by Lowell Skoog
Winter doesn't mean the end of flying. It means the chance to try para-skiing. If you are a skier and a pilot, ski launched paragliding is a great way to combine both sports.
You should be a strong intermediate skier before trying to para-ski. Recovering from a blown launch requires the ability to make a sudden turn or stop.
If you already ski and fly, you've got all the basic equipment you need. There is one special item that I like to use for para-skiing. That's a pair of three-section telescoping ski poles. You can find them at most shops that sell backcountry ski gear. The poles collapse to fit in your backpack during flight.
If you only have full length poles, it may be best to just leave them at home. I sewed some patches on the back of my harness that I can use to strap my full length poles on my back, pointing up like an antenna. I worry a little about my lines snagging on them though. I've also heard of people sliding the poles horizontally through the leg loops of their harness, but never tried it myself. This sounds uncomfortable and even more prone to line snags.
When flying at developed ski areas, you should use ski safety straps. This will prevent you from accidently dropping a ski on someone from above.
Lay out the glider as for a normal running launch. On gentle slopes, set up with some slack in the lines so that the wing will inflate smartly rather than dragging on the snow. On a slope with dry winter snow, the canopy may tend to slide around. Dig out a platform or find someone to anchor it if necessary. In wet spring snow, you may be able to get the canopy to stick in place even on steepish slopes. If a breeze is tossing it around, pack a few snowballs along the trailing edge to hold it in place.
Lay your skis down in front of the wing, pointing in the direction of launch. Shove the tails into the snow right up to the ski bindings so that the tips are sticking up a little. That way when you step into the bindings the skis won't start sliding. Make sure the lines are clear and you're fully harnessed up, then step into the bindings as the last step before launching. Be especially careful not to tangle any lines in the bindings as you step in. Also watch out for sharp ski edges slicing your canopy or lines.
To get set, lift one ski out of the snow and set it down flat. You are now held in place only by the tail of the other ski still stuck in the snow. To launch, push off with the flat ski and start sliding straight down the hill. Lean into the front of your ski boots to anticipate the canopy's pull. On gentle slopes, you might make a couple of skating steps to gain momentum. On steep packed slopes, you might snowplow to make the inflation more gradual.
You'll decelerate as the canopy inflates, then accelerate when it's over your head. High-back ski boots will help prevent you from being pulled over backwards. As the pull diminishes and you start to accelerate, look up and check the canopy.
Unlike a running launch, you can't run sideways to center yourself if the canopy comes up crooked. If the canopy isn't straight, you'll either have to correct it with your brakes or abort the launch. Aborting is easy--just do an uphill ski turn and pull the brakes fully.
Skis have the advantage of speed, so dead-wind launches and even tail-wind launches are easier than normal. You don't have the power of a run though, so you must gain some speed before applying any brakes. On a gentle slope or with a tail-wind, if you brake as soon as the wing comes up you're likely to stall it.
Once you're in the air, there aren't many differences between flying with and without skis. The main difference is found on canopies with speed stirrups. Locked-heel ski bindings prevent you from operating the stirrup. If you need to increase your descent rate or speed you'll have to pull "big ears" or adjust your trim tabs. With free-heel bindings you should be able to operate the stirrup.
When flying over large snowfields or glaciers, be aware that the cold snow surface may produce downslope winds, even during mid-day. The danger of wind shear makes glacier skimming a bad idea. Downslope breezes may also make launching impossible at times.
Downwind landings are not much problem on skis, since you can easily ski them out. Crosswind landings can be tricky--try to align your skis with your ground track. Upwind landings are preferred, as usual. With free-heel bindings, you might try a telemark landing (like a nordic jumper) to avoid falling forward.
If you have to land on dirt or grass with skis on, flair as fully as possible. Landing with speed will result in a sudden, often comical, skidding stop. Use old beater skis if you have them.
Another problem may arise if you are flying in the backcountry and landing on fresh snow. As you approach the ground, and reference points like trees and bushes leave your field of vision, you may suddenly lose depth perception, because fresh snow may be almost featureless. This happened to me once. Try watching your shadow as you come in.