FEATURE: Conquering heights (and fear of it)

Paragliding in Saragani province. Photo courtesy of Cocoy Sexcion / SARANGANI INFORMATION OFFICEMAASIM, Sarangani (MindaNews/21 May) – It is one acrophobic’s worst nightmare but also a child’s ultimate fantasy fulfillment.

How many of us once dreamed we are the caped action heroes who crushed the evil and outlaws and once saved a damsel from falling from the Empire State building, or wherever, like Superman?  Or if you are more current, recent Marvel comic book superheroes Iron Man, Thor and Captain America in the ultimate world box-office record-breaking superaction movie The Avengers (still running in theaters worldwide)?  Going more locale, Captain Barbell and Darna, Mars Ravelo classic super heroine?

Conquering one’s fear of heights means having a majestic view of the mountains and the sea

To defy gravity and be able to hold yourself up in the sky with nothing to separate you from hundreds of feet above the air and the rocky mountain and cliffs below is every child’s dream.  To be able to conquer heights and your fears of flying.  It could be dizzying.  Enthralling.

But in the real world, it could also turn your stomach inside out and even induce self-inflicted death.

Those who have inordinate fear for the heights (acrophobia) will find the pteromerhanophobics (people who fear flying) luckier.  With fate hanging on both hands, the thin line between heavenly ecstasy and morbid and agonizing death will be staring at your face with one serious miscue or miscalculation.

But for some, they make a living and actually have some fun out of it on the side.

Frenchman Armand Dard has been taking off cliffs and mountain edges as a certified paragliding pilot and instructor for the last 17 years.

He was invited by brothers Coco and Ian Tan to take a look at the otherwise barren cattle ranch of the latter’s family-owned San Andres Fishing Industries (SAFI) Inc. in Seguel, Maasim.  Armand gave it a try.  He immediately fell in love with the place, said to be the only one of its kind in Mindanao and perhaps the best location for mountain launch paragliding in the country today.

Fear of heights

Over the last few years, you see, I have developed this fear of standing at the edges of tall buildings.  So when my time to try how it feels when you lift and hold yourself aloft in the air strapped in a harness with a handful of barely a millimeter of superstrong strands holding you and your friendly paragliding pilot from crushing to death, you have to conquer all those fears.

Geared up and ready to fly

We had to drive all the way up on a 4×4 SUV to negotiate the steep and rocky edges of a cliff where, atop, a small clearing has been hastily built a few days before for a friendly competition among 10 paragaliders that included several Canadian friends of the Tan brothers and a Taiwanese the day earlier.

The pre-flight instructions were very brief.  Just the basics.

“We will be riding in tandem,” said Armand, “and you will have to follow my instructions.  When I say roll over to your left, just lean towards your left and cross you right legs over your left.  When I say right, do it the other way.  When I say straight forward, just sit and relax on a built-in seat in your harness.”

“We have to run against the wind to have a quick and good lift and continue kicking your feet in running motion in case of aborted flight to avoid injuries when ‘crashlanding.’  We will land on the same head wind and take two steps backward upon touching ground before turning to your left towards the chute to avoid being dragged backwards.”

The instructions from the Frenchman were in halting English, understandably.  Before I knew it, I was all ‘harnessed’, strapped from my back to Armand’s front and waiting for the right gale of wind for liftoff.

It was a short dash.  Three or five arms length and we were up in the air.  What happened next was the longest seven minutes of my hidden acrophobic side.  I felt the adrenalin rush.  At first, I cannot seem to focus on objects below me including the vehicles parked at the edge of the landing which still has a visible landing accuracy target.  Those vehicles looked like miniatures of matchboxes!

We made two turns each to our right and left before Armand decided the wind, at 2:30 in the afternoon, is not good enough for a long flight.  By long flights, paragliders said it is 15 minutes or more.    The Taiwanese friend of Coco said he was up in the air for two hours earlier in the day for their after-tournament fun fly. We landed smoothly.

When the adrenalin rush subsided, it was one joyous ride

Armand said accidents do happen.  It can come from misjudging the headwind and direction, a sudden downward draft or a faulty landing.  Coco still had his left foot in a cast courtesy of a recent faulty landing.  So too was his Canadian friend who had to be rushed to the hospital after he could no longer endure the pain on his ankle, probably sprained or, worse, twisted.

Future world attraction

Coco said a team from the world association of paragliders will be coming over next month to evaluate the site for possible inclusion in world paragliding tour competitions next year.  If accredited, it will be the first of its kind in the Philippines.

Armand said the site in Seguel is by far the best throughout the country that even the ones in Carmona in Cavite and Montalban in Rizal are rating far behind.

What makes Seguel more attractive is the majestic view of Sarangani Bay and the daylong wind that one paraglider can only dream of.   The French instructor however said the best time to fly is between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m.

Paragliding in this part of Mindanao is barely out of the woods.  But as of Sunday, Coco said there were already 10 enthusiasts and plenty more waiting to do some solo flights.

The gear however can cost a fortune for some ordinary fixed-income earners.  But it’s a one-time emptying of the pockets.

A brand new complete paragaliding gear can cost as much as P150,000 (USD3,500).  A secondhand, like Ian’s gear, can be had for P60,000 (USD1,400).   Fees for fun flyers could range from P1,500 to P3,000 (USD35-70).

For bookings and instructions in getting to the place, contact Chris Romano 09426204950.