In this inaugural Cloudbase Mayhem podcast we hear from Bill Belcourt. When we were on the set of 500 Miles to Nowhere with Nate Scales, Matt Beechinor, Nick Greece and myself we had the opportunity to stop by Black Diamond Headquarters and sit down with Bill to discuss among other things throwing a rescue, what it takes to fly big lines, modern glider development, the history of the sport, the concept of “bringing it”, and a whole lot more. This episode is PACKED with incredible information. Whether you are a novice pilot getting a taste for your first XC, or an expert who flies vol biv or world cups, there is a lot to be learned here. Enjoy.
Flying Hurricane Ridge during the 500 Miles Shoot
Like the podcast? A buck an episode, that’s all we ask.
Speaker 1: 00:00 Well, good morning, good afternoon or good evening, wherever you are in the world. This is the inaugural episode, the very first episode of the cloud-base mayhem podcast. Uh, I've been threatening to do this for an awful long time and I finally gotten my act together. We'll see how this goes. Uh, this first show is really amazing, but first, what is this all about? What is the cloud based mayhem podcast? Uh, I basically was born out of, uh, a hope to kind of disperse knowledge about all things free flight. So acro, uh, cross country, whatever you fly. I think this will be very valuable to you. Uh, the reason this kind of sparked my interest in doing and doing it to begin with was, um, my, my first World Cup that I ever flew in was here in mountain home town of Sun Valley, uh, in 2012 and after the comp, uh, it was the first time I'd ever flown a Khan pointing.
Speaker 1: 00:54 It was first time I never really raced, uh, with the, with guys and Gals who were, were incredibly talented pilots. And after the race we had an open distance competition here and had really bad weather, couldn't fly much at all. And uh, instead of just wasting the time and going biking every day, a lot of the real legends in our sport got up and gave some really amazing talks about how to eat and how to hydrate and how to think big and, and basically how to fly big distances. And you know, we heard from Matt Beecher and Nate Scales and Nick Grease and Russ Ogden and bill bell court and it was just incredible. And we have resources like cross country magazine and hand gliding and paragliding and, uh, other resources. But I, it was just so much information condensed into a really small time frame and I think everybody that was there that was lucky enough to be there, it was just blown away.
Speaker 1: 01:48 And I thought, God, wouldn't this be amazing to disperse this to the wider flying audience, whether you're expert or novice. Like I was, I just found that I got so much out of it. Uh, one of the podcasts I listened to all the time is the Tim Ferriss podcast and he kind of tries to dissect excellence and provide it to laymen. And, uh, that's what this podcast is all about. I'm going to try to interview, uh, the really the really exceptional pilots, whether they be hang gliders or paragliders, what have you, uh, in our little fringe sport and try to disperse that knowledge. Uh, the first guest I have with us is, uh, Bill Belcourt. It actually wasn't a guest for the podcast, but he's given me the okay to put this out live when we were filming 500 miles to know where we stopped by black diamond a, he's the director of research and development there at black diamond.
Speaker 1: 02:37 And, and uh, if you've seen the film, you know that there's a couple of lines in that film that are just phenomenal. Of course they came from bill, our little Yoda of the sport. And, uh, but what many of you probably don't know is that we sat down with them for over an hour and a half and I asked them all kinds of things about throwing a reserve and what the concept of bringing it means and how do we, how do you fly big aesthetic and risk and reward and safety and gear and equipment and where paragliding came from and where it's going and two liners and the list just goes on and on and on. It was just this insane, uh, course in, in, in free flight that, uh, we luckily recorded it. We had the red cameras going. I have to apologize for some of the sound. Uh, there's a lot of kind of a fan sound coming off one of the cameras, but, um, I've, I've kind of put this together and edited a bit and I hope you enjoy. So without further ado, here is bill bell court, the legend
Speaker 2: 03:43 [inaudible].
Speaker 3: 03:43 I'm Phil Belcourt and I've been flying paragliders since 1989.
Speaker 4: 03:48 And why paragliding? I know you've got a background in rock climbing and Alpine climbing, but why paragliding? What attracts you to that sport?
