I try to let the winds carry me in the direction it seems they want me to go. This sensation took to new heights last Sunday during a trip up in the French Alps when Fred Bouniol from Loisirs Assis Evasion called me up and asked if I would like to try “parapenting” with him. For those not familiar with this sport, an English translation of his inquiry could be, “Would you like jump off the side of a mountain with me attached to the equivalent of a tent and some string?” After asking him the hard questions, such as, “Am I going to die doing this?” it seemed like the only correct answer I could have for him was Yes, I’ll go!
I have looked wistfully for years at people with these parachute-like devices far overhead, soaring like easy-going albatrosses in the breeze. Who hasn’t dreamed of flying, right? Not the realist in me, who had always shut down the idea due to an uncanny affection for having all my limbs and head in good working order.
Knowing that Fred is an extremely experienced instructor in this sport (known as paragliding in English), and that he spends much of his time in the summer taking up people with disabilities for a similar experience, I felt more confident giving it a go. There wasn’t time to think about it either. I had an hour to finish up lunch and meet him at the landing area.
Fortunately my French host brother-in-law Luc had the time and willingness to shuttle us up to the launch point. We were joined by Fred’s 17-year-old son and his 15-year-old friend, both of whom would be flying independently. The 15 year old had already been paragliding for 3 years, which gave me an additional level of confidence, except for the fact that he forgot his pants. He ended up making the jump in shorts. Before he smiled and ran off the mountain into the air, I asked him, “Are you SURE you didn’t forget anything else?” The view even from the launch point was stunning. A brush of fall colors had begun painting the Alpine mountainsides right up to where the tree line transformed into rocky teeth and cliffs, forming a bowl around the valley below. A storm had come through the area the day before and while it had rained at lower altitudes, Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe, had received a fresh coating of white, creating a dramatic backdrop at the far end of the valley under the peaceful blue sky.I tried to stay relaxed and not get to nervous about the fact that I was about to do something that could be the last thing I ever do. After unpacking his sail and strapping me in to my harness, Fred’s explanations were brief and to the point. “Keep running towards that house across the valley until you are in the air. Don’t try and jump or sit down too early.” …And “I’ll tell you about the landing later”. Then it was GO time.
Run, run run!…are we going to hit those trees below us? Nope, we skimmed above them soaring out into the beautiful void. Once in the air and beyond my initial panic of being airborne receded, I noticed almost that we were gliding silently aside from the wind in my ears as the scenery drifted below. I also noticed a ridiculous perma-grin on my face that wasn’t about to go away: this was AMAZING!
Fred guided us along the treetops, staying relatively close to the mountain from which we launched in order to stay near to where the best winds would be. It felt very super-hero like. I saw waterfalls and other things otherwise hidden in the mountainside I never knew existed. Fred was pleased that this late in the year he was able to catch enough updrafts to fly back above our launch point. Once we up and cruising around a bit, he began to explain to me some of the physics behind the miracle of flight we were experiencing. Discussions of paragliding can sound a lot like conversations relating to liquid matters such as surfing or rafting through rapids. It is definitely more complex than I had imagined.
When we started approaching the pasture below for our landing Fred asked, “Are you OK with roller coasters?” whereupon he sent us into a death spiral towards the cows below. As the bottom dropped out and our speed & G-forces increased, this was the one part of our flight where I was having reservations about the lunch I had eaten earlier. I managed to keep it down, but I don’t think I have a future in acrobatic flying ahead of me.
The final approach instructions turned out to be much like the takeoff ones: run fast. Fred pulled up a tad early or late (I have no idea) for the landing, which didn’t end up giving us much of a chance at running. Instead we were moving a bit too fast and too vertical, causing us to pretty much splat one on top of the other. We were fine, but I could see how that could go a lot worse. Instead, I was effervescent with joy both with the experience and especially knowing I had survived it very much in one piece.
Would I do it again? Hard to say. As spectacular an experience it was, it would be hard to top the stunning scenery surrounding us for this flight, nor would it be easy to come by anyone with as much experience as Fred. I certainly don’t see myself taking it up as a hobby on my own.
While we eventually got around to the meeting we had originally planned to discuss some adaptive equipment for folks with disabilities, the whole time we chatted and tried out his new electric powered 4-wheeled mountain bike, I was high with the knowledge that I had just done something amazing that I would never forget for the rest of my life. Thanks Fred!!