Adventures / Paragliding / Paragliding the Alaska Range

Bryan Smith

Paraglider Gavin McClurg could not have picked a more rugged, burly goal to push the limits of his sport than this 500-mile traverse of the incredibly remote Alaska Range. Here in North America’s highest mountains, grizzly bears outnumber people, there are no trails, and everything is extreme. Watch what happened. Here Gavin answers some of our questions.

Let’s start with the Alaska Range. Why was this feat such a significant accomplishment that will likely never be repeated?

Gavin: It really comes down to the lack of infrastructure in the Alaska Range. There’s one road that bisects the range to the east of Denali—and that’s the only connection to the modern world. That’s 500 miles of nothing but mountains, glaciers, trees, rivers, and a whole lot of grizzlies! Nearly all of the mountain ranges of the world have been experience by at least one paraglider, and we as pilots can figure out in advance if a certain line through them is possible. But when I first looked at traversing the Alaska Range there was no information at all. We had no idea if it would even be possible to fly in there. The unknowns were so many and there were no answers. How would we get across the glaciers and rivers? Would there be thermals on the north side of the range (from scouting in advance we knew the south side was too thick with forest to fly)? How long would it take? It was really important for us to do it unsupported, which meant putting in food caches in advance—but would we be able to reach them?

What scared you the most about continuing on alone?
Gavin: Dave was my security blanket. He was the one with the gun and he had a lot more wilderness experience. I felt a lot more naked and vulnerable without him, but in many ways going on alone was the best part of the journey just because the decisions were easier and any mistakes I made were mine and mine alone, so there was a lot less weight on every decision.

What was your hungriest moment on the expedition?
Gavin: We were really desperate in the days trying to get to the second food cache, days 17 to 20 of the expedition. On the day before we got to the cache we really wanted to get to the Dillinger River, which would leave about 20 miles to the cache. That day we flew four times and hiked over 12,000 feet of vertical ascent. We probably burned over 6,000 calories that day and between the two of us we each had one packet of instant oatmeal, which we just swallowed late in the afternoon without cooking. Those packets are 120 calories. We were both in a really bad way. By that evening we were both totally out of our minds. The last flight of the day we launched just after midnight to fly across the Dillinger river, the sun was just below the horizon and the sky was blood red. Dave launched first and I was having a really hard time getting my lines together on my wing as my brain just wasn’t working. Suddenly I hear his gun firing off again and again. Pop, pop pop pop pop! I turned around and could see the sparks coming off the barrel. He was just firing it off at nothing while flying!

What was your coldest moment?
Gavin: I got really frozen when I got sucked up into a cloud during the flight across Denali National Park. It’s in the opening scene of the movie. I was encased in ice, thick rime all over my glasses, wing, camera…everything.

What about your highest moment?
Gavin: On the second to last day as I was nearing the end I got a climb late in the day from a couple hundred feet off the ground,right over the top of a huge herd of Caribou to over 16,000 feet.

Can you tell us about trench foot? What is it? What happened to you?
Gavin: Trench foot is a condition most commonly associated with war, when land troops have their feet in boots for many days on end and it is often wet. Your skin begins to rot and turn white from being constantly immersed/wet and gets very, very stinky. My feet didn’t really recover until weeks after the expedition was complete. They didn’t really hurt, they were just white and really gross! In the first two weeks of the trip we had very little flyable weather and were on our feet often for 16-18 hours a day hiking and a lot of that hiking was either through snow or through rivers so we often had wet feet all day.

What’s the joy of paragliding for those of us who will never do it?
Gavin: To me it’s the ultimate freedom. Every time we launch we have no idea where we’re going to end up. We could fly 10 miles or 200. Every flight is totally unique. With most sports the pendulum is beneath you- skateboarding, mountain biking, skiing, etc. With paragliding the pendulum is above you and there’s no better feeling than grabbing a strong thermal and taking it thousands and thousands of feet above the Earth’s surface with no motor! I’ve participated in a lot of “extreme” sports, but nothing matches the risk/reward of flying. The closest thing I can compare it to is kayaking rivers- you’re just totally committed. There is no “stop” button. The scenery and aesthetic and unknown every time your feet leave the ground is as thrilling on your 10,000th flight as it was on the 1st.

How much hiking versus flying did you do?
Gavin: I flew about 70% of the route- so 350 miles flying, and 150 on the ground.
What was your experience with grizzlies? Did you see more than people?
We didn’t see any people except one bear hunting camp near the Dillinger River, and then when we crossed the highway at Cantwell. Way, way more grizzlies seen than people! The only dicey experience was on day 2. We were postholing through snow all day actually following bear tracks. That morning we’d seen a big Griz going down the river, the opposite way were traveling. A few hours later the same bear was suddenly right behind us, following our trail. It was all just snow and nowhere to hide or go so we just left the tracks a few hundred meters and watched him lope along right towards us thinking we were definitely going to have a confrontation, but he just passed right by us.

Were you willing to die trying to achieve this goal?
Gavin: No way, there’s way too many cool things to do! I’m not one of these people who say stupid shit like “well he died doing what he loved.” I train hard for this kind of thing and take my safety seriously. I wouldn’t have done it if I thought there was a high chance of being hurt or killed. Paragliding is dangerous, that’s just a fact but if you’re smart you can maintain a reasonable margin. I never felt like our lives were seriously at stake. That said, I don’t think the line will be repeated anytime soon!

What changes for you once you become a dad?
Gavin: I think I’ll take my own mortality even more seriously. I want to be there to show her how incredible this world is and how she can do anything she wants if she puts her mind to it. I can’t wait to have this new adventure!

How did you get started paragliding?
Gavin: I got started paragliding after I met Jody in 2003. She and her brother had learned on their own (not recommended!) in Alaska and she was super keen. I had avoided it on purpose for years as I kept hearing about all the accidents…and the small fact that Jody’s boyfriend before me died paragliding- in Sun Valley! I was sailing then and down in New Zealand and she took me out on some farms to learn to ground handle (just flying the wing on the ground in wind). A year later I got a chance to do a tandem which I thought was really, really boring so I wasn’t actually that keen. But then I got to do a solo flight and was hooked from the start. But because I was sailing around the world, which doesn’t lend itself to paragliding from 2006-2011 I wasn’t able to fly much except when I could get off the boat. When we stopped sailing in 2011 it’s pretty much all I’ve done since.

Three top pieces of gear: Garmin InReach satellite tracking device, tent (the weather was atrocious!), and my stove (I can’t live without coffee!).

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