Look up from any Fernie patio on a summer evening and you may see some colourful action in the skies above you. Paragliding has been a part of mountain sports in Fernie for more than four decades, and the area is home to an active and rapidly growing flying community. 

The modern paraglider is a remarkable piece of engineering: the world’s only aircraft that fits in a backpack. Made of lightweight nylon, the paraglider resembles the shape  of a skydiving parachute but is designed for efficient gliding and sustained flight, with a comfortable sit harness and precise steering through toggles for each hand. The whole  kit weighs no more than 15kg and costs less than a high-end mountain bike.

Pilots take off from mountaintops or hillsides, wherever a suitable breeze can be found. Gradual slopes are best. The pilot runs to build speed and smoothly takes flight – no cliff jumping required. Paragliders fly at around 40 km/h and a skilled pilot can stay aloft for hours on end.  

Paragliding is a flow sport with natural comparisons to whitewater and surfing. Just as standing waves form wherever the river flows over a boulder, the west wind that flows up and over Morrissey Ridge creates a wave of air, keeping gliders aloft as they surf back and forth. 

Adventurous “cross-country” pilots will venture beyond the ridge to hunt for thermal updrafts, rowdy columns of hot rising air that can carry you to heights over 12,000  feet.  After topping out a thermal, the pilot  will set off on glide in  search of the next one  – hopping from thermal to thermal, crossing mountain ranges and flying greatdistances, landing only when the heat of the sun disappears. With a good forecast, determination and a bit of luck, pilots starting in Fernie have flown as far as Fort Steele, Elkford, the US border, and the Continental Divide.

Paragliding is equal parts mountain sport and civil aviation, and flying a paraglider  in Canada requires a “P2” pilot’s licence. Learning to fly a paraglider is more accessible and affordable than any other form of aviation, with training offered by flight schools throughout BC. As a student pilot, you’ll learn to fly solo from the very first flight, with instructors carefully watching and guiding you by radio. After a day or two of ground school and practice at a small training hill, you’ll soon be setting up for your first high-mountain flight. 

The sight of your feet leaving the ground for the first time is unforgettable!  A dedicated student can usually complete their license in ten full days of training – weather permitting.  Booking an intensive course at a full-time flight school is well worth it; pursuing training on weekends is possible but can take a full season or more when the limitations of weather are factored in.

With numerous launch sites, a long flying season, and challenging and rewarding terrain, Fernie is becoming a major paragliding hotspot for local and visiting pilots alike. If you’re a fan of airtime in other sports but can never seem to get enough, paragliding may be in your future too.

Toby Steer is a paraglider pilot and tandem flight instructor in Fernie. Follow @fernieparagliding on Instagram to learn more.

Photo by Serge Chiasson