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September 7, 2012
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Soaring from the top

Mark Haase piloted the 42-meter wing into a tight spiral 200 feet above a ridge near Kings Beach on Thursday, quickly losing altitude as he headed toward the tree tops. As the glider picked up speed, Haase expertly pulled the brake and leveled the wing.

"This is nothing. The wing is certified up to six Gs. I've gotten it up to two, but I almost blacked out," Haase said calmly as the paraglider made another pass along the ridge.

It took about five years and hundreds of hours in the air for Haase to become a fully certified professional tandem pilot. When he's not working as a flight nurse at the California Shock Trauma Air Rescue base in South Lake Tahoe, he can often be found soaring above the Sierra Nevada in the summer.

"I always wanted to do it. I got tired of walking to mountains. Now, I fly to them," Haase said.

Haase's flying experience isn't limited to California. He's flown in a dozen different counties in Africa and Europe and this winter he'll add another flight to his impressive resume. In early 2013, he'll take off from the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro along with about 200 other pilots in the first-ever official paragliding expedition to climb and fly the the highest peak in Africa.

The expedition, called Wings of Kilimanjaro, is the brainchild of Australian pilot Adrian McRae, who first gave birth to the idea of a mass hike-and-fly charity event in September 2010.

It was an idea not without its hurdles though. Paragliders weren't legally allowed in the Kilimanjaro National Park for more than 20 years, during which time the Tanzanian government strictly enforced a ban on the use of paragliders, hang gliders and mountain bikes on the mountain. Next year it will lift that ban for the one-time-only WOK event.

That permission came with some costs. WOK has pledged to raised $1 million that will go to health, environmental and educational needs in Tanzania, three key areas outlined by the government. According to Paula McRae, the project manager and self-described organizational guru for the event, the funds will be distributed by the One Foundation and Plant with Purpose.

In order to make the jump, each pilot must raise $5,000 for the charitable donation. McRae said they've received hundreds of nominations from pilots across the world, but because of the difficulties presented by leaping off a 19,341-foot peak, the selection process is very competitive.

"The challenges for our event are many and varied. Apart from the physical climb itself --according to the Kilimanjaro National Park only 41 percent of climbers reach the summit - there is also the possible and very likely affects from high altitude, high traffic paragliding areas, and not to mention the risk of landing amongst lions," McRae wrote in an email.

As of early September, Haase was one of 54 pilots slated to make the flight. It can be a very small community, he said, with only about 1,000 top-caliber paragliders worldwide. Like skiing back in the 1940s, it's a small, elite group.

U.S. Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association Public Relations Consultant Nick Greece said he thinks the expedition will give the niche sport more exposure in the U.S.

"It's already on National Geographic. I think it will be great for the sport in the states and I'm psyched that this organization is doing this on such a huge scale. I think it will bring visibility to the sport, but that's tertiary. The main thing is it's going to help a tremendous number of people in Africa," Greece said.

A member of the national paragliding team, Greece said the climb to the summit is a walk-up, but the launch itself will be challenging. Nothing like it has ever been attempted, he said.

To practice for the launch, Haase's been tackling the leeward side of ridges, logging flight hours down by Mono Lake near Yosemite National Park and challenging himself with harder and harder conditions. The air is thinner at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro and potential high winds at the summit can make flying tricky, he said.

"The big challenge is the altitude. I've never launched at those altitudes. Only about half a dozen pilots have launched off 5 to 6 meters. If it's windy, that could be even worse," Haase said.

Lake Tahoe provides a prime practice arena, he said. For Haase, the variable conditions, powerful winds, strong thermals and the natural beauty make Tahoe a great place to train.

"It's very rowdy conditions. It's like riding a bull at a rodeo. It's very powerful conditions and it can be violent and then there are the days that are easy and fun. The stark beauty at Lake Tahoe makes it the Mo. 1 most beautiful place to fly," he said.

For more information or to make a donation, visit the WOK website at http://wingsofkilimanjaro.com. Haase has offered to take people who donate more than $100 on a 45-minute flight over Lake Tahoe.


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Tahoe Daily Tribune Updated Sep 7, 2012 08:58PM Published Sep 7, 2012 06:48PM Copyright 2012 Tahoe Daily Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.