BD athlete Ptor Spricenieks goes paraskiing in the Alps
Black Diamond athlete Ptor Spricenieks recently sent us this note and photos about paraskiing in the Alps above his home in La Grave, France. Although it sounds a little rowdy (imagine flying above the clouds at 5000m with Megawatts on!), you can't argue with the results: thousands of meters of fresh terrain, all accessed by flying through the sky!
It isn’t only the skiing and stepping in manure around the little village where I live that fuels my never-ending romance with La Grave. It’s also my other passion of paragliding. Even though it’s a quite particular and challenging place to fly, a handful of local pilots reap the rewards of the spectacular possibilities through patient vigilance. One of them, an instructor and mountain guide named Francois, has been the inspiration for combining my passions of skiing and flying. Francois is one of those classic French montagnards with an impossibly dark tan on his face and a big smile, both from spending so much time in the mountains. He was the one who showed me, through example, of what can be done by launching on skis with a parglider from the 3200m top station of the telepherique.
As paragliding technology has advanced, lighter harnesses have been developed as well as specific “mountain” wings designed for para-mountaineering and a minimal package on the back. My particular harness weighs in at just over 300 grams and although my wing is designed for cross-country flying and isn’t relatively very light, the whole rig skis quite well (at under eight kilos) when stuffed into my Black Diamond Quantum 65 pack. Now, combined with my 10 years of flying experience and knowledge of the local aerology, when the conditions are right I can begin to explore the possibilities of skiing fresh lines accessible only by lengthy ski-mountaineering tours or... paraglider, through what is know as paraskiing.
Slogging uphill with skins or getting pulled around by the wind with a kite are not the only ways one can put themselves in position to begin a backcountry ski run. Here in La Grave, when the winds are right, the approximate 9:1 glide ratio of a modern paraglider can take you to the other side of the valley to great south-facing corn snow or plop you on one of the cold shadowy glaciers of preserved powder that tumble down off the dramatic peaks of La Meije and Le Rateau. Landing on a ridgeline, summit or glacial bench into the wind is ideal although sometimes a cross slope landing is necessary. Then the wing is quickly stuffed into the backpack, collapsible poles are extended, boots are buckled and shredding then takes place.
In the springtime when the higher sun takes effect, the possibilities of range, options and length of runs are expanded by locking into tubes of rising air called thermals just like the eagles, vultures and giant Gypaetes do. On good days the cloud base can rise to 5000m meaning you can get above the local 4000m peaks and really choose where to go. Of course snow stability considerations must be taken into consideration as well as the timing for ideal flying conditions to nail an intended run. I’ve always considered paragliding to be like “3-D sky-surfing chess”, an engagement of the mind with the elements to maximize a flight and achieve a goal. Skis add the extra dimension to the flying game, or vice-versa, paragliding adds an extra dimension to skiing. It could be said that flying completes the mountain awareness by crystallizing acute sensitivities to weather and wind, something backcountry skiers already consider but with less inherent sensitivity.
Combined with a little skinning, the possibilities and potential of this sport are not restricted to the big vertical ski-lifts of the Alps. Paragliding Meccas like Golden and Pemberton in British Columbia for example, that traditionally have epic springtime flying AND skiing conditions, have yet to be explored in terms of paraskiing. Actually, there are a vast amount of suitable places all over North America and Europe with great potential. Once the paraski pilot has launched and “climbed out” above the peaks, they can choose their peak to ski and even re-launch and fly down to the valley from tree line to avoid hiking out, or even fly back to where they started. Landing on grass with skis is also no problem. Thermalling with skis in strong conditions is not for novice pilots but it’s something to work up to in order to tap into the amazing potential of skiing that paragliding can provide to the inspired lover of backcountry skiing adventures!!
— Ptor Spricenieks