Soaring the Sierra: Paragliding above Lake Tahoe
INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. — “Go, go, go,” urged Ed Youmans, the tandem paraglider pilot, to his passenger, my feet obeying his instructions, taking steps toward the edge of a clearing overlooking dense forest below and the shimmering waters of Lake Tahoe to the left.
Two, three steps into the charge, my feet are no longer touching ground, but swinging in the air, useless as the Lake Tahoe-colored canopy attached to us by a spider web of suspension lines takes over, carrying us higher and higher into the sky as the ground shrinks below.
“(Paragliding) it’s not like skydiving,” explained Youmans, an Incline Village resident. “It’s not extreme or crazy; it’s just sort of peaceful.”
Sitting securely in my harness, Youmans pilots the paraglider, making sweeping turns approximately 1,400 feet above lake level, giving the passenger the sense of being on an slow-paced soaring amusement park ride, with only the sound of rushing winds filling one’s ears.
Youmans, owner and pilot for Incline-based Daydreams Paragliding, created the business in 2004 when he got his tandem instructor’s certification, taking friends and family out flying mostly until 2012, when he actively began to build the business.
“By the end of the summer we had more passengers than we had time or pilots or weather to fly,” he said, adding that he booked about 100 flights last summer.
This summer, Youmans — known in Incline for his role for 13 years as general manager of Diamond Peak Ski Resort, prior to leaving the mountain in 2011 — expects that number to double, since he’s been getting four to five calls daily for flights this month.
To help handle all the flights, he and Mitch Neary, owner of South Lake Tahoe-based Lake Tahoe Paragliding, share the same batch of area pilots.
“There’s really a lot more business than we thought there was,” Youmans said. “… Not being as overdone as some of the other things is a good thing.”
A unique experience
Brittany Manning, of Madison, Wis., took a tandem flight early Friday evening, something she said she was looking forward to doing all week during her stay in the Lake Tahoe region.
“It was awesome; cold, but awesome,” Manning said after her tandem flight with Tomas Prochazka, co-owner of Upraising Paragliding, who helped pilot one of the two flights Youmans’ booked for Friday night. “(Just) the feeling of weightlessness, soaring through the air like a bird, and seeing the water, the trees.”
Youmans who has flown in California, Utah, Oregon, New Jersey and New York, said he believes the views off the Stateline Fire Lookout in Crystal Bay, the launch site, are tough to beat.
“That is one of the most beautiful soaring sites,” he said. “You have the lake and mountains right adjacent to each other.”
In the air, all of Lake Tahoe is visible — from beaches along the South Shore, which appear as a thin tan strip in the distance, to the bobbing boats along the North Shore, which appear no larger than dots in the vast blue-green expanse that is the lake.
Aerial views of the Crystal Bay and Kings Beach communities below are reminiscent of town models, where everything — from vehicles to buildings — seem miniaturized, while surrounded by towering snow peaked mountains and acres upon acres of forestland.
“You can’t get this back in Wisconsin every day,” Manning said.
While prices may vary, a tandem flight in the region typically costs $175. For more specific pricing, contact business providers.
Despite soaring in an ultralight aircraft exposed to the elements with a long way to the ground, there was a feeling of security.
“The tandem gliders are huge (with a wingspan of approximately 40 feet), so they feel very stable in the air,” Youmans said. “Turbulence doesn’t move them around very much, so you sit up there and everyone goes, ‘Ah, it feels so solid, so smooth.’”
A big safety factor when paragliding is understanding weather conditions.
“If I’m flying tandem, I have to be 100 percent sure (of the conditions) every time I take that glider out of the bag,” Youmans said. “I can’t launch into questionable conditions ever.”
Desirable conditions are steady southwest winds at 10 to 15 mph; the bottom of a wind cycle not being less than half of the top end; and no thunder clouds or towering cumulus clouds, among others, he said.
“Perfect conditions just happen to be pretty much typical afternoon conditions here on the North Shore of Tahoe,” Youmans said.
Despite that, one must pay attention to the surroundings even after launching, watching for changes in weather conditions, for other pilots and ground-base obstacles.
“Anything that involves flying involves a level of risk,” Youmans said. “The thing about a paraglider is the risk is somewhat limited because it’s a very simple aircraft, so there’s not a lot of things to break or go wrong with it.
“It has a second way out, so if there is some major equipment failure, we have a reserve chute to get to the ground.”
After a fast 40 minutes in the air — with flights typically lasting 30 to 90 minutes, depending on weather — Youmans and I started our descent, with the land slowly rising to meet us.
As we got closer and closer to the beach along Kings Beach, Youmans reminded me to slide to the very edge of my harness — an unnerving movement — and tuck my dangling legs under so I can land on my feet.
In what seemed like no time, my sturdy footwear made contact with sand, back on solid land.