Organizer and competitor Randy Parkin says that what’s now known as the Willi Muller XC Challenge started because the 10 original competitors “needed an excuse not to be home”.
The Cross Country Challenge, as the competition was originally named, was won by Willi Muller that first year and the competition was named in his honour following his 1998 death from a paragliding crash.
Muller was an inspiration and mentor for many in the hang gliding community in Western Canada, including Parkin.
“He was actually the one who got me doing competitions back in the day,” Parkin said.
“I think (the event) is an important way for people to get into competition flying. Willi was a fan of responsibility and safety and those are kind of two things that I took away from spending time with him. You need to be responsible for yourself, make good decisions, fly within your capability and we need to be as safe as possible doing the kind of thing that we do.”
The annual competition, which sees competitors launch from the top of Mt. Seven and take off for destinations as far down the valley as Canal Flats, and sometimes further, grew considerably since that first event. This year “the Willi” will include paragliders and hang gliders from across Western Canada, the Pacific Northwest and a small contingent from Europe.
“This will probably be the largest congregation of free flight pilots in Canada this year and in the 20 some-odd years I’ve been running competitions, this is probably going to be the largest one in Canada ever,” Parkin said.
Flying days will take place from Jul. 25-Aug. 2 with only a pilot’s top three scores counting towards their final tally, which is based on total distance. With the high quality of the pilots on hand this year, Parkin expects numerous competitors to reach Canal Flats, a traditional end point of the valley for most, as landing sites are harder to find beyond that area.
Locals may just have a chance to meet a competitor or two if they happen to be driving down Highway 95 during the competition. As one might imagine, it’s not uncommon for hang gliders and paragliders to land in remote areas, away from their intended destination.
“Some of us end up down the road, looking for a way home and we may be hitchhiking either towards Donald or towards Canal Flats,” Parkin explained.
Anyone who picks up a Muller participant will be entered into a “Thanks for the Ride” draw for gas and dinner gift certificates.
“If anybody sees us on the road, we’re usually not hard to spot. We’ve got sweat in our brow and we’re carrying a big pack.”