A quarter hour in the Alpine heavens that lived up to my dreams
All my life I have wanted to fly. Fly, not be flown. I’ve been flown in aeroplanes since boyhood but that isn’t flying, any more than travelling in a ship is swimming. I’ve even taken the controls of a little Cessna my brother was piloting, and felt the sensation of control — this felt closer, but still it wasn’t the real thing. I was commanding a machine. It involved me but it was not me flying. The machine was flying. I was in the machine.
That is not how it is in dreams. In dreams, dreams I have had since childhood, I implore my friends to accept that if only they had the confidence, they too could fly. They could, I can, anyone can — and I show them. Not to assert superiority but to prove it’s easy. I run downhill and leap into the air, and stay airborne, kicking my legs and thrashing my arms until the woods and fields beneath my feet grow small, the onlookers are far below and clouds are all around.
Then fear grips me because this is too high and I cannot control my descent or place of landing. With fear comes exhilaration — pushing my luck I pray it will hold. Now the land and sea are miles beneath and still the air currents blow me upwards. So far (and I must have had a variation of this dream hundreds of times) I have landed on my feet, and survived.
The same shiver of excitement and fear has visited me whenever I have watched hang-gliders and paragliders. How would it be to be up there in the sky without levers or motors or a cockpit to sit in, or even a chair? How would it be to hold with your arms your own wings — extensions of your own body — and wheel and dive and soar by the flexing of your own muscles?
I took the first step years ago. Parachuting gives you a small taste of that direct control, and it’s a thrill; but the amateur parachutist has little scope but to drop, however gently, and watch the earth rise up to meet him. Later I tried freefall parachuting: strapped to a chap from Arizona I scared myself almost into fainting as we plummeted toward the ground. It was terrifying fun but he was completely in control and I was passive. Still I was not quite flying.
Last week my chance to paraglide arrived. A friend had organised a two-day mystery tour for the pair of us, and as we alighted from a Swiss train we had boarded at Geneva airport, the next step was still a mys tery to me. We were at the far end of Lake Leman at a station called Aigle. A white Land-Rover Defender and a driver called Alain awaited us. Across its door was the cryptic wording www.whitepod.com — and nothing else. My friend gave me a Delphic smile. We clambered in.
Up a snowy and winding road we climbed, until we were 3,000 feet above the lake, Alpine peaks all around us. We were deep in snow. The sun was setting as we reached the camp. Ten small geodesic domes, white canvas covering their pentagonal frameworks, were set on wood platforms above the snow, arrayed around a traditional chalet. Each science-fiction tent had twin beds and a small wood-burning stove. The chalet had a cook, sofas, hot and cold running water, a warm fire and wine. For two days we could live like nomads without the drawbacks of nomadism. It was cheating, I know, but the stars had seldom looked brighter than through the portholes of the tent as I snuggled beneath the duvet.
And in the morning there would be paragliding. It was all arranged. I would be in tandem with Alain, he would tell me what to do, but I would get the chance to pilot.
Around 11 a.m. we plodded up a steep snow slope to our take-off pitch, high above the sleeping-pods. The sun was golden, the air freezing, the sky the deepest blue — and I was scared. Normally you get airborne by skiing down an incline pulling the canopy behind you until it opens in the breeze and lifts you from the snow, but I cannot ski. ‘So run in front of me,’ said Alain. ‘I will be skiing right behind you’.
He laid out our silky canopy flat on the snow, gathered its web of strings, attached them to our harness, and strapped me into it. ‘Now run!’ he shouted. ‘When you begin to lift, don’t stop! Keep paddling your legs!’ Panic. But I could pause for a beat and notice — freeze-framed into recollection — the snowy slopes at our feet: down, down, past pine forest, rock and ravine; down for miles; down into the morning haze of the valley below, where there were fields and roads and houses.
‘No! Don’t stop! Keep running!’ Alain was skiing behind me, I could feel our harness being lifted by the canopy, airborne above us, and running seemed pointless: my legs were mostly paddling air. But I obeyed. And suddenly the snow slope was falling away from our feet. We swept out above the treetops.
How can I describe the next quarter hour? Oddly, it was the noise which made the most indelible impression. From our canopy above came a strong, consistent, gentle, reassuring hiss — a whooshing hiss — like winter wind in the spiky leaves of a holly tree. When we swooped, the hiss swelled to a crescendo as we dived, then softened to a whisper as we dipped and rose, quietening almost into silence as we peaked. It was like a rollercoaster where you slow almost to a halt at each summit. ‘This is where we could stall,’ said Alain during one of those hushes. ‘Then the sails would lose their air and we would drop.’ For five minutes he gave me the controls — a simple rope toggle in each hand, pull the right and you wheel right; pull the left and you wheel left; pull both hard down and you rise, and stall; release the tension on both and you descend, gathering speed again as the hiss swells. Blind people should try tandem-paragliding: the sensations would for them be especially intense.
But I had sight too as we swept out over the valley and I returned the toggles to Alain. The tops of pine trees, rocks, snowridges — and finally pylons, roofs and chimneys — seemed almost to touch our feet as, involuntarily, I would pull up my legs. Finally Alain threw us into a steep, dizzying downward corkscrew. The canopy hissed; a muddy cow-pasture rushed up at us whoosh — then, yanking both toggles down, we lifted at the last moment, and gently lowered our feet on to the grass. Silence. Stillness. No hiss. The sun on my back. I felt giddy with excitement, suddenly drained of energy, and sick.
I had done it for real. It had been like the dream. But still I hope the dreams don’t stop.
Matthew Parris is a political columnist of the Times.