Monday August 20, 2012

RICHMOND - It's hard to imagine why anyone would want to fall backward off the side of a mountain. But we went to Mount Greylock in mid-July and that's exactly what several people were doing.

They're probably not the same ones who struggle to the top in winter so they can fly down the Thunderbolt, but it is sort of the same thing: a risk-taking, demanding, satisfying adventure.

In summer, it's paragliders who arrange their colorful "silks" across the ledges just down from the summit, don their backpacks (we hope there's a parachute in there) and their harnesses and then, facing the spectators and backs to the valley, just tip off. The crowd, with some young parents trying to keep their toddlers from running toward the edge, cheers.

Minutes later the thermals of the Adams valley are lifting them, blue or red or orange or multi-colored, and soon the latest departure is looking quite small, hundreds of feet above Mount Greylock's 3,491-plus elevation.

Hang gliders are out there, too, but the paragliders outnumber them on this particular day. The total in the air by mid-afternoon on a day more perfect than a day in June is at least eight. The number of visitors on the summit must be in the hundreds, and park ranger Ellis Rud is deftly dealing with the problem of parking. Lots of the visitors climb the tower that stands tall at the top and provides a view of mountains in New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, central Massachusetts and even Connecticut, if that state has any hills that qualify as mountains.

Bascom Lodge is the centerpiece of the action at the summit, and it's in good shape this year, spruced up by the group that is making a success of mountain top dining. Hikers, bikers and drivers are on-hand for lunch -- the grilled cheese sandwich with tomato and crisp bacon is delicious -- and many reserve a place at the prix-fixe dinner. The season ends Oct. 21. (413)-743-1591

A sunset is a treasured event on Greylock, but staying until Apollo's journey ends guarantees driving down the mountain in the dark, although the rejuvenated road is terrific. And those who don't want to drive at night can reserve a room if one's available, get up to see the sun return and feast on a Bascom breakfast.

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We once went up Cadillac Mountain in Maine to see the sunrise because for part of the year it's the first spot touched by the sun in the United States. The route was dark, and we stumbled about to find a perch on rocks to wait for the sun, hoping the clouds were going to lift. They did, and it was almost as spectacular as when we journeyed to the top of Haleakala on Maui in Hawaii to see the sun rise.

Back to Greylock. The paragliders' feats, it turns out, are pretty low-risk in terms of other so-called adventure sports, like snowmobiling and horseback riding. Few fatalities and few injuries have occurred across the United States over the years, and very few of those who ride a parasail as a passenger have been hurt. They rarely crash, apparently.

But falling off the mountain or hiking a segment of the Appalach ian Trail are not the only activities on Greylock these days. At Bas com Lodge, an historic structure built by the Civilian Conser vation Corps in the 1930s, all sorts of non-sporting activities take place, from yoga to drumming to mushroom identification.

Multi-tasking is apparently the name of the game for the people who signed on to operate Bascom Lodge. And it's working.

Ruth Bass is a freelance writer who lives in Richmond.