan alpinists were getting turned around, and Orizaba was plastered in snow. My worst fear—besides dying or breaking my back—was not even getting a chance to try the flight from the peak.
Then, after three weeks of biding our time and a failed attempt to fly off a 15,000-foot “practice volcano” called Nevada de Toluca that left us utterly downtrodden, we saw a forecast that looked like a definite maybe. At this point, we would take a maybe. The winds were forecast to be a little too high for flying, and our confidence was at a definite low, but if I’ve learned one thing as an adventure climber, it’s that you just have to go and see … And so we did.
Moment of Truth
Which brings us back to the summit of Orizaba, hypoxic, hyperventilating, and delirious. “It looks like we took our paragliders for a really long walk,” I moaned right as the first rays of sun creaked over the horizon, bringing warmth to the summit. Regardless of whether we would get to fly, this was a wild and beautiful place to be. The mountain’s pyramid-shaped shadow was cast onto the flats below, pointing the way to our landing site.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
But while the winds had subsided, they were still too strong to fly. I began entertaining ideas of extending my plane ticket for another attempt. To keep warm, we began searching for a good launch point for next time—or in case conditions changed.
And then, 20 minutes later, the winds were calm and Henzi stared at us with wild eyes and said, “It’s good!” Segal and I began nervously unpacking our gliders, silently afraid and excited by what we had gotten ourselves into. The film crew was dead silent, knowing that this was serious business. No one wants to film their friend cratering.
“It’s the f***ing moment of truth,” I proclaimed. Segal and I had trained hard for this, and I gave myself a silent pep talk. “Just pretend you’re at your local hill; you’ve got this; heck, this is probably safer than walking back down,” I coached internally.
Minutes later, the unthinkable happened. I brought my glider up into the air in a nice gust of wind, then turned around and flew off of Pico de Orizaba. I screamed like a joyous banshee. The views were out of this world. Even for Henzi, who’s seen some sh** in his paraglider, it was mind blowing. If we’d been like drunkards on the summit, the flight down was a hallucinogenic vision quest.
In Praise of Beginners
Twenty-five minutes and almost 9,000 feet of descent later, we landed safely in a small Mexican village and looked back at the entirety of Pico de Orizaba in disbelief. We had flown off Pico de Orizaba with only eight months of training.
What a day. The experience remains beyond my complete comprehension, a wonderful waking dream and one of the great moments of my life.
To anyone out there who’s tackling something new, stumbling through the awkward phases that all beginners must go through, I hope this flight can be a reminder that just because you’re a beginner doesn’t mean you can’t dream big and potentially pull off something remarkable. I think our flight is a testament to that. When we stop learning, we start dying, and to be a beginner again is to be youthful at any age.
That’s been the magic of paragliding for me; it’s rekindled a youthful spirit. I’m already dreaming about the next big flight and working hard to improve. After all, the biggest badasses on the planet were once bumbling newbies.
So if you have a new passion or are toying with the idea of tackling a nagging dream, I’ll take this moment to say, What the hell are you waiting for? Begin. Go get that experience.
I don’t regret it, and I doubt you will either.