It’s like you’re in a completely different universe.
That’s how paraglider Bill Nikolai describes the experience.
This week, the veteran glider posted a video of himself – along with Rod Frew, an instructor and tandem-rated pilot – soaring above Cleveland Park in North Vancouver.
Like scuba diving, you’re in a place where you naturally don’t belong, explained Nikolai, who has been paragliding for 23 years.
“The view is absolutely astonishing, because there’s no obstruction,” he said. "It’s like sitting in a lawn chair, suspended by a couple of straps on either shoulder, and you’ve a full 360-degree view.”
On Saturday (June 3), Nikolai and Frew were treated to great flying conditions on their three evening flights. In the video, Frew stays close to Nikolai to stay in frame of the video, and performs some mild wing overs, which are manoeuvres where the pilot makes a series of turns and swings over the fabric wing.
The pair started their flight off Grouse Mountain and landed in Cleveland Park. The area is unique because it’s one of a rare few places in North America where you have lift access to a paragliding site.
“We’re very fortunate because we’ve got some great partners. Grouse Mountain Resort has been giving us access for pretty much close to 50 years now,” Nikolai said, adding that the District of North Vancouver has also been very supportive.
While the Grouse Mountain tram makes the trip up a breeze, at least once a year Nikolai takes all his gear up on foot.
“One year, I guess about almost 10 years ago now, I actually rode my bicycle from Kitsilano with the gear on my back then hiked up from Cleveland Park – up the Grind, up to the peak, flew down and then rode home,” he said.
Nikolai performed that twist on a triathlon when he was 56, but said he wants to do it again. “I’m not sure exactly when that’s going to happen. But yeah, that’s an ambition.”
Nikolai started paragliding off Grouse in 2005, but the sport’s roots run deeper on the mountain. In late 1970s and ’80s, the popularity of hang gliding hit a fever pitch, and the mountain used to host tournaments, which were known to be rowdy.
“Thousands of spectators would come and watch in the landing area – the trees around Cleveland Park were a lot smaller back then,” he said. “There was no such thing as paragliding, really, at that time. Now the trees have gotten a lot higher, and it’s a lot tougher for hang gliders to make that landing zone … so it’s basically exclusively limited to paragliders these days.”
More restrictions have popped up over the years, due to the landing field, tighter airspace controls and pressure from organized sports that play in the area. But everyone generally gets along pretty well, Nikolai said.
“Kids love it when we land there, we show them our gear, we talk about the sport,” he said.
If you’re interested in giving paragliding a try, Nikolai highly recommends taking a tandem flight, which are available through guest services at Grouse Mountain.
“When you do that you are sitting in the front seat, the pilot will be behind you. Depending on how smooth the conditions are, he may turn over the brakes to you. And you can do a couple of mild turns,” he said.
“It’s an absolutely astonishing experience.”