INTERLAKEN, Switzerland—Ignoring a forecast of low-speed winds and low-altitude clouds, I decided to go paragliding one chilly August morning. I had successfully slouched through the country for three days despite my limited knowledge of German, so in my mind the inevitable next step was to fling myself off a mountaintop strapped to a stranger. Thus, with much help from the rental car’s Irish-accented navigation system, we made our way to Interlaken, a town known for its posh hotels and hiking trails. Weather conditions had not improved.
After parking just off the main road, I waded my way through a throng of selfie stick-and designer suitcase-toting Asian tourists towards the meeting point, a place called “Restaurant Hooters,” which I incorrectly assumed to be a misspelling of “Hörers”—German for “listeners”. I was wrong and soon found myself bashfully standing in front of America’s best-known breastaurant waiting for a mysterious white van to whisk me into the Alps.
As the van whipped around the hairpin turns that took us up the mountain, I examined my fellow paragliders. Aside from a Bay Area techie who probably had a Google Glass hidden in his windbreaker pocket, I was the only one flying solo; the rest were couples, there to support each other as they descended some 800 meters from a nondescript ridge to Interlaken’s central park. Always one to have some sort of moral support when undertaking something new, I gulped and took a deep breath. The altitude change was getting to me.
We exited the van, and I met my pilot, a 40-something, grey-haired Swiss man named Dany. He knew enough English to discuss the unseasonable weather and resilient beauty of the Alps with me during the short trek to the takeoff site but not enough to understand my joke about the presence of a Hooters in a high-class resort town. Fortunately, however, he did see the humor in the restaurant logo being emblazoned in massive block letters on one of the wings the group was to use. Realizing we had run out of discussion topics and now knew each other well enough that I trusted him not to pilot us into the face of a cliff, Dany proceeded to set up the wing while I put on my helmet and gazed at the still-snowcapped Alps just barely visible over the trees that surrounded three sides of the takeoff site.
In a few moments I was going to get a much better view of them.
The first glider took off, and Dany shepherded me into the flight harness—I was now strapped against him in a spooning position—and briefed me on what was to come next. “Basically just run,” he said. And so we did. After five steps, I began to feel the wing hit air resistance. The hill we were sprinting down became steeper, and we neared a decaying wooden barn. Suddenly, the wing caught the wind and we were aloft, flying much more quickly than I had expected. Instead of gliding peacefully we were buffeted by air currents. My raincoat, more than sufficient for withstanding the crappy weather below me, suddenly felt flimsy. My feet dangled beneath me and the harness rode a little too far up my thighs, but I was too busy looking down at the rapidly shrinking treetops to feel much discomfort.
While I’ve taken flight in everything from Boeing 747s to Cessna single-engines, paragliding was like nothing I’d ever before experienced. No fuselage limited my field of vision to a single tiny window, and no flight attendant served complimentary wine once we reached cruising altitude half a mile above the ground. We were at the mercy of our equipment and the weather, and something about flying without the redundancies of modern aircraft was exhilarating. Exhaling for the first time in nearly half a minute, I allowed the adrenaline rush to hit me and let go of the ropes that held me to the wing.
No thermals—columns of rising air that whisk gliders upwards and lengthen their flight—were in the area that day, so our descent began rather quickly. We crossed over a ridge, and all of Interlaken was spread before us. The two lakes for which the town is named were a brilliant shade of turquoise, and the people walking the streets were just barely visible, their raincoats matching the color of the water-darkened streets.
As we neared the central park in which we were to land, the glider tipped forwards and we headed straight down. I spread my arms like a skydiver in a misguided attempt to slow our descent, but it did nothing other than embarrass me; Dany had decided to make up for the lack of wind by forcing the glider down as quickly as possible, creating the sensation one experiences onboard a roller coaster. After some five seconds of what I thought was a freefall we leveled off, as did my heart rate. “How was that for an adrenaline rush?” Dany asked. I mumbled something in response, still recovering from the shock.
Slowly, the selfie stick-toting Asian tourists came into view and I braced myself for the landing. “It’s easy,” Dany told me. “Start running when you hit the ground then slow down.”
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It was easier said than done. Upon impact with the ground I took two steps and plopped my rear onto the ground, causing the pilot to trip over me and push my face into the dirt. A brief struggle in which I tried to sit up and he attempted to step backwards and bring the wing onto the ground ensued. Thankfully, no judgmental Swiss people were around to witness our embarrassment, so I allowed myself to enjoy the sensation of being back on solid ground as Dany unstrapped us from the wing. I had enjoyed my time as a bird, but it felt right to be back in the realm of the flightless.