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Inside the Strange Sport of Paramotoring, in Which Competitors Risk Life and Limb to Fly

Hanging out along the Icarus Trophy trail.

Trey German being interviewed at the finish line in Mesquite, Nevada.
Trey German being interviewed at the finish line in Mesquite, Nevada. Andrew Egan

Risk is a part of everyday life. Even basic tasks, such as commuting to work or eating, involve a minimal amount of danger.

Yet some people prefer activities that involve an inordinate amount of risk, activities in which the high risk might be the whole point. 

It’s certainly the whole point of the Icarus Trophy, a cross-country paramotor race, that, for the second year in a row, has attracted some of the best paramotorists in the world. What is paramotoring? Imagine a parachutist with a propeller engine strapped to their back. With a running start from the ground, that setup, it turns out, can take you pretty far and high. 

It is a predictably dangerous endeavor but also one that has its enthusiasts. For the Icarus Trophy, those enthusiasts gather to compete in two classes: race and adventure. To win a race class, pilots are required to complete a given course without pre-arranged support, while for the adventure class, the way to win is a bit more ambiguous, to simply have the best paramotoring adventure. (The adventure for the winner involved a medicine man, a nude selfie at a hot spring, and almost beating some of the best paramotorists in the world.)

For the privilege, Icarus pilots pay a $2,000 fee and cover their own expenses during the 14-day race, something the race’s sponsor, the extreme sports firm the Adventurists, says is not for the faint of heart. 

“These are not holidays,” the website for the Adventurists states. “These are adventures and so by their very nature extremely risky. You really are putting both your health and life at risk. That’s the whole point.”

During this year’s Icarus Trophy race, which began Sept. 30 and wrapped up Oct. 15, I followed along in Montana (and Idaho, and Utah, and Arizona, and Nevada), on the trail of the still relatively new extreme sport, trying to see what I could learn about flying, and desire, and risk. 

The race began in Polson, Montana, where, on one beautiful Sunday morning, a small collection of pilots gathered. They were there to fly their paramotors, which are one of the cheapest and most basic ways to fly. 

To take off, pilots turn on their motor, catch wind in their “wing,” and start running. If the conditions are right, they quickly gain speed and, hopefully, take flight.

But of course, that doesn’t always happen, and at this Icarus Trophy race, failure was pretty common. Failure or liftoff is in large part determined by the air, which, at this race, was thin, thanks to an altitude of over 4,000 feet. Face plants were pretty common. 

“The air changed on me,” Dean Kelly explained after a failed takeoff attempt outside of St. Ignatius, Montana. An Australian that’s piloted paramotors for over two years, Kelly cracked two props and damaged the outer cage surrounding his motor. Fortunately, he was not hurt.

The risk associated with paramotoring can seem great, but James Borges, a pilot from the United Kingdom, said that for him it was mostly about the reward. 

Paramotor pilot flying at sunset over the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.
Paramotor pilot flying at sunset over the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. Andrew Egan

“It’s not really about risk, we try to manage risk as much as possible,” Borges said. “If we do that, we get to fly in a way few people experience.”

Borges explained verbally what extreme sports athletes and scientists have long known: that while fear is common, the reward is a healthy dose of adrenaline and dopamine, the chemicals in the brain responsible for happiness and satisfaction.

In paramotoring, that translates to a lot of high fiving and handshaking after a successful flight, even if, pilots say, the adrenaline rush can wear off after a while.

“When you first start, oh yeah, there’s always an adrenaline rush,” said Trey German, an engineer from Texas that’s been flying paramotors for nearly three years. “After a while, you really only feel it during maneuvers or extreme conditions.”

 Moab, Utah.
Moab, Utah. Andrew Egan

Which might explain why these pilots would choose to participate in the Icarus Trophy, claimed by its organizers to be the world’s toughest air race. The 2016 version of the race started in Polson and ran 1,100 miles through five states before ending near Las Vegas. This course was 300 miles longer than the previous year’s, which ran from Seattle to Sacramento.

“During one flight, I experienced hail, snow, rain, and turbulence,” Kelly said about the experience. “I had never dealt with those conditions before and I got to deal with them all at once.”

The Icarus Trophy starts in Polson, Montana, which is around 3,000 feet above sea level, before moving to a host of cities across the West, including Moab, Utah; Monument Valley; Idaho Falls, Idaho; and, unofficially, the Bonneville Salt Flats, where some competitors made a stop this year to fly. 

David Wanewright, winner of Icarus 2016, groundhandling at Monument Valley.
David Wanewright, winner of Icarus 2016, groundhandling at Monument Valley. Andrew Egan

Along the way, tormented competitors and their support staffs dealt with cramped living conditions, unpredictable weather, and broken equipment.

On the first day, Scotty Duncan, a well-known Australian pilot, blew an engine and had to repair it with the help of a local machinist, who was also kind enough to serve him elk stew.

“It’s part of the experience and adventure,” Kelly said after his failed attempt to launch on the first day. “Where’s the fun if everything goes right?”

Inch deep water across the Bonneville Salt Flats after a recent rain.
Inch deep water across the Bonneville Salt Flats after a recent rain. Andrew Egan

And then there are injuries, which, this year, thankfully, weren’t too common. Seven pilots flew, in total, with all but one finishing. Last year was worse: one competitor suffered a severely sprained ankle, while another had a broken wrist.

This year, though, the hazards were, at most, some tumbles and muscle strains, in addition to a few strange situations. 

German, for one, landed among thick desert shrubbery and had to remove his pants to pull out dozens of thorns. He later said he considered paramotoring about as safe as riding motorcycles

Paramotor pilot taking off from an airfield in Downey, Idaho.
Paramotor pilot taking off from an airfield in Downey, Idaho. Andrew Egan

“There are maybe twenty or thirty thousand paramotorists in the world but ones that fly regularly are much less, maybe ten thousand.” German said, “And there are only seven pilots with the balls to take on Icarus.

“Challenging yourself to do new things is a big part of Icarus,” German said. “If this were easy and without risk, it wouldn’t be as fun or memorable.”

Andrew Egan is a writer living in Texas. He’s previously written for Forbes and ABC News. He just completed his first novel, Nothing Too Original, and his collection Drink Your Whisky Like a Man spent one week on Amazon’s American poetry best seller list. You can find his terrible website at CrimesInProgress.comA version of this post originally appeared on Tedium, a twice-weekly newsletter that hunts for the end of the long tail.