Scott Northey flying from Sahale Arm in 1987. Photo by Mary Bellue.
  On a Wing and a Prayer  
  The Mountaineering Roots of Northwest Paragliding  
  by Lowell Skoog  


he dream of flight is ancient, but its purest realization—the sport of foot-launched gliding—is quite new. Just a few decades have passed since hang gliding and paragliding emerged as side benefits of the U.S. space program. Paragliding is the youngest and lightest form of aviation, made possible by frameless canopies that look like elongated parachutes. Surprisingly, it was not the ancient dream of flight that brought paragliding to the Northwest. Instead, it was a peculiar mixture of fun-hogging and sloth on the part of mountain climbers. Climbers have always sought challenging ways to ascend mountains, but descending was often regarded as more a chore than a pleasure. Paragliding offered the promise of flying off mountains, making descents faster and just as much fun as climbing up.

Like many alpine sports, paragliding was first popularized in Europe. In 1978, French parachutists at Mieussy in Haute-Savoie tried launching their ram-air parachutes by running down mountain slopes. Their experiments gave birth to the sport of parapente. Though it had been forgotten for many years, the idea of foot-launching parachutes originated in the United States with a man named David Barish. As a consultant for NASA in the 1960s, Barish developed a slope soaring canopy, the Sail Wing. (The term “paraglider” seems to have originated at NASA.) In 1965, Barish tested the Sail Wing himself by launching it from Mount Hunter, New York. Slope soaring did not catch on in the 1960s, but the concept became known to parachutists. The French revived it at Mieussy, and the sport of parapente began to flourish.

Inflating the parapente in France in 1987.
Inflating the parapente in France in 1987. Enlarge

By the early 1980s, French mountain climbers had discovered parapentes and began to use them to descend high mountain peaks. The Aiguille Verte, Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn and Eiger were all descended by parapente, and ambitious climbers began to take canopies to the giant peaks of the Himalaya. In the mid-1980s, a few American climbers were exposed to paragliding in the French Alps. John Bouchard was guiding in Chamonix during the summer of 1986. In September, while Bouchard was temporarily without a climbing partner, Olivier Snell of Snell Sports bet him that if he tried paragliding he would like it so much that he would buy a paraglider from Snell. Snell was right. Bouchard bought a seven-cell paraglider and brought it to the United States that autumn. With his company Wild Things (later Feral Corporation) in North Conway, NH, Bouchard took the paraglider apart, copied it, and began manufacturing canopies in America.

In April 1987, Bouchard published a feature story in Climbing magazine about the sport of parapente. Around the same time, Romain Vogler published a similar story in Rock & Ice magazine. Simultaneously, the two leading climbing magazines in the United States thrust paragliding into the limelight. Bouchard’s description of a paraglider was tailor-made for climbers: “It packs to the size of a small sleeping bag, weighs about as much as an eight millimeter rope, and is used to effortlessly descend in minutes from climbs which used to require hours or days of painful and sometimes dangerous effort… As skis and ice tools expanded the boundaries of alpinism to snow and ice, the parapente makes the sky the limit!” Vogler was more direct, writing, “It beats a magic carpet!”

“Severe trial and error”

In 1986, Mark Twight was a young Seattle climber sponsored by Bouchard’s company, Wild Things. Bouchard sent Twight some lightweight paragliders for an autumn expedition to Nepal. Twight shared a Seattle house with climber Scott Northey, and he told Northey about the new sport. After Twight left for Nepal, Scott contacted John Bouchard. Bouchard mailed Northey a glider and an instructional video and said, in effect, “If you like it, send me a check.” Bouchard extolled the packability of his paragliders, but Scott recalled, “A few days later this huge box arrived in the mail.” The canopies never seemed as portable as the manufacturers promised.

Northey watched the video then took the glider out and kited it. He found a slope at Nathan Hale High School where he could run downhill and put some weight on the glider. In December, he took it to Mazama Ridge on Mount Rainier. He post-holed in the snow and thrashed about with his glider, without much success. “I was clueless about flying,” Scott recalled, “and I had no idea that it was forbidden in National Parks.” Later that winter, Northey drove through central Washington looking for launch sites and stumbled upon Swakane Canyon near Wenatchee. He made his first “real flight” there, a 300 to 400 foot glide on a grassy slope studded with pine trees. His sole instruction to this point was Bouchard’s videotape.

