Casper the Friendly Flieger: Paragliding in Switzerland

August 8, 2016
The Call Of The Unknown: A Travel Writing Workshop

Like most great experiences, it began as an impulsive, half-baked idea.

Riding a small train high above Lauterbrunnen from Grütschalp to Mürren, a bright red chute glided along past my car. “I’m doing that” I heard someone say. I turned to find one of the yoga instructors nodding as she watched the soul descend into the valley. “When in Rome!” she declared! I liked her already.

It was the second day of the Pink Pangea hiking, yoga, and writing retreat in the Swiss Alps. I was just getting acquainted with our band of writers, yogis, and general adventurers as we collectively navigated the Alpine villages on our itinerary. We would have some free time of course, to write and explore Mürren on our own. I was already making a mental list of things I wanted to do before I left, but so far most items involved sitting and drinking a beverage, be it coffee or an obscure beer, and enjoying the view.

Flying into that view was not a consideration until now – but I could not help but entertain the idea as it floated through my mind like that red chute lofting about the valley. When else would I get to do something like that? It would be terrifying, but in a good way. And I’m a firm believer in the do-things-that-scare-you mentality. I turned to the yogi and caught her eye – “I’d be down – or, er- up, as it were. When were you thinking about going?”

Casper the Friendly Flieger: Paragliding in Switzerland.

That was what I said, so I had to follow through. I was able to rally another few members of the group- you’d be surprised how many people are willing to jump off a cliff if you just ask. We had no reservations about doing it, but in truth we did in fact need to make reservations. I took charge of making the call to the paragliding company. Anticipating a barrage of questions about health and insurance coverage, etc., I went back to my room, prepared to reserve time for the group and answer all of their questions.

It took all of two minutes.

“Are you sure you don’t need more info? We just show up? Do we need to wear anything special?”

“Ah- no, just be comfortable. We’ll meet your group at 14:00. There will be three in each group, yes?” The voice on the other end was calm and clipped- he could have easily been answering whether or not his store would be open tomorrow.

“Yup, six total, three in each group”

“See you then!” Click.

I’ve had significantly more trouble ordering take-out than I did booking a time to jump off a cliff with a guide for six people. But such is life. We were scheduled to take flight the next day.

I’m a firm believer in the do-things-that-scare-you mentality.

I woke up the next day with an anticipation I have not felt since I was seven years old on Christmas morning. Later that afternoon, we walked down from our chalet to the gondola stop, which was the rendezvous point. Tamala, Yardena, and I were slated to be the first group, then the second group of three, yoga instructor et al., would fly after we got back.

We nervously fidgeted and took pictures, joking that if we didn’t make it, it was at least a gorgeous day. At last, 3 men emerged from the gondola- they all looked like seasoned climbers, carrying packs that expanded beyond their width and height – they looks like ants stocking the nest for winter. Whatever they had in those packs would keep us from plummeting to the valley floor.

The 3 paragliders introduced themselves in a flurry of handshakes and smiles as they beckoned us to follow them up the hill (mountain) to the launching point. There was an older guide who seemed to run the show, and two younger guides. I briefly wondered if I should vie for the more seasoned flyer but I was not quick enough.

Each guide picked one of us to partner with, and we were off. I was paired with one of the younger flyers, Casper- “yes, like the ghost,” he said almost immediately. I was unsure if this was a good or bad omen, but there was no turning back now. We walked behind our guides, occasionally peeking over to the valley in anticipation.

Casper the Friendly Flieger: Paragliding in Switzerland

Somehow, I was volun-told that Casper and I would be the first to go.

We arrived at the launching point, and the guides set to work. The 3 of us stood there, trying to stay out of the way as the chutes were laid out. It was quite the process, and we did our best not to distract them – no one wanted a carabiner hooked in the wrong place! Somehow, I was volun-told that Casper and I would be the first to go. I stepped into my little harness-seat as I was clipped in every place that I could be clipped, and I waited.

Casper let me know that we would run off the edge of the hill in front of us, and then be air born “before you know it”. Simple. Running I could do. He counted down – three, two, and we were running, running… and FLYING. Like, holy shit you guys, flying. It was kind of like watching an IMAX movie of some generic Alps vista, except we were actually flying through it. It was never more apparent than when I turned to look behind us and there was nothing. I felt secure, and the ride was very smooth, but the only thing keeping us up was this green tarp! Casper was quite the pilot indeed.

Of course I said yes.

We glided along ridges and soared up along Jungfrau, skimming above trees on the way up. We passed waterfalls cascading off of the impossibly steep faces and saw a couple of base jumpers get ready to do their version of crazy. It felt like a movie- that is until Casper asked if I wanted to do the “roller coaster”. Of course I said yes- and he handed me the selfie stick (yes, we were taping the whole thing) and WOOSH- we tipped perpendicular to the ground far below- and again, and again until it felts like we were on a tilt-a-whirl 800m above the ground.

My stomach came to grips with how delicately we were suspended in the air. I laughed nervously- and said a silent prayer – as the “roller coaster” came to an end. I can be seen on this video, smile frozen to my face, exclaiming “whew that was great – I think I’m good on all that”.

Once back to a stable flight pattern, I noticed my two partners in crime drifting along down the valley with me. We were not close, probably at least 100m away from each other, but it was a nice reminder that I was not in this experience alone. I could not wait to hear what they thought when we landed. The next few minutes were serene as we began our descent – before I knew it, we were 10 feet from the ground, and Casper was telling me to gently start walking as we came onto the grass. And just like that, it was over.

We nervously fidgeted and took pictures, joking that if we didn’t make it, it was at least a gorgeous day.

I ran towards Yardena as she has just landed thirty seconds before me. We just stared at each other, wide-eyed, with a knowing look that said “this might be a new, very expensive habit”.

When our trio was completed, we hugged and laughed and took pictures with our guides- who were now part of our group and would soon be all over our social media. Casper finished up running my credit card – they charge you after the flight as a sign of good faith – and suggested we get some pie (?) and gestured to a stand near the Gondola back to the top. “Best pie in Switzerland, I always stop after a good flight”. That sounded good and all, but I opted for beer. I was already excited for the next three in our group to have that experience.

As we rested in the shade with our new professional flying friends. One of us asked the guides how long they had all been flying. The eldest of the group replied that each guide must fly hundreds of times before they can take anyone up. “We make it look easy, eh? Well, just know that if you tried to do that, you would die, no question.” We didn’t question – I’m more than happy to fly with someone who knows what they are doing. I plan to do it again the next chance I get- though maybe sans roller coaster next time.

About Laura DeBenedetto

A US East Coaster through and through, Laura now lives in Dublin – another East Coast – and is traveling every chance she gets. She’s an endurance athlete, lover of books, and has recently picked up golf (sort of). When not traveling or working, you’re likely to find her hanging out with her beloved Maine Coon, Henry or trying to figure out who keeps stealing her copies of The New Yorker from the mail room.

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