If it wasn’t for the last minute nothing would get done, so goes a saying I heard years back and which has stuck. I guess it rings true for many of us who don’t really get going until there’s that pressure that moves in step, like a shadow, at the side the last minute. Well, in any case, true or not, what I’m recounting here is a testament to the last minute and the amazing power of just saying “yes”. It’s a last minute adventure, and it’s the fulfilling of a dream, the morphing of a vision into something real.
I’m in Allgaü, Bavaria and have for the last week been paragliding, flying several flights a day on a novice-friendly hill. It’s an exhausting cycle of repetition: chair lift, hike, lay out glider, clear the lines, harness on, connect the wing, take hold of the brake lines and the As, arms back, chest forward, wait for a nice cycle of wind, step forward, pull up the wing, catch it on the brakes, keep moving forward, hands up, take off! Sometimes it goes just like that and others well, as I said, I’m a novice: the wind, the wing and my own co-ordination fail to make the magic happen and I find myself aborting take off, pulling in the lines and man-handling the bunched up wing back up the slope to repeat the process. Sometimes this happens more than once though as yet third time has always proved lucky (or maybe it’s simply that by the third time I’ve figured out what’s going wrong and correctly adjusted).
With take off taken care of I enjoy a few minutes of serenity. Suspended in my harness under a series of thin lines attached to a large, curved wing, I glide noiselessly through the air. Mostly conditions are mellow which means the flight is smooth and generally short. Occasionally a bumpier ride allows me to ride some rising air. On the best of occasions I spotted a pair of kestrels and followed them into a thermal where I soared upwards.
The serenity of each flight is invariably interrupted sooner or later by the inevitable necessity of landing. Every landing is different; some making only a mild intrusion into the serenity, others smashing down the door, leaving me trembling with the exhilaration of ground rush, near miss and survival. I remember as a child watching an airshow on TV. A pair of Russian pilots provided the ultimate entertainment, colliding in mid air and effectively chopping one another’s planes in half. They ejected and floated down to the ground. The cameras zoomed in on one of the pilots who no sooner than he’d landed was drawing deeply on a cigarette, a reaction which at the time meant little but which I now understand perfectly, smoker or not.
Yesterday evening it was the take offs that were proving problematic. I was the only person on the hill. The chairlift was closing and the wind had started to blow ‘cross’. When it appeared to straighten I tried to launch but without success. I had not been positive enough in my actions. A second time I tried, feeling confident. I was more positive on the As, pulling the wing up, feeling the surge as it starts to fly and running down the grassy slope. For all the world I had done it … except I hadn’t. I slipped at a critical moment and lost control, bringing the wing down more or less on top of me. Having bundled up the wing and hiked back up the slope, I again laid it out in the hope of flying. Last time in this situation I’d packed up and gone for a coffee but this time my determination to fly, my confidence and my ability were greater. I decided to stay in the game. If the right wind came, I’d go. There was no rush. If it didn’t feel right I’d walk back down the mountain.
The windsock told me what I didn’t want to know: the wind was now consistently cross, from the North, perhaps being turned by an increase in strength of the main valley wind (anabatic: air being drawn up the valley to the high rocky peaks at its head). It wasn’t looking good. There was no way I’d risk a crosswind take off and it showed no sign of straightening to come head on. I waited. And I waited. The wind never straightened but it did die. So this was my chance. A few long days ago I’d walked away from a nil wind take off after a failure that left me shaken and slightly hurt. Now I felt ready to try again. Before the next cycle of crosswind could arrive I committed positively to the launch … and totally nailed it.
The flight was beautiful. I swept along the ridge to the North, above the fir trees, above tracks, meadows and the occasional alpine log hut. When the trees became too close I turned out to the valley, gliding smoothly, taking in the views and then executing a landing which left me standing bang in the middle of the landing field with barely so much as a flutter of the heart rate.
Although lower now in the sky, the sun continued its relentless bathing of the valley. I felt content with the accomplishments of the day, tired and relieved, and I could almost taste the cold beer and the satisfaction of putting my feet up and chilling. Then my phone chimed, hailing the arrival of an opportunity, and a quandary: a small group were planning to hike up a mountain, bivouac and fly off it in the morning. How would I like to join them?
My initial feeling is that I am simply too tired. I’ve had a really good day and I don’t want to push it. There will be other opportunities to do this when I’m feeling fresher and have more than one hour’s notice. I’ve almost resigned to this easy option when the words of mountaineer, Andy Kirkpatrick, chime in my brain: in essence, when there’s something you want to shy away from because it’s scary, hard and a big effort, imagine your future self. Andy used the example of breaking out of the safety, warmth and comfort of a sleeping bag at an ungodly hour to go and climb something scary, hard and a long walk away. It’s pretty easy at this point to listen to that voice that says:
“Stay in your sleeping bag. Don’t get out in the cold. Don’t expend effort. Don’t do something risky. Stay warm and safe. There’s no shame in it”
Well, there is no shame in it but neither is this approach a vehicle for making great things happen. And this is where imagining your future self comes in, the tool with which to prize ourselves from the soft down quilt of safety and comfort.