Speaker 3: 03:59 It seemed like a great descent tool for Alpine climbing. Instead of, uh, carrying a bunch of ropes and equipment to get down off of something, you could just carry a, a small pair of water and fly off the top. That at least was the mentality in the late eighties.
Speaker 4: 04:18 And there's a paraglider and myself, uh, we all kind of see you as kind of the legend is the one that really paved the way in cross country paragliding. How'd you make the transition from using it as descent tool to using it as a travelling tool?
Speaker 3: 04:35 It became obvious almost instantly that the pair of water had way more potential in it than just a descent tool. And I wasn't the first one to realize that people hour I was flying with, uh, also, uh, had put that together sooner. My, my mentors like John Bouchard being one of them. Uh, Todd Bibbler being another one. They had realized the potential of paragliders to fly distance and the glider design at the time was evolving towards that. And, uh, in a way from, from being used as, as a scent tool. And if I think back, uh, John Mittendorf who was, uh, was one of the bad-ass big wall climbers and one of the early users of paragliders has a descent tool. He noticed that the speed increase of the new pair of water designs made them that much more difficult to launch and the carriers places and use as a descent tool. So, so it was moving away from that to, uh, flying a machine that was just more capable of flying, not just getting down off things,
Speaker 4: 06:01 our aircraft and in the, uh, in the year 2014.
Speaker 3: 06:08 Well, what I think of a paraglider now, uh, is I'm constantly amazed by the technology. She's ability to continue to evolve. And that's a credit to the companies making paragliders. I remember thinking in the 90s, all of these things are as good as they're going to get and, and even as much as five or six years ago that they're as good as they're going to get and now we're just going to see incremental gain. And then there's another breakthrough like the two liner and, and they just get better. So I've been proven wrong enough to know that they'll just continue to get better. And the amazing thing about it is it's still basically a dacron or nylon fabric and string and uh, and they just can fold up and fit into a pack and still do incredible things, more incredible things than ever before.
Speaker 4: 07:15 Bill, just in the last couple of seasons, it seems like a handful of pilots here in the West have been flying these really big lines, you know, you and dad and flew to Moab this year. Uh, all these records went down last year and this year. Um, what do you attribute that to? What's going on? Is it just wing design
Speaker 3: 07:40 days that you can go far is just the realization of, of, of years of planning and waiting and you have some ideas in mind as to what you want to do with a particular day based on the conditions of that day, whether it be Lyft, whether it be wind speed, uh, direction. And if you can work out your schedule to have that day to go flying and if you have a plan in mind that you've been thinking about for a long time, then you're just much more likely to be able to execute on the plan instead of just, uh, randomly coming up with something while you were in the air and trying to think big and trying to, uh, see the day coming. Have A, a plan in place for the day, which is always subject to change, but it means you're just more likely to pull it off. And there's been plenty of days in the past where I haven't thought big enough. I've only thought about a flight up to a certain point only to arrive at that point, uh, with a little bit of day left with no idea what to do next. And now I just try to look out as far as possible on those, on those potential flights, knowing that they can go better than expected. They can go worst than expected. And you should be mentally prepared for both. And that is just have a plan.
Speaker 4: 09:27 And Are you able to identify those days in advance or is this something that you're seeing in the air and, and how do you have a plan for the difference or how do you adjust to that difference?
Speaker 3: 09:44 You can identify only so much in advance and you have a plan and a couple of contingencies and then based on the day that you get, you can uh, can adjust and a few thought about a big flight and a variety of different ways then, then you always have a contingency. You always have an idea of what else you can do with a day besides what you thought might, might be what you were doing, if that makes any sense. And you just have to, you have to have looked at a lot of maps and you have to have given a lot of thought. Talked it over with, you're flying buddies at times. Uh, and uh, then when, uh, when the conditions present themselves, even when they are in the air, the solutions are obvious.
Speaker 4: 10:43 Last year at the World Cup, you talked about the concept of bringing it. Yeah. Can you speak for a moment about risk? What, you know, what that meant to me was that if you're, if you're thinking about flying big, you can't be thinking about landing and being tired or being dehydrated, you know, bringing, it meant a willing to put yourself in, in compromised places and having the skills and having the mental acuity that to deal with it. Can you talk about that a bit?
