Steamboat Springs When the weather is right, the leap from Storm Peak can last for hours.
“You're flying essentially on solar power,” Roberto Frias said minutes before he ran off the side of the mountain strapped into his hang glider. “There's no engine. No noise. It's just you, the wind, the sun and the weather. It's as close as you can get to feeling what it would be like to fly like a bird.”
On Sunday, Frias and a group of hang gliders and paragliders committed themselves to the hazy skies above the Yampa Valley.
Just like the hawks that circled above them, the gliders searched for rising columns of warm air they call thermals.
Strong thermals and favorable winds can carry a glider to Kremmling and Walden. But if the warm air is evasive, the ride above the nearby mountains can end at Whistler Park or across the street from Haymaker Golf Course.
The gliders who took off Sunday landed in Yampa, near Steamboat Lake and at the base of Buffalo Pass.
They all acknowledged before takeoff that their ultimate destination was at the mercy of the wind.
“On special days, you can get four hours or more of flying,” Frias said. “It really depends on your endurance.”
Hidden high above
Gliding remains a low-key sport in Steamboat Springs. There are no spectators besides the family and friends who make the trek up to the picturesque launch site that offers sweeping views of Emerald Mountain, Steamboat Springs and Sleeping Giant.
When they leap from near the top of the 10,300-foot peak, the gliders strive to reach an altitude where they ultimately are invisible to residents below.
There's also a steep learning curve. Running off the side of a mountain and safely gliding to the ground takes dedication. It takes skill to navigate between the thermals and safely arrive at the landing zone.
And the gliders are patient.
The two truckloads of pilots who arrived at the launch site before 1 p.m. Sunday took nearly four hours to all launch.
The ones who took off first had the chore of offering over a radio tips for how the others on the ground could successfully gain thousands of feet in altitude.
“Very few people know we exist,” Frias said. “I think it's such a hidden sport.”
Frias and friend Dan Bruce said the Storm Peak hang gliding club formed in the 1970s and has attracted a few dedicated pilots to the top of the mountain throughout the years.
They take to the skies as often as they can during the flying season, which Frias said runs from April through October.
“A bad day of flying is better than any day of working,” Bruce said after he returned to the top of the mountain to embark on his second para gliding flight of the day.
The pilots passed the time by reminiscing about memorable landings, discussing the implications of the clouds forming above Emerald Mountain and remembering what got them into the sport in the first place.
Like a hawk
As he prepped his hang glider for takeoff, Dennis Kisow pointed to the lone hawk flying above Storm Peak.
“That's what got me started in 1972,” he said. “I was 12 years old sitting on my back porch back East, and I said, 'I want to do that.'”
So the boy from Pittsburgh eventually took lessons, gliders became more aerodynamic, and he taught others how to fulfill their dreams of flight.
“When the love of flying is inside you, you've got to keep doing it,” he said.
Tom Vail, who traveled to Steamboat from Carbondale, said he was a ski bum when he decided to fly. In 1988, he overheard a friend trying to determine what was more enjoyable: an epic powder day or an epic thermal day.
“That's what piqued my interest,” he said.
Many of the pilots said they have taken a break from flying at some point in their lives. Some paused to raise their families.
Students of the weather
The flight prep usually begins the night before takeoff. Frias said he checks several weather sites and carefully reads forecasts before calling his fellow pilots to plan the outing. If the weather holds up, they load their gliders on top of trucks and drive up Mount Werner to the launch site.
At the top, they make sure the wind is blowing up the side of the mountain, not down, and then they suit up and prepare for takeoff.
Frias said he's also scanning for fair weather cumulus clouds and a high cloud base. Paired with the right wind velocity, the conditions looked great.
“When you take off, it's a relief because you're off the hill,” Frias said. “Then the real struggle begins to find the thermals. You're looking for other birds, for other pilots. Hopefully, you can find a thermal and start climbing in it. The objective is to get as high as possible.”