Climbing and Flight as a New Pilot

By Chris Diebold 10/10/2021

Technical mountaineering is a sport that completely draws ones focus into the task at hand. It’s a sport that can easily take everything out of you just to reach a perceived goal that is usually a summit. I had always grappled with the reasons that I continue to mountaineer and climb, as it is most certainly a heinous suffer-fest most of the time. But after years of wrapping my head around the reasons for doing such a thing, it’s actually quite simple. It is to dive into the unknown, explore a place that I would otherwise never find myself in, to put myself into a situation that is completely foreign yet at the same time entering a level of risk that requires complete and undisturbed focused on one thing and one thing only, climbing… at least until that turned into paragliding.

My goals with paragliding have quickly shifted to hike and flies… with hopes to bring mountaineering into the picture in the near future. Progression in paragliding has been a constant battle with myself. I am used to a certainly level of risk, which can sometimes be dangerous. I find it a little more straight forward to assess risk climbing in the mountains, because a lot of the risk is staring you in the face, whether it be a run out line with lack of protection or a hanging serac. Paragliding risks being almost completely invisible make remote hike and flying a challenge, specially in regards to progression with safety in mind.

Right after obtaining my P2 classification, I started by hiking up to EJ and Skyport (launches in Santa Barbara, CA) every single time I flew. Actually, my first mountain flight was a hike and fly with Chris Lorimer, Logan Walters, and Chris Garcia! Mountaineering combined with flying has always been the goal, so hiking up in Santa Barbara certainly didn’t check the box for mountaineering, but it kept my endurance up while whittling away at my mountain flying / thermalling skills and it drew me into the possibilities of just hiking with a wing on my back and flying off a random mountain.

My first venture into the unknown was flying off of Mt Baldy (San Antonio). I hiked up on a day where the lapse rate was poor, as I really wanted a smooth ride. I scouted a location for landing on the south side of the mountain in a wash that seemed pretty reasonable to land in. After finding an easy launch location with a generous run out, I set up to launch. Honestly, I was pretty terrified. It was the first time flying with no one else around at a place that was not a designated paragliding location and I had no beta what so ever. Thoughts were running through my head, like ‘what if the wind is too strong and I don’t make it to the wash? What if there is something I don’t understand about launching from 10,000 feet?’. Random thoughts of fear still run through my head when launching from a foreign location. I always have to calm down and think through those thoughts rationally. If there is a valid reason for the fear, then I re-assess and hike down. Hiking down is ALWAYS an option and I have certainly taken that route multiple times. But a lot of times that fear is present just because it’s a new place and there are a lot of unknowns. This thought process of risk assessment is very important on my any alpine climb. So this process of thinking is nothing new to me… the only struggle is identifying what the risks are.


Baldy launch from the North side (my second flight off of Baldy with a more robust lapse rate)

After that first flight from Baldy and easily landing in the wash, my confidence started to build. I spent hours going over topos and Google Earth looking at every single landing option in the San Gabriels so I could fly deeper and take the chances of pushing North rather than South. As long as there are safe landings everywhere, I felt confident enough to attempt a flight. When I built up the courage to do this, I ended up flying over 50k into the desert and reaching altitudes of 14,000 ft. My progression since, has been to fly farther in more remote locations to gain comfort with flying in new places.

The wash at the base of Baldy on the South side for an easy LZ

Flying over Devil's Punchbowl after the hike and fly off Mt Baldy.

A few things that have been super useful as a new pilot trying to do these riskier endeavors is a clinic Emily (my wife) and I took in Columbia with Eagle Paragliding. This was a trip full of super talented mentors that taught valuable skills in flying XC. Taking an SIV is extremely important for me personally. Building instant reflexes when an unexpected event happens is even more important when flying XC specially launching from a place that is relatively not flown.

In my hike and fly experience, there have certainly been instances where I pushed it too far, which has lead to me reeling back my confidence and taking things one step at a time. Fortunately, I have some of the best mentors anyone could ask for! They have helped me analyze where I pushed it too far and where I did not, so I can continue to progress in a safer yet ambitious manner.

The more I learn about paragliding, the more I realize it’s going to take a lot of time to get achieve the goals I have in combining mountaineering, with remote exploration, with flying. Diving into Vol Biv is my next benchmark. I can’t wait to continue learning more and more about this unbelievable and insane sport!

Sierras looking at the mountain adjascent to the launch off of Kid Mountain

Sierra at 16,000 after hiking up Kid Mountain (12,000ft launch)