VISTA — Tourists and locals alike enjoy San Diego by land through hiking, running, cycling and other forms of exercise. By sea, many more take up kayaking, sailing, open water swimming and surfing.
But by air? Generally, that’s geographic territory reserved for pilots. Yet a select few, such as Vista’s Peter Hill, have started paragliding as one way to take in the county’s bountiful beauty.
Hill is a New Zealand native and cloud computing implementation professional who has dwelled in Vista for five years. He said encountering the extreme sport in-person about two decades ago compelled him to learn how to do it. He has never looked back, he said, and he now paraglides nearly every weekend in various spots around the county and beyond.
“One day when I was on a hiking trip with some friends, I saw a guy who had hiked up a mountain and flown off and I just thought, ‘That is the coolest thing I have ever seen,’” said Hill. Soon he began taking lessons and got hooked.
Hill and his wife had worked and lived for years in the cold state of Michigan and were looking to escape to the warmth of North County. Realizing that housing in coastal cities such as Carlsbad were expensive, the Hill family moved to Vista.
Hill, who works at home remotely for his job, said that paragliding was a major draw for him eventually moving to Vista and he is now an active member of the San Diego Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association. The San Diego-area, he added, is one of the best in the country for the activity. Hill said the reason is because of the dynamic duo of consistently calm winds and an amicable year-round weather forecast. The beautiful views seen at coastal and mountainous areas alike doesn’t hurt the cause, either, he added.
San Diego’s paragliding collective often carpools to different flying areas, depending on which way the wind is blowing and the weather forecast, which will amount to the best aerial experience. Racing, too, is a part of the activity and the annual Applegate Open in Oregon — which Hill has participated in multiple times — acts as the de facto Super Bowl of the sport.
But isn’t it scary? Hill said he gets nervous during the course of every paragliding adventure, but he differentiates that from fear.
“I have to admit that I’m nervous every single time I fly because you never quite know what you’re going to find in terms of the air or the turbulence,” he said. “So, you have to have some mental tricks up your sleeve in terms of converting your nervousness. I wouldn’t say I’m scared because I’ve been flying for 20 years, but sometimes there’s an unease or an uncertainty that’s a little bit disconcerting. When you’re up really high, like 10,000 feet, I often get this weird sensation of ‘Holy s—. Even if I just glide and don’t do anything, it’s still going to take me 30 minutes to get down from way up here.’”
Paragliding parallels flying an airplane or helicopter in that sophisticated technology and data helps guide those flying the aircraft to more ideal trajectories and locations. Hill, while sitting in harness paragliding, has access to what he said acts as a dashboard of sorts, using apps on his smartphone and on a separate GPS device for airborne activity to guide his flights.
Like flying a plane, too, paragliders must depart from Federal Aviation Administration regulated airports called gliderports, the most well-known of which in San Diego County sits in La Jolla at Torrey Pines. Another popular one sits on a hilltop at the Black Mountain Open Space Preserve. Another popular one called El Capitan is in El Cajon, while Palomar Mountain also has one nearby.
Of those, Hill says his favorites are Palomar and Torrey Pines, the latter of which reminds him of how and why he got started in the sport in New Zealand.
“The place I learnt to fly is like Torrey Pines on steroids,” Hill said. “The cliff is about 15 miles long, and you can often fly three to four hours at a time, seeing almost no one else.”
Landing, albeit, is a different story altogether. Unlike flying an airplane or helicopter, runways and landing pads are not an option unless one lands back at the gliderport from which he or she took off. For cross country flights, or those paragliding sojourns which take off from a gliderport but which do not have a final predetermined destination, paragliders attempt to land in public spaces, but that doesn’t always happen.
Hill said that while some private landowners sometimes become angry at paragliders who culminate their cross country journeys on their land plots, just as many reach out a helping hand and show genuine warmth and interest in paragliding.
Over the years, Hill has accrued over 500 hours’ worth of paragliding and his personal record for flying is going 60 miles in a straight line and 13,000 feet in the air. Those interested in Hill’s paragliding adventures and tips can read about them at his blog which he dutifully maintains, Paraglide Worldwide.
Steve Horn is a San Diego, CA-based reporter covering Escondido and San Marcos. He works in a full-time capacity for The Real News Network, an online broadcast news ouetlet, covering climate change. He has worked as a staff investigative reporter for the publications Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News and as an investigative reporter for the climate news website DeSmog.com.
A native of Wisconsin and graduate of University of Wisconsin, Steve is a competitive distance runner, with a personal best time in the marathon of 2:43:04 and nine marathons under his belt. He also has served on the film screening committee for the San Diego International Film Festival.