Because of the Great Salt Lake’s reputation for filth and uselessness, it’s hard to believe—but nonetheless true—that more than 25 miles from its malodorous shores, it enables Steve Mayer to fly. It doesn’t actually raise its massive aqua-brine arms in the air to pick Mayer up, but it does play a big part in providing the wind that fuels his sport. And for that matter, that Salt Lake wind fuels his business and his livelihood as well.
The tepid pond’s perpetual refusal to conform to the temperature standards of the desert lands and valleys that surround it indirectly creates wind. But it’s not just wind—it’s a very consistent, predictable and powerful airflow. And every day, even as the uncomfortable bite of winter begins to sting, Mayer and dozens of others unravel their “wings” and use the energy of the airflow to propel their flights.
With the message passed through chatrooms and thrillseekers’ grapevines for more than a decade, hang gliders and paragliders all around the world have learned about the Point of the Mountain. Every year, they come to put its legend to the test.
But as suburban sprawl creeps further and further south, development plans threaten to clip their wings. Houses all along the ridge have already made the scene a bit awkward. Two- and three-story homes now stretch almost the entire length of the ridge. On the valley floor looking down from the Point, a newly rejuvenated I-15 roars next to the Utah State Prison. And in between it all, dozens of hang gliders and seemingly motionless paragliders roam peacefully back and forth, the serenity and tranquility of their flights a stark contrast to the fast-moving traffic and urban clamor.
On the valley floor a few hundred yards from the launching area, the highway encloses a few acres against the steep rising hill. This is the landing area. Since the relentless winds make it possible for pilots to land at the same place from which they launch, the spot is a last resort for experts and a regular safety net for novices. Soon, though, officials will transform the landing area into a water-treatment plant and maybe a shopping center. But at least for now, it’s still a field.
The Point of the Mountain juts westward from the base of Lone Peak, forming a natural boundary between Salt Lake Valley and its cousin to the south, Utah Valley. Jay Mace, a professor of meteorology at the University of Utah who spends his free time paragliding, says the area is “perfectly oriented for the sport.” Like a rock in the middle of a fast-moving river, the Point of the Mountain is an obtrusion in the middle of daily airflow, controlled 25 miles to the north by the lake. The Wasatch Mountains on the east and their little brothers, the Oquirrhs, on the west, leave only a north-south alleyway in which air can travel. And like river water flowing over a smooth rock, the winds go up and over the Point of the Mountain all day long.
In the mornings, when the lake is warmer than the land that surrounds it, the air above the water rises, creating a vacuum. Vacuums are never stable, and cooler air comes in all the way from Utah Valley to take the rising air’s place. But later in the day, the land starts to warm up. And when it is finally warmer than the lake, the cooler air starts to head home—from north to south.
So in the morning, you can watch the paragliders surf the winds coming from the south. In the afternoon, as the colder air races back to Utah Valley, you can see them playing on the north side.
“You can set your clock to it, every day at 2 p.m. it changes,” said Stan Hicks, president of the 300-member Utah Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association. “There’s nothing like it in the world.”
It’s on the north side that Mayer unfolds his “wing.” Although it looked like a parachute, it seems appropriate that they don’t call it that. It’s skinnier and designed not just to break someone’s fall and rest him gently to the ground. The goal is to literally make a person fly.
The winds coming from the north are strong, and the wing fills up instantly. Crouched over like a horse trying to drag his buggy out of the mud, Mayer pulls his wing toward the edge of the ridge. With seemingly no effort, he starts to walk on air.
Ten seconds later, he’s 100 yards away, his silhouette blending with the dozen or so others that obscure an impressive view of the entire Salt Lake Valley. No doubt, the pilots have a better view of it than anyone. But the way things look, they should savor it. Their north side flights might be coming to an end.
Surfing the Desert
After a soft landing, Dexter Clearwater tried to hold his balance as he pulled in his wing in and gently coaxed it to the ground. Clearwater is a paragliding instructor who works for Steve Mayer and his rapidly growing Cloud 9 Soaring Center in Draper. Clearwater’s newest student, Michelle Christiansen, stood peering out at the dozen or so pilots who slowly maneuvered their paragliders around one another above the ridge. Christiansen said she knew she was hooked from the first time they took her on a tandem flight.
“I knew immediately that it was the most exhilarating sense of freedom you could possibly get,” she said.
On any given day during the summer, there are up to 100 people flying around the Point of the Mountain. Mayer said he has given paragliding lessons to people from all parts of the world. In the midst of so many Europeans, Asians and South Americans, sometimes it can be hard to find someone who speaks English up on the hill, he said.
