Is Everybody OK? (by Steve Empringham)

Is it just me, or do some aspects of paragliding strike you as, well, just a bit abnormal?

Beneath the filtered view of (anti)social media, are there struggles which also deserve mention? I’d like to share some of my own experiences. Maybe, if you’re of a certain mind-set and/or ability level, they will strike you as self-indulgent ramblings, sour grapes from somebody who was never any good. In fact, I probably lost you at the title. But I hope, amongst you fellow weekend warriors, some of this may resonate and give you hope. If you feel like paragliding is dominating your life in a not entirely good way, read on. You are not alone. And take hope – there is another way.

It’s 2014. A late summer’s evening and unexpected Telegram chatter is of people getting away from Milk Hill. My wife is furious, I’m needed at home, but I storm out anyway and soon I’m belting down the M4. I’m not going to arrive in time, so I divert to a closer hill – Sugar Hill – a miserable nettlebed in the lee of a bigger slope.

Sugar Hill

End of the line: Sugar Hill

Unsurprisingly, it’s not working (does it ever?). To complete the picture, I see a wing circling and drifting overhead, no doubt from Milk. So, a fairly standard paragliding scene. This one, however, gets to me. Pressure which has been building inside over the last few months  erupts in an uncontrolled, messy, kick-the-wing-and-harness-and-turn-the-air-blue rage. Oh dear, I have officially lost the plot.

Calmer, I wrap myself in my wing and think. Freedom. It was what had drawn me to paragliding in the first place. Things had soured rapidly. I now felt imprisoned by flying, not liberated. Constant weather watching. Going flying when not really in the mood. Inappropriate days off work. Chasing XC when it clearly wasn’t on. Checking the League and RASP. This was not healthy.

My son had recently battled with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, centred on germs and hand-washing. His counsellor mentioned hyper-vigilance as a classic symptom – a constant stress which kept cortisol levels so high that you suffer physically and mentally. I could see parallels here.

How did it get like this? My previous seasons had been mostly lacklustre. For years XC had been out of the question because I simply couldn’t do it. Even on early flying holidays with good conditions I was the one pretty much guaranteed to bomb out early. In fact, one fellow punter on a trip once said to me, ‘Don’t worry Steve, I was crap for ages too.’ Thanks for that!

Further down the line, a new wing and determination to do better (I even wrote down some goals) had started to get results. I had committed to making this the season where I really went for it - which, to me, meant scoring well in the League. Therein lay the problem; objective measurement of success. With a range of personality defects added into the mix: maladaptive perfectionism, self-centred behaviour, narcissism and lack of self-confidence, it was, looking back, a recipe for disaster.

A pilot sets off on another massive XC

A pilot sets off on another massive XC from Milk Hill

External media influence also wound up the pressure: Facebook landing selfies at massive distances, Telegram (ignoring the 90% useless chatter), the para-porn of Cross Country magazine articles and so on. The message to me, directly or indirectly, seemed to be XC focused – if you’re not doing ‘this’ then you ain’t doing nothing.

People supposedly get body dysmorphia from endless portrayals of unattainable beauty; could pilots similarly suffer from XC inadequacy? Maybe I was going about things the wrong way. Maybe this was just normal. Or maybe I was just still crap.

It was time to take stock. What really mattered? My wife said that my behaviour was as if I was having an affair; I could be present physically but my mind always seemed elsewhere. I was also missing numerous weekends with the kids – precious time that slips away even in the best of circumstances like smoke on the breeze. Even when I got back from decent flights I tended to be self-critical rather than satisfied. It was never good enough. I was, in essence, becoming a bit of a bore; selfish and one-dimensional.

As the season went on, I struggled to change. Various false fresh starts and doomed initiatives followed. Going cold turkey didn’t help. It was still painful to miss good days and I was still going on marginal days – ‘because I might miss out.’

A different mind-set was needed.

Playing with a wing

Playing with a wing

Gradually I found a way to manage my expectations. It started with an acknowledgement that paragliding cross country is essentially pointless. You travel somewhere on a slow, inefficient aircraft, then try to figure out how the heck to get back to where you started, which generally takes the rest of the day. It’s not heroic. It does not benefit others. Often it is not worthy of adulation.

In fact it’s stupid. Free flight does, however, present a wealth of rich sensory experiences denied to most people. I tried to appreciate these small details again. The views, curling wisps at cloudbase, the cooler feel of the air at height, unexpected sounds carried aloft by thermals, the smugly satisfying pull of the wing as you arrive at where you thought a climb would be. The things not reflected in some digits followed by ‘km’, but all there waiting to be savoured.

So, the season ended and the results were, by that stage, less important to me.


You don't have to be flying anywhere or achieving anything, to be free

There’s no denying that setting goals is a great way to improve your flying and I’m sure that year did it for me. However, I made some mistakes along the way and lost sight of why I fly. I’m glad I backed off and tried to take a more subjective view on what constitutes a good flight. I considered quitting paragliding altogether, but I hate giving up and I did not want to throw away the experience which had been so hard to gradually accumulate in the fickle UK weather.

I fly a lot less these days, partly through choice but mainly for practical reasons. I still go XC when I can but I no longer enter flights in the league – call it a safeguard to keep that inner monster in check. I feel … lighter, and have even arranged weekends away in the full knowledge that it may well be flyable, unthinkable a few years ago. Now, my most cherished flights are on the random days, when barely anyone is at the hill, or no one else bothers to get away. An unexpected treat far removed from the pressures of the stereotypical join-the-dots big day.

So, if you see me heading off at 6pm under 8/8, because a last-gasp climb has come along, don’t worry. I’m not mad, just free. 

Republished with permission of Skywings Magazine

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