view of davos, switzerland taken by a ski paraglider

above, view of the Alps taken by a ski paraglider

Paragliding on Skis

also known as "Ski Gliding"

This is an extreme sport that amounts to para-gliding off a mountain while skiing. Technically speaking, it's ski launched paragliding. It is not to be confused with the more mainstream sport of para-skiing, in which skiers use a parachute or sail to propel themselves across a flat surface, such as a frozen lake or bay. The primary difference is that Ski Paragliding usually involves flying, while paraskiers remain mostly on the terra firma.

Ski paragliding was brought to international attention by Francois Bon, an accomplished glider and free skier who made a stunning jump down the face of The Eiger. The video Bon made with his helmet cam is simply mind-numbing, and it created a huge buzz among skiers, paragliders, and within the climbing community. If you haven't seen it, the 2 minute video is embedded here:

The video riveted the attention of mountaineers and armchair climbers alike; well-known landmarks and reference points on the face of the storied Eiger sail past the camera -- skis touching some -- as if they're nothing more than terrain to be passed over. For such a revered edifice as the Eiger to be "treated" this way was nothing short of alarming in some circles. The real crime -- if any -- is that Bon made the plunge look so incredibly easy. Wannabee freeskiers and daredevils might easily be led on by the video, not realizing that Bon is one of the top gliders in the world, having built up to the Eiger descent through a lifetime of practice.

Intro to the Sport

Accomplished ski gliders scoff at the idea that this is an extreme sport. To some extent, they are correct: If you know how to operate a paraglider, and you know how to ski, you've covered the basics. If you're not an expert at one, make sure it's the skiing part that's lacking.

Ski paragliding isn't much different from summertime paragliding. The skills for flying are unchanged. The main thing is that wind characteristics can be radically different over a snow covered area; wind patterns in winter may be completely different over the same slope if you were to glide over it during the summer.

Skiing comes into play obviously during take-off and landing. An aborted take-off will require advanced skiing skills to stop; most ski gliding is done from high altitudes or mountains where conditions tend to be challenging. Take-offs are also tough if the canopy is crooked -- unlike a running start it is much harder to center yourself.

Landings are also more challenging, particularly if you have to land on grass or dirt. Most ski gliders use "rock skis," that is, skis that are older or skis that you won't mind banging up a bit. Landings in ungroomed snow can be just as challenging, mainly because it is hard to judge depth and distance against a whitewash background! Many ski gliders thought they were on the ground when they were actually 10 ft above it...and vice versa.

Readying your equipment is just like any other paragliding trip, although experts recommend that you use ski straps if you're near a populated area or particularly if you're gliding over a ski area -- the last thing you need is to drop a spear-shaped missile on someone's head. Also, telescoping poles are recommended, as they can be collapsed and are easier to manage in flight. Most ski gliders report that regular ski poles are more nuisance than anything else.

Like any sport, preparation is the name of the game. Ski paragliding is NOT recommended for people who don't have a high tolerance for risk, and certainly should not be undertaken until thoroughly trained in the use and operation of a paraglider.

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Masthead photos used by permission:
Ralf Roletschek
Creative Commons
US Army/public domain
Erik Charlton.