Steve Stroming on flight from Crater Mountain. © Lowell Skoog
  On a Wing and a Prayer  
  The Mountaineering Roots of Northwest Paragliding  
  by Lowell Skoog  


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Mark Shipman and Jeff Splittgerber were long-time climbing partners from the Wenatchee area. During a March 1987 ice climbing trip in the Canadian Rockies they met Mark Twight and Jonathan Carpenter. Twight hoped to use paragliders to descend from some of the classic Rockies ice climbs, but he was unable to fly during this trip due to the weather. Twight’s description of paragliding captivated Shipman and Splittgerber. They convinced Twight to come to Wenatchee to show them how to fly. He did so in May, riding to Wenatchee with a pair of gliders on the back of his motorcycle.

Paragliding from Mount St. Helens. © Mark Dale
Paragliding from Mount St. Helens. © Mark Dale Enlarge

Two weeks after their first short flights with Mark Twight, Shipman and Splittgerber flew from Mount Si with Jonathan Carpenter. With a single mountain flight under their belts, they felt ready for pioneering. On June 26, Shipman and Splittgerber flew from the top of 8,365ft Mount St. Helens. Just a few weeks earlier, the mountain had reopened to climbers for the first time since its 1980 eruption. The weather was perfect and a party atmosphere prevailed on the summit. People were whacking golf balls and launching Frisbees into the crater. A biplane was doing barrel rolls over the mountain. “There was all this crazy stuff going on that day,” Shipman recalled. “But nobody knew what a paraglider was. We got launched, and of course those things didn’t have glide ratios worth a crap.” Gliding down the Monitor Ridge climbing route, Shipman and Splittgerber were just a few feet above the hikers toiling their way up. “It was so entertaining because as you’d fly down that ridge just barely over these people’s heads, they’d suddenly look up and go, ‘Holy Moley!’”

On July 4, Shipman and Splittgerber carried their paragliders up 9,415ft Mount Stuart, the crown peak of the central Cascades. From the summit they could see a storm gathering in the west. They hoped to fly from the true summit, but found it too steep and rocky. Shipman recalled, “Just below the false summit there was a place on the snow below a rock where it was kind of melted out and we could get, probably, two-thirds of a glider kind of laid out and then stomp our feet in below it, and then just sort of dive down that snowfield. The gliders, luckily, came up over us.” They landed on the Ingalls Creek side of Longs Pass. After hiking to the pass, they launched again and landed near the parking lot. Shortly after they began driving home, the storm broke. At the summit another climbing party had told them, “You guys are crazy!” But in the car, Shipman recalled, “We thought, well, we may be crazy, but those guys are in that storm, and we’re driving home!”

At 12,276 feet, Mount Adams is second only to Mount Rainier of the Cascade volcanoes, and it dominates the skyline from several eastern Washington towns. In August 1987, Shipman, Splittgerber, and Kurt Carlson climbed the Adams Glacier carrying paragliders. Shipman recalled that climbing the icefall was “sporty” that day and the summit was windless. Flying last, he took six tries to get his glider airborne in the thin air. Below the Adams Glacier, Splittgerber landed next to two campers who had been smoking dope in their tent. After watching him land they ran out of their tent with a first-aid kit. “Are you all right?” they asked. Jeff replied that he was fine. Looking up they puzzled, “Where’s the airplane?” Jeff explained that he had flown off the mountain. “How’d you get up there?” they wondered. Jeff pointed to the Adams Icefall and described their climb. Shipman recalled, “These guys were kind of half-stoned anyway and they looked at Jeff like he was from another planet. It was just an absolutely wonderful adventure.”

