Sunday August 19, 2012 9:21pm — My second day in Switzerland.
I’d arranged to stay in Zurich with a host named Paolo, who was actually the head of the local Couchsurfing chapter and with whom I’d chatted before I arrived about some of the things I wanted to do and see in Switzerland. High on my list was a paragliding adventure in the Alps, and it so happened that Paolo was a novice paraglider himself. He arranged a day trip into the mountains to a well-known flying spot.
Paolo and his girlfriend Anastasia and I left his flat around 10am and took a series of trams and trains to a small town whose name I don’t know, where we rented a car and drove to a tiny valley in the Alps. Once there I met Peter, my tandem pilot, who was from Wisconsin but had been living and paragliding in Switzerland for some 13 years. Paragliding is a bit like parasailing; you are strapped into a harness which is attached to a giant parachute, and then you use this apparatus to defy gravity for a while. Unlike parasailing, there is no boat pulling you along over a body of water, and you are not tethered to the ground (or anything else) in any way. Thus, more like skydiving, if you’re not proficient in the skills it takes to navigate the altitude, you need to be physically attached to someone who is. This is where Peter comes in. We took a cable car halfway up the mountain to a ski lift, which took us most of the way to the top, and then hiked – he with a 50lb pack – the rest of the way to the summit. At the peak we spread out the paraglider out on the ground and strapped ourselves in. Then we ran as fast as we could – really quite slowly – straight down the mountain. Had our sail not lifted after a few steps, we would have tumbled down the mountain and split our skulls open on the rocks.
But of course it did open, and the wind caught it and tugged us up into the clear blue sky. What a phenomenal experience! We soared to the edge of jagged cliffs and climbed up thermals, practically skimming the treetops with our feet. We spiraled up and down, floating like a tuft of dandelion caught on a breeze. I’m sure Peter felt it was more work than that. But I loved it! I had my camera with me so I was able to take pictures of the toothy Alps under my feet. We were in the air over an hour, twisting and turning here and there to try to catch an updraft or warm air. It was so incredible to see swallows banking underneath me and to feel, just a little bit, like one of them.
We had some fun with stomach-displacing maneuvers like tight spirals and figure-eights. Tucking one side of the parachute in causes you to tilt at a vertigo-inducing angle to the earth and descend in rapid circles, much like water down a drain. Who knew how much fun water has been having since drains were invented? After about an hour I was feeling dehydrated and hungry, and a little uncomfortable in my harness. It’s made so you can kind of sit down in it, but still my legs felt like they were stiffening up and one harness strap left a long welt on my inner thigh. Finally we descended and landed – not at all gracefully but more or less gently – in a field. The trick to landing is not to stop once your feet are on the ground but to keep running forward so the weight of the parachute doesn’t pull you down in an awkward heap. Something I’ll certainly keep in mind for next time.
Want to do this yourself?
Find information about Hoch Ybrig here: http://www.hoch-ybrig.ch/sommer/english/
Email Peter Greis about paragliding here: firstname.lastname@example.org