Paragliding is a sport in which you attach your body to a giant sail and then run off a mountain and float down. It’s less dangerous than BASE jumping–where you pack a similar sail into a backpack and then jump off a cliff–but less safe than flying in an airplane–where you don’t do anything at all except trust some people you’ve never met to know what they’re doing. Dramatic landscapes lend themselves to paragliding, because you need a high point bare of vegetation and slopes steep enough to allow for liftoff. Once floating, which is accomplished by deft articulation of the sail and several awkward steps, you can generally stay aloft for quite some time, maneuvering about in search of rising, warm air thermals that will boost you up. But generally, the sport of paragliding is contemplative, because after all the excitement of pulling a huge mass of material into the air and hoping that it doesn’t go all haywire and drag you into a tree or a cliff, and after running down the hill and trusting that the same mass of material will hold your body weight while you float anywhere between 1,000 and 10,000 feet off the ground, after all that you end up just sitting a bucket seat high off the ground and looking around at everything. And in most places conducive to paragliding, there’s a lot to see.
My own experience with paragliding came in Chamonix, France, which is where most everything happens in Europe anyway. I stayed there for a month after totally cratering at UTMB and giving up three-quarters of the way through, during which month I spent a lot of time just walking through the forest wondering what the hell. The depth of quitting is boundless for someone who has built a rigid value structure on finishing what he starts. To not be good enough by choice is a hard fact to stomach, and a deep hole down which I spiraled for some time. I didn’t trust my decision to drop out, and I didn’t trust my ability to rationalize or understand dropping out in any meaningful way. I was just a total mess for a while, basically, trying to figure out what to do. So I rented a room from the nicest person on the planet, Liv Sansoz, who is French and a Mountain Hardwear climber and a paraglider herself. She’s also super badass in the mountains, and like many alpinists lately has taken up paragliding as a way to get down from big mountains. This sounds like a bit of a stretch to me, but apparently it’s often safer to run off the edge of a high summit and float back to the ground than it is to walk. At the very least it’s much faster, as in the time when Liv and a friend climbed the north face of the Grandes Jorasses and then floated all the way back to Chamonix in slightly more than an hour. That’s a descent that would take a walking person six to eight times that. So Liv is nothing if not ambitious, and she’s generous too, so one day she took me paragliding.
In point of fact, she took me to a friend who took me paragliding. Fabian is a tandem-paragliding guide in Verbier, which is a very famous ski area in Switzerland that’s not too far from Chamonix. He came over for the day and the three of us took the lift up to a place called Planpraz. I wasn’t sure how to feel about taking the lift, due to more of those values I have already alluded to, but I soon realized that the lifts are what make paragliding possible on a mainstream level. This is neither an action sport (except for people like Liv) nor an endurance sport; it’s just an exciting thing to do. And most people don’t want to hike their huge “kites” (as they say in the industry) up 4,000 feet to the takeoff. I sure as hell wouldn’t, but I’m a runner, accustomed to dispatching such vertical with impunity while carrying little more than a water bottle and a gel. My poor spindly little runner’s legs probably couldn’t take the weight of a kite for such effort. So we took the lift and I just sort of tried to ignore the fact that in doing so I was suspending my values once again.
The top of Planpraz was filled with tourists milling around taking photos and drinking tea at the little coffee shop, and with climbers heading up to climb on the Brevent, which is a prominent rock face above Planpraz. Occasionally a Salomon-clad runner sliced through the crowds with a serious look on his face which seemed to indicate both hard work and the kind of moral outrage one feels after working extremely hard to reach a beautiful place, only to find said beautiful place occupied by hordes of people like me who are wearing jeans and sunglasses and joking with friends as we step off the lift that transported us here effortlessly in somewhat less than five minutes. I didn’t make eye contact with the runners.
The takeoff point had the unsettling characteristic of being strikingly close to the wires that transport cable cars from Planpraz up to the top of the Brevent. The plan was to take off and go directly beneath the wires, which if you asked me at the time seemed like a wholly inadvisable place to learn to fly. This sentiment was not improved when, after voicing such concerns to my friends, I was regaled with tales of people screwing up and wrapping their kites around the wires like those little plastic parachute army men that used to get tangled up in everything. I was assured nobody had died recently from such a mistake, but I wasn’t very convinced. Compounding this concern, we were standing in a cloud. The day was beautiful and clear and cloudless over every peak in all the Alps except for Planpraz, which defiantly swaddled itself in grey just to spite us (I felt.) But such swaddling seemed like trying to wear a light towel while standing in a wind storm, because the clouds kept moving and shifting and hinting that they might part, then right when everybody got ready to sail they would close back up again and prevent takeoff. The problem, as Fabian explained to me, was that flying in a cloud removes all points of reference, meaning pilots have absolutely no idea whether they’re going forward or downward or to one side. Given the nature of floating high above the ground, beneath a high-tension cable and, at least while taking off, dangerously close to a steep forest, reference points are key. So we had to wait.