Paragliding from Mailbox Peak. © Mark Dale
Paragliding from Mailbox Peak. © Mark Dale Enlarge

Mark Shipman pioneered many flights in the Wenatchee and Leavenworth areas, including Mount Cashmere, Icicle Ridge, Edward Mesa, Wedge Mountain, and Mission Ridge. He flew along the Stevens Pass highway at Big Chief Mountain (the Stevens Pass ski area), Mount Lichtenberg, Rock Mountain, Nason Ridge, and Tumwater Mountain. To celebrate the wedding anniversary of two friends, he flew from South Ingalls Peak in a tuxedo and served them champagne brunch at Ingalls Lake. With Ralph Congdon, he flew from 8,243ft Pyramid Mountain, 7000 feet above the waterline of Lake Chelan, and splashed down in the lake (on purpose) wearing a dry suit. A friend in a motor boat picked them up. “We went off every little bump around here, you know, little hills and dales, everything we could do,” Mark later recalled.

During the summer and fall of 1987, an active flying scene developed in the Leavenworth area, centered loosely around Jeff Splittgerber, who began teaching students regularly. Splittgerber owned property near Eagle Creek below Raptor Ridge, a favorite flying site. Splittgerber and Shipman, Kurt Carlson, Glen Frese, Scott Northey, Michael Koerner, Rob Newsom and Pat McNerthney all flew in the Leavenworth area during that time. Scott Northey, who had made his earliest flights alone, recalled that this was when he really started to learn about flying.

Bruce Tracy, a physician in Omak, WA, learned from his friend Mark Shipman in late summer, 1987. Tracy was soon pioneering mountain sites in the northeastern Cascades, including the Loup Loup ski area, Chopaka and Tiffany Mountains, Slate and Big Craggy Peaks, and peaks above the Twisp River such as Gilbert and Abernathy. Along the North Cascades Highway he made the first descents of Hinkhouse Peak, Driveway Butte, and Goat Peak above Mazama. Known to his friends as “Dr. Flygood,” Tracy remained passionate about paragliding for the next 16 years. He became one of the chief instigators of cross-country flying in the Cascades in the late 1990s.

Michael Koerner of Everett was an ice climbing friend of Mark Shipman, and like Shipman and Bruce Tracy, also a physician. Koerner was an early practitioner of ski launching. During the winter of 1987-88, he flew at the ski areas of Mission Ridge, Ski Acres (now Summit Central), Crystal Mountain (Norse Peak), and Stevens Pass (with Jeff Splittgerber). On June 5, 1988, Koerner flew from the summit of 11,239ft Mount Hood in Oregon on skis. He launched over a group of Mazamas toiling their way up the Hogsback. Clouds lapped at the mountainside below Illumination Rock, and he intended to land just above them. “I misjudged,” Michael recalled later. “What I thought was snow was clouds. All of sudden I was in a whiteout. I flew full-on into the slope.” Bruised and battered, Koerner telemarked down to Timberline. Two weeks later he was flying again.

Launching from Green Mountain. Photo © Lowell Skoog
Launching from Green Mountain. Enlarge Photo © Lowell Skoog

The Leavenworth flying scene grew hotter during the summer of 1988. Jeff Splittgerber organized the first North American Paragliding Championships at Raptor Ridge in early July. Pilots came from as far as California and New England to compete. Nobody knew how to run a paragliding contest, so Scott Northey and Michael Koerner devised a judging system based on estimated time aloft and spot landing accuracy. The wind was blowing from the wrong side of the ridge, so fliers launched into turbulence—a classic rotor. Michael Koerner remembered the scene as “lots of testosterone flying, boys will be boys.” Koerner and Scott Northey decided not to fly.

John Bouchard recalled, “You’d sit at the top of the hill and say, ‘You think it’s OK? No, I dunno...You wanna go? I’m not going!’ And then someone would say, ‘I’m going, I’m gonna go for it!’ Somebody would go and come to a ridge and their glider would just go ‘whoosh’ and drop and hit the ground.” Rob Newsom broke his leg. A woman crashed and was taken away in an ambulance. The worst injury was to Mark Shipman, who broke his neck in a crash so violent that witnesses said he bounced.