In this case, Andy imagines himself climbing in the best possible conditions, the ice hard and stable before the air warms or worse yet, the sun hits it and it becomes unstable and more dangerous. He imagines himself topping out, calm and satisfied with what he’s achieved. These ‘future self’ images drive him from the easy option and towards the accomplishment of his goals. And I’m grateful for his sharing of this approach because right now, I am drifting towards the short term feeling of relief that would accompany resting on the day’s laurels and leaving the vol-biv to some other day.
If imagining my future self up the mountain, watching the sun set, or the moon rise, or experiencing my first solo cross country flight, is a powerful motivator, imagining my future self a few hours down the line, opportunity missed, sat in my van doing nothing in particular except looking across the valley at where the other guys would be climbing to their bivouac, is more powerful yet. So, when the easy option gateway is wide open and beckoning, imagine two future selves: one doing the thing, the other having easy-optioned. I bet I know which way you’ll turn.
My mind is made up and I hike with new purpose back up the hill through the beautiful village of Bolsterlang. As I walk I plan exactly what I’ll do when I reach the van: mainly, what food I’ll take, what equipment and what food I’ll eat before I leave. By the time I reach the van my energy levels are already surging back up, driven by the excitement which comes from stepping well outside your comfort zone and saying “Yes, let’s do this!”
Driving like he stole it, Sebi brings his bashed up Opel Estate to a gravel grinding halt at the back of the van. My glider and sparse provision for the evening are cross-decked and with another roar of displaced gravel we’re off.
The shadows have already grown long and by the time we reach the car park on the opposite side of the main valley, everything is bathed in golden alpenglow. The four of us shoulder our packs and head up through the forest, following a steep ascent next to a mountain stream. It reminds me of Nepal but with an obvious difference: where the Nepalis build bridges and cliff paths of wood and stone, which may or may not last the ravages of monsoon, the Germans have built with steel; a network of bridges and steps that I’d expect to see looking much the same if I returned in a hundred years.
A few weeks ago I didn’t know these guys from Adam. Now I fall into step with them, and into conversation, as we climb steadily and sweat buckets. Manu tells me about his experience competing in the X-Alps, a 10 day paragliding race which, as the name suggests, crosses the alps and finishes in Monaco. In a highly vetted field of 33 only 19 completed the course. Manu, in his first year, was one of them, finishing in 9th place. I feel privileged to be in such company, among a group whose flying skills are elite and yet who are not adorned with the mantle of arrogant exclusivity that so often accompanies such high performance.
By the time we emerge from the shadowy forest into a high alpine meadow, the sun has set and across the valley an orange glow is fading behind the mountain horizon. The valley up which we are headed narrows. The cliffs above us glow with the sun’s last offering and fade to grey.
Ahead, the valley is effectively damned by a headwall of what I guess to be consolidated moraine, beyond which lies a lake, cradled by rock. It’s all but dark by the time we reach it, strip naked and slide into its oily black waters. It’s cold enough to be refreshing, to lower the core temperature and to trick the legs into feeling like they haven’t just humped a big pack up a 500m ascent after an already long day (if you’ve never bathed in a mountain lake, I cannot recommend it strongly enough. Quite simply: Do it!)
We bivvy nearby on the lip of this immense natural dam, the dark walls of the mountain towering above us and the lights of the valley laid out far below. Offerings of cold pizza, bread, cheese, whisky and wine are all shared and a roll-up is passed around.
I bathe happily in this camaraderie, in the simple acts of sharing food, drink and experience. And I retire to my sleeping quarters: a tree covered hollow in which I’ve located a semblance of flat ground. I lay out on my glider bag, face to the sky. A shooting star passes overhead, leaving a trail. The gentle murmur of German is the only sound and it lulls me swiftly into a sweet and longed for sleep.
As day breaks we stir from our alpine slumbers and lose no time in moving on up the mountain, the only sign of our passing four patches of flattened grass. We climb hard on a rocky zigzag trail that brings us to the head of the valley, down which a warm breeze is blowing (katabatic). Arriving at a second lake we take a little water and then continue upwards, the summit now in sight.
Reaching the summit is a moment of truth. Having never been here before I have only been able to imagine what it will be like to fly from. In this absence of knowledge, Manu has been my guide: the voice of experience based on which I’ve decided whether this is a reasonable or an unreasonable thing to do. But I can’t blindly trust. For one thing, Manu has never seen me fly and for another, he’s an X Alps pilot with a reputation for being a total badass – so maybe our ideas of reasonable differ – or maybe he’s just so comfortable in this environment that he’s forgotten what it’s like to be a newbie. In any case, he’s talked about a big grassy hill from which you can take off in any direction and I’ve formed a mental picture of a benign, broad, gently angled affair with something of The South Downs about it. What he hasn’t described is a conical hill with a summit that comes to a steeply angled point; a summit on which it is barely possible to lay out a single wing. He’s also told me not to be concerned by the stiff breeze we’ve been walking into – it’s just a valley wind; we won’t feel it on the summit.
