The Gathering at Monument Valley
Picture a barren landscape with a dusty desert floor as red as mars, dotted sparsely with small thorny brush and purple sage, its surface gently marbled by long dry stream beds that meander to nowhere. Then suddenly before you, a massive towering structure a thousand feet high rises straight up from the ground. Its smooth orange-amber sides reflect the sun as if chiseled by a being whose head would touch the clouds. As you cautiously fly closer, you can almost feel the gravity of this unnatural structure pull you closer. It’s as if the ground is beside you, making the jagged rocks below seem like a distant worry.
That’s how I like to describe flying in Monument Valley, Utah while hanging from a motorized lawn chair with a paraglider holding me up.
Another pilot there succinctly described his flight that took him briefly close to the sheer face of the gargantuan formations, “It was intimidating.” he said.
This hauntingly picturesque land that has been the backdrop for many westerns and action movies was also the site for the annual PPG and light- sport aircraft event in Utah know as “The Gathering“. Joe Onofrio, a PPG trike pilot, is the organizer that deliberates with the Goulding’s Lodge and the Navajo Tribal Park so that we may fly this unique location every year in October.
The pictures speak for themselves (and make one speechless) as we witness the grandiose landscape jutting from the high desert floor. The air is crisp and clean when we launch from 5200 feet MSL and climb to over 7000 feet just to safely get over the towering mesas. In our powered paragliders we can only fly down with the monuments and spires if the wind is very calm-- they can create dangerously turbulent rotor with just a 6mph wind. Pilots are briefed about this every morning.
This year there were a record number of pilots, as more Europeans and Americans made the effort to fly this world famous landscape.
However, the Gathering is for experienced pilots only: Partly because of the challenges of the desert and the mesas but also largely because of the LZ.
The LZ has a nice paved landing strip for tourist planes and light-sport aircraft but it can be a real challenge for even the seasoned foot-launching PPG pilot. There is only a small gravel area beside the runway that quickly becomes crowded with people and aircraft. Many pilots, including myself, barely made it over the berm as we launched across the runway. Some PPG pilots found it hard to compensate for the thinner air which reduced lift on their wings and push on their props. I almost had an incident myself while attempting a launch with my “fast” wing and a spare prop that wasn’t giving me full thrust. Let’s just say that the witnesses of this scary launch attempt now know what titanium sparks look like when a paramotor is sliding across the tarmac at full power (amazingly, no damage to paramotor or pilot). Some days we were forced to launch up hill or cross-wind according to the wind direction. The wind that we did have was rarely laminar since our LZ is actually bordered by mesas on two side. Thorny weeds dotted the LZ apron but were mainly gone by the second day… because we had ripped them all out with our paraglider lines! In spite of the challenges, nobody was hurt (although some props, cages, and egos will be in the repair shop for a while).
All of the large Mesas have tops as flat as tables but just like the desert floor, they are dotted with thorny underbrush. Many PPG pilots secretly tell themselves that they’d like to land on top of one, “I’m king of the world..”. This is known as a-- get ready for it-- a ’top landing’ (you probably never would have guessed that). Anyway, they quickly change their minds when they see up close the line-snagging shrubbery and the possible turbulent air that might be swirling up over the sharp corners of the monument. There may also be some trepidation when they realize, though there is ample space, at the end of the make-shift runway there is a sudden vertical drop 1000 feet straight down. There is certainly enough room, but usually not enough guts. This year, however, two brave PPG pilots, Ryan Southwell and Brad Scott not only top-landed a mesa but camped out there for the night as well. A short video of their adventure (from Team Fly Halo and Ryan Southwell Films) should be out soon.
During the day, for 5 dollars, you can take a ground based tour of a special area of monuments with your own vehicle. This is a spectacle that we cannot see closely from the air because we are not allowed to fly low over this particular part of the Navajo Reservation. It is quite a sight to step out of the car and in the quiet of the plateau, behold the warm colors and smooth walls of these monoliths that gravity forgot. Also available are “open” bus tours which many of the tourists choose to take. After the tour guides noticed their passengers eagerly snapping pictures of us flying around, they made it a point to stop the tourist buses by our LZ so they could see us up close and get more photos. I’m sure that the tourists went home to their friends and said, “Look at this picture I got of a crazy guy flying around on a PARACHUTE.”
As the sun slowly sinks to the horizon, golden rays of light stream across the fingers of the unearthly spires to highlight the crimson rocky facades and lonely dots of green in the desert. Nighttime was dotted by warm fires at the campground, brave souls telling outrageous flying stories (some of which might even be true) and bright stars hovering just over the desert floor. In the high desert, it can get close to freezing at night even though you will be wearing a t-shirt by afternoon. I’m glad that this year we opted to rent one of the fine lodges with full amenities. Unfortunately, our ‘mountain man’ status has been revoked until further notice.
The scenery is so different in its stark beauty from the Midwest that I found myself taking pictures of almost everything. I’m pretty sure that I have a photo of a pile of rocks and quite possibly some coyote poop (but we’ll just call it dinosaur dung, to make it interesting). And of course, I did not forget to take the one photo that almost every light-sport aviation pilot takes to prove they were there: The photo of your own foot dangling in space with the spectacular landscape far below.