This summer, a small international team scouted a route up Kilimanjaro for a paragliding attempt off the mountain, planned for February 2013. Award-winning adventure travel writer Jayme Moye reports in this two-part series.
It’s the second day on the mountain, and our group has just stepped off the trail up Kilimanjaro for a mid-afternoon break. The peak is fully visible against a clear blue sky. But instead of enjoying the unobstructed view, all seven members of the team are staring down the valley at the rapidly advancing clouds. “They’re just tearing up the mountain,” says Adrian McRae, the Australian who put the expedition together. His tone is one of awe, tinged with apprehension. Within minutes, we’re surrounded by thick fog.
The team has a different perspective on summiting Kilimanjaro than most. They are high-elevation paraglider pilots, including the UK’s foremost flygirl Squash Falconer, who flew from Mount Blanc’s summit in 2009, and summited Everest last year, but was unable to takeoff due to weather. For them, the 19,341-foot peak is not the goal; it’s the start—the launch pad for what will be, come February, the first legal paragliding flight off the highest mountain in Africa. As we hike, they’re focused on the weather patterns and cloud formations, to better understand the conditions they plan to leap into with their gliders next year.
I was invited to join their scouting trip for the Wings of Kilimanjaro as the embedded journalist, based on my experience with trailblazing adventure travel. I’m not a paraglider pilot, but for this trip it doesn’t matter because we won’t be flying. In addition to gathering data about the weather, we will determine the most logical route up the mountain and campsite logistics for a group of up to 200 paraglider pilots who—when combined with a crew of about 1,000 guides and porters—will be the largest group to ever attempt summit. We’ll also identify the safest launch site at the top.
Safety is the reason paragliding has historically been banned from Kilimanjaro. The same characteristics that make it so appealing to paragliders also make it a tremendous risk. Kilimanjaro is the highest freestanding mountain in the world, taller than Everest from top to bottom, with nearly 16,000 feet between the peak and the plains. With a span that large, two distinct weather conditions can exist at any given time. What you fly into off the peak may not be what you encounter on the lower part of the flight, and the air space where the two patterns converge could be treacherously turbulent. Plus, as we experienced on day two, conditions change quickly.
McRae, who once worked as a bush pilot and learned to paraglide in 2008, says that experienced paraglider pilots should be able to handle it, but acknowledges that it’s a risky sport, no matter what mountain you fly from. And Kilimanjaro is no ordinary mountain. According to Kilimanjaro National Park, only 41 percent of people who start the climb make it to the top. In the past 20 years, a handful of people have successfully, albeit illegally, flown from Kili, sneaking gliders (which look like sleeping bags when folded and packed) up the mountain.
It took McRae five visits over the course of two years to convince the Tanzanian government to issue one-time permits for the Wings of Kilimanjaro. Besides a commitment to a rigorous application process that accepts only the most experienced paraglider pilots, he’s also pledged a minimum of $1 million—to be raised by the pilots—to Plant with Purpose and The One Difference, two non-profit organizations doing groundbreaking work in Tanzania.
On the fourth day, we haven’t hiked 20 minutes out of camp before the team’s attention is once again focused on the sky. McRae’s mentor and WOK’s head pilot, Peter Bowyer, points out a pair of ravens in flight. The birds are thermaling, riding warm air currents moving up the mountain to gain height, the same way paragliders do. Bowyer estimates that they’re climbing at about five meters per second. In minutes, the birds are out of sight, carried away on the current. “That’s a nice climb rate,” Bowyer says. McRae nods, staring at the empty air space.