Michael Koerner in flight from Norse Peak in winter. © Scott Northey
Michael Koerner in flight from Norse Peak in winter. Enlarge © Scott Northey
After returning from Nepal to Seattle, Mark Twight began paragliding locally with his friend Jonathan Carpenter. Carpenter described their flights together as “severe trial and error.” He recalled, “We just taught ourselves, but we certainly hadn’t flown that much at the time. Mark had probably flown with Bouchard, who had, I assume, learned in France, so he actually knew something.” In autumn 1986, Twight and Carpenter flew off the bluffs of Whidbey Island and landed in Puget Sound.

In April 1987, John Bouchard visited Seattle. He hiked up Mount Si near North Bend with Northey, Twight and Seattle writer Jon Krakauer, who was preparing a story about paragliding for Outside magazine. Bouchard and Northey launched just below the “haystack” on Mount Si, making the first real mountain flight in Washington. Twight was unable to fly that day, but he soon returned with Jonathan Carpenter to repeat the flight.

A few weeks later, Twight received a new nine-cell canopy from John Bouchard, which could carry a suspended weight of up to 250 pounds. He hiked up Mount Si again with Carpenter and Russell Erickson. Carpenter recalled, “Mark and Russell, totally clueless, clipped in together, and flew what I imagine was the first tandem flight in the state. That was quite an adventure.” Early paragliders had about a 3:1 glide ratio (three feet forward for every one foot of descent) and they flew and landed “hot.” Severely overloaded, the tiny glider plummeted toward the field 3000 feet below launch. Erickson, the passenger, was giddy and spent much of the flight taking pictures. Twight, the pilot, was gripped the entire time.

In July, Pacific Northwest magazine contacted Scott Northey for another story. He suggested flying at Cascade Pass in North Cascades National Park. A friend had told Scott that paragliding in the park was permitted because the glider was not motorized. (The friend was wrong.) Northey made a reconnaissance flight from 6,600ft Sahale Arm a week before the magazine shoot. “After Mount Si and that flight,” he recalled, “I thought I had this sport dialed!”

Julie Brugger attempting lift-off on Norse Peak. © Scott Northey
Julie Brugger attempting lift-off on Norse Peak. Enlarge © Scott Northey

On the appointed day, Scott planned two flights, one with the writer and photographer watching from below, and the other with them watching from the launch. During the first flight, Scott launched perfectly and floated over Cascade Pass down to the parking lot. Unknown to him, a park ranger above the pass radioed headquarters and brought rangers racing up the road from Marblemount in their truck. As Scott hiked back up the trail with the magazine crew, one of the rangers caught him and said, “Stop, you can’t do that here!” Scott was ticketed and later fined $50 for flying in the National Park. Today he laughs that it was his sole claim to fame in paragliding.

Julie Brugger was another self-taught flier. At the end of the summer of 1987, she and her husband Andy DeKlerk bought paragliders in Paris after seeing the sport in the Alps. Andy returned to his native South Africa and began flying there. Julie returned to Seattle with the French instruction book that came with her glider. She made a few short flights on a hill near Cashmere in central Washington then decided to try something bigger. In the winter of 1988 she flew off Granite Mountain near Snoqualmie Pass, launching on skis. She landed next to Interstate-90 just as a state patroller was driving by. “He saw this person with a parachute by the side of the road and was blown away,” Julie recalled. “Cops, they usually want to arrest you for doing stuff, but he was so blown away that he was like, ‘Oh! Are you fine? Are you okay? Well, cool, have a nice day!’”

Like most climbers who took up paragliding in the early days, Julie simply attached the canopy to her climbing harness. That summer Julie and her husband Andy took paragliders to Peru, where they flew off 20,000ft peaks including Pisco, Quitaraju and Huascaran Norte. The Huascaran flight was so long that Julie’s legs fell asleep. “I wish I had timed it,” she later said. “It felt like I was in the air for hours and we were never coming down.” With her legs completely numb, she landed on her butt, shattering her tailbone and breaking her wrist. She recovered, but eventually gave up paragliding.

