Photograph by Jody MacDonald
The Paragliders: Will Gadd and Gavin McClurg
Two near strangers complete a revolutionary paragliding traverse of North America’s most rugged wilderness and redefine the standards for paragliding.
On August 1, Gavin McClurg and Will Gadd were spiraling upward in paragliders above Canada’s iconic Mount Robson. The thermal lift of air rising from the south face was pulling them upward at thousands of feet per minute—conditions couldn’t have been better. The two paragliders were moving so quickly that an A-star helicopter, there to film the start of a 400-mile-long journey down the spine of the Canadian Rockies, was having trouble keeping up with them. Over the roaring sound of the wind, McClurg could hear Gadd laughing maniacally. Thirty-five days later, the two men would reach the United States border to complete the longest air journey by a paraglider and redefine the standards by which the sport is measured.
“It’s been months and my blood pressure still elevates [when] thinking about it,” says Gadd, 47. “The coolest things aren’t defined by numbers or geographic lines; they are defined by what’s going on in the landscape. We could triple the length of the flight we just did, but I don’t think it would be any cooler.”
McClurg and Gadd had never flown together or even met before their trip, but they did share an adventure pedigree. Both are world-class kayakers. Gadd is best known for his ice and mixed climbing, a discipline he has stood at the leading edge of since the late 1990s. McClurg has sailed more than 170,000 nautical miles in pursuit of remote kiteboarding and surf locations. They shared the desire and skill to push the sport of paragliding. In paragliding races, like the famed Red Bull X-Alps, progress can be made by both flight and by foot, so when weather turns bad pilots simply walk, something Gadd and McClurg equate to a kayaker portaging a rapid.
“It turns into backpacking,” Gadd says. “We aren’t backpackers. I want to fly.”
Gadd and McClurg practice the evolving discipline of vol-bivy, French for “fly camping.” This is a fringe sport even by adventure-sports standards. According to Gadd, in Europe, there are about 80,000 paragliders. In North America, those numbers shrink to 6,000. Among that population, Gadd estimates that there are maybe 50 pilots that are using paragliders to make long, multiday journeys across rugged landscapes. Most of those flights happen in the Alps, where a road is never more than about ten kilometers away.
During their adventure in summer 2014, the pilots used thermals to gain altitude and then glide forward until they were able to find another thermal. In this fashion, they were able to leapfrog across a landscape. Their route crossed only five paved roads on the way to the border. When conditions were favorable, they were able to travel over 60 miles. Most often the fickle Alpine weather made travel sporadic and they could fly only 15 to 20 miles. At the end of each day, the pair tried to find a suitable landing zone above the tree line. This proved to be the biggest challenge.
“There was a day where we flew 50 miles without a single place to land,” says 42-year-old McClurg, who currently holds the North American record for the longest single paragliding flight (240 miles) where the pilot launched by foot. “That was special. It made me shift how I think about flying.”
After successfully identifying a landing zone, they would camp for the night, and, the next morning, weather permitting, launch from the spot where they landed. All forward progress along the route was completed through flight. When they hiked, it was only to retrace their flight path in order to find a suitable spot for takeoff.
"It was absolutely terrifying terrain to fly through," McClurg says. "We had to break all the rules of cross-country flying to get through huge sections of the route. You just don’t fly over terrain where you can’t land, and we had to do it continuously."
A crash, bad weather, or damage to the wing could potentially require several days of bushwhacking through grizzly country to get to a road where they could hitchhike or meet a waiting vehicle. At one point, while pinned down by weather at Kinbasket Lake for four days, the two men considered building a raft from downed trees as an escape plan. Fortunately, the weather cleared and they were able to continue flying along their route.
National Geographic Adventure: You two had never met in person before you started this trip. How did this partnership come about?
Gavin McClurg: I wanted to go further than anybody else. Set a record … that was hard. People were doing these paragliding trips and hitchhiking and walking and biking on days they couldn’t fly. To go further, you had to be willing to walk farther. When I talked to Will about it on the phone, he was unexcited. He said people have already walked across the Rockies, there is no way we are going to do something longer that’s just walking. People have been doing that for millennium. That’s when he came up with the idea. I was thrilled to try something new. Nobody had ever done it.
Will Gadd: It felt like rehearsing for a blind date. It’s pretty serious to go on trip like this with someone you didn’t know. I called up a bunch of friends we had in common and said, “Who is this guy Gavin? Is he going to be a total nut job?” All my friends said “Yeah he’s a total nut job. You guys are going to have a great time.” You can’t be completely sane and do this stuff.
NGA: Will, you’ve upped the standards not just in paragliding, but also in climbing. What are your goals moving forward?
WG: The pursuit of sheer technical difficulty starts to lose its interest. I’ve been there. I’ve done thousands of pullups. Hundreds of thousands of pullups. I’ll keep doing pullups. I like pullups. I just want do something other than pullups in the future. There’s cool stuff out there. I don’t want to miss it while I’m doing pullups. Now, I’m less interested in being rad, and more interested in the amazing places out there. This trip confirmed that.
NGA: It seems like paragliding is evolving quite rapidly at the moment. Did this trip change the way you looked at future trips?
GM: The lines we have available for us to fly in the American West are pretty much unlimited. It’s like big-wave surfing 30 years ago or alpine climbing in Jeff Lowe’s days. This line we just did—it wasn’t even on my radar. This is a new frontier, and it’s just happening in paragliding. Is our trip going to press the reset button on this very small, fringe sport? I hope so. It’s definitely the purest way that you can pursue it. It’s not about the distance really. It’s about finding an aesthetic line to fly that is personally inspiring.
NGA: How would you describe each other?
GM: I can’t believe how much energy Will has. He is such a professional. We didn’t always agree in our approach, but looking back he was always right. His decision-making ability is second to none. He called me a pathological optimist. He said, “Your glass is half full, and I’m looking for the rock that’s going to break the glass.”
WG: We got along really well. Gavin is very solid and a very, very motivated pilot. This is what he wants to do with his life. For me, flying is something I love and love to do, but it’s just one part of my life. For Gavin, it is his life and, as a result, I think he’s going to do some cool flying.
NGA: What was the highlight of the trip?
WG: The first day. We flew directly over Mount Robson. We had perfect weather, and that just doesn’t happen on that peak. I’ve driven past it a hundred times and I think I’ve only seen it five. We thermalled up the south face, which I’ve actually climbed. To be the first to fly over Robson with Gavin—well, I felt stunningly lucky. We had an A-Star helicopter there filming. We sessioned Mount Robson. We spiraled down and thermaled back up. The machine couldn’t even come close to keeping up with us.
GM: Will was definitely yelling like a madman.