High in Switzerland

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Michel, Myriam and their roommate Julian offered up their hospitality once again, feeding Mike and I amazing food and giving us separate beds, fresh towels and our own key. They worked late while Mike and I explored Zurich and did some Christmas shopping. In the evenings we cooked and ate great foods, including nearly two gallons of Swiss cheese Fondue.

When I saw the Alps for the second time, I knew I wasn’t going to make it through Switzerland without paragliding again. I was disappointed at first when Michel told me the school was closed for December, but I sent the instructor an email anyway. Thomas replied promptly informing me that yes, they were indeed closed, but offered to take Mike and me flying anyway; and at a reduced price.

On Thursday we woke early and drove in a blindingly thick Zurich fog, through the mountains via a tunnel at the end of the valley and then out into a clear, blue day in Weesen. The two gondola rides to the top of the highest mountain in the area took us nearly 45 minutes. At the summit, skiers and snowboarders sat at picnic tables eating lunch and watching us, wondering what was in our enormous backpacks and why we were on top of this snow covered mountain, high enough to see Austria and Italy, without skis or a board.

It took us about fifteen minutes to get the gliders unfolded and spread out at the top of the slope. The snow was feet deep. I was up to me knees in it, standing with the risers in my hand, which the seemingly hundreds of kite strings spewed from and out to my wing.

Mike was to fly tandem with Thomas. They were to take off after me and land before me, so that I would know where to go and have guidance on my way to the ground.

”Goodbye John!” said Thomas nonchalantly.

The snows and distance absorbed all of the sounds at the top of the mountain, so his voice stood out like blank ink on unlined paper. I saw Mike strapped to the front of his harness, anxious for his first flight. They were ready too. I looked behind me at the people eating, still watching curiously, obviously aware that I planned on somehow flying with this big orange and blue thing, but probably not so aware of how quickly, how majestically, how far or how high I would fly.

I ran, kicking my feet up and then back down through the thin layer of frozen ice into deep snow.

“Run John! Run!” yelled Thomas.

The air was nearly still. It was like trying to fly a huge kite on a day with no wind. But the hill was steep and somehow I managed to get the glider up over me. I feathered the brakes and kept running. A small ledge on the hill ground came up and outwards, giving me a bit of a ramp to step onto. With everything in me I thrust one leg deep into the snow and pushed myself forward. This final burst of speed gave my wing the lift it needed and then instantly, once again, I was flying.

I was quickly alone with the cool breeze and blinding white in every direction. The mountain dropped out from under me. Skiers were black dots weaving slowly beneath my feet. The radio crackled.

“Hello John…(fuzz)…Mike decided to…(fuzz)…land on your own…(fuzz)…ay focused!…(fuzz).”

And then it was quiet. With the radio contact out and nobody in the air behind me as planned, it was extremely quiet.

I couldn’t radio back without taking my hands off the brakes, something I wasn’t confident doing. And I figured that if Thomas could no longer talk to me, then talking to him would be pointless. I couldn’t see the landing site from where I was. I had flown from the mountain once before. However, knowing your way in the sky isn’t exactly the same as on the ground. If I hadn’t relived my first experience hundreds of times in my mind, I might have been a bit more nervous about where to fly.

I become enormously calm at that point. It was the most relaxed flight I’d ever had. I sat back in my harness and watched the mountains roll by. I watched the skiers and the lines in the snow. I watched the lake appear as the horizon of the first tree ridge came towards my feet. I watched villages appear, the smoke curl from chimneys, cars float on frozen roads. I could see the fog over Zurich and a coming wind rippling the far end of the glass lake. Finally I spotted the landing site on the far side of the lake; a winter grass field near a clay running track.

With a soft pull on my right brake I turned and aligned myself for the field. With my new angle, I looked back to see how far behind me Mike and Thomas were, since their flight had somehow been delayed. I didn’t see them anywhere. They must be having lots of trouble taking off, I thought.

I flew over the lake, over the shore and back over ground. I came to the landing site with plenty of altitude and circled, like a hawk, slowly in the windless winter air. I spiraled and made S-shaped turns, catching buildings and cars in my boots. I pulled the brakes harder and harder on each turn, feeling my confidence translate to g-forces. I was still incredibly calm and at peace as I came down toward the grass alone, at the center of the empty field, in a perfect approach. At the last instant, I pulled hard on both brakes, slowing my decent so that my leading foot touched softly and my next followed at a walking pace.

After I had my gear packed up, I lay out on the grass. Between wearing everything I had in my van and the bright sun, I kept fairly warm. Hours passed with no sign of my friends. I watched the still mountains and day dreamed about flying and my travels this past year.

Two hours later the radio crackled again.

“John, can you hear me?”

“Hey Thomas. Yea, I can hear you.”

“Where are you?”

“I’m at the landing site. Perfect flight!”

“Great! We can’t take off. The winds have changed, so we are taking the gondola back down. See you in about 45 minutes.”

Afterwards I learned that their third attempt had gotten them air born, but only for about 100 yards and their flight included a crash into a huge pile of snow that knocked the window out of Mike.

An hour later we were saying goodbye to Thomas in the parking lot of the landing site. I tried paying the agreed price for my flight, but he wouldn’t accept it.

”Thomas, it’s your birthday! It’s your day off and you took us flying!”

“You’ll be back,” he insisted.

I have yet to meet anyone in Switzerland who has not impressed me with their generosity. We motioned to shake hands, but then advanced to hugs before getting in our van and driving away.

Once again, thankful and incredibly high on kindness, I left Switzerland knowing it wouldn’t be long before I return.

2 Thoughts on “High in Switzerland”

  1. Suzy Says:

    Incredible story! I wish I could’ve been there! 🙂

  2. UT Says:

    Jealous and anxious to see what Christmas gift you got me.

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