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Friday — May 21, 2004


Sailing over Khumbu

Sun Valley paraglider soars above the Himalayas

Express Staff Writer

When Chuck Smith, the owner of Fly Sun Valley, took Nepalese Sherpas paragliding in the shadow of Mount Everest last fall, they didn’t need to speak English to let him know they were having a good time.

"I knew immediately from their smiles and their laughter," Smith said.

It seems that the reaction most people have to floating freely over the landscape for the first time is universal.

Chuck Smith and a buddy fly in the "Goddess of the Sky" area of the Himalayas. Courtesy photo by Dick Jackson

Last fall, Smith was invited to join a group of three other top-level paragliders on a trip to the Himalayas. The trip had two goals—to fly from the top of 21,000-foot Kyajo Ri and to introduce some of the local inhabitants to the sport. The team members felt that that would be partial repayment for the crucial help the Sherpas had given to so many Himalayan expeditions.

The six-week-long trip was documented in a film called "Over Khumbu," tentatively scheduled to be shown during the Telluride Mountainfilm Festival.

A former national paragliding champion, Smith became intrigued with the sport in the late 1980s—when it was just getting started in the United States.

"I had saved up a bunch of money for college but then I discovered paragliding and got detoured," said Smith, now 40.

Since there weren’t any instructors at the time, he was self-taught at first, improving his skills with a year in Europe. After he returned, he flew near his boyhood home on Cape Cod, where he discovered he could stay aloft for as long as eight hours on the updrafts created by the sand dunes. His immediate future was solidified when someone said to him, "You know more than anyone else in the country, so why not teach it?"

Smith became a partner in a paragliding business in Aspen, and later helped launch Sun Valley Paragliding. When that business lost its permit from the U.S. Forest Service in 2002, he returned to the Wood River Valley and picked it up.

When Smith was in Telluride, Colo., in September for the U.S. Paragliding Nationals, his old business partner, Dick Jackson, invited him on the Nepal trip. Smith asked for a day to think about it, but, he said, he knew immediately that he would go.

Though a French paraglider had flown from the top of Mt. Everest in 1988, the group received the first permit to paraglide in Sagamartha National Park. The park’s name is also the Nepalese name for Mt. Everest, and means "goddess of the sky."

The group’s arrival in the park was via the small airstrip 9,000 feet above sea level at the town of Lukla, from where they trekked to Khumjung, at 12,000 feet. To get acclimated, they made several flights from a hillside 3,000 feet above town.

Hoping to be invited on a flight, the group’s Sherpa porters eagerly helped carry the two tandem gliders up the hill. Each flight touched down in the town’s schoolyard, where excited kids swarmed the flyers.

The group took about 25 of the local residents for flights. Though most people could hardly wait to get on a glider, Smith said, some declined. He said many of those were older residents, and some did so for religious reasons.

"They didn’t think flying was for humans," he said.

One problem with flying at 15,000 feet is that the thin air makes it difficult to get airborne. Smith said the team members were concerned that it might be impossible to get a tandem flight off the ground. However, he said, the Sherpas are small people and most of them are very fit. They had no problem running hard enough to take off.

During the flights, Smith shot video from a boom attached to his glider, while a cameraman shot from the ground.

En route to their primary goal, Kyajo Ri, the team set a high camp at 17,000 feet on a moraine at the base of a glacier. However, after traversing the glacier, they discovered they were blocked by cliffs and couldn’t reach their intended route up the mountain.

But they saw that an adjacent mountain, called Luza Peak, had what looked like a good, snow-covered launch ramp off its summit toward the valley 6,000 feet below.

A major problem with flying in the Himalayas, Smith said, is that at high altitudes, it’s almost always windy. But either luck or the Buddhist ceremony they performed at the start of their journey from Khumjung brought them perfect flying conditions from the summit of Luza.

"The day we summited was the only day to fly," Smith said.

Standing at their launch site at over 20,000 feet, the group was already 2,000 feet higher than the altitude ceiling the Federal Aeronautics Administration places on paragliders in Idaho. After he launched, Smith found a thermal that took him even higher. As he soared over the valley, he gazed toward three of the tallest mountains in the world—Everest, Lhotse and Makalu.

It was the most spectacular flight of Smith’s career, but like all paragliding flights, it was a matter of navigating through an invisible landscape of air currents.

"It’s just you and the elements," he said.


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