Will Gadd knows something about firsts.
The athlete, author, broadcaster and former Jasperite has been part of his fair share of historical exploits when it comes to adventure in the wilderness.
Besides racking up ice climbing championships, he’s set distance records in paragliding and put up first ascents on ice and rock routes all over the world, including on the hardest mixed climb in the world, the 200m Helmcken Falls in B.C. Gadd has scaled ice bergs in the Atlantic, kayaked huge waves all over the Rockies and in January, became the first person to climb a frozen Niagara Falls. The former Jasperite was named National Geographic’s Adventurer of the Year earlier this year.
However, before May 9, he had never paraglided in Jasper National Park.
“We’re making history today,” he hooted as he stepped off the Jasper Skytram and realized the conditions were ripe for flying.
In fact, no one had ever paraglided in a Canadian Mountain Park. Until April 23, when Parks Canada approved a new suite of guidelines for recreational activities, paragliding was not allowed.
“With this inaugural flight we can show how little impact we have on the environment,” said Martina Lang, a Canadian national paragliding champion and a pilot who normally flies out of Chiliwack, B.C.
Some environmental groups have said evidence of that claim is lacking, but Gadd, whose father, Ben, was a strong activist for the environment during his long tenure in Jasper, is adamant that paragliding is light on the land, and points to studies done in Europe which demonstrate that point.
“I think out of all the things I do in the national park this has the lowest impact,” he said. “I guess the worst environmental impact is if you hit the ground really hard you might leave a mark!”
The group was certainly leaving a mark on visitors. As the pilots laid their wings out on the ground, curious Skytram customers gathered ‘round, snapping photos of the unusual user group.
“How long until they jump?” one tourist asked.
Paragliders are not basejumpers. The goal is to soar on the thermals in the air column; the fact that the Whistlers' Mountain launch site in Jasper National Park is 1,100 m above the landing site near Whistlers Campground (compared to 900m at Golden, for example) is not nearly as important as the excellent access which the Skytram allows. That there are launch options in every direction from the summit ridge makes Whistlers' even more ideal.
However, if there is any group which dislikes the word jump applied to its trade less than paragliders and hang gliders, it might be the aerial tram industry.
"We don't use that word," the Jasper Skytram's Todd Noble said.
Noble had short notice to facilitate the inaugural flight on May 9. If the Skytram is to accept paragliders into their cable cars to allow them access to a launch site, one can be sure insurance adjusters will be...adjusting. Noble said the company will be working on formulating a policy as interest in this new activity gains lift.
2015 will represent a trial period for the new recreational guidelines. Parks Canada and the Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association of Canada have agreed that prospective pilots must be registered with HPAC. Areas deemed off-limits include roads, the town of Jasper itself and sensitive wildlife corridors, including the Cavell Meadows, an alpine zone containing caribou habitat.
“Those are places we wouldn’t fly anyway,” Gadd said.
As he straightened the lines that ran from his harness to his wing, checked his instruments and secured his Red Bull helmet, Gadd let out a whoop of delight.
“Feel that nice little breeze!” he said before lifting his wing into the wind, running off the west side of the mountain and disappearing into the air.