Scary Stories 1
I wrote recently about a (slightly disturbing) theme I’ve noticed emerging for my 2019: facing fear.
I’m not a particularly fearful person, but like anyone else, there are things that I choose to avoid simply because they’re scary; and so far, this year has felt like a challenge to step into some of those things anyway and see what lies beyond them.
Because I think I said it best in that initial post: At the heart of being scared, for me, is almost always fear, pride, or some combination of the two. And I’m convinced that pretty much everything good and fun is on the other side of those things.
Some of those things might not seem like a big deal in the grand scheme of things — most of the things I’ve done despite being scared haven’t been big, sweeping gestures of courage that changed my life or others all that much. A lot of times it’s the small joy-givers, the just-for-fun experiences. But overcoming fear in those areas gives me confidence in all the others, and a lot of the things I’ve done as a result of them have made me more, well, me.
I also said that a lot of my favorite memories and stories are the direct result of doing things I was nervous to do but decided were still worth (or necessary) giving a whirl. The more I thought about that, the truer it became; and rather than try and throw them all in a single post, I decided I’ll just do a little series called Scary Stories, in which I tell you (and remind me of) a story about a time I did something scary and was happy, proud, or at least totally did not regret it. Hopefully, you’ll enjoy them; and I’ll get a chance to reinforce my commitment to doing more scary things this year.
Without further ado, here is Scary Stories 1: Running Off The Top Of Snowmass Mountain.
Growing up, my family went to Colorado every summer. In one particular town we began returning to over and over when I was in early high school, we’d all noticed frequent paragliders spinning their way down through the sky to a local landing zone, and I would half-jokingly comment that I wanted to try it someday.
The summer before my third year of college, while on that annual trip, I noticed the paragliders again. I caught myself wishing I was the type of person who would actually go do that, and decided that the only difference was just… well, doing it. I had a little spending money saved up, and after trying (and failing) to get my dad to join me, I signed up for a tandem glide on my own. Two days later, I biked to the company’s storefront, signed a waiver, and joined a couple other groups on a bumpy truck ride to the top of the local ski mountain. (“You’re by yourself?” a concerned mom who was just riding up with her husband and son queried. “Are your parents watching from the bottom?” I shrugged. “I don’t think so,” I answered to her utter dismay.)
Much like skydiving, the basic idea of paragliding is jumping from a great height with a parachute. With paragliding, though, the chute is open the whole time — falling isn’t the point, hang time is. It’s much slower and gives you time to really take in the world from thousands of feet above.
Another key difference is that instead of jumping, you run off the top of something tall and very steep; which is just as counterintuitive as jumping, but it’s quite a sustained period of counterintuitive. Jumping only takes a second of ignoring my screaming brain. Running takes many more seconds of deliberately disobedience.
Of course, I didn’t know any of that at the time. We piled out of the truck at the highest point of the mountain and our guides started spreading out their chutes near the top of the steepest face on the mountain. We put on helmets and vests, and I watched with increasing butterflies as the first pairing took off and realized what, exactly, I had signed up for.
Before I had the chance to chicken out, my pilot ushered me towards our chute. The canopy was spread, billowing, across the grass, and I picked my way down carefully down to the end of the suspension lines below. After a few final adjustments, the pilot joined me and strapped us both in. He watched the sky as though the wind was a visible creature to him, his gaze intent, and at the same time gave me basic instructions: When he gave the signal, I was to stand up and sprint, as hard as I could. Then — on his signal again — I’d tuck my legs up, almost a jump, and sit back.
And fall to our death, my brain said!
But it was too late, and a few seconds later, the pilot was shouting. We were up and running for the briefest moment, but the wind changed slightly and he grabbed me by the shoulders and pulled both of us down to the ground. I bit my lip and heard my heartbeat pounding in my ears.
“Bad gust, we need to readjust,” the pilot assured me, unbothered. Still in tandem, we rolled over and inched our way back up the few feet we’d made it down the mountain side. He unclipped from his links and re-spread the chute, then joined me once again. We waited longer this time, chatting amiably despite my zapped nerves.
After a few minutes, he squinted and nodded. The wind was right now. He wanted to make the leap.
Oddly enough, the failed first attempt made the second feel easier. It was as though my brain had given up and accepted its fate. I was also more committed to the run this time — I wanted to do everything in my power to keep us on course. When the pilot gave the signal, I took off like I was in the NFL combine.
My legs burned from effort as the dug into the ground, and then, suddenly, I felt my weight pulled from above me. The chute billowed up and caught the wind. Pull up, came the signal. I jumped, tucking my knees upwards, and in the most otherworldly swoop, we were suddenly whisked above the trees we’d been barreling towards in total, effortless flight.
Once the initial adrenaline rush had passed, it was replaced with kindergarten-style excitement and total awe. We circled the landing zone, floating and dipping with the breeze, and I gazed wonderstruck at the mountains I could see for miles in every direction. I noticed landmarks I’d passed a million times in the car or on a bike made miniature from our perspective; tiny patterns, crystallized into a landscape that was even more sprawling from a birds-eye view than I could grasp from one on the ground. It was beautiful to an almost-heartbreaking point.
I got to know my pilot as we made our descent — found out more about how he had gotten into the hobby, that his girlfriend was also a paragliding pilot and that they arranged trips around places with points high enough for takeoff. A couple of times, when the breeze was right, he tilted the suspension lines so we would spin rapidly downward — a momentary roller coaster that had me laughing like a maniac.
As we approached landing, he gave me new instructions: We’d be coming in quick, and running was once again key. I’d need to start pedaling my feet before we hit the ground and if we were lucky, we’d hit in stride and jog to a smooth finish.
Despite our best efforts, we were not lucky, and hit the ground and crashed in a heap of flailing limbs. The parachute sputtered around us before working itself flat against the earth again. I was laughing so hard I couldn’t breathe.
For al the fear and a few bruises, I was glad I’d done it, even if it wasn’t beautifully executed. I beamed the whole bike ride home. I felt braver than I had when I’d left a few hours before, grateful for the beauty I’d gotten to experience, and proud of the nerve it took. It’s still one of my favorite things I’ve ever done, and something I hope to do again someday.
Maybe even with a better landing.