My mom writes a Christmas letter every year and always asks my sister and I to write a paragraph of what we did. For the last 13 years mine has been a discourse on wherever the boat had gone that year. Caribbean, South Pacific, Melanesia, Australasia, Africa, etc. It’s typically been a jammed-pack paragraph, and has always helped me realize how truly thankful I am as the holidays roll around. As I started writing this years recap I fully expected a somewhat more toned-down account.
But as I started writing it became immediately obvious that I must be suffering a mid-life travel crisis. I moved to Sun Valley a year and a half ago for three main purposes: 1) Paraglide, 2) Live in the mountains, and 3) travel less (by choosing to live in paradise, there would be little reason to move around as I have for all of my adult life). My flying buddy and natural wordsmith Nate Scales said something that took me awhile to figure out when we were filming the 500 Miles to Nowhere movie. “I love paragliders for where they TAKE you, and for where THEY take you.” At first I thought why the redundancy? But then he explained it. The first, where they TAKE you is the absolute unknown every time we launch. On all three of my big flights this July, which culminated in the record flight of 240 miles, I had no idea where I was going, and no idea where I would end up. We launch- and then we never know where the wing is going to take us. The second, where THEY take you is where the paragliders bring us in our pursuit of our passion. Like skiers and surfers, pilots chase weather all around the globe seeking their next fix, their next high (for paragliders- literally).
In December I took my first trip to Valle de Bravo, in Mexico to compete in the Monarca; a flying site I’d dreamed of for years but was never available during my sailing years as January is a core wind month north of the equator for our kitesurfing expeditions (ie I was working). From Mexico I went further south to compete in the Superfinal in Roldanillo, Colombia. In February I visited my ailing father in Borneo and spent a week surfing in Lombok, Indonesia.
In March I joined my friends Benny Abruzzo, Mike and Stu Belbas who run Verbier Summits Paragliding and their families for the “Small Bus Tour”, a heliskiing trip in Northern BC with Benny’s company, Northern Escape.
From Northern BC I swapped out my gear in the Vancouver airport and flew directly to Panama for “work”, taking over the helm of Discovery for three weeks for two back-to-back trips to Coiba island. I wrote a story about that experience on the Cabrinha Quest kitesurfing expedition website.
Back to Sun Valley in April for a 22 day punishing rally on the house, where we moved 30 tonnes of Earth and rock, and other generally dull back-breaking work to upgrade the house with solar thermal, refurbished oak floors, new roof; and sadly lost my greatest friend in the world when my Dad died after a horrible battle with Leukemia.
In early May I returned to Europe and the Niviuk mobile with Nate Scales and Bruce Marks to chase some spring flying. May later became known as “Armageddon” as it must have been the wettest May in history. We did manage a few memorable flights in France, Switzerland and Italy between long bouts in the mobile and big belts of scotch running from the rain.
As Bruce and I sat in yet more rain in the Dolomites I got an email from river rat Gerry Moffatt who was back home in Sun Valley. He had a permit for the Middle Fork of the Salmon (ie the “River of No Return”), a multi-day trip that I’ve wanted to do since I heard about it back in my paddling days in the 90’s. Back to Sun Valley, down the river for 6 glorious days, then back to Europe where this time around the weather cooperated a bit more, allowing 5 solid flights of 100+ kilometers from Riederalp, Fiesch, Verbier, Spiekboden, and Scuol, including a near-circumnavigation of the Eiger, Jungfrau, and Monch, which was truly extraordinary.
I grabbed a train from Italy and sprinted back once again to the US, this time to compete at Woodrat in Oregon, a seriously fun comp that went incredibly well except for a very Gavin-typical rabbit decision on the second day which killed my overall ranking, but gave me plenty to think about and quite a bit to be happy about given how little competition flying I have done.
And then I had the best week of flying of my life. It started July 9th, with a personal best out over the Continental Divide of 256 kms (156 miles). I hadn’t properly flown my new home except during last years PWC, which had been my second comp and the first time I’d flown a comp wing so this flight really surprised me. I knew it was good here- but holy shit! Matt and Nate’s records of 192 miles and 199 miles in 2012 were the main reasons I moved to Sun Valley in the first place. When I saw those records go up I was in Europe getting my first 100 km flights of my flying career. I couldn’t imaging going that far, couldn’t imagine what flying in mountains that big could be like. I’d never even flown with Oxygen and now suddenly I was flying 50 km farther than I ever had!
A few days later, on July 14th Nate and I launched again and made it into Montana (visit “Hypoxic Magic Lines“), across the Pioneers, Big Lost, Lemhi’s, and the Contental Divide onto the Tobacco range. We got separated early in the flight and I had no idea where I was going until I could see Bozeman in the distance. I knew if I got there I’d have the Idaho and National record, but I ran out of day just a few km’s short. Far from being disappointed, I was thrilled at again going more than 50 km farther than I ever had and what I was seeing up there…simply mindblowing. Literally- I was good and hypoxic for a lengthy run there in the last hour, which makes vision a bit interesting!
Our buddy Mike Pfau did us a solid and chased us all day then drove us home. I got a few skimpy hours of sleep and was literally driving back home the next morning when I got a call from Matt Beechinor, who was up on launch. I scrambled to the store for a sandwich, borrowed some O2 from Mike and pinged off launch…and went farther than anyone has in North America by foot launch (Will Gadd still holds the record by towing in Texas). See 240 miles Deep. The record traveled fast, hitting outlets like the Weather Channel, National Geographic Extreme Photo of the week, RedBull.com and many others. Shortly after magazines like Cross Country ran a full feature on the flight, “Confessions of an XC Hound.”
August was a bust. Fires and wind played havoc with our little valley and other than an attempt to fly to Jackson Hole (close, but no cigar) and an evening of soaring as the Beaver Creek fire got underway (which culminated in much of the valley being evacuated about a week later) our usually reliable month of flying went up literally in flames.
Then Nick Greece, Nate Scales, Matt Beechinor and I rocked down to Southern Utah with Jody MacDonald, Mike Jones and Jeremy Cannon shooting video and stills for a short film for Outside Television called “500 Miles to Nowhere“. The plan was to bivvy fly from Hurricane Ridge to Jackson Hole, but the weather was about an uncooperative as it can get and we ended up doing what we paragliders often do- chase weather. But we got what we needed in the can to make a fun movie and HUGE kudos to Mike Jones for his endless hours of editing and incredible eye for perfection.
We got back from the 500 Miles expedition and mother nature had one more treat in mind. For years Matt has wanted to fly out to the Pioneer cabin and top land, spend the night, then fly home the next day. As the more stable fall days came to the Wood River Valley a perfect couple days appeared and we gave it a try. This video was recently released as the GoPro video of the day and got nearly 40,000 views in 24 hours. Pretty damn cool, and easily one of the best flying experiences I have had.
I returned to Europe for the 3rd time in a year to practice a bit of acro and wander around the incredible Coupe Icare flying festival for a few days in France, then did a major haul to the other side of the world in French Polynesia to take over the boat for a trip around the Leeward Society islands of Raiatea, Tahaa and Huahine for a tiny bit of flying, and a good bit of kiting, diving, surfing and plenty of poker!
And finally, Jody and I headed to Patagonia, Chile just before Christmas to once again run the boat for a trip, this time with some of the boys from Patagonia (the company). Fletcher Chouinard, Jason McCaffrey, Tim Davis, Reo Stevens and Jason Slezak. We sailed, kited, surfed, and oggled snow capped peaks that run to the sea.
There’s only one way to describe this year. Ridiculous. I couldn’t be more thankful. And I can’t imagine what’s next.