And wait and wait and wait and damn it let’s just go get a coffee and forget this whole debacle. We stood around for what felt like forever but was probably only half an hour. Yet after even that much time with very little promise showing through the clouds we slowly started coming to the realization that this probably wasn’t going to happen. Fabian unclipped the various carabiners connecting us. We said things like, “Well that’s too bad.” “Maybe next time.” “Damn clouds.” And we were just turning to pack up the kite when all of a sudden Mont Blanc showed through the vapor. A break in the clouds. Immediately a tandem group launched into the sky with a rippling pop and floated out into the wispy clouds. Fabian’s killer instinct kicked in and before I knew it we were reconnected and running down the hill, even as the clouds formed back up into a grey wall. I had hardly taken stock of the situation when suddenly the kite was above us and my feet couldn’t touch the ground and we were picking up speed. Then we were flying. And we flew out into a grey silent void.
Serenity tinged by a premonition of fear.
Floating through the clouds felt calm and sublime. But Fabian had been right when he said clouds eliminate reference points–we couldn’t see anything at all. More worrisome, we couldn’t tell which direction we were going. We didn’t have much reason to suspect that we weren’t still going forward, but we had no way to tell. The wind was calm, the world grey. And somewhere above us hummed eerily the high-tension wires. I sat in my little seat with my feet hanging over the cloudy abyss and nearly panicked with the realization that this was actually happening right now. We were flying fast and high with no concept of forward or backward, down or up. This actually could be it; there was a chance we were about to launch full speed into the forest. We were completely committed to this. And with that thought, ironically, my fear abated. We were committed, I realized. This really was happening. And since there was no way to back out, there was no reason to try. This would either end well or badly; but we would only go forward from here.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to test such a cavalier justification. With no warning or fanfare, Fabian and I broke out of the embankment of clouds and thrust into heart-stopping horror. Though we had in fact continued straight through the greyness, I now realized that we were floating fully 4,000 feet above the ground. That’s an ‘interesting’ realization when all you have to keep you up there are a few carabiners and a giant kite over which you have no control. Fabian had control, but that only brought to light the other ‘interesting’ realization that I had met this random guy like one hour ago and now here I am putting my life in his hands. Trust is beautiful, I suppose, even when it’s also completely mindless and irrational. By the time we were flying through the air I had no choice but to trust him, so I did completely.
And what a flight it was! As my adrenaline abated, I began to take stock of our situation. From our vantage point high above the Chamonix valley, all the splendor of the Mont Blanc range was revealed in stark clarity. The mountains were dirt and trees and steep, sharp rocks and continents of snow and ice, all mashed together in the most improbable shapes imaginable. Most impressive was the scale of the place; a scale so large that only certain vantage points offered real perspective. Paragliding gave us that vantage point. From 4.000 feet above the valley, we looked up 8,000 more feet to the summit of Mont Blanc, and the entire sweeping viewshed was an overwhelmingly complex amalgamation of millions of tiny little features like pine trees and small rocks and frothing streams that built successively in unending ramparts up to form the most extraordinary mountain landscape I have ever seen. That the mountains appeared tremendously beautiful is an opinion hardly worth sharing. Much more important is that the mountains simply were. They existed: hugely, strangely, and intricately. They were extraordinary features of the landscape that made me say “wow.” I wanted to understand it all but felt that such a goal precluded the possibility.
The thing is that I build all these value structures to channel and justify my choices and objectives. Running 100 miles around Mont Blanc is an arbitrary thing to do, but so are most things we do. What matters is that the challenge was laid out clearly beforehand and we all agreed to the terms. Then, during the event, to quit was to fail. And after quitting, I found that to rationalize was to refute the terms upon which I had agreed at the beginning. So I really had no way to avoid the simple fact that I gave up. And that hurt, because I want to be better than that. I have built my life around the idea that I can do extraordinary things if I really try, and the only thing that really gives meaning to continuing is to believe it still. But sometimes I can’t. Sometimes I’m just not good enough. Sometimes I find myself in a grey void with no reference points and no apparent means of escape. It’s hard and it’s scary and it’s easier to give up and avoid the issue entirely.
But the mountains are beautiful, and the challenges we attempt in them–however arbitrary–are beautiful as well. Failing is ugly, and adjectives are opinions. But some days you break out of the clouds and find yourself flying, really flying far beyond your own expectations. And that’s worth the failures, I think. That’s worth the cost of the hope that’s needed to get over the failures. Days like that put it all in perspective in a way that just isn’t regularly accessible. Then you can see the mountains and decide for yourself.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- When was the last time that you threw yourself out into a great, grey abyss, not knowing if success or failure would be your result? What was the risk you decided to take?
- What have you learned from putting yourself out there in a more extreme way than normal, through such actions’ positive and negative results?
- Are you a risk taker or do you self-preserve more often than not?