Major recalibration needed here. I’m stood on a small, windy summit, looking at a launch which after ten meters of grassy slope, drops into an unseen void. Seconds after launching – if I launch – I’ll need to turn hard away from the wall of rock opposite the take off. So! …. I need to bridge the gap between what I had imagined and what I am now faced with, to reconcile that difference, and to keep making decisions. For one thing: just because I am here, doesn’t mean I have to take off.
Having said all of this, if I am going to fly, it’s going to be because I have confidence not only in myself but in Manu.
I’m using techniques learned through climbing, yoga and meditation to manage the stress. My breathing is short and shallow and the nerves in my limbs are in danger of making me clumsy and un-coordinated. I focus on some deep belly breathing – serving my brain with the oxygen it really needs right now. I take myself outside of the situation for a moment, forget about the paragliding and admire the environment in which I find myself, and in which I love to be; the pale but powerful morning sun which has just breached the wall of rock opposite and is now beaming in our faces, lighting all it touches with immense clarity whilst sending the valley below into a deeply contrasting shadow.
This gives me the opportunity not only to calm myself but to recalibrate; to forget my previous vision of this scene and instead, to be wholly in the present, readjusted to the new vision, the reality.
In this calmer state I turn my attention back to flying and lose myself in process. For all the difference between this setting and my usual take offs, what I need to do is exactly the same.
Having laid out the wing I need to kite it to clear the lines. I’ve only just learned to do this and my fear is that with this wind and on this airy summit, my wing will want to fly away and I won’t be able to control it. But control it I do. Everything is the same as what I know just with the power amplified. The increased energy in the air needs to be matched by increased energy and positive input from me. I can do that.
After various frustrations born mostly of perfectionism and inexperience and which are too dull to recount, I am ready. Manu’s wing is laid out a little below, on a ridge that runs away to the South. His housemate Claire is attached, via a tandem harness, to his front and is now guaranteed – thanks to me – to be resoundingly late for work. But right now, I cannot afford to let that bother me. It is in fact a triviality. What matters right here, right now, is my life and my take off. I’ll go only when I am ready.
I’m impressed by Manu. He’s a calming influence. He does nothing to hurry me. He tells me, reassuringly, that the wind is fine but doesn’t tell me when to go. That’s for me to decide.
The wind is so much stronger than anything I have ever taken off in, the air so much more energetic. There’s that fear of the unknown and the recognition that once I commit to take off, I will have split seconds to intuitively react to this new set of circumstances. I think through what I can expect to happen, and what I want to happen. I break my take off into simple, constituent parts, as taught.
When I step forward, pulling on the As (the lines attached to the wing’s leading edge) the wing will come up fast because of all the energy in the air. It’ll come up with more speed and power than ever before. So I’ll have to catch it correspondingly faster and more positively on the brakes (the aim being to stop its progress forwards when it’s directly above me). Assuming I’m directly under the wing I’ll then release the breaks and keep moving forwards until I’m in flight.
I shut everything out, look to my front and focus solely on the wind. It’s clearly not going to drop away. But there are moments when it’s straighter than others and moments when it’s smoother and less strong. My main sensor is the feel of it on my face. The final decision to go is made in a nano-second and seems born more of intuition than judgment.
It happens fast. Super fast!
I barely need to step or pull and the wing is up. In a fraction of a second it’s above me. It’s overshooting me. I’m a fraction slow on the brake but the margin is small enough and my action firm enough that I catch it. There no need to take another step. I’m whisked upwards. I’m off the summit. I’m flying!
There’s no difficulty getting into my harness: the force of the launch has already pushed me back into it. I quickly adjust my grip on the brakes and steer hard to the right, away from the rock wall and towards the finger of rock that runs South from our take off summit and which we must cross in order to start our circumnavigation of the Gaisalphorn and Rubihorn.
My concern about not clearing the ridge failed to consider how, with all this unaccustomed power in the air, I would rise rapidly from the very moment of take off. I soar over the ridge, am joined by Manu and Claire and follow them on a beautiful clockwise traverse. I’m reminded, bizarrely, of a childhood song about witches flying round the mountain. Clearly I have no more recent or relevant reference point for this extraordinary and wonderful experience.
Beyond the ridge the air is clear and smooth. After the tension and excitement of the take off I can breathe deeply and relax. I did it! I am living a dream! Träume Leben!
Thanks & Recommendation:
Thanks to every one of the Vogel Frei team who have welcomed me and helped me during my short but sweet time here in Allgaü. I can’t recommend these guys strongly enough to anyone looking to have a tandem paragliding experience. Outstanding pilots, outstanding people.
Thanks to Jamie, Bella, Ivan and Jess. We talked a good talk back in Nepal last year. And now we’ve made it happen. Nothing written here would have happened without you guys. Eternal gratitude. Onwards and upwards!