There’s no sensation to compare to this:
Suspended animation, state of bliss
Can’t keep my eyes from the circling skies,
Tongue-tied and twisted, just an earthbound misfit,
~ Pink Floyd (minus Waters), “Learning to Fly”*
I’ve always wanted to be a vulture, riding the updrafts; paragliding was as close as I’m likely to come. Jakob assured me that the weather that day was perfect for the thermals, which he pronounced “tair-mals,” so we could have a good long flight. On days when the thermals aren’t so good, he can only keep aloft for 15 minutes or so, but we’d be up for about 25 minutes, if that was good for me. Of course it was good for me! I was too excited to be scared. I was cross-eyed with excitement, unable to concentrate on anything except the incredible view and the fact that I would soon be soaring.
The cable car dropped us at the peak, where some unconcerned cows were grazing while a couple of hikers tried to get their attention. The hikers kept peeking at us as Jakob got the gear ready. He told me we were going off the back side of the mountain, because the wind would be better there. We had seen a lot of parachutes on the other side; he explained that less experienced pilots will go off that side because they have a line of sight on the landing field. We would go the other way, and swing around the mountain on our way down.
“So you’re a more experienced pilot?” I asked, grinning from ear to ear. “I live here,” he said, simply. “I’ve been flying since I was 14. I am 28 now.” He said on days when he doesn’t have to work, he may go up at 9 a.m. and not land until 8 p.m.
First he had me shrug into a backpack-like harness, and strapped it around my thighs as well. He kept checking on my comfort and my emotional state. He was very polite and professional but also seemed very caring. Maybe I was being especially tongue-tied and stupid, and he took that to mean I was frightened. All I was concerned about was not disappointing Jakob, so we could get off the ground.
In the car and in the cable car, he had emphasized that I would need to run, and not sit down. I thought this was peculiar – who would sit down on a mountainside when they’re supposed to be running? But it turns out the harness folds out in a sort of reverse theater-seat effect; once you relax, the bottom folds up under you to form a seat. He needed me (us) to run enough to get the chute aloft, before we relaxed into seated positions.
As you can see in the photo, he spread the parachute out on the ground and untangled all the lines on both sides, then clipped it to us somehow. I dunno, I was looking at cows or something. But eventually he said he would count “3-2-1-GO” when the wind was right, and then I was to run – “there” – until he said we were up. “There” was down a fairly steep little outcropping. I thought, oh well, what the hell, I’ll do my best.
So we waited for a little gusty breeze, and then I ran. I felt the drag of the parachute yank at my shoulders, which is probably the point at which some of his passengers sit down. I kept running, and kept running, until my feet didn’t have anything beneath them: we were airborne! I never heard him say I could sit, and that may be why I was slid too far forward in my harness to sit comfortably – I was still running in midair! So I spent the flight in a sort of half-situp position, which was not at all comfortable. We tried a couple of times to adjust my position, but there was nothing to brace my feet against to scoot backward. Jakob very politely suggested that if I might try to scoot my ass back a little … Apparently someone told him “ass” is a polite term for the Sitzplatz. He certainly didn’t mean to offend.
Jakob was taking photos and videos with a GoPro on a selfie stick (look at me, using all that technical jargon), and regularly checking on my safety and security. He pointed out some of the local features, including the small hill where beginning paragliders spend three days learning before they can move up to the bigger hill. It’s like bunny hills in skiing, I think. I suggested they must have to run a LOT to get airborne, on that little hill. “It is a very hard three days,” he said.
I have no idea when we came around to the front of the mountain. I was looking at distant peaks and our shadow – as well as cloud shadows – chasing across the landscape. The clear air made me giddy and the solidity of the parachute felt perfectly safe. Other than trying to ease the abdominal muscles, I was perfectly content.
We hit a couple of air pockets – presumably the thermals were dancing – that made my tummy lurch a little bit, but I just looked up at the sky, took a deep breath and smiled at the mountains. (I had been very sparing at the Landhaus breakfast that morning, just in case.)
It didn’t feel like 25 minutes. It didn’t feel like any kind of time. There was an elasticity to that flight: it could have been 10 minutes or an hour and a half. I don’t know. Eventually he gave me instructions for landing: “You will straighten your legs, straight out in front, and we will land on our ass.” When the time came, we did. It was a very gentle landing. We bumped forward only a few feet, and then the chute was down and Jakob was offering me a hand.
At which point I found I didn’t really want to stand up, just yet. My legs were shaky and my tummy was queasy and it was quite nice just to bend over at the waist and contemplate the grass for a while. (I didn’t find any four-leaf clovers.) Jakob unhitched and unclipped and gathered and stuffed, and then we walked back to his office at the Skischule so he could show me the GoPro footage.
People at work keep asking me how high the mountain was. I don’t know! I’m sure he told me, but it’s all meaningless to me. (Besides, it’s in meters.) I see now that Mt. Bischling’s elevation is maybe 1830 meters. :shrug: Or 18,300 meters, or 830 meters. I don’t know or care. It was freaking beautiful. The clear skies, the sweet air, the secluded valley (Werfenweng has 900 inhabitants) and the sheer joy of flight – all jumbled up with the disappointment when ground transportation had SNAFU’d – who can measure that, in meters or in euros?
Speaking of the weather, the preflight instructions had suggested pants, boots and a jacket, because the air on the peak can be chilly. I hadn’t brought a jacket to Austria, and I tried for 24 hours to find an open shop where I could purchase one. (I even tried the gift shop at the Festspielhaus. They had Vienna Phil polos, but no jackets or sweatshirts.) But the bicycle tour bus returned us to Salzburg at 5:30 on Saturday, and everything was closed – even the Outlet Center in Wals – and remained so on Sunday morning. Maybe the Skischule would have had something, but there was no time. So I grabbed the only long-sleeved shirt I had brought, a lightweight silk number, and buttoned it over my tee shirt. And it was fine. Those thermals took care of me.
Also, a colleague asked if I could hear sounds from the ground, while we were floating around up there. I said I didn't notice. I only noticed the sounds of the wind, some flapping of the parachute, maybe birds ... so I'm glad to have this video to demonstrate what it sounded like as well as what it looked like.
*LYRIC FOOTNOTE: The refrain at this point is actually “Can’t keep my MIND from the circling skies,” but this was all about the visuals and not much to do with the brain. Also, Dominik and I once argued about this refrain, and I lost. I thought it was “Torn, tired and twisted.” Tongue-tied is more accurate for how I was feeling. Dang it, there’s a quote I can’t find that describes “awe” as an actual emotion – and being dumbstruck is one of its manifestations.