Flying over the Sierra de la Giganta

  Flying with a paraglider over a wild mountain range in Baja.

– This primeval urge to leave the ground –

 * * *

There is the fabulous mountain range in Baja, just south of Loreto on the Sea of Cortez. It rises abruptly directly from sea level and presents a spectacular sight from the shore. Called ‘Sierra de la Giganta‘, it’s like a gigantic wall, filled with pillars, towers, and deep narrow canyons. When you live on one of those beaches below this range, it’s impossible not to be spellbound by Giganta’s magnificence. It glows in the morning and looms in the afternoon; vultures soar in the air all the time and play in the thermals. You can climb into some of its dramatic canyons, but you never get very far.

One never really knows where dreams come from. The dream to fly – maybe birds sowed the seed of inspiration some lifetime ago to fly up there in the blue haze and see, really see, what it’s like. One day I strap into my new “Powered Paraglider” and do it.

My take off is pretty exciting. There is not much room on the beach, and the wind is too strong for a well-controlled inflation; so I take off like a rocket without even completing one step. But, as always, once I’m in the air the world seems to stay behind. I slip into my little seat, do a downwind turn over the place, and fly away to see, to see what Giganta is really like.

I turn directly toward the mountains, this dark blue gigantic wall looming in front of me. It is late in the afternoon and I’m flying west, almost directly into the sun. The mountain range is in deep shadow and all I can see is a massive, unfathomable, featureless wall of intangible dimension and distance. I have to trust my experience to understand that it will actually take a while before I’m really close, and by then I’ll hopefully have gained enough altitude. Looking down, I see my forward motion, but looking ahead, I’m blinded by the sun. I’m flying over the immense shadow the mountain range casts over the desert. My body and my wing are bathed in glaring light, but everything ahead and below is in blue, dark shadow. I know it’s still a long way up to the summit, but somehow it feels as if I would crash any moment into this mysterious featureless wall getting bigger and darker all the time.

When I’m past the first lower peaks at the foot of the range I begin to see the structure below: furrowed, gnawed rock, vertical towers, bottomless canyons, all in warm pastel colors. Occasionally one of those pillars peeks out of the shadow-zone like a monstrous finger, emerging out of the dark. There is a mini-plateau, just catching the very last light, a small round area on top of a tower, maybe 30 feet across, totally flat, one cactus on it and two bushes, vertical cliff all around – an island in the sky. I glide by 100 feet away, the wall threatening above.

Suddenly the air gets wild, turbulence boiling up from below and I’m busy all over controlling and keeping my attitude and course. I see gigantic canyons below, and the gusts come funneling along them, throwing me around. I would feel better if I could see more. The blue wall is there, threatening with its immobility, so close now that it’s really hard not to pull away. A cool eerie radiation comes from the darkness, a mysterious presence.

Sometimes I feel violent updrafts; then again I’m terribly convinced that I’m falling with increasing speed into the dark abyss underneath. I take my bearings at the rim above to get some feedback of my climbing progress. I feel the air with my whole body. When the wing catches more lift on one side than on the other my whole harness gets distorted and my body bent. It’s scary at times, but then, I really feel the air, I fly with it, it’s wonderful. I’m a leaf blown up by a gust, played by the wind.

I must still be climbing, even though it’s hard to believe. It gets so wild that I finally ease away and go more parallel to the range for a while. I see less rugged terrain under me and the air gets a bit calmer. What I thought to be the summit ridge turns out to be just a huge flake, leaning away from the real ridge, still about 500 feet higher. I fly between it and the final crest, the air is clean now, the tension ceases, I’m there. A few more minutes, and the horizon in the west becomes visible; I’m over it.

I fly circle after circle. There is the other coast, the Pacific Ocean, glistening in the distance, some 50 miles away. And the ridge is not a ridge but a large plateau, a mesa, several 100 feet across. (Wouldn’t that be something to land up there one day?) I finally throttle back and glide over the crest. Mountains everywhere, like sand dunes, golden in the sun, shadows carving into the valleys. The sea looks like velvet. There are the islands: Danzante, like a prehistoric monster, swimming in the sea. Carmen, horseshoe-shaped, from this perspective. Puerto Escondido, a puddle on the shore, a playing child left behind. The sailboats are barely discernable. I must be close to 6000 feet now. Below: black, blue shadow reaching out further and further.

I cruise along 30 feet over the rim, as calm as a balloon, no thermals anymore. I follow the crest as if it was a trail, effortless, dreamlike. Didn’t we all have these moments sometimes when we run or bicycle or drive and feel this primeval urge to leave the ground? When we want to ignore gravity, not bother with it anymore and simply fly – not stay on the trail anymore but jump over that fence, clear that obstacle, fly over the abyss, fly over water, fly along the mountain crest. It feels like a lucid dream where you suddenly can do things that are actually impossible. You know they are impossible but you do them anyway.

And I climb even higher: 7000 feet. Everything stays behind now, a sensation of strange loneliness creeps up on me, half frightening, half profoundly liberating and ecstatic. Nothing but blue empty space around me. I look up for the first time. My wing seemingly motionless over me, I see these few thin lines holding me (they are not even tight but slightly curved by the pressure of the passing air). It makes me shiver with an incomparable feeling of delight. I turn again and again. Oh yes, I take some pictures, but it seems like a stupid habit.

I can’t stay long because I’ve used up a lot of gas on this relentless climb. So eventually I turn back east. Cruising at just under 5000 rpm, I keep my altitude of more than 1 mile above the ground. It’s difficult to perceive any motion now; I’m hovering in space. I’m very calm, I don’t really forget where I am, actually my mind is crystal-clear and super-alert, but somehow there is a wonderful lightness, a trust, a deep profound knowing, no need to think.

I feel my legs resting on this ridiculous little chair, my body held in the harness, the vibration of the motor in my back, a gentle warm wind in my face. The wing motionless above me – unreal, a piece of fabric, what a joke! I’m sitting in the air, hanging from a piece of cloth, a mile above the ground – what a miracle, what a mystery! I wiggle my feet (the mind desperately searching for reference), I start singing but it distracts me, it’s a phony cliché.

There is the road in the vast desert, the only manmade thing visible far and near, a truck on it like a crawling insect. The sea is turquoise and transparent from here, a large dark moving spot under water turns out to be a huge fish swarm moving erratically, foam from jumping fish on the surface. Finally I see our tiny little beach. Time is running out, I have to go down.

I switch off the motor. It takes probably another 15 minutes to very gradually sink lower and lower, draw wide circles over our beach, see cars there, people gathering to watch me land. The shadow of the mountain has reached the shore now. There is a nice little breeze over the ground – Parvin is thoughtful enough to show me the flag, ideal for landing. I glide over the motor home, flare, and touch down on the sand, exactly where I came from.

When the wing settles I just stay there for a moment and sit in the sand. I don’t know what to say to all these smiling faces coming towards me. It doesn’t matter at all, just sounds that come out of my mouth.

* * *

            Klaus  written and revised between the 1990s and Dec. 2010

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