Weekend Warriors: Kari Castle, a legend in hang gliding

Courtesy of Kari Castle

The last word Kari Castle would use to describe herself is fearless. She claims she's no daredevil.

"I've always said I'm a gutless coward," she says, laughing.

In fact, the first time she took hang gliding lessons back in 1981, she was too terrified to leave the ground. She'd get strapped into the glider, get a running start at the top of a 200-foot hill and then crash, time after time. She'd abort the moment she felt the wing lift.

"It scared the crap out of me," she says. "So I pulled the bar in to make it stop, and I'd crash. I did that all day. I couldn't allow myself. I couldn't trust it. At the end of the day I was so sore and beat up and tired. Humiliated."

Yet somehow she still wanted to soar like an eagle. She went back the next day, started with a crash, got up, charged down the hill again ... and lifted off. "When I finally got in the air I was like, 'Oh, that was easy,'" she recalls. "I couldn't believe how easy it was once I just let it do its thing. Then you couldn't stop me."

Over the 35 years since, Castle has made her home in the clouds.

At 55, she's one of the all-time greats in her sport. She continues to fly both hang gliders and paragliders while working as a teacher and coach in Bishop, California, and doing stunt-double work in movies and television. She's won three women's world hang gliding championships (and been second twice). She's had 20 national championships and was selected to the six-person (usually all-male) national team three times. She also won seven paragliding national championships.

She has traveled the world, seen gorgeous sights and flown over the Alps and Andes. Plus, she's set five women's world records in hang gliding, three of which still stand: longest-distance flight (250.7 miles), longest straight flight to a declared goal (219.6 miles) and longest dogleg (one-turn) flight (181.5 miles).

After thousands of hours in the air, suspended only by straps and wind, Castle feels completely comfortable in the sky yet still can't quite explain how she can step off a high, rocky ledge and trust she'll fly. She trusts her equipment and takes every safety precaution. And she also surmises it's just too fun and too beautiful for her not to.

"I can't even climb a ladder without being afraid, but I can be 10,000 feet above the ground and look down and feel like that's normal, and it feels good," she says. "It is too good to be true. It's a dream just to float away from a mountain."

When Castle moved to California in 1982 from her native Michigan, it was to go to community college. Hang gliding wasn't a priority, ranking behind school and becoming a lifeguard. She did lifeguarding and was an aerobics instructor before eventually graduating to a 9-to-5 job for a technology marketing research firm in the Bay Area. In the interim she found one of the state's best hang gliding schools just minutes away from her home in Fremont.

She couldn't afford it, so the school cut a deal with her: work for lessons. She did whatever was needed, including setting up a simulator in malls and selling lessons to others. So, she was flying, working at the school and having a great time. One time, a local hang gliding club needed a woman for a competition. "They said, 'Kari, we need you to enter. We need a chick,'" she recalls. She won the women's division.

She remembers she couldn't do a 360-turn that was required, but she nailed her takeoff and landing and stayed up for hours, longer than any other woman.

"That's what I was good at."

The victory set the competitive hook in her. In 1988 she moved to Bishop, one of the hot spots for the sport. Nestled in the Owens Valley between the Sierra Nevada and White mountains, the Bishop area has the right combination of wind and peaks to be a hang gliding magnet.

That year she found her perfect home -- one where she can be perpetually outside and active, hang gliding, hiking, climbing, mountain biking and skiing (downhill and Nordic). She also won her first women's national hang gliding title.

Her new home was the catalyst for her new career as a teacher, coach and guide as well. She saw so many people who had taken lessons but couldn't progress -- and still really didn't know what they were doing.

"They learn just enough where their instructor says, 'You can go out and fly, these are the restrictions, be careful, don't fly in these conditions, don't do this,' and the idea is they go out and hopefully get taken under someone else's wings, who help them along in the next part of their journey," she says. But many didn't know where to go to get that mentor. She filled that niche.

Now, too, she coaches top-echelon hang gliders, passing on what she's learned over 35 years. Castle is no longer driven to compete in hang gliding, though she says she's not officially retired. And, she continues to enter some paragliding competitions. But at this point, it's not all the championships she's won or the records she's set that are most dear to her.

What's most important, she says, is the life she's been able to lead. Today, she's engaged to be married, still flying and giving back to the sport as an official (she helped organize the 2015 national championships) and able to split time between Bishop, Baja California and the Hood River in Oregon (where she kite boards).

Also, now, she's giving back to others. She's part of The Cloudbase Foundation, an organization of free-flight pilots that raises money and does projects in communities across the U.S., South America, Africa and Asia where competitions are held. She's doing similar work with another hang gliding/paragliding group, Wings of Kilimanjaro, in Africa.

Hang gliding is predominantly a mental and skill sport. Elite competitions last from four to 12 days. The pilot who takes his or her glider over a set course -- around designated turn points -- the fastest is the winner of each day's route. Daily results are averaged for an overall champion.

"You have to be accurate," she says. "These turn points, you have to be within a 400-meter radius."

When she first started competing, pilots would wrap maps around their base bars (the bars held by the pilots to control the craft, along with weight shifts) and use them for navigation. To prove they'd flown over a turn point, they had to take pictures. Then race organizers would have to develop the film to check. Now the pilots use GPS, and race officials track their flights in detail.

She says the evolution of the sport has been amazing. These days, too, hang gliders can soar over flat lands such as Arkansas or Texas. A place like Bishop isn't necessary. Pilots and their craft can be towed skyward, then catch the winds.

But whether it's 2016 or 1988, two things have remained constant: the thrills and dangers of the sport. Castle has had just enough of the dangers to always make her cautious. She takes no extra risks.

Twice she's had to deploy her reserve parachute, once in the Owens Valley in 1988 from 15,500 feet and the other in the Alps just a few years ago. In both cases, her glider got caught in dangerous wind shifts and tumbled out of control.

Both times, she thought she would die. The first time she had a hard landing, injured a foot, cracked her tailbone and vertebrae and lost a tooth. The second time, she had a soft landing with no injuries, but it helped her to decide to cut back her competition schedule.

"I was tumbling just like a leaf out of the tree, flipping, tumbling," she recalls. When she finally was able to deploy her chute, she felt lucky. "After that it was like, 'I don't want to play anymore.'"

But she can't imagine not flying for fun.

"Almost every flight, I look around and I'm like, 'Holy moly, I'm still doing this. I'm still in one piece.' I mean, I know way too many people that aren't. But yeah, just the simple act of running off a mountain and flying -- how many people really do that? Not very many."

As she describes her life, she gets emotional. The champion who laughs often and pokes fun at herself feels blessed. "The fact I've been able to live my dream, I feel like that's an accomplishment," she says. "Without even realizing it. Because all along I've been like, 'Oh, gosh, what am I going to be when I grow up? I've got to do something.'

"But it's taken me a long time to accept that what I've done is OK. I keep thinking I should be doing something with my life ... but so many people have led that serious working life and then I see them and they say, 'Damn, I wish I would have followed my passion or what I was meant to do.'"

Which is what Castle is doing -- and finally appreciating.

"I remember my friend a few years ago, she said, 'Gosh, Kari, you live the life of a millionaire, but you have no money,'" she says, laughing.