New England Paragliders Converge on Valle de Bravo, Mexico in 2017

 Calef Letorney leads PGNE students through the Valle de Bravo site brief.

Calef Letorney leads PGNE students through the Valle de Bravo site brief.

In this post...

  • Now That’s a Site Briefing!
  • Who Brought The New Guy?

  • The 3 Amigos & International Relations.

  • Vultures Converge!

  • The Culture of Progress.

 

Now That’s a Site Briefing!

It was the week before Thanksgiving. The expected gloomy days of “shoulder season” had settled upon New England and paragliding would soon give way to winter activities. Except that at that moment, paragliding was very much top of mind. Gathered in my living room along with PGNE partners Calef Letorney, Paul Somerset and I, were nine clients settled into a deep-dive briefing on the paragliding scene in Valle de Bravo, Mexico. We would leave for our first official PGNE guided trip in a couple weeks on December first.

Flying a new site for the first time brings both exhilaration and some nervous anticipation. Valle de Bravo has its own ‘lore’ not lost on those gathered in my living room on that day– most of whom would be flying Valle de Bravo for their first time very soon. This wasn’t lost on Calef, Paul or myself either. For that reason we organized that day to meet and review with our crew and prepare them for making the most of our upcoming trip to one of the most remarkable flying and XC training destination known the world over.

Projected on a large movie screen in front of us was Google Earth zoomed in to the popular launch known as El Peñón, where we would be flying daily. Calef was guiding his captive audience through the terrain features around Valle de Bravo as if we were there– flying through the landscape in seemingly life-like scale and realism. Periodically he’d compare Earth views with thermalling marks displayed on flight tracks from past trips along with video footage. Seamlessly, Calef would interject segments on whitewater kayaking and fluid dynamics with photos of river wave action, eddies and rapid-induced “holes” parlaying those topics to photos and diagrams of terrain features like El Peñón, The Wall, Las Peñitas, the mesa, and more. Our crew was thoroughly engaged, if but a tad intimidated.

Weather and geography gave way to discussion on thermalling strategies, navigating traffic, and safe flying protocols. We played out scenarios and dug into the details of our gear, communications and logistics. This was a five hour educational marathon the likes of which these pilots had never experienced before. We warned ahead of time– “this will be like drinking from a fire hose, but it will really make things easier when we arrived in Mexico.”

 Calef guides a student through harness adjustments while hanging in a paraglider simulator.

Calef guides a student through harness adjustments while hanging in a paraglider simulator.

We followed the classroom briefing with reserve repacks and “simulator hangs” to fine-tune harness and gear configurations. More Q&A. The whole crew chatted away in nervous anticipation– “Calef, you think we’ll make the lake?” “Will we be able to go cross country every day?”. Like a sage with his charges, Calef would reply– “Hard to say, but I am confident you’ll learn more and get more experience in this one week in Valle as you will all summer flying in New England!” As the sun set and everyone departed wide-eyed but stoked, parting words from several in the crew resonated– “Now, that was a site briefing!”

We had their attention!

 

Who Brought The New Guy?

We arrived in Valle de Bravo, Mexico to blue skies and high pressure. For the next two weeks, Calef, Paul and I would be guiding pilots at the art of cross country flying. We arrived the day before with only minor travel hiccups. Yes, yes... our youngest, greenest client (“the new guy”) missed his flight from Burlington, VT and had to scramble to get re-routed. Luckily, he arrived in Mexico without too much more complication and didn’t miss a beat– foreshadowing the rest of his trip!

Our first flying day was a demanding thermalling clinic for our crew as we were met with high pressure, inversion and fairly small, rowdy thermals– not unlike New England flying! Fortunately we were on the early side of the flying season without huge crowds of pilots, which allowed our crew to ease into gaggle flying. Generally the approach we took was for me to launch first and be the “air marshal” maintaining altitude overhead to keep an eye on everybody from the sky as Calef and Paul assisted our pilots on launch. Progressively, our crew would launch, find the “house thermal” and try to work their way up to my position above the crowd. Periodically, I’d radio a wayward pilot– “hey, how ‘bout you fly back into the ‘triangle of success’ over here”. All the while we’d monitor conditions, the crew’s performance, and the opportunity to go “over the back” and start our XC mission.  

