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Gadd completes epic Vernon to Canmore paraglider flight

photo790.jpgCamping in a high alpine meadow 20 kilometres south of Revelstoke, B.C., Will Gadd was living his dream. Not only had he flown his paraglider high over the Selkirk Mountains, he had landed just a few kilometres’ walk from the perfect launch site from where he could continue flying the next morning. 

Despite two “epic” days wrestling through overgrown, debris-clogged logging cut blocks, his dream of flying from Vernon, B.C. home to Canmore 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 perfect.”

After years of studying Google Earth and topographical maps, and 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, he walked to the launch site carrying everything he needed on his back – paraglider, small tent, sleeping bag, bear spray, SPOT locator and food, but no cook stove or paraglider motor – intent on flying across the Selkirk and Rocky mountains.

“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 had never been accomplished: flying over the Monashee range, over the Selkirks and Purcells from Revelstoke to Invermere, and from Invermere to Canmore over the Rockies. 

“That [last] one is a line everyone talks about but never gets done,” Gadd said. “The winds were really strong up high and I spent an hour over Nipika Lodge thinking about whether I should land.”

While the last two days of his adventure proceeded relatively smoothly, Gadd doubted his fate as he spent two days wrestling B.C. bush west of Arrow Lake. 

 “I learned not all cut blocks are launch-able!” Gadd said. “In fact most are barely land-able. I thought I would have to leave my glider behind. The logging roads that show up on GPS were put in 10 to 20 years ago and B.C. bush just devours roads. Sometimes it’s easier to walk right through the devil’s club. At one point I was hiking and fell six feet off a log. It was the most dangerous thing I’ve ever done!”

Coming 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, that’s impressive.  

At one point trying to navigate the “aptly named” Plant Creek, Gadd attempted to launch from one cut block but wound up hanging six feet off the ground. So he did what any seasoned adventurer would – he called his mother on the satellite phone and she used Google Earth to suggest a navigable road from which a friend in Revelstoke could rescue 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.”

With the encouragement of friends he psyched himself back into the air. Originally hoping to complete the trip by walking and flying, he accepted lifts to a couple of launch sites. Flying from the Revelstoke ski hill over the spectacular Selkirks, he landed in the perfect high alpine campsite. The following morning, after a premature launch, the thermals began rising and Gadd followed some hawks into the air. 

A real 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, 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 in front of the Lakeside Pub, he joined friends who were planning for the weekend “Splashdown” paragliding event. He helped out in the morning then when the event was shut down due to strong winds, Gadd elected to launch. 

Taking care to follow a southern route beyond the national park boundary, he navigated some of the strongest conditions he’d ever experienced as the wind picked up east of Mount Assiniboine. From Spray Lakes over the “aptly named” Wind Pass, he approached Canmore just east of the Three Sisters, landed at the Elk Run ball diamond and walked the 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. Several other pilots took off from Vernon that day, but only Gadd persevered in especially tough conditions.

“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.”

It also brought him a bear encounter as he heard huffing outside his tent one morning. 

“I yelled ‘hey bear!’” he said. “I think I scared him. I heard that ‘woof’ and saw his butt end heading through the cut block with speed I envied.

“I can see the mountains from Vernon to here in my head now. I know how the drainages around the Bugaboos work. Flying over the Columbia River where it flows south and then north gave me a whole new appreciation for David Thompson. 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.”

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