Speaker 3: 11:18 Yeah. What I meant on on, you know, bringing it, which is basically bringing a, uh, a mental attitude, a mental focus as a degree of commitment to the flight I, and, and staying on the offensive. And it's another way of putting it is you can fly, you know, offensively or you can fly defensively and a defensive position in flying is, um, has to happen at times. But, uh, but if you can keep mentally on the offensive, you can, you can be pushing it. You could be going for what's next. And knowing that you'll have to ultimately switch at times between flying offensive and flying defensively based on the conditions that present themselves. But you always have to be, uh, thinking about the goal, which is to fly a significant flight and to do it within a reasonable degree of, of, of safety. But, um, these are not safe sports and, um, there is no guarantee of a, of a safe outcome.
Speaker 3: 12:43 So, so you have to use your skills and what you know to, um, to protect yourself, but at the same time to, to be pushing it. And it's, it's a fine line at times and you learn where that line is, uh, via experience. And if you're not out there, if you're not out there training all the time, which is trying to fly these flights, then you're not going to have the experience and you're not going to have a good sense of the line. So, so you have to, uh, you have to go a lot. You have to test your theories. All you have to have that attitude of, of bringing it one, you're going for it. And you have to know when to, when to switch from off. Offense to defense.
Speaker 4: 13:37 Last summer we had, and kind of short, short succession, uh, uh, a series of just remarkable flight. It started off with Matt Beach Beecher's flight of 193 miles, uh, from Sun Valley. And then shortly after that, Nate scales went 199 miles. And then shortly after that nick grease went 204 miles from Jackson. What's going on? What's again, what's, what's changed here?
Speaker 3: 14:05 Well, I think the reason those big flights were happening was there was a few reasons, uh, one being we're fairly tight group of friends. Um, we talk all the time about, uh, trying to do something big. I was talking to a farmer, uh, about 200 miles with a two liner, you know, two for two is what I was calling it and, and how that was an exciting thing for me to try to, to try to get to as a goal. And if we could all try to get there, it'd be be hilarious if a bunch of us were focusing on the same thing. So that was happening. We were talking about it. And then, uh, the competition scene had dramatically changed with, um, the banning of open class gliders and, and most every competition in the world. And the fact that that to me was a signal that there was, there was a bit of an end to the amount of freedom that we had when we were flying competitions.
Speaker 3: 15:19 And in order to experience something similar, we were just going to have to switch gears no longer focus as much on race, the gold competitions and start to focus on a big mountain free flying. And, and I saw evidence of that in other sports, for instance, uh, for years in skiing, uh, in this type of skiing that we're into, which is back country, it's gone away from, uh, it's gone. It's gone away from safer lines in the trees. Uh, it's gone away for years now from ski racing, which when I started skiing, it seemed like that was everybody's focus. And now you s you see, uh, more people just riding big lines in the mountains. And I, I took a little from that and my shift in focus from flying competitions to just try to fly big lines in the mountains. Cause as an alpinists you're, you're looking for cool lines to climb. They don't have to be the biggest or the longest. And you're just looking for in a static aspect, uh, a commitment, a something that's just inspiring to you personally and, and you try to find something that reflects those qualities when you're out looking for something new to climb. And with flying, I see it much the same way. It's not the longest line. It's not the, it's not the records really. It's trying to find in a static line to fly that is personally inspiring. So you just focus on that.
Speaker 4: 17:21 Do you think these big lines, is there a maximum? Is it just going to keep going?
Speaker 3: 17:28 Is there a maximum? Um, it depends on what the definition of maximum is. If the only metric you use in is kilometers, um, then yeah, sure there's, there's probably a maximum. But if, if the metric that you're using to judge the quality of the flight on is something other than just ultimate kilometers, then there is none. You know, there's, there's cooler lines to fly. There's just deeper lines, more spectacular positions to be B n and that in my mind is, is the number one quality I'm looking for. I'm not necessarily looking for just measuring it, the quality of a flight by the distance of the flight.
