Lance Edwards is sliding towards a death-fall with a whoop of joy. Just as he’s about to ski off the precipice, he pulls on two handles and lifts off, suddenly flying down the mountain, hovering above the rocks, arcing away from a cliff face and then swinging back to Earth to land gently on a patch of snow.
A few high-speed turns and he lifts off again, soaring further down the mountain. He repeats this act—skiing, flying, skiing and flying some more—for 2,000 metres until he lands in the Italian town of Courmayeur.
This is speed riding. It’s common to see this evolution of paragliding at European ski resorts, where it’s a mostly accepted niche of skiing. In Canada, it remains a subculture restricted to furtive jumps and backcountry adventures for a tiny group of renegades. But as the equipment gets lighter and safer, the sport promises novel ways of experiencing the mountains and a growing crew of evangelical enthusiast are dying for you to try it.
“It’s the most amazing experience, combining skiing and flight,” Edwards gushes from his home in Fernie, British Columbia. “It is life changing.”
Like a lot of people, Edwards’s first introduction to the sport was a short film of a couple of crazy French guys speed riding the Eiger in 2007. That was back in the sport’s infancy.
Speed riding evolved from paragliding, a flying sport where participants soar off mountains with a big enough parachute to catch rising pockets of air so they can hover and travel for long distances. Soon, people started launching their paragliders with the help of skis. Increasingly, paragliders wanted to go faster. Interest in flying down, rather than over mountains, created a push into smaller and smaller parachutes, until they were just big enough to float a skier off a 200-metre cliff to a soft landing back on snow.
Speed riding was born.
“As soon as I saw speed riding, I knew I had to try it,” Edwards remembers. He found a school in France, signed up for a five-day introductory course and flew almost 100 metres into the sky on the first day.
“What a rush,” he remembers. “I just wanted to run back up and do it again.”
That was five years ago. Now speed riding dominates his winter. He heads to Europe for a week or two to fly the friendly skies and does as much flying in Canada as he can. In Canada, most parks and protected areas have banned the sport and currently no resorts allow it. Most of the estimated 300 to 400 speed riders ski-tour or snowmobile to backcountry flight zones.
Adding flight into the skiing mix changes everything.
“I look at the mountains differently than when I was just a skier,” says Tanya Callon, from Oliver, BC, a lifelong skier who recently learned to speed ride with her boyfriend Sean Dillon. “I see a line that closes out in a huge cliff face. It would be impossible with skis but with a wing I start thinking about how can we do it.”
Super light and compact wings help fuel the creativity. Professional climber Jason Kruk, of Squamish, BC, is using his speed riding set up to hop around from peak-to-peak, climbing, skiing and flying and then climbing and skiing again. In one day, he’s knocking off what would take days to do without the ability to fly.
There is an obvious inherent danger in sport, but Dillon and Callon insist that it’s fairly safe when people progress slowly and carefully. Every speed rider I talked to for this article insisted that anyone with a little mountain sense, some skiing and mountaineering skills and a thirst to soar could learn the sport. Previous flight experience is an asset but not necessary.
“It is truly the coolest thing I’ve experienced,” says Dillon, with Callan agreeing in the background. “It trumps everything else we do. We’ve sold all our bikes and most of our other toys.”
They don’t say it out loud, but it's in their voice: “And so should you.”