Paragliding at La Cumbre, Argentina

By William Powers
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 27, 2009

"Run!" my paragliding tandem partner yelled. So I ran -- toward the edge of a cliff in central Argentina.

"Run faster, or you'll. . . . " an onlooker shouted, unable to finish that dreadful sentence. I sprinted harder, my partner harnessed to me from behind, following me. The cliff's edge raced closer, 20 feet, now 10. Our fabric wing fluttered and rose above us. Five feet. I closed my eyes.

Suddenly, there was no ground beneath my feet. My legs sliced air. We sailed forward, upward. Unlike parachutes, built to descend, paragliders are designed to ascend. I smiled. I was flying. We caught a thermal and spiraled blissfully into the heavens on the trail of an Andean condor.

But then I looked down.

Something was terribly wrong. I'm Homo sapiens, after all, a terrestrial biped to my last DNA strand. A powerful instinct in me reasoned: Bill, you're no condor. So what are you doing 6,500 feet in the air, latched to a flimsy kite? See that down there? That's an Argentine vineyard. You're supposed to be sipping torrontés there like a regular tourist, not crashing into the fermenting buckets. You should . . . Oh my God, what was that?

Wing deflation. Our safety depended upon air surging into the wing's fabric tubes.

But we'd hit turbulence and were now lurching dangerously toward a rock outcrop. Would wing deflation lead to wing collapse? Why, for heaven's sake, had I come to La Cumbre?

* * *

I came to La Cumbre because of Hernán Pitocco, the world's top acrobatic paraglider.

I first heard about Pitocco while enjoying pinot noir, tango and asado in Buenos Aires. Paragliding was the furthest thing from my mind. But then I saw a YouTube video called "Infinity Tumbling by Hernán Pitocco."

In it, the 31-year-old blue-eyed Argentine loops through the sky over his own paraglider again and again, tumbling -- it seems -- infinitely. A guy who invents new moves for the sport, Pitocco achieved a childhood fantasy I'd almost forgotten: flying so high on a swing that I'd loop all the way around the top of the swing set.

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