As the competitors hauled Shipman, an emergency room doctor, up the hill in a litter, he proceeded to assess his own condition. “Well, let’s see, I can feel my toes,” he said. “Someone pinch my toe... Yeah, I can feel that. Can I wiggle it? Yup, I’m wiggling it. Okay, good. That’s good news. I don’t have spinal damage.” In hindsight, Oregon pilot Ralph Richardson thought it was one of the lighter moments of the competition. “Here’s this guy,” Ralph said, “he’s got to be clinical, even though he’s the patient.” Shipman eventually recovered fully. Greg Smith of Sun Valley won the contest.

The Leavenworth event soured Michael Koerner on organized paragliding. He decided to focus on mountain flights, mostly by himself. Over the next year he compiled a remarkable record of first descents, mostly along the Stevens Pass and Mountain Loop Highways, near his home in Everett.

In late September, 1988, Koerner pioneered three flights in three consecutive days: Sauk Mountain, Mount Lichtenberg, and Mount Persis. He recalled, “This is before the web, right? So I’d have to get my little weatheradio out and listen very closely and write as quickly as I could about where the wind was and then think about it real, real hard—because I didn’t want to slog up something and then not fly.”

Persis was the most challenging flight Koerner had yet attempted. “I lay on top,” he said, “and I remember looking at the flag in front of the Index store with my little bird-watching binoculars, and trying to figure out what’s going on. That’s a cliff launch—I mean you run right off this cliff. And I did that.” He encountered a stiff wind in the valley and fought his way to a landing next to the railroad tracks. “That was an amazing flight,” he later recalled, “because you’ve got a lot of vertical, and you’re just all by yourself way up there over this little valley. I got that on the first shot. I was really pleased.”

Boots over Rockport. Photo © Lowell Skoog
Boots over Rockport. Enlarge Photo © Lowell Skoog

A few weeks later, Koerner flew Mount Pugh, also on his first try. During the winter of 1989, he flew Mount Pilchuck, launching from a cliff near the lookout on skis. With Mark Shipman he flew Rock Mountain, near Stevens Pass, on snowshoes.

Towering 4000 feet above the South Fork Stilliguamish River, the North Face of Big Four Mountain is one of the most impressive walls in the Cascade Range. In April 1989, Koerner climbed the Northwest Ridge of the peak to the summit ridge. He set up his glider on a tiny cornice west of the summit and launched over the North Face. Michael described the cliff launch as “pop it up and pray—pretty wild.” He swooped down a gully between two rock ribs as his glider gained flying speed. Once away from the face, he enjoyed a spectacular descent, far above the valley, landing at the Ice Caves parking lot. He made the flight on his second try.

A week after flying Big Four, Koerner flew Whitehorse Mountain near Darrington. A light tail wind precluded launching from the summit, so he settled for the glacier just below. He flew with a homemade harness made of thin webbing, light but very uncomfortable. He’d arranged with a farmer to land in his field, but when he flew over it, the field was kicking off huge thermals. “I couldn’t get down,” Koerner remembered, “so I tried spiraling. Here I am in this tiny little harness made out of, like, shoelaces, cutting my legs off, spinning around, almost laid out vertical, just a total, tight spiral, and I’m still not going down. And I’m getting dizzy, and I’m going, ‘God, I hope I don’t throw up on this poor farmer.’ You know, I’m over his house.”

After 45 minutes in the air, Koerner finally worked his way down over the perimeter of the field, where there was less lift. “I was amazingly dizzy,” he said. “I sort of collapsed, and these cows came over, and I thought they were going to stomp my chute. So I tossed the chute over this barbed wire fence and sort of fell over the fence. I did not feel well for several hours. It was quite an adventure.”

Koerner flew both Mount Baring and Sloan Peak from their summits in 1989. In June of that year, he flew from the summit of 10,781ft Mount Baker, launching on skis. He developed a system using cords tied to his ski tips and bindings which enabled him to launch on skis then kick them off in flight, dangling the skis from a ring on his waist belt. He could land on skis, remove them to land on foot, or jettison the skis altogether if necessary. He launched north from the summit of Baker and landed below the Coleman Glacier near timberline.