Speaker 4: 18:17 Have we touched the surface? You know, I know in the Alps, uh, most if not all the lines had been done, but have we touched the surface here in the, in the inner mountain west,
Speaker 3: 18:28 we're scratching the surface. Uh, as far as big lines go in the states, uh, I use a climbing analogy to describe this. Um, when people ask me about paragliding and what I'm doing with a paraglider, and I say, I feel like George low in the Canadian Rockies in the 70s, and that is, if you look at the significant, a sense done in the Rockies in the 70s, George, Lois, usually a demand to have done them with various partners. And it's a really great place to be if you realize that you're there. And I think we're here and that's why, uh, we're having such good success because a lot of this hasn't been done before. And to be there to do it and to figure it out is a very special time. Have you ever been hurt paragliding have ever been hurt? Paragliding? I tell people I only broke my neck once.
Speaker 3: 19:34 So yes, I haven't heard paragliding and I did break my neck crashing a pair of water in a competition. And did you throw your reserve? No, it's too low to throw the reserve. I just had one reflexive shot at recovering the glider and uh, did so for the most part, but didn't have the, the glide away from the hill as the quatre was recovering and ended up, you know, tumbling across the terrain. And at the time I had one of those ferrings mildly pharynx helmets, like a time trial helmet. And uh, it was while the cool guys were wearing, so, so we had them as well. And as I tumbled across the ground, which I didn't impact,
Speaker 5: 20:25 ah, very hard. The [inaudible],
Speaker 3: 20:27 the helmet managed to catch the ground, uh, in the crash and twist my head around and break my neck. But other than that, I didn't have a scratch on me. Have you ever thrown your reserve? I've thrown my reserve want and it didn't help.
Speaker 6: 20:43 Didn't know. No. What happened?
Speaker 3: 20:46 You really want the story off the record. You can have it on the record. So was a pwc in the mid nineties, uh, near the, what was it called? Uh, it was the one near the town of Leko and Italy. Uh, Lake Como, uh, there's a pwc that happens there quite often and it was, I don't know, maybe the second or the third task and there were some signs of vertical development earlier in the day, but then it just great over. So anything we saw had become embedded. And while we are seeing the vertical and other valleys when a grade over, we didn't notice the vertical in the valley that we were in. And I was flying with Dave bridges, who's a, nobody in a two time national champion who was, you know, killed with Alex Lowe on Shisha Penguin 99. And Dave and I were [inaudible] maybe five k from goal with three quarters of the field over the town of Leko when the Cumulonimbus Ababa us embedded in the grades dropped out.
Speaker 3: 22:13 So we had one quick turn point to hit before we could glide over the goal line. And suddenly I was going down at about, I don't know, 24, 2,500 feet a minute. And I was thinking, man, this is some big sink. So I pointed the glider towards the last sun patch figuring I just fly over there and uh, and wait this one out. And all's I could do is point the glider in a different direction, but because of the sink I couldn't glide anywhere and [inaudible] and then, you know, I could feel the air get cold and I knew that it was a cell and it was dropping is a very first stage of it dropping and it was going to be trouble. So, uh, the dropping air turned to wind. And I at that point creeped out to the first soccer field. I saw another glider just landing in.
Speaker 3: 23:14 And before I could get into that soccer field, the wind started to pick up and, um, and blow me past it. So then the glider, I was flying a Firebird cult at the time, which was one of the hotter gliders ever made and was very susceptible to some dramatic frontals, so the glider would just disappear. So glider disappears. Um, but at this point I was Kinda used to that with this glider and I just get it. And, and then I arrived at the next field I could land in and then I got blown past that one. Quadrat would disappear. I'd get it back. And now it's coming up on the town, the Leko. And I said to myself, the gladder blows up one more time. I'm just going to toss it. So at this point, I'm maybe a few hundred feet, the glider blows up one more time. I just see instantly tossed a reserve, uh, as the glider, uh, recovers in a steep spiral within asymmetric [inaudible].