 Looking "over the back" of launch toward (right to left) Las Peñitas cliffs and LZ fields and the peaks of Sacamacate, San Augustine and Escalaria forming the northeastern perimeter of the mesa. The lake and town of Valle de Bravo are out of view behind Escalaria.

Looking "over the back" of launch toward (right to left) Las Peñitas cliffs and LZ fields and the peaks of Sacamacate, San Augustine and Escalaria forming the northeastern perimeter of the mesa. The lake and town of Valle de Bravo are out of view behind Escalaria.

Most of our pilots already had thermaling experience. Some were powered paragliding pilots looking to further their piloting skills without their trusty motor. All were eager to soak up all the information they could. Then, there was “the new guy”... Full of high-energy and swagger, he came to us earlier in the season with a handful of skydiving jumps under his belt, just bursting with positive energy! After flying with us in the summer and fall, he showed a knack for quick learning. He trained hard early in the season, signed up for the Mexico trip, but then got busy competing in American Ninja Warrior competitions, so he came to Mexico with less experience than we had hoped he would have. We knew he had potential but we were very conscious to keep a close eye on him as he was definitely the greenhorn in the group. On his first day of flying, we sent him out early for what we thought we be a short flight, but he hooked his first thermal ever and had no trouble gaining altitude. An hour and a half later we encouraged him to go land before conditions got too strong for him!

With a couple of beautiful days behind us and everyone feeling the stoke, we arrived on launch the fifth morning with all the signs of a classic Valle day ahead.  Clouds were already popping nicely over the mesa, light winds, and no major inversion or signs of high-pressure. It was on! We soared over launch for an hour or so before some of our crew opted to land ahead of the midday peak heating. With everyone safe and accounted for at The Piano LZ or already started the XC flight, I set out to go “over the back”. I was chasing an excited, scratchy trail of radio chatter further ahead of me. Calef had three students following him somewhere beyond Las Peñitas a couple miles away.

To my surprise, one of those pilots was “the new guy”, hangin’ tough on his new BGD Epic, hot on the chase behind Calef on his much higher performance Sigma 10! We’ve been really impressed by the easy handling and stable characteristics of the Epic that make it ideal for beginners, but also the super fun handling and amazing performance that makes it a blast for any pilot to fly. I couldn’t see the action, but the radio chatter painted the picture clearly; “the new guy” had fallen a bit behind and gotten a bit separated from the gaggle. He was getting a bit low over the Mesa and needed another thermal. I heard Calef call out over the radio “Hey bud! You look a little low to be that deep over the Mesa. There are plenty of LZ options, but you want to retreat now or you risk a long hike out of there if you do not find another thermal.  Consider heading back to the Peñitas or going over the ‘President’s House’ to Jovan’s.” The new guy came back over the radio “No man, I am committed. I don’t mind the hike if I land out, but it is going to work. Look at the sunshine on these fields and those clouds building. The convergence is working! I am going to get a thermal out of here.” He was right and this was good logic, but a ballsy move for such a new pilot. A minute later Calef come back across the radio, “Hellz yeah! Work that thermal! Tighten up your turn to stay in it. Focus on mapping the core of the thermal so you don’t lose it! Keep climbing!” The excitement coming over the airwaves was palpable as I worked to catch up.

In a straight line, the south-to-north flight from launch to our lakeside landing zone in Valle de Bravo is just over eight miles– not far by most standards. But it requires flying over or around a six mile wide mesa that is higher than launch. Landing zones are abundant on the Mesa, but the hike out takes several hours.  Today, we followed a more circuitous dogleg route around the mesa perimeter that had us covering closer to ten miles as we worked the usually reliable convergence zone and terrain features; first east, then north. I cruised past San Francisco peak and soon found a beautiful feeder thermal boosting off Las Peñitas cliff tops. In minutes I was at 11,000’ over the turnpoint landmark hill of Sacamacate. I could see the rest of the gang ahead of me working a final climb over the Escalaria (north) zone of the mesa before going on glide for the Lake LZ. All the while, I continued to chase their excited hoots and chirps coming across the radio.

