motion blurred imagery of yellow leaves on white barked aspen trees

Q&A with Legendary Sun Valley Paraglider Gavin McClurg

Geography and thermal strength make the Wood River Valley one of the best places in North America—if not the world—for cross-country paragliding. Just ask local pro and Zenergy sponsored athlete Gavin McClurg, 42, who holds the North American record for the longest single paragliding flight (240 miles), which he launched from the top of Baldy.

“Distance flying is all about using a thermal to get high, then leaving the thermal to glide,” he explains. “Here, the thermal tend to be violently strong. Because we climb so fast, we can spend more time on glide, covering more terrain.”

Last August, McClurg, along with flying partner and renowned ice climber Will Gadd, completed a revolutionary paragliding traverse of North America’s most rugged wilderness that earned them the title of National Geographic Adventurers of the Year 2014/2015. Their epic 35-day, 800-kilometer journey was captured in The Rockies Traverse, a documentary to be shown at the Community School Theater on Thursday, April 30, at 6:30pm.

We caught up with McClurg, who is currently training for the Red Bull X-Alps 2015, a combination paragliding and foot race known as “The World’s Toughest Adventure Race,” to find out how he does it. 

How do you prepare for your epic adventures?
If you’re just doing regular paragliding, you don’t need to be that fit. But distance flying, and especially racing across the Alps it's a different story. For the Red Bull race, I am training constantly. In the beginning it was a lot of anaerobic and interval strength training. Now, it’s a lot of aerobic work–hours and hours at 70-percent maximum heart rate. Today, for example, I am walking 30 kilometers with a 26-pound pack (the same that I will have during the race), then climbing Durance (3,000 vertical feet) and paragliding back. It’ll be a 6.5 hour day. My trainer, Ben Abruzzo, is an ex-Delta force Ranger. 

What do you eat for breakfast?
On a big training day, I eat a huge breakfast, such as four eggs, ground chicken and veggies, quinoa and a power shake with a big scoop of protein powder, strawberries, bananas, kale and peanut butter. Plus, a massive thermos of coffee. When I race, I eat a lot of carbohydrates (about 70 percent) and protein (about 20 percent) and as much fat as my stomach can handle. On race days, I aim to consume at least 6,000 calories a day.

Does anything scare you?
Paragliding is dangerous. For the Red Bull adventure race, I’m definitely scared of flying in horrific conditions while being super exhausted and racing to win. I don’t want to come home all banged up or worse. I also worry about my knees. I grew up ski racing, so my knees are not those of a 20 year old. I’ve been working on building up the strength around my knees in my training, and so far, it’s been working.

How does your wife feel about all of it? 
She’s the one who taught me how to fly, so really, it’s all her fault! But we’re both very independent (for example, right now she’s in Indonesia for a few months on a photo shoot) and pretty good about letting each other pursue our dreams. Her attitude is, “If it’s an opportunity, how can I get in the way of that?”.  But my addiction to paragliding has certainly been all-consuming and I give her a lot of credit for putting up with me. 

What do you do when, ahem, nature calls in the air?
We use a condom catheter, drape it overboard and go to the bathroom. Only number one, though. Heads up if you’re on the ground and see a paraglider overhead!

What’s your advice for someone who wants to start paragliding?
Take it slow and learn at a good school. There are good ones in Santa Barbara and Salt Lake. You can learn in Sun Valley but you have to be careful and find the right people to teach you.  If you’re going to fly here, you want to fly the morning and early evening before things get too rowdy.

Tickets to The Rockies Traverse can be purchased for $10 in advance at Zenergy or at the door.

To see a preview of the film, click here.