Speaker 3: 24:19 And the reserve is the reserve weather veins behind me but doesn't come out of the envelope. So it's not an that can't reach the bridal because it's just right behind me as I'm, as I'm in the spiral from the gliders. So I just go back to the rear glider and I recover the glider, uh, into the wind at rooftop level. And at this point it's, it's raining lightning hale. And, and for a moment everything stops and I just see this rooftop to my right. Glad it comes into the wind. Everything stops and then the reserve opens. So the reserve just opens like a gunshot and starts dragging me at a high rate of speed through the neighborhood. Um, and I'm still off the ground. So, so in a moment later, um, I get, I get pasted against this chain link fence, which was good. It was like, cause it had a lot of flex to it.
Speaker 3: 25:25 So I just hit the fence. It flexes and I grab onto it. And the reserve is on the other side of the fence, uh, and it's just pulsing with the wind and the wind is blowing, um, at like 40 miles an hour. So this reserves pulsing with the wind. And I've got my hands through the chain link like this, and I've warmed my toes underneath the bottom of the fence. And so, and I was climbing a lot at the time and I was really strong and do one arm pull up with either hand. And so I'm thinking, nothing's getting me off this fence, you know, I don't care how hard it blows. And so the winds just pulsing and the posts for the fence are in asphalt. And then I'm looking, I'm looking at the posts, cause the fence is flexing a lot and the s concrete cylinders are starting to crack the asphalt and come out of the ground on either side of me.
Speaker 3: 26:25 So it just splintering and I'm seeing the cylinders just kind of start rising, um, on the two posts. And I'm going, no, no. And it, and the, so I'm thinking, okay, now I gotta get out of my harness somehow. And so it had three quick buckles and I just needed to be able to let go with one hand to be able to undo them. But it was really hard, so I, so I eventually got centered over, over, over one hand, and, uh, and then managed to unclip the block goals, uh, and then just raise my arms really quickly until the harness just got sucked off me. And, uh, and the reserve blew a couple yards, a couple houses away and, and just got caught in some tree. So I was, I was out, I was standing in the hail and the lightning and the rain, um, on, in somebody's driveway, you know, and there I was.
Speaker 3: 27:28 So I gathered up my stuff and while I was doing, so, um, uh, old Italian ladies were coming out of the houses going, oh, Madonna, oh, Madonna, whatever that means. So my God, I guess so, uh, so one of them brought me like a double whiskey and, uh, and I just drained it and I could really have used another one, but my Italian wasn't that good. Uh, and then she opened the garage for me to stand in while, uh, a while there until the rain stopped. Some standing in this open garage. I've gathered up all my kids, stuffed it in the bag and cops show up. So it's some Italian cop with a VW, GTI. And he just motions me to throw my stuff in the car and, and I, I do. And I get in the front seat and he doesn't say a word and he just drives down the wrong side of the street, runs people off the road with his lights on and he drives to meet headquarters.
Speaker 3: 28:28 And he didn't say a word to me, just pulls up on the curb in front of me at headquarters and just gets out of the car and just walks in. So I just kinda gather my stuff and I'm walking in like 50 feet behind him and he finds the meet organizer and he just starts laying into him in Italian. Um, and there's a lot of hand waving going on and a lot of yelling. And then the cop just leaves. And then there I am and I just check in and uh, and that was it. But the reserve didn't help me that day and um, I haven't thrown it since. So that's my one reserve. [inaudible]
Speaker 4: 29:04 bill, can you compare the flying here in the American west to other places in the world? I know you've flown comps all over the world and you've flown in Europe a lot. Um, what's the, what are the major differences between the flights that we do here versus other places that you flown
Speaker 3: 29:21 flying in the u s versus Europe, u s it's burlier there's more wins. I think the thermals are a,
Speaker 3: 29:32 are Rafer being on the speed bar for any length of time requires a lot more glider management. I've been amazed at times in Europe where I could be well into the speed bar and a really calm piece of error and just being shocked by how calm it was between thermals and obviously there's, there's no place, very remote in Europe, you're gonna find roads and cell service virtually everywhere. And in the states, uh, has as indicated by Guy Anderson's Sun valley experience. There's a lot of places that you can be where there's no cell coverage and there's going to be, uh, uh, you're going to be difficult to find if something should go wrong and you're out of communication. So, so when you're flying in the west, you're largely on your own. And, um, and there's, there's also, uh, there's mountain lions, there's bears, there's rattlesnakes, uh, there's usually more wind. So, so there's, uh, there's a lot that can, uh, can present additional challenges when you fly in the West versus Europe.