“It really could be considered one of the best, if not the best, places in the world to learn,” Mayer said.
Jeffrey Farrell agreed. He came to Utah eight years ago to be closer to the ski areas and the Point of the Mountain. Now he has his whole life invested into paragliding. He owns Superfly, a business he said is the largest importer and distributor of paragliding equipment in North America. During his eight years here, he has watched membership in the Utah hang gliding and paragliding association grow from about 100 to 300.
“People all over the world know about the unique geography around here,” Farrell said. “But it’s not just that it’s a good place to fly. It is important because it is consistent. The area is flyable 340 days a year. You can just count on it being perfect.”
When Mayer first learned that the prized site was in jeopardy of losing out to big-money developers and mining companies, it only took him a matter of weeks to gather e-mails from people in 27 different countries and 36 states. He forwarded them on to city officials. It was the first time some of the Draper brass even realized how much attention their little city receives.
“I don’t think a lot of residents around there realize how big a deal the Point is to so many people. They should see it more as a natural resource than they do,” Hicks said.
The pilots should have been talking about the issue for much longer, Hicks said. Many of the groups who had used the area before hadn’t paid much attention to the encroaching subdivisions to the north and the commercial mineral interests to the south. Ironic, since they probably had the best view of it.
Two years ago, many of the pilots noticed that Geneva Rock had begun moving some of its equipment a little too close for comfort. Both the north and south sides offered traditional landing areas for pilots who experienced problems or beginners who couldn’t find the right place to surf the airflow. To the flyers’ horror, Geneva Rock put gates along the dirt roads. Seemingly without regard for the sacred land of the paragliders, the company was ready to end flying on the south side.
Hicks and many others met with Geneva representatives dozens of times after the gates and mining equipment first appeared. Only recently, a sigh of relief was uttered when Hicks announced that after some tough negotiating, the Utah Department of Transportation had agreed to swap some land with Geneva.
The pilots are hoping that with UDOT in control of the landing area, it will quickly be made into some kind of state park or official recreation area—like the launching areas. The spaces on the ridge of both sides of the Point are official “Flight Parks,” and they are protected. Now with the state controlling the landing zone on the south side, that area looks like it won’t be in jeopardy.
The problem is, as long as the Great Salt Lake is in charge, the south side is only good for morning flights. Around 2 p.m., like Hicks said, the winds change direction. The north side landing area is in a more precarious situation. Hicks wishes there was a single agreeable corporation with which he could negotiate to ensure the protection of the north side as well.
Too bad it’s not that simple, he said.
When Jenny Orgill ran for the Draper City Council this year, one of her top priorities was to ensure that the paragliders and hang gliders would always have a home at the Point of the Mountain. She lost her bid—at 24, she was the youngest person ever to run for City Council—but she is proud to have at least gotten people to start talking about the possibility of losing one of Draper’s claims to fame.
“Most of the residents seem to take it for granted. They assume that [the hang gliders] will always be there no matter what happens,” Orgill said. “They have been hang-gliding and flying off that mountain since the 1920s, but if somebody doesn’t step up and make sure that the developments are friendly to their needs, it will become extinct.”
She wasn’t the only person who described the hang gliders and paragliders with the same metaphors that one uses to illustrate the plights of endangered species. With human development and progress encroaching more and more into their environment, pilots may well be facing extinction as a species, at least in Utah.
Jim Smith, Draper’s city manager, said it is a possibility. He explained that the Salt Lake Metro Water Corporation had condemned the southernmost 150 acres of the city—the entire area that paragliders now use for a north-side landing zone. A water treatment plant serving Sandy and Salt Lake City is almost certainly on the way.
The area mapped out in the plans for the water treatment plant occupies a third of what Draper officials had hoped a developer would turn into retail space. Since the “foreign utility” doesn’t do much for Draper except take up space, Smith hoped the plans for a retail space weren’t lost. Regardless, he made it clear that the panorama view from the sky is about to change drastically. And it is the pilots’ job to find their place in the sprawling suburb—not the other way around.
“I don’t see why the water facility can’t accommodate some kind of emergency landing area for the hang gliders,” Smith said. “They will certainly need to coordinate well with all of the interests involved.”
Draper City Council member Bill Colbert said the pilots have the support of the city. No matter what happens with the area, he said, the city will fight to keep an open landing space available. “We aren’t going to promise them 100 acres or anything like that. But I envision some kind of mixed-use park or other accommodation with whatever developments. When the water treatment plans finally come through, they will have to present it to us and give us a chance to comment on it. The majority of the council and the administration will be sensitive to the wishes of the hang gliders. Hang-gliding is an asset to the city and we know that. We will do what we can to make it work.”
