Air Powder

winter speed flying paragliding

Speed riding, the dreamy combination of flight and skiing, arrives in the San Juans.

By Rob Story

Like most longtime Telluriders, I often dream about skiing. The most euphoric dreams occur when, as a skier, I skip merrily down tilted fields of puffy marshmallows. I never collide with obstacles, but rather, bounce harmlessly up and off them, for dreamtime me is spry and invincible. In these splendiferous dreams, I achieve the glory of weightlessness. Gravitational forces bend to my very whim. Therefore, my on-slope maneuvers carry me, effortlessly, both downward and upward. Both!

Turns out, the glory of weightlessness, the euphoria of escaping gravity’s cruel grip, have already arrived in the real world of our San Juan Mountains (which are actually covered in snow, not puffy marshmallows). How? Via the twenty-first century advent of “speed riding.” Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of it—almost no one has. As the name suggests, speed riding combines freeskiing and paragliding, giving “big mountain” skiers access to terrain that would otherwise be considered unrideable.

According to Ryan Taylor of Telluride Paragliding, the San Juans shine as a speed riding destination. “We get lots of sunny days here in the winter. The San Juans have always presented great backcountry skiing, and speed  riders here have lots of opportunities for first descents. Many of the peaks have never been ridden with a chute. You look around up there, and the world is your oyster. It’s stunning. I’ll ask myself: ‘What do you want to do today? What do you want to pioneer?’”

Speed riding is prohibited at Telluride Ski Resort—perhaps for good reason. Tourists would be shocked at skiers raining down from the sky, and there are only so many defibrillators in a small town. The resort, however, cares not what someone—say, a speed rider—does after exiting the Backcountry Access gate atop Gold Hill. “It’s a wonderful launch,” says Taylor, “allowing us to fly down into Bear Creek.” The drainage makes for ideal speed riding due to its alpine snowfields, wide landing zones, and huge vertical drop from Gold Hill.

In most cases, Taylor exits the gate solo or with fellow members of the Telluride Air Force, the non-profit organization that oversees foot-launched aviation in the region. While his company makes its bones taking tourists on tandem paragliding flights, tandem speed riding would be almost comically impossible and dangerous—well beyond the mere chaos of eight razor-sharp ski edges slashing about. “I can’t even guide speed riders,” Taylor says. “My insurance only covers the tandem operation. If an experienced speed rider is visiting town, though, I’ll go fly with them. But they need to be expert skiers who can handle the steeps of Bear Creek. And they need to ride with backcountry safety gear.”

Asked his preferred slopes for speed riding, Taylor rattles off Nellie Mine, E Ticket, Deep & Dangerous, Hairy Banana, and other routes traditional off-piste skiers hold sacred. Little Wasatch and La Junta Basin—“the nicest lines around,” Taylor asserts—are considered especially conducive to speed riding.

Speed riders boggle plenty of minds atop Little Wasatch. Taylor says that while preparing his wing, “Skiers look at me and say, good God, what are you doing? The nice thing about Little Wasatch is it’s very open, especially near The Wave. You can turn the canopy in such a manner that you’re descending with less speed, playing on the snow, then speed up the canopy and leap off a cliff.”

Speed riders perform a trick called “barrel rolls” to slow down, an inverted maneuver that looks as terrifying as it sounds. Maximizing their time near the surface floods their brains with some of humankind’s happier neurotransmitters. They term this particular euphoria a “ground rush.”

“You get in a ‘flow state,’” explains Taylor, 46. “You’re 100 percent in the moment. You’re going sixty, seventy miles an hour, skiing and soaring. One minute of speed riding provides so very much adrenaline—especially if it took you three hours to ski-tour up to the launch.”

For a more visceral understanding, check out the internet machine’s countless speed riding videos. Frequently shot with POV cameras mounted on helmets, they offer sublime visuals, like athletes nearly touching down upon their own shadows before joyfully lifting again into the wild blue yonder. The footage is jaw-dropping, with participants speeding down snow toward a giant cliff, then filling their chutes with air and soaring to the next alpine snowfield. As “Alaska Jon” Devore says in one Red Bull production, “We can pop off cliffs and hop out of gullies when we need to. If the conditions start getting bad, we just fly away.”

There aren’t many speed riders in Telluride. Taylor reckons only five dwell year-round in the region: Telluride Air Force president Karl Welter, Mark Snyder, Mark Simpson, Mickey Roy, and himself. Another member of Telluride Air Force, Jack Ulrichs, pilots tandem flights for Telluride Paragliding in summer and spends winter and spring speed riding around Montana.

Ulrichs, 25, is known for riding with a smaller chute than his elders: a high-performance air foil with shorter lines, like those used in Red Bull speed riding competitions in Europe’s Alps. High-performance foils permit higher speeds and more radical tricks. “I’ll get to a hundred miles per hour with my wing,” Ulrichs maintains. In addition to barrel rolls, he pulls dramatic spirals and dives. “The machine itself is actually more simple than a bicycle,” he says. “But riding with a high-performance foil is definitely an expert’s thing, combining expert skiing with expert flying.”

Speed riders ski on a variety of big mountain boards: under 200 centimeters in length with a 110 millimeter or so waist. Turn initiation isn’t that important to a speed rider, but balance is; ergo, Ulrichs likes to mount bindings closer to the skis’ center point than he would with his resort planks.

Pushing the limits in speed riding, Ulrichs says, “Is not all fun and games. I’ve seen people get seriously injured. You have to recognize your skill set and how much risk tolerance you have. In France, at Les Deux Alpes, I got helicopter-rescued after double-ejecting out of my skis and launching into a scree field. I hadn’t fully locked out my touring bindings, but I was OK in the end.”

Telluride locals know the Bear Creek drainage down pat, and fly/ski accordingly. Young, unmarried, gung-ho speed-riders like Ulrichs, however, tend to travel for their passion—if only because Montana experiences more lousy weather than Southwest Colorado. “I’d never wing off a mountain without knowing what’s below. We do a lot of terrain analysis, lots of studying via Google Earth,” the computer program that renders a 3D representation of the planet based on satellite imagery. “We’re looking for creeks, powerlines, ditches, fences, and other obstacles before we land somewhere.”

He raves about the sense of freedom that results from “playing in the fourth dimension,” relishing both terra firma and stratosphere. An experienced speed rider, Ulrichs says, can touch down with zero impact, gliding on the surface with ease. “Speed riding takes you to big lines that skiers can’t get to, mountains one could never reach simply by traversing on snow.”

The Montanan’s most beautiful speed riding moment occurred in the Gallatin Range near Big Sky. “It was a beautiful day, with a stable snowpack and six inches of fresh snow. We rolled off a 500-foot cliff alongside a frozen waterfall. To me, the ideal speed riding line involves twenty or thirty nice turns before concluding in a huge terrain feature that could never be navigated on skis alone.”

Like Taylor, Ulrichs worships the mind-body flow-state engendered by speed riding. “There’s a sense of pure bliss,” he says. “When flying and skiing come together, it’s a really beautiful thing. I think of it as ‘air powder.’ The slopes we access never get tracked out. And any mountain is fair game.”