Speaker 4: 31:05 Did those changes that you just talked about, does that impact your kid? Tell me a little bit about what you carry when you do say big flights on the Uintas or in the Wasatch or other places that you've flown in the American west. Do you, uh, do you carry a different things in your, in your harness than you do in other parts of the world here?
Speaker 3: 31:27 Perfectly honest. Not Really, besides bringing some food. Certainly if you're flying it out to, do you have plenty of clothes with you? Um, you've got your glider. I'm not, I'm not bringing much. In addition to, uh, I'm not bringing camping gear, if you will, because as a, as an alpinists, the amount of stuff that we have with us just to go flying is more than an alpinists would have and where you could potentially be sleeping is gonna be less harsh anyway. It's now like you're high on some north facing ice climb on some tiny ledge, shaking, shaking all night because, um, that's really what, uh, the high end of albinism can involve. Uh, if you're landing out in the middle of nowhere, you're, you're not as high. You've got this big paraglider you can sleep in and uh, if you've got a gps, you can find some trail systems or whatnot and, and just out. It's just like, it's like a long approach, uh, for going climbing just in reverse. So it's, I don't really think you need to have, uh, a lot of stuff with you besides the basics, food, water and your Gladys or shelter.
Speaker 4: 32:58 What about oxygen? Um, we're really the kind of only group of pilots in the world that have tanks in our houses and stuff. What do you think about oxygen?
Speaker 3: 33:07 It's a necessity out here. You're getting to the legal limit, which is about 5,500 meters and or 18,000 feet. And your cognitive abilities are much less, uh, less sharp. If you're not flying with OTU. And even if you're flying with OTU, you're still, you're still a bit compromised because the systems aren't a hundred percent efficient and the tanks don't last the entire day, especially if it's a day where you're staying high for, for a good chunk of time, you're using up that OTU. And in order to make good decisions, in order to stay warm and to have some visual acuity to, to pick out a, either climbing birds or good places to land or, or power lines or whatnot, you need that OTU to, to, to stay sharpen off, to stack the deck in your favor as far as making good decisions and staying out of trouble.
Speaker 4: 34:14 You've inspired a huge number of people over the years. Um, who inspired you?
Speaker 3: 34:21 Well, who inspires me? Um, and I've said this before and that's anyone pushing hard for nothin. And that's what paragliding to me is, is been about. And that is, here's an obscure sport, just like climbing, used to be an obscure sport, uh, and you're trying to realize your own potential, uh, in, in a place where no one sees and no one cares. And there's a purity in that. And there's a, there's a lack of distraction that goes with it. And it's, it's just you and the elements. And, um, and that's it. You know, so it's a real personal experience. So, so, and Al Penis before me, like some of the names I've mentioned earlier, whether it be Bouchard, George Lowe or Todd Bibbler, uh, George never got into flying paragliders, but Bouchard and, and Bibbler did, and they came from, from albinism. And that was a sport which, uh, the basic premise was doing the most with the least.
Speaker 3: 35:50 And I see a paraglider as the ultimate flying machine because it is really the least. So you're doing the most with the least with a paraglider and, um, you're doing it, you're doing it in a very similar way to, to albinism. And it's, and you're far from the public eye when you're doing it. And there's no, uh, there's no corruption from that. And you're just doing your craft for you. And when you have some friends you can do with it makes it all that much more special. But, uh, but anything I've done relative to inspiring anybody else is awesome doing is passing the baton as it was passed to me. And, and it's the obligation, uh, to pass the baton next to whoever gets it. And that's, uh, you know, that's how it goes.
Speaker 1: 36:54 Well, that is it for the inaugural and cloud-based mayhem podcast. I hope you enjoyed all that and I certainly did. And next up, wow. I don't know who I'm going to be interviewing next. We've got quite a few candidates, a couple of things in the hole. Maybe we'll talk to Nick Greece, who is our us champion and just returned from the world's town in Columbia recently. Uh, but anyway, stay tuned and hope you enjoyed it. And this is over and out from Gavin. McClurg. Cheers.