The biggest and most elusive prize for flying climbers in the Cascades is Mount Rainier. At 14,411 feet, the summit is too windy to launch a paraglider most of the time. National Park regulations against flying are now well known and the odds of being caught are high. During the early 1990s, local pilots made repeated attempts to fly Mount Rainier, but most were foiled by strong winds. Finally, in May 1992, Cory Stevens was successful. Rumor of his flight spread throughout the paragliding community, but details, including the pilot’s name, were often suppressed.

Many early fliers assumed that traveling Europeans had flown the Cascade volcanoes in the 1980s, but there was no proof. In 1997, Seattle pilot Paul Klemond chanced to meet a Dutch flier named Harry van Rijswijk at the Paragliding World Championships in Spain. Van Rijswijk said that he flew Mount Rainier in 1988. Klemond recalled that van Rijswijk's business card included a photo of the flight, but some years later, when Klemond showed me a copy of the card, we concluded that the photo was not of Mount Rainier. While we have no reason to doubt Van Rijswijk's claim, we lack definitive proof of it. For the other big peaks of the Cascades, rumors of earlier flights have never been confirmed.

Over the years, Northwest mountaineering has gone through repeated cycles of innovation and achievement followed by a wake-up call. On December 18, 1988, Jeff Splittgerber died on Thimble Mountain, a popular training hill above Wenatchee. The Northwest’s first instructor, Splittgerber had just watched his student fly safely off the top. Jeff was expected to fly next, but he never appeared. Friends found his body a short distance below the summit. Mark Shipman believes that Splittgerber stalled his glider after launching and crashed into the slope. His death was the first paragliding fatality in the United States.

Cascade Descents Before 1990

1987, April
Mount Si
John Bouchard, Scott Northey

1987, June
Liberty Bell Mountain
Jonathan Carpenter, Mark Twight

1987, June
South Early Winters Spire (attempted)
Jonathan Carpenter, Mark Twight

1987, June 26
Mount St. Helens
Mark Shipman, Jeff Splittgerber

1987, July 4
Mount Stuart
Mark Shipman, Jeff Splittgerber

1987, August 2
Mount Adams
Kurt Carlson, Mark Shipman, Jeff Splittgerber

1987, Summer/Fall
Middle and South Sister, Mount Bachelor (Oregon)
Ralph Richardson

1987, September 23
Mount Cashmere
John Bouchard, Mark Shipman

1988, Winter
Granite Mountain
Julie Brugger

1988, June 5
Mount Hood (Oregon)
Michael Koerner

1988, June 19
Bandera Mountain
Michael Koerner

1988, Summer
Mount Rainier
Harry van Rijswijk
(repeated by Cory Stevens, May 1992)

1988, July 4
Pyramid Mountain (Lake Chelan)
Ralph Congdon, Mark Shipman

1988, August 18
Chopaka Mountain
Bruce Tracy

1988, September 5
Tiffany Mountain
Bruce Tracy

1988 September 28
Sauk Mountain
Michael Koerner

1988, September 29
Mount Lichtenberg
Michael Koerner, Mark Shipman

1988, September 30
Mount Persis
Michael Koerner

1988, October 1
Slate Peak
Bruce Tracy

1988, October 22
Mount Pugh
Michael Koerner

1989, February 26
Mount Pilchuck
Michael Koerner

1989, March 15
Rock Mountain
Michael Koerner, Mark Shipman

1989, April 23
Big Four Mountain
Michael Koerner

1989, April 30
Whitehorse Mountain
Michael Koerner

1989, May 7
Mount Baring
Michael Koerner

1989, June 4
Mount Baker
Michael Koerner

1989, July 27
Abernathy Peak
Bruce Tracy

1989, August 5
Sloan Peak
Michael Koerner

1989, September 28
Gilbert Mountain
Bruce Tracy

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