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Bulldozers at paragliding ‘Mecca’ rake up fear

By Annie Knox,Associated Press - | Mar 29, 2013

DRAPER — Three decades ago, Chris Santacroce taught himself to do somersaults a few thousand feet in the air. He ran off a mountain ridge here, taking flight against the backdrop of Utah Lake and the Wasatch mountains.

Today, Santacroce, known as the “Yoda” of the sport, holds international titles and a Red Bull sponsorship. And that spot is among the world’s most treasured paragliding sites.

But paragliders contend the spot is now in jeopardy. In March, a cement company that owns part of the mountain started to plow off a southern corner of the ridge.

“For us, it’s disbelief,” Santacroce said of the bulldozing. “It’s like, holy crap. Could this be the end of an era?”

The hill south of Salt Lake City, known as Steep Mountain, touts an ideal bundle of geographic factors. That wind affords daredevils the rare fortune of soaring on a smooth, constant breeze from dawn till dusk and on most days of the year. And it helped shape the sport, giving paragliders more time to practice and try out acrobatic stunts in the air.

“It’s to paragliders and hang gliders what Waimea Bay is to surfers, or Yosemite is to hikers,” said paraglider Kristjan Morgan, adding, “There isn’t a next best place.”

The company has mined the area for decades, but steered bulldozers clear of the paragliding spot until this month.

Now, the missing chunk of ridge worries the flying community that the company will lop off other, more vital pieces of the mountain. That, they say, would deflate the area’s singular, sturdy wind flow and put the ideal flying spot in jeopardy.

And that could drain thousands of visitors from the point’s half-dozen pilot schools and paragliding outfitters, hurting the tight-knit community atop the mountain. There, a development houses about two dozen enthusiasts.

Those “Point rats” acknowledge that the current missing chunk of ridge has not affected their flying, for the most part.

“It’s not absolutely the end of the world for us” so far, Santacroce said. “But boy would we like to make a deal and cinch it up” to safeguard the rest of the ridge.

Paragliders and hang gliders say trekking up and flying at the point is a pilgrimage.

Bruce Busby, the vice president of Canada’s Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association, has visited the site about 10 times in the last two decades from his home in Calgary, Alberta. “It’s relaxed, it’s easy, it’s fun,” Busby said, “and it’s absolutely fantastic flying.”

Paragliders are working to raise the mountain’s profile through an online campaign called “Save Point of the Mountain.” Now, they are urging the county to buy the land and hope the attention will secure the mountain. But that could be a long shot.

The Geneva Rock Company, which owns the mountain, plans to continue pushing that gravel off the ridge. That’s because spot contains lucrative, high-quality rocks that help to build Utah highways, said David Przybyla, spokesman for the company.

“This isn’t something where we can pick up operations and go to someone else’s backyard,” Przybyla said.

“There’s still a huge mountain there,” he added. “We’re not trying to stop that sport at all.”

Paragliders characterize Geneva Rock as a good and thoughtful neighbor. A few years ago, it agreed to sell a chunk of the mountain to the county. Paragliders now use that spot as a launch park where they can drive up, have a family picnic and take flight.

The issue highlights two sides of Utah’s identity. One is an adrenaline-fueled culture celebrating adventure and the outdoors. The other is a long history of mining as an economic driver.

There, winds squeeze into a tunnel, play tug of war, then shoot up over the hill, creating the constant and sturdy lift of air.

Torrey Pines near San Diego, Calif., and another launch site in Jackson Hole, Wyo., also rank among the most popular paragliding spots nationwide.

Salt Lake County officials are seeking a group to do a study on the wind and mining, said county spokeswoman Alyson Heyrend. “We’re really at the front end of trying to understand the issues and trying to understand the problem,” she said.

Lori Fitzgerald holds a 1983 world title for hang gliding. She has flown at the point for over 30 years and moved to the neighborhood to fly when she’s not working as a real-estate broker.

Fitzgerald worries about the health threats bulldozers pose as they rake up silica near her home.

But “I’ll never quit flying,” she said, adding, “If they take away half, I’ll fly the other half. I’m never going to quit.”


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