Fly like an eagle |

Fly like an eagle

Local pilots hosting weekend rendezvous live to soar

Paraglider Bill Strong launches off Mt. Werner Friday.
Dave Shively

— Whatever you do, don’t call Ken Grubbs a jumper.

“We don’t go down – we fly, they fall,” is the knee-jerk reaction you’ll get from Grubbs, president of Storm Peak Hang Gliding and Paragliding, a Steamboat-based club organization that currently has six local members.

Grubbs is also quick to let you know that hang gliders are pilots, not your run-of-the mill adrenaline junkies.

“Its fairly safe, but it’s still flying,” Grubbs said, pointing out the variables of high altitude flying that makes it both more dangerous and exciting. “Altitude is always fun, you’re going to have a faster landing speed because the air is not as dense.”

Grubbs, 54, has been hooked since his first flight 32 years ago from the top of Jackson Hole’s Aerial Tram on an old Delta Wing set-up.

After the cancellation of Telluride’s popular hang gliding festival due to landing zone disputes with property owners, Grubbs said he hosted around 50 people last year for the first annual Steamboat Springs Airmen’s Rendezvous, held in conjunction with Wild West Air Fest.

Grubbs predicted that number doubled for this weekend’s event.

“We really getting this thing going,” Grubbs said of the event. “A lot of flying sites are in the middle of nowhere in the desert, far from food.”

On Friday morning, hang gliders and paragliders were already arriving at the Whistler Park landing zone from the Front Range and from as far as California for the rendezvous.

Loaded down club vehicles permitted under the forest service began the drive up Mount Werner for pilots to take the first flights of the weekend event.

Riding up with Grubbs, local hang glider Roberto Frias, Crested Butte’s Eric Kaye and Gunnison’s Tony Sitts, the pilot crew threw around friendly insults about various ex-girlfriends and argued about Colorado’s most consistent flying sites, while mixing in subtle details about flying off Mount Werner.

“We’re all ‘hang 4,'” Grubbs said of his advanced rating that most of the rendezvous’ pilots have achieved, “(Mount Werner) is a ‘hang 2/3’ site. You can’t learn here, you have to go to either Boulder or Salt Lake City.”

Inconsistent wind and weather conditions and the small “performance envelope” of ideal wind coming from the northwest makes launches off Mt. Werner difficult for inexperienced pilots.

“You’ll have your cliffs, chutes, powder days, beginner corduroy days and pure violence, just like skiing,” Kaye said. “It’s like your best powder day times ten. Why? Just the freedom of it.”

With wind and air conditions as the currency that determines a good ride, pilots seek out the thermal drafts of warm air, spiraling back up the columns to prolong their flights.

“The whole trick is finding the thermals and staying tight in it as long as you can, circling up the column like a hawk,” Frias said. “If you’re not in a thermal, you’re just gliding and losing altitude.”

Finding the right thermals often means seeking out the “cummies,” or cumulus clouds that constitute where the rising warm air parcel meets its dew point and then trying to top out at the cloud base.

Unrolling and assembling his Wills Wing glider atop Storm Peak, Grubbs explained the technical use of a variometer to help indicate his rate of climb or descent.

“It’s got a GPS, it’s a pretty sophisticated flight computer,” Grubbs said. “It’ll tell me speed to fly, distances, direction, when your library books are due-“

“Geritol dispenser,” Kaye jokingly added, indirectly exposing the sport’s main limitation-its lack of appeal to a younger generation of pilots. With expensive equipment, weather limitations and in-depth training involved, many new air sport enthusiasts turn instead to paragliding.

“Paragliding is so user-friendly and it’s a lot steeper learning curve,” Grubbs said.

After donning their harnesses, hooking up oxygen tanks, double-checking their rigs and doing final radio checks, the four gliders walked their gliders down Storm Peak to an appropriate spot to catch the perfect gust for take-off.

A few steps is all it takes. Once airborne and zipped into their cocooned harnesses, the pilot radios were on and buzzing with excited communications, jokes and information on the best thermal conditions.

It became obvious why these pilots have spent the extra time, money and training to learn the skills to chase the longest flight possible, living the Icarus dream of cruising the “big open blue.”

Storm Peak Hang Gliding and Paragliding will host an informational open house this fall to generate local interest in the air sport. Contact Grubbs at, or Mark Cahur at for more details.

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