All photos by Jody MacDonald
Warning: If you have an aversion to doing things a long ways outside the box, this story is not for you. If you prefer a world of rules, regulations and standards, this story is DEFINITELY not for you. This is a story about risk. About approaching things a little differently. Ok, a LOT differently. It involves a King, helicopters, jumping out of said helicopters, flying and friends and pursuing adventure in a linear but very unusual way.
It begins over two years ago. Back then they were two completely different stories, but now they have converged as one so I will tell them as one. I was paragliding in Europe and ran into our good friends Mike and Stu Belbas, who run a paragliding school in the Alps called Verbier-Summits. We were sitting around drinking lattes between flights and they began telling me about Benny Abruzzo, one of their clients from the season before. Benny owns Ski Santa Fe and the Sandia Ski area in New Mexico. He’d done some hangliding back in the 70’s and 80’s and came to Mike and Stu to learn to paraglide. He liked them so much that at the end of his trip he invited Mike and Stu on the Small Bus Tour that March in Northern BC. Benny is part owner of a heli-ski company (Northern Escape Heli Skiing) and the Small Bus Tour was the name for his own personal week-long tour with his best friends and family. The helicopter lands right next to his house, on a lake at the foot of the coast mountains. A 5 minute flight and you are dead center into 7,000 skiable acres that typically gets an 80′ base. Big big mountains and Deep deep snow. So they are regaling me with stories of the Small Bus Tour and then tell me that on the trip Benny tells a story one night about a cabin up high in the Sandias that is kind of like his zen house. He goes there to get away, to think. He tells them that when he goes there he has a big stack of kitesurfing magazines and “just dreams about going on the Odyssey.” Turns out he’s talking about The Best Odyssey, the five year kitesurfing expedition Jody and I ran around the world from 2006 to 2011 (now the Cabrinha Quest). Mike and Stu mention that they know that guy, that they can probably get him on the boat.
So I’m like “guys what the hell! Why didn’t you tell me? I gotta meet this guy!” Turns out he was just over the valley in Chamonix with his wife Sandra climbing. So I hopped in the Niviuk mobile and drove over and tracked him down. It was an instant friendship and an easy deal. I go heli skiing, he goes on the boat. Done.
A couple weeks later I fly up to Alaska to scout something I’ve been dreaming about for some time. Jody’s brother George (not his real name) is a bush pilot bad ass who lives off the grid. Not far from Denali. Has a grass runway right on his property. No one knows Alaska better, no one plays harder. Flying with George is one of the coolest experiences a person can have. Pretty much everywhere you go you are right off the deck. He doesn’t understand why people fly around high. He doesn’t understand why people use runways. With George you land on beaches, rivers, mountain tops. He has floats, skis, or big tires for the changing seasons. People who crash their planes, or get them eaten by bears (seriously, bears eat the canvas and tires off planes up there all the time)- they call George to bring the plane back. Macgyver’s got nothing on this guy.
Back to my dream. I want to bivvy fly the full length of the Alaska Range. 350 miles. I can’t imagine a more remote, desperate or difficult flying line. Big mountains. Lots of bears. No people, no villages, no roads. So George and I are out in the range scouting with his Super Cub, a small 3 seater canvas plane. Day after day we fly out there, and I am overwhelmed at the bigness. Huge overhanging seracs, mammoth glaciers, difficult and impossibly beautiful terrain. We land in some obscure insanely pretty place and I do some paragliding but we can both plainly see that my dream is impossible. We’re assessing two totally different things. I see low cloud base and Alders- endless Alders. If I land in the Alders I’d have to commit suicide. You would never get out. He’s assessing support. For me to bivvy fly across the range I’ll need air support. Food drops. But he wouldn’t be able to get to me and I would never be able to get to him. Then one day we fly through a pass to the northern side of the range. Suddenly everything changes. From a paraglider’s perspective it all works. High cloud base. Plenty of places to land. But from George’s it’s even worse. On the north side of the range there is nothing. No villages. No roads. No place to land a plane. No place to get fuel. He could support me- but not with an airplane. The dream dies.
A year later I’ve had my first trip on the Small Bus Tour, my first time heli-skiing and speed flying out of a helicopter. 7 blue bird days with perfect snow. No reason to expound on this, as you can imagine it was an all-time experience that I will take to my grave.
George calls me out of the blue late one night a month later. “Gavin, we need to buy a helicopter.” I tell him he has the wrong number. I only know two things about helicopters, both of them learned on said heli ski trip. They are expensive, and they are very hard to fly. But George says this is a small helicopter and we can buy it for cheap. And he reminds me that he is George- he can fly anything and he’s already certified to repair helicopters so all he’s got to do is learn to fly it. And then he hits me with the clincher. “Gavin, we’re not getting any younger.” A mull it over for a few weeks and find that I am getting dangerously close to pulling the trigger so I finally call Jody (I was back in Europe paragliding at the time) hoping she will talk some sense into me. She replies “stop being an idiot, can you imagine the crazy shit we will do? Get the damn thing!” So…we push retirement back a bit longer and buy a helicopter.
