Jagged spires and walls of stone over 800 meters (~2600 feet) tall push warm air upwards. These thermal lifting currents provide world-class sites for paragliders. But the winds vary in direction and speed. Some days are better than others.
The paragliders soar over the terrain under a double layer of fabric with air chambers which gather the wind. The pilots are suspended by cords in a harness below. The cords also provide the steering controls.
The stone waits a half mile below.
The dramatic terrain of the Dolomite Mountains in northern Italy is not for beginners. Perhaps they practice on lower terrain features before graduating to the big walls.
On an autumn day after a rain storm, bright sunshine warms the walls and by the afternoon clouds and winds grow over the high peaks. Tour buses, touring motorcycle groups, site-seers, and photographers drive up the narrow switchbacks to reach the summits. The views are spectacular. The mountains are other-worldly. The European larch (Larix decidua Mill.) is turning yellow and painting vivid yellow shading over the lower mountain slopes.
Overhead paragliders circle, riding the warm rising air. In the distance faint specks float across the face of the Monte Sella group of peaks. The paraglider wings are brightly-colored and stand out against the gray stone walls.
The imposing rock of the Sassolungo group of peaks draws paragliders like moths to a light bulb. I watched several of them work the currents of the lower terrain and make long sweeping passes near the mountain front and then move toward me.
I followed one closely as he approached. I started photographing to see if I could portray the magnitude of what they were doing. I tracked him with the telephoto lens as he circled above me and passed by. I was trying to keep him in focus while also having the beautiful Monte Sella in the background in focus as well, but not blurred by the motion of the camera. So I composed an image guessing where I thought he would pass into the scene and waited. Exposure and focus were set from earlier shots as he flew nearby. Then he circled slowly and surely into the corner of the composition. I am pretty sure he knew he was being photographed because I was standing alone on the top of a wind-swept grassy ridge.
I have been asked if I super-imposed the paraglider onto the mountain photograph. The answer is no. Sometimes you are in the right place at the right time. And sometimes months of planning, pre-dawn drives, hours of waiting, and hundreds of photographs put you in the right place at the right time.
Several miles of stunning mountain scenery and a very courageous paraglider pilot don’t hurt either!