 Goooooooooollllllaaaaaa! "The New Guy" brings it home on his BGD Epic to celebrate at the lake.

Goooooooooollllllaaaaaa! "The New Guy" brings it home on his BGD Epic to celebrate at the lake.

So it was with an extra dose of surprise and amazement that upon landing at the lake I was met not just by Calef and several of our more experienced pilots (and our motor pilot, who also made his first trip), but also “the new guy” who just completed his first lake run (with two “low saves”) on only his fourth thermal flight ever! To put this in perspective, it’s not uncommon for pilots with over 150 thermal flights to say their goal for their third annual trip to Valle is to “make the lake”…. And our “new guy” made light work of it on his lovely new BGD Epic on his fourth thermal flight ever! In the fitting, cocky manner of a 20 year old he explained– “Yeah, I just didn’t want to go down there” referring to his low save in the middle of the mesa between Sacamacate and St. Augustine….  as if he just willed himself aloft. Calef and I both were thinking, “where did we get this guy? And how do we find more like him?” And if this wasn’t impressive enough, he and several other guys had a repeat performance the next day. In truth our entire crew was flying incredibly well and progressing daily. Not everyone chased epic XC flights each day, but all were finding new challenges and progressing their skills in their own ways.

 

The 3 Amigos & International Relations

It wasn’t just “the new guy”. Everyone in our crew was having their share of “wins” and flying well. Still, he did have a genuine knack for calling attention to himself and those around him. Between flights, he transformed into a non-stop, gag-reel mashup of the Tasmanian Devil, a cocky Leprechaun, and- no kidding- a legit American Ninja Warrior! This kid had enough energy to make Red Bull envious and he wasn’t shy about it! His fun-loving attitude was notably infectious on two other pilots in our crew as well. At any moment between the three of them (well ok, all of us) some antic, joke, one-upmanship, or gymnastic contest was likely to erupt. So what’s a bunch of twenty-something, amped up, paragliders do in the down time before flying? Juggling, doing back flips and forming human pyramids or balancing, human... uh, sculptures?

 Ninja warrior skills.

Ninja warrior skills.

As the week went on and launch gained more of an international scene, we would sometimes catch our German cohorts looking on at this spectacle in bewilderment. We were starting to get the sense that they didn’t quite approve of this sideshow on launch. Clearly we weren’t serious enough by their measure. In our defense, we did have an (unofficial) Buddhist on our team meditating on our behalf to balance out our vibe. I say confidence comes with being relaxed and if goofing off provided the crew with the means to blow off some energy and get relaxed, I thought it was fine as long as they flipped the switch and were in the zone when it came time to fly. Besides, aren’t we are all a little better off during moments of levity? I think so!

 

The Vultures Converge

December 9th brought a changing of the guard as our first trip returned to the U.S. and a new group arrived for the second round. Another change from the first week was the weather. We were now under what would become a stubborn spell of high pressure and comparatively difficult flying for the remainder of the trip. The Vultures Flight Club is the made up name of a decidedly unofficial hodgepodge group of passionate bagwing pilots throughout northern New England. You could say our second crew was like a committee of the Vultures elders. Not to suggest these guys are above joking around– far from it... some of these guys (especially the new Spanish Southerner) are the funniest peeps I’ve had the pleasure to know…. But seemingly our German friends were more approving of the elevated maturity level on launch compared with the prior week.

 Siesta waiting for the winds to back down for the evening flight. 

Siesta waiting for the winds to back down for the evening flight. 

I’ve enjoyed flying with this crew for a number of years in Valle de Bravo, Tater Hill and elsewhere besides New England. So this trip felt a little less like “guiding” and more like a reunion with some fine feathered friends. This time around however things were a smidge different. Some guys had new wings. Some weren’t as current as they’d like. And most notably, the conditions were much more challenging. But everyone was fired up to get back in the action and before long we were all falling into familiar conversation and debates about flying and life.