Even with some kind of “accommodation,” Hicks said he is worried that the way it looks now, the only open space that will be available for them will be in a shopping-center parking lot. And parking-lot landings aren’t exactly plausible. If a regional retail center really did come into focus, trying to fly a craft meant for long, quiet, open-space flights in the middle of the sprawl will be at least awkward and perhaps impossible.
Not that it isn’t already a little strange for some of the pilots, who remember the area only recently as a series of dirt roads and wide-open spaces. Farrell said he remembers only a few years ago, when houses weren’t visible around the flight area for miles. When it rained, pilots needed four-wheel drive to get through the mud.
With the construction of the houses that now come within yards of the launching area, the pilots got a paved road all the way up to their beloved spot. Although the new residents seem to be living well with their thrill-seeking neighbors, the awkwardness is still apparent. And the arrangement is not without its critics.
“I don’t think that there is necessarily a war going on between the residents and the hang gliders,” said Van Tucker, who lives only a few houses down from the launching area. “But there are some issues—a few things they do that we’re not happy about.”
Tucker said the pilots are sometimes in too much a hurry to get to the launching area. And on more than one occasion, Tucker said he’s been in his backyard when one of the paragliders “buzzed” his house. “They come so close to you that you can see their facial expressions. You lose a sense of privacy,” Tucker said. “I’m not saying this about every hang glider. It’s just unfortunate that a few of them can make a bad name for the whole group. There really are some excellent people who go up there.”
Complaints from the neighbors go straight to Hicks. He said the pilots have tried to do everything they can to get along well with the neighbors. An executive for Morgan Stanley, Hicks told all the residents of the area to call him personally if there were any problems. Mayer even went so far as to offer them all half-price introductory tandem flights on his “lawn chair in the sky.”
“Draper seems to be really proud to have us as such a prominent part of the community,” said Mayer, whose company the Draper Chamber of Commerce showcased on the cover of its annual magazine. “They want Draper to maintain this image of a recreational and friendly place, and we’ve got no problem being a part of that. But we are worried. Our livelihood depends on the Point; it depends on getting the chance to grow and train new pilots.”
While campaigning in the neighborhoods, Orgill found that supporting the pilots was a popular stance, and an important part of her platform. Nobody she talked to in door-to-door conversations wanted to see development push them out. “The hang gliders were there first anyway,” she said.
But with land values soaring at that end of the Salt Lake Valley, they should have brought more money along.
In a report released Nov. 13, the Sierra Club put Utah at the top of the worst-offenders list for urban sprawl. And Draper is the second fastest-growing city in Utah.
Recently retired and armed with some free time and a little money, Draper resident Keith Antognini has made keeping developers in check and protecting open spaces his pet issue. He calls Draper’s rush to sprawl “hogwash.”
“Developers have a green light here to do whatever they want,” Antognini said. “The city officials seem like they’re mainly there just to rubber stamp each individual project. It’s ruining the town. The paragliding area is at risk and it is just sickening. The planning is atrocious—you have 7-11s going up right next to farms.”
For now, the paragliding and hang-gliding enthusiasts are taking comfort in their successful protection of the landing zone on the south side of the Point. If everything comes off without a hitch, Hicks said it will probably become some kind of state park. The landing zone will complement the protected Flight Park at the top.
But the whole area demands almost sacred preservation. “It’s like Mecca. It’s our Mecca,” Hicks said. “There are so many types of people that go down there to fly. They are businessmen and professors, men and women, everyone. There’s a community on that mountain that nobody really knows about. I don’t think anybody realizes how tenuous the situation is. The area is fragile and it’s a long way from being protected. It would be a shame if something happened to it.”
But worry hasn’t made them lose too much sleep. In his shop—underneath hang gliders, kites and anything meant to stay in the air—Mayer said he is confident about the future of his sport and the Point of the Mountain. With a full schedule of lessons to give, even as the weather gets uglier, he’s focusing on building his business and introducing as many people to the sport as he can through tandem rides.
Every time he straps someone in for a tandem flight, Mayer’s dog Timber barks profusely. Before his hips gave out, Timber was Mayer’s regular co-pilot. Now he has to relinquish the spot to Cloud 9’s customers.
“I foresee working something out,” Mayer said about the development plans. “Having both sides of this mountain open is really important to us. Actually, it’s really important to the sport.”