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Epic paragliding flight takes pilot from Vernon to Canmore



Camping in a high alpine meadow 20 kilometres south of Revelstoke, B.C., Will Gadd was living his dream. He had flown his paraglider over the Selkirk Mountains and landed just a few kilometres' walk from the perfect launch site for the next leg of his journey the following morning.

Despite two "epic" days wrestling through debris-clogged logging cut blocks, his dream of flying from Vernon, B.C. home to Canmore, Alberta was soaring once again.

"It was so great to land in the alpenglow and spend a night up high," Gadd said. "I had some bars and a beef samosa for dinner. It was awesome."

Gadd's journey began years ago when he first became captivated studying the topographical maps of the area and looking at Google Earth. And finally this month after waiting out weeks of rain, Gadd boarded a Greyhound bus from Canmore at 1 a.m. on Aug. 1. After breakfast in a Vernon coffee shop on arrival, he walked to the launch site carrying everything he needed in his pack - paraglider, small tent, sleeping bag, bear spray, SPOT locator and food, but no cook stove or paraglider motor.

"The odds were so against this one, I feel like I won the lottery," Gadd said. "It's the trip I'm most happy in my life to have gotten done. I had three really big flying days, any one of which would have been a career highlight, and I had them all in the space of one week."

All three were paragliding firsts: flying over the Monashees; over the Selkirks and Purcells from Revelstoke to Invermere, B.C.; and from Invermere to Canmore over the Rockies.

While the later days of his adventure proceeded relatively smoothly, Gadd doubted his fate while bogged down west of Arrow Lake.

"The logging roads that show up on GPS were put in 10 to 20 years ago and B.C. bush just devours roads," Gadd said. "At one point I was hiking and fell six feet off a log. It was the most dangerous thing I've ever done!"

Quite a statement from a multi-sport adventurer who has climbed icebergs bobbing in the Atlantic, held the paragliding distance record of 423 kilometres for 10 years and kayaked raging whitewater.

When an attempted launch snagged him six-feet off the ground, he did what any seasoned adventurer would - called his mother by sat-phone. Using Google Earth she steered him to a navigable road from which a friend in Revelstoke rescued him.

"I was so beat up," Gadd said. "Flying high like that is like playing chess the whole time and I was so worked from grovelling in the bush and hiking 30-kilometres of bad logging road. It took a while to get back in the game."

But with friends encouraging him and some recovery time, he accepted a ride and launched again. Flying from Revelstoke's ski hill over the spectacular Selkirks, he landed in the alpine, and in the morning followed some hawks into rising thermals. A high point was flying over the dramatic vertical granite spires of the Bugaboos.

"I've dreamed of that flight for 15 years," Gadd said. "I was at 13,000 feet (3,962 metres), but I could see the roof of Conrad Kain Hut, and the west face of the Howsers is huge! I gotta go back and climb that. Those big icefields sure cut down on the thermals though, I didn't want to land somewhere I needed crampons to climb out of."

Landing on the beach in Invermere, he joined friends who were planning a weekend paragliding festival. Despite high winds that shut down the event, he navigated some of his strongest conditions ever near Mount Assiniboine in Canmore en route to landing in a ball diamond and walking a few blocks to his house.

Gadd credits his success to a lifetime of experience pursuing various mountain sports, including 3,000 hours of flying time, as well as training specific to this challenge, and the willingness to land in remote wilderness - even startling a bear.

"The locals have been trying to fly over the Monashees for years," he said. "I guess I wanted it more. I was willing to land really deep and fight my way out. I had to make a full commitment.

"I love being out in the mountains and carrying everything I need for a couple of days on my back. That perspective gave me a lot of freedom. Seeing marmots in the alpine and then launching and seeing the same terrain from the air - the sporting part of the mountains is fun, but getting a sense of the whole landscape is where it's really at."