Local paraglider first to traverse Hells Canyon

photo/Todd Weigand Just another selfie at 15,000-foot-plus altitude. Todd Weigand, well on the way to his record-breaking flight from Mt. Howard to Mackay Bar, Idaho.

Paragliding skill and just the right weather helped local part-time resident Todd Weigand became the first person to fly over Hells Canyon in a wind-powered device. Weigand is a professional paraglider who owns several paragliding companies and resides part-time in the Wallowa Valley.

Weigand made the 82-mile flight on July 31 starting from the top of Mt. Howard. The record was no accident for Weigand. “The day before, the weather forecast was looking really good for high cloud base for good thermals and good wind direction toward Idaho. We probably have to understand air more than any other air-user pilot in the world,” Weigand said. Later that day, Weigand flew across the Snake River to Oxbow Dam, camped out and hitched a ride back to Joseph, arriving at noon on July 31.

After a quick lunch and checking the forecast, Weigand correctly determined a record-breaking flight could be his for the taking. He boarded the tram to the top of Mt. Howard, launching at 2 p.m., flying directly east for the next 4.5 hours, reaching heights of up to 17,000 feet for the flight.

The enormous height was required because Hells Canyon generally lacks thermals, an upward current of warm air paragliders use to maintain height. “You get as high as you can because all the way across, you’re sinking, and (the canyon) is trying to suck you in,” Weigand said.

In a stroke of good fortune, Weigand landed on a little strip on Mackay Bar at the confluence of the South Salmon and Main Salmon rivers. “I landed next to this river camp with all the people running over while cheering and screaming,” Weigand said.

One of the campers, Joe Ehrler, of Joseph, knew Weigand from the paragliding lessons his daughter had taken from him. “I ended up just being able to jump on his raft and float out over the next two days until we hit the first road, and I rode with him all of the way to Joseph.” Weigand said.

As well as the first recorded flight over the canyon, it was also the first flight up the main fork of the Salmon River.

Of course, Weigand takes safety precautions. He carries a radio, a variometer, which is a device that tracks ascent and descent, as well as a satellite tracker that sends out signals as to his location. A pack carries his sleeping bag, food and safety equipment. He also carries an emergency parachute.

Weigand returned to this area for the first time in nearly a decade, hoping to establish a tandem paragliding school. He intends to spend plenty of airtime here over the summer. “I’ll be flying all summer long, there’s lots of good sites in the area, over Imnaha, places by Elk Mountain and Joseph Canyon. I’m looking forward to it,” Weigand said.

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