Monday, June 21, 2010

Swiss Alps: Soaring Past the Matterhorn

“My soul is in the sky”
- W. S., A Midsummer Night’s Dream

The Matterhorn

“Do you go want to go right now?” he asked me on the phone. It was Daniel from Paragliding Zermatt. I’m sure I could have chosen a more polite phrase: my response was an enthusiastic “Hell YES!” There was no time for second thoughts or to assess the gravity of what I was about to experience. By the time I had slipped into the long underwear, sweatshirt and windbreaker that had been buried at the bottom of my pack since I left Canada seven weeks ago, he was at the front door of my quaint Swiss hotel. Our transportation was strapped in a pack on his back. Half an hour, a funicular, a gondola, an elevator, and a cable car ride later and we reached the top of Rothorn (pronounced ‘wrote horn’, meaning ‘red peak’.)

Rothorn Launch Zone

Already that morning, I had been on at least half a dozen different websites checking weather conditions at three different altitudes above Zermatt, trying desperately to locate one with the news I was hoping to find. Rain, low hanging clouds, wind and fog had been rolling through the region for over two weeks and few flights had taken off. It looked like we had lucked upon a small window of good conditions and there was no time to waste if we were going to take advantage of them. It was going to happen – my first paragliding experience!

Preparing the Glider

When Daniel asked me which base I wanted to take off from, I responded without second thought “the highest one possible.” This likely comes as a surprise to those of you who’ve read about my reaction to peering over the cliffs of Amalfi. "As long as the snow isn’t too deep," he told me, then we’d fly from the top of Rothorn. The only higher option required a bit of a cliff jump from Klein Matterhorn and demanded perfect conditions, so it wasn’t an option today. As I passed around the top of the final cable car station, stepped onto the snow pack, and instantly sunk to mid thigh, it seemed like we’d be heading lower down the mountain. This would also have meant a shorter flight. Fortunately, the snow firmed up as we descended, so we hiked 20 or 30 metres toward a steep drop off, clear of the ski lift cables, and started unpacking the glider. As I pulled out my Nikon to snap a few shots of the launch zone, it finally hit me what I was about to do. Perhaps I’d subconsciously blocked out the little details, like the fact I’d be launching myself off the edge of a cliff, 10,170’ above sea level! At this altitude, if a plane loses pressurization, the oxygen masks automatically drop. The tiny specks way below us were actually multi-storey hotels and condos in the town of Zermatt. I could feel my heart starting to pound as thoughts of “oh shit, what have I gotten myself into?” started to scream through my mind. I turned and looked back up the hill toward the lift station. It was too high and too far for me to change my mind. My anxiety continued to rise as I realized there was no good way to back out now.

Floating on Air

In the thin, cold Rothorn air, I choked back what I briefly thought might have been among my last breaths, and my pilot helped me into the harness. It was at this point that I realized I hadn’t been asked to sign any liability waivers whatsoever, which is entirely unlike any other activity I’ve experienced on this odyssey. That was fine until it occurred to me that the reason for this might be that the only person around who could be sued by my family in the event that something went tragically wrong was currently strapped to my back. After a few last second instructions we started briskly towards the precipice. I may have closed my eyes as we stepped through a wispy cloud that clung to the mountainside – I can’t recall. Two or three steps and I could feel the wind start to fill the sail behind us. Another couple more steps, my feet felt light and we were almost at the edge of the cliff. Then, with a gentle tug, I felt my feet clear the ground and my soul began to rise.

As quickly as my anxiety had arrived, it was gone. Both eyes were wide open at this point and I could feel the intensity of the adrenalin that had rushed through my body. We were floating gracefully through the sky, clear of the mountain, and suspended high over the valley by nothing other than a few fine cords and a large piece of nylon. It was the most exhilarating feeling I had every experienced.

Up, Up and Away!
Soaring Past the Matterhorn

For the next 20 minutes, we were completely at liberty, unobstructed by any earthly forces other than the breeze and the cruelty of gravity, which would mean this feeling would have to end sooner than I’d have liked. Past the Matterhorn we soared, back and forth across the valley, and along the cliff face on the west ridge of Zermatt. Here I could feel the warm thermals lift us up and extend our journey, if only for a few seconds. For fun, we buzzed a climber who was clinging to the rocks half way up the side. As we got closer to the village, Daniel adeptly maneuvered us through a series of simple acrobatic turns, where it felt like centrifugal forces had flung us nearly horizontal with our sail. Beyond the intense rush, each turn finished with that tightening in your stomach that you feel after cresting a rise on a country road at high speed. As we swung above and past the train station, I looked down, and in front of the shops that line the main street of Zermatt, dozens of tourists had stopped what they were doing to watch us and take photos.

Buzzing a Climber

Then, as quickly as it began, it was over. With the deft expertise that comes with years of experience and his personal passion for the sport, Daniel gently set us down in a meadow behind the train station. It was all I could do to contain myself from signing another credit card slip and asking to go up again.

Hours later I still couldn’t get the grin off my face.