Last fall Benny and his wife Sandra join us on the boat in Polynesia and I learn that Benny is actually the King of New Mexico. Benny has a heli-skiing operation and I get to go with him. He can be whoever he wants! So Jody and I go visit the King in Northern BC a few weeks ago for my second Small Bus Tour. All the usual suspects are in attendance. People I’ve grown to love. People with huge hearts and a penchant for an unreserved approach to having fun. Each day we throw speed wings and powder skis into the heli and head up into a winter wonderland to fly and ski until our legs give out.
Then we shuffle gear in the Vancouver airport and head back up to Alaska to play with our new toy. George flies anything- planes of all kinds, paramotors, paragliders, speed wings. Helicopters are in fact very hard to fly, but he’s picked it up in no time. When we arrive we start to plan what we’re going to do with our time. We are shooting a trailer for the big bivvy trip, so we need to do some filming. We develop a shot list. We’d like to do some speed flying, we need to shoot some footage of the Alaska range, I’d like to figure out how to D-Bag out of a helicopter (jump out with a paraglider).
We’re talking about all of this and George says, “hey do you want to go skydiving?”. He had purchased a parachute on eBay this winter. It arrived in the mail packed and he got his buddy Jake to take him up to 10,000 feet in his plane and he jumped out and free fell 6,000 feet. He’d never done any skydiving before. It went well so he and his son packed it that night with the help of YouTube and he jumped again the next day. That also went well. He’s telling me this story and I’m laughing as hard as I think most people would be hearing this story. Crazy right?
So he asks me if I want to go skydiving. I say sure, that sounds fun! So we get out his rig and we pack it (again using a YouTube video). Then he asks me what I remember about skydiving? I did a tandem jump in California when I was 18. 24 years ago. I don’t remember much. Something about “banana”?
“Exactly!” he says. “That’s all there is to it. You jump out, play around for 5,000 feet, then get into banana! Just keep your head, don’t panic or do something stupid and remember banana. Look- here’s the reserve over here if something goes wrong, pull that.”
We decide to do it with the helicopter. I read some scary stuff about people jumping out and getting their drogue shoot getting pulled out as they are exiting the ship and lines going into the tail rotor and everyone dying. So we do a dry run on the ground, go over the exit procedures. Set up the GoPro cameras. Decide that I will jump out backwards so I can shoot the helicopter as I drop away from it. Jody keeps asking me why I’m not nervous? People get in trouble because they panic. They freeze. I like crazy, I love adrenaline. Assuming we’ve packed the chute approximately correct this is all going to work out just fine. I’m going to jump out, get to terminal, figure out how to move around, get into banana, maybe do some tricks and spins if I can figure that out and keep an eye on my altimeter and pull at 3500 feet. If that doesn’t work I’ll pull my reserve. Simple.
We fly up to 7,000 feet and I get out on the skids, take a look around, get the thumbs up from George and look down and finally the heart ticks over a bit faster so I look back at George and he points as if to say…ok man, now’s the time. And I jump. I fall back and lock my head onto the helicopter to get the shot then roll over onto my stomach, find banana, look at the altimeter, realize I’ve still got a lot of time so I pull back my hands and dive down at the Earth and feel things go VERY VERY Fast, then pull back into banana, figure out that I can move a little with my hands and do some fast circles back and forth. Do another dive cause the first one was crazy good fun. Then I pull back into banana and pull the chute.
I agree with George after it’s all over. Skydiving is super fun, but it’s really just a novelty. Something to do to get your kicks every once in awhile. I can’t understand why anyone would do it over and over again. But then most people can’t understand why someone would want to paraglide hundreds of miles over big mountains either. I just find the latter is just way way way more intense and dangerous and I find the sustained energy and mindfulness required to do it more addicting.
We spend our final days in Alaska seeking out places to fly and testing out procedures with the helicopter. There are so many small pieces of this huge puzzle that are going to have to fit together perfectly for the expedition to succeed and all this practice is crucial. But we leave plenty of time for fun as well and on our last day we take the heli out to the Knik Glacier and set up a slack line in an amphitheater of ice. Falls hurt a bit more than usual, but…well- can you imagine?
For now the Alaska paragliding expedition remains a dream. Something tantalizing that seems a long ways away. Another year of planning is required and even then a whole lot of things need to fall in place. But George is right, we’re not getting any younger.