Mark Twight had climbed in Europe and was attuned to the French notion of parapente as a descent tool for technical climbing. With Jonathan Carpenter, he decided to put the idea to the test in the North Cascades. In June 1987, Twight and Carpenter flew from the summit of 7,720ft Liberty Bell Mountain, a rock spire near Washington Pass. Carpenter recalled, “There was a nice sort of rounded top, and I remember there was a big drop-off that was your commit. You’d get the thing up, take a couple of steps and then decide whether or not it was up good enough to launch yourself off that thing. It was a horrific launch.” Jonathan flew first and landed in a clearing near the climbers’ trail. “That was terrifying because I was down there and I couldn’t see Mark on the summit, but I could see his kite come up and then collapse... come up and then collapse... He eventually got off too.”

The next day they tried another flight from nearby South Early Winters Spire. They climbed unroped up the South Arête and Carpenter set up his glider at the top of the Southwest Couloir. Their goal was to fly east to the hairpin turn on Highway 20, but the prevailing wind necessitated a launch in the opposite direction, heading southwest. Carpenter launched successfully then turned left to fly over the South Arête. As soon as he turned out of the rising air, the poor glide ratio of his seven-cell canopy took its toll. He failed by the slimmest margin to clear the arête.

Lowell Skoog flying near Cutthroat Peak. © Carl Skoog
Lowell Skoog flying near Cutthroat Peak. Enlarge © Carl Skoog

“I raised my legs and I actually skipped off my butt,” Carpenter recalled. After that, the glider spun 180 degrees into the vertical Southeast Face. “So I’m slapping down the wall and the kite is flying...happily it stayed inflated...but it was flying into the wall. So it’s over my head, scraping the Southeast Face, going down. There are two dead trees on the face and it caught one of them.” He continued, “This was perfect because I came to a stop and there was a hand crack right in front of me. So I climbed ten feet of perfect hand crack to a one-foot flat ledge. I just reached up and tied all the cords off to that one dead tree.”

On top of the spire, Twight was certain he had just watched his best friend die. But below the peak two hikers had seen the whole drama transpire. Carpenter recalled, “They yelled up to Mark and said, ‘Yeah, he’s alive. He’s hanging out in the middle of the face.’” Since they had climbed the peak without a rope, Twight was unsure how he could help his friend. Luckily, a party of four climbers arrived at the summit via the difficult East Buttress route. They had jumars and two ropes, and with this gear Twight engineered Carpenter’s escape.

Carpenter later recalled, “We sent that glider back to John Bouchard, and for years it was hanging at Wild Things over the sewing room as a tribute that none of their seams ripped.”


Paragliding emerged from the converging efforts of sport parachutists and designers working for the U.S. space program. New materials and technologies have made possible the lightest and most intimate form of aviation.

Roots of Paragliding

1964, March
Domina Jalbert develops the Jalbert Parafoil, the first multi-cell, double-surface (ram-air) parachute, Boca Raton, Florida.

1965, September
David Barish, a consultant for NASA, makes the first foot-launched flights of the single-surface Sail Wing, upstate New York.

1978, June
French parachutists using ram-air canopies at Mieussy give birth to the sport of parapente.

Early/mid 1980s
French alpinists use paragliders to descend from Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn, and other alpine peaks.

1986, September
John Bouchard is introduced to paragliding in Chamonix. He returns to the U.S. with a glider and begins manufacturing them. (A few other American climbers became acquainted with paragliding in Europe around the same time.)

1988, Autumn
Jean-Marc Boivin completes the “ultimate paragliding descent” from the summit of Mount Everest.

Paragliding Terminology

Alpine launch
Light-wind launch performed by laying out the glider then running down a slope into the wind.

Reverse launch
Windy launch performed by kiting the glider overhead with one's back to the wind, then turning 180 degrees to push off.

Hand controls that steer the glider by deforming the trailing edge of the canopy. For landing, the brakes are pulled all the way down to stall the glider.

Canopy chamber with an opening at the leading edge, causing it to inflate in flight. Higher performance canopies have more cells to better control the airfoil shape.

To lose aerodynamic lift, usually due to turbulence or flying slowly. In a stall the canopy collapses and descends rapidly. Modern paragliders are designed to recover from stalls, given enough altitude.

Swirling turbulence on the lee side of an obstacle in the wind. Snow cornices, familiar to mountaineers, are caused by rotors.

Glide ratio
In flight, the ratio of distance travelled forward to distance descended. Early paragliders had glide ratios around 3:1, while today's competition gliders are closer to 10:1.

Thermal lift
Lift created by rising columns of warm air, the key requirement for cross-country flying.

Ridge lift
Lift created by wind pushing up over a terrain obstacle. The windward side of a ridge will have lift, while the lee side will have a rotor.
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