Paragliders soar above the Yakima Valley

A paraglider launches off Baldy Butte above the Yakima River Canyon as part of the annual Baldy Fly-In hosted by Central Washington Soaring.
A paraglider launches off Baldy Butte above the Yakima River Canyon as part of the annual Baldy Fly-In hosted by Central Washington Soaring. Yakima Herald-Republic

Tom Stotts stood at the northernmost point of Baldy Butte overlooking the Yakima River Canyon, taking note of the shifting breezes.

“Para-waiting,” the Coeur d’Alene resident called it sarcastically, while two dozen other paragliders joined him in line with their gear in various stages of readiness.

Within a few moments, Stotts tugged his cords, hoisted his bright wing into the air and ran downhill to take flight recently at the Baldy Butte Fly-in.

One after another, fellow paragliders launched in similar fashion to soar on air thermals, a ribbon of blue in the distance below.

Sixty people registered for the fly-in, held on the dry, shrubby 3,200-foot hill on private ranchland between Yakima and Ellensburg. Mount Adams, Mount Rainier and the Stuart Range stood in the distance.

The $40 entry fee helps the Northwest Paragliding Club manage the site, pay insurance costs and lease the property for use.

“There are costs that go along with our access to this site,” said Craig Sundquist, one of the fly-in organizers and a site guide for the club.

Paragliding involves dangling by cords from a canopy of fabric 25 to 35 feet wide that catches air currents. Unlike hang gliding, para-pilots sit upright in their harnesses, and there is no solid central structure.

New pilots typically spend at least $5,000 for the equipment, insurance and training to start in the sport.

Most of the fly-in participants took turns soaring, riding in SUVs and pickups up the dusty trail to the top and sailing down to the campground, also a patch of private property next door to the Lmuma Creek Campground.

Some, however, came in support roles.

“It’s a perfectly good mountain, why would I jump off it?” said Brenda Hamilton, Stotts’ girlfriend, as she helped him untangle the cords of his wing, a term for the canopy that paragliders prefer over a chute.

She just enjoys the trip, she said. “It’s a gorgeous day, beautiful scenery, nice people, if a little insane.”

Baldy paragliders came from across the Northwest.

Paragliders aren’t necessarily looking for wind, but rather air thermals that create lift as the ground warms up. Without those thermals, pilots would safely glide down the face of the hill a few feet off the ground for what they call a “sled ride.”

Sometimes they’ll watch birds, hoping to borrow the same thermals.

At the top of Baldy Butte recently, many stood around and waited, taking stock of the air movement as the day warmed up.

After a few tried their luck, one or two found some thermals and soared in circles higher than their launch point.

“He’s getting some air, he’s getting some lift,” Stotts said as he waited his turn. “I like that.”

In the end, a few pilots reached elevations of up 6,000 feet or more, their colorful wings barely visible from the ground.

Baldy Butte is known for strong thermals, said C.J. Sturtevant of North Bend. However, September is relatively mild, said the 68-year-old, a former member of the U.S. Women’s Hang Gliding team.

“I want more than a sled ride, but I don’t want to get scared,” Sturtevant said.