A few days into our second trip we were still hampered by high pressure, inversion, high clouds, and unusual wind patterns. Not that high pressure is something we’re unfamiliar with, but anyone who’s flown Valle knows that it’s almost literally flyable everyday and made special by about half of the days being “perfect” with bountiful buoyant thermals marked by fluffy clouds. We experienced very little of that on the second trip… But exercising abundant patience and perseverance yielded good flights and several of us had a good streak of successful lake runs. The challenge of these conditions was excellent practice!

New-England-Paragliders-Converge-on-Valle-de-Bravo-Mexico-2017-blue-sky-gaggle.jpg

As we did with our first trip, each evening we sat around a computer to review video clips of our launches and discuss our flights. Watching the launch videos, Calef would carefully break down mechanics, timing, positioning and replay clips to illuminate potential areas for improvement. And this applied to all of us including “the guides”. To be clear, most of this crew were seasoned P4s. So any critique was largely aimed at setting an even higher bar for ourselves and striving for perfection.

Our video review routine became particularly poignant after one of our pilots had a bit of a wake-up call on launch. It was a classic case of being a bit out of practice with new equipment, and a moment of imperfect timing. The pilot was just a little late to check the surge, his wing overshot him as he torpedoed. The took took a frontal collapse and the pilot came to a skidding halt in a pile of fabric, lines and dust at the bottom of launch. Suffering some scratches, a banged knee, torn pants, a broken vario screen and a bruised ego, he took the remainder of the day off to recuperate.

 PGNE kiting practice day at the "Lake LZ", Valle de Bravo, Mexico

PGNE kiting practice day at the "Lake LZ", Valle de Bravo, Mexico

While we were all concerned and relieved that nothing worse resulted, this moment spurred something special for everyone. It’s quite unusual to have a day that is too windy in Valle de Bravo, but the following day presented just that. Instead of trying to manufacture a high wind flights (which many others did), we spent a good portion of the day kiting by the lake, rehearsing the fine points highlighted during our video review sessions. Some of the gang made this into a 4-6 hour kiting marathon! It was like a full blown kiting olympics including many short hop flights, “windshield wipers”, and kiting battles. It was really incredible to see such amazing progression in just a few hours!

 

The Culture of Progress

As paragliders, we understand that we are constantly in decision-making mode and balancing risk vs. reward in the pursuit of our passion to be free and untethered. We are often confronted with moments of uncertainty during critical decisions. I am both proud and humbled by the experience Paraglide New England shared with our pilots in Valle de Bravo, Mexico this year not because we had a great time, but because everyone made conscious choices to learn, accept failure, learn again and progress with new understanding.

 Calef "progressing" over the lake, Valle de Bravo, Mexico 2017

Calef "progressing" over the lake, Valle de Bravo, Mexico 2017

I’ve read stories by pilots much more seasoned than I about the challenge of finding a flying crew that is positive and encouraging. I hear tales about the “ground suck crowd” and recognize there are some circles in our sport that carry too much negative energy and unhelpful competitiveness. I have yet to encounter that flying with my New England crew. I feel exceptionally fortunate that the pilots I know and fly with, including those who joined us in Mexico this year, represent the kind of attitude that keeps everyone motivated and striving to excel with humility in the face of adversity. We give feedback and take feedback with respect to each other and continue to recognize opportunities to learn from each other, not despite each other.

Both groups that joined us in Mexico this year really showed how to make the most of every moment and be the positive energy we like to see. That’s what makes this sport special. We at Paraglide New England are fortunate to have a great team around us.

 Parting shot. Ryan Dunn, Valle de Bravo, Mexico

Parting shot. Ryan Dunn, Valle de Bravo, Mexico

By the way, take a look at this fantastic recap video posted by PGNE student Lyle Wilson:

We look forward to soaring with you very soon! For specific details and to inquire about future trips, please visit the PGNE Valle de Bravo page.   

The PGNE team