Paraglider goes to new lengths to sail above Sierra

The Fresno BeeJuly 27, 2013 

— He soars above mountaintops in the company of birds, at the mercy of the wind and weather, with only a fabric canopy to keep him airborne.

Sound like a flight of fancy? Not for Dave Turner.

Paragliders have been pushing the limits of lightweight, foot-launched aircraft for decades, but this month the 31-year-old blew right past them.

On July 1, Turner became the first person to cross the High Sierra in a paraglider or hang glider.

Launching from high above the Owens Valley, he traced Sequoia National Park's granite peaks and forested ridges for dozens of miles, at times above 17,000 feet, before landing in an orange grove near Lake Kaweah — where he was soon welcomed, in a not-so-friendly way, by park rangers.

Two weeks later, on July 14, Turner used the same launch site for another landmark flight. But rather than head west, he continued north. When he finally touched ground in the Nevada desert — nearly 7½ hours after takeoff — California had a new open-distance paragliding rec- ord: 172.2 miles.

"The entire flying community thinks I'm a little crazy, or at least bold, and these flights won't change that perception," Turner says. "They're the biggest things to happen to California paragliding in a while."

Paragliding is similar to hang gliding, except there's no fixed wing or other rigid structure. Instead, the pilot sits in a harness suspended by Kevlar cords from a fabric wing that swells like a parachute upon launching.

Skilled pilots can remain airborne for hours by exploiting thermals, columns of rising hot air caused by the sun's rays reflecting off a rock outcropping or large building. They're also generated by cumulus clouds.

Once the pilot finds a thermal, he flies inside it in a tight circle, trying to find the spot in the center where hot air rises the fastest. By using this "coring" technique, the pilot can gain altitude until high enough to glide over to the next thermal.

Pilots usually carry radios and GPS devices plus an instrument called a variometer to detect rising or sinking air. Variometers emit a signal. By the frequency and pitch, pilots can tell how fast they're climbing or descending.

It all sounds so simple. But make no mistake, this is a high-stakes pursuit. Especially when you're gliding over rugged terrain through unstable weather, like Turner did during the 3-hour, 17-minute Sierra crossing.

"Normally we travel south to north along the range because you need landing options," says Turner, who carried water and an ultralight sleeping bag and stove but no food. "You don't dive into remote terrain without landing options."

"But I've been looking that way (into Sequoia National Park) for a couple years, and it just beckoned. Like a big virgin peak for a climber."

Turner, who grew up near Sacramento and lives in Mammoth Lakes, knows all about that. Before taking up paragliding in 2010, he was a sponsored rock climber noted for solo first ascents in Yosemite and Patagonia.

In December 2007 and January 2008, Turner spent 34 days alone climbing the 4,000-foot-tall overhanging east face of Cerro Escudo in Chile, becoming the first person to solo a Grade VII route. (By comparison, Yosemite's El Capitan is Grade VI.)

"Breaking barriers is nothing new for Dave, if you look at his history," says Brad Wilson, Turner's friend and flying partner.

"Dave's killing it right now. The Owens Valley is known for big air, but he's flying lines that no one else has ever conceived of."

Hang glider pilots have attempted to cross the Sierra since the 1970s, and two years ago one of Turner's paraglider friends made an attempt before landing in Kings Canyon.

The route Turner had scoped out was even bolder because the peaks of the Southern Sierra are taller and more remote. Make an emergency landing here, and it's at least a two-day walk out.

But more than anything, Turner needed favorable winds. On most days, wind through the Owens Valley blows from the south or west. But on the morning of July 1, low pressure off California produced a rare easterly wind — ideal for a Sierra crossing.

On the drive to Walt's Point, his preferred launch site southeast of Mount Whitney, Turner told his girlfriend, Tawny Thomas, there was a "1 percent" chance he'd attempt the crossing.

The 1 percent didn't become 100 percent until he was soaring past Mount Williamson. There, he "tanked up" on altitude before probing northwest. Upon reaching the Kings-Kaweah Divide, which separates Sequoia National Park from Kings Canyon, Turner used another thermal to climb to 17,280 feet before turning southwest.

Just as he totally committed to the crossing, the winds abruptly shifted and the weather began to deteriorate. Those same cumulus clouds that Turner used to gain altitude began to overdevelop, creating turbulence and covering his wing with raindrops.

Paraglider wings don't perform well when wet and heavy, diminishing their flying distance. And Turner needed all the distance he could get.

"I was going as fast as I could from peak to peak because the conditions were rapidly deteriorating," he says.

Now battling a headwind, Turner crossed the Great Western Divide above Thunder Mountain, then glided over Glacier Ridge. Before long he was near Moro Rock near Giant Forest, where tourists on the summit waved and shouted.

"Once I got to Moro Rock, I was back in the sunshine and could almost start to relax," he says. "I knew I was going to make it."

It was around this time that park rangers began to take notice of the paraglider, a rare sighting in Sequoia. Turner could see their SUVs following him and knew if he landed in the park's boundaries that he would be cited for violating federal regulations that prohibit "delivering or retrieving a person or object by parachute, helicopter, or other airborne means."

So it was with relief and jubilation that Turner glided into the national forest and then over Lake Kaweah before touching down after 50.7 miles of flight in the orange grove just west of the dam.

Ten minutes later, he was surrounded by law-enforcement rangers arriving in four separate vehicles. And they weren't there to congratulate him.

"They had their sunglasses, their game faces and their cop mustaches," Turner says. "They didn't seem or act that friendly, and one of them had his ticket book out."

Kevin Hendricks, chief ranger at Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, confirmed that multiple law-enforcement officers spotted Turner during his flight and followed him to the landing spot, miles outside their jurisdiction.

While using a parachute to take off or land in a national park is illegal, there's nothing saying you can't fly across one.

So Turner had done nothing wrong, even though the rangers weren't buying it.

"My staff thought he had taken off in the park, perhaps from somewhere like Alta Peak," Hendricks said. "I don't think they were thinking he had done an East to West crossing."

To convince them, Turner showed his track log, proving he had neither taken off nor landed within the park's boundaries.

After the rangers departed, Turner had little to do but kick back and wait the six hours it took Tawny, his girlfriend, to drive around and pick him up.

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