“How many ti… I mean, have you… have you ever… crashed?”
The idea of spending my twenty-first birthday soaring through the blue skies had been an amazing one but now I was sitting in a gondola with a stranger, both of us wearing heavy lumpy backpacks and the moment when we jumped off a mountain was approaching far too quickly.
The mountain in question was only 1,760m high and the valley where we’d be landing was at 802m, making a descent of only 958m, which isn’t very much. Nonetheless, I was about to jump off a mountain depending only on an oversized hanky and a ball of neon string to not die in the process.
Over the course of nearly a dozen teenage and pre-teen family holidays in the Austrian Alps, I’d watched a lot of paragliders soaring through the sky. It looked magical.
And it was! Propelled off the mountain by James, my feet were off the ground before I knew it and there we were, gliding lazily and beautifully over mountains and lakes. I even got to steer while James took photos with what we now call a selfie stick.
Fast forward to March 2012. I was at Altitude Festival in Mayrhofen and I thought it might be fun to book a paraglide off a mountain in the snow as a break from my failed attempts to snowboard, an activity I came to a bit late in life to ever really master. I don’t know exactly what went wrong at the booking kiosk but rather than go away with a set date and time, I went away with a heavy lumpy backpack and a pilot at my side, up to the very top of the mountain. This was a much higher mountain than the Talkaser I’d jumped off six years earlier. The Penken is 2,095m high, surrounded by a ring of equally big, craggy and snow-covered mountains. I couldn’t jump off this! René, my pilot, got us all kitted up laid out the parachute and then said “Ready?” “No. I can’t do it.” He peered round at me, chuckled, said “I think you are” and shoved me over the edge.
It was terrifying! We were literally thousands of metres above Mayrhofen, above sheer cliffs and the cable car cables and my pilot had fluffy ears stuck to his helmet. René swooped and looped and the world turned upside down. We were going to stall. We were going to die. And it was freezing. I’d come up dressed for a hot chocolate in the restaurant, not to fly through the frozen air. For a coat, all I had was a microfleece and my hands were bare. But René’s enthusiasm was kind of infectious. Never quite relaxing, I did manage to drag my mind from the idea of plummeting to my death long enough to register that far from the silence of unpowered flight I’d expected, the wind was howling through our canopy and strings but the hundreds of skiers on the mountain below us, weaving around like a lot of ants, were utterly muted by the distance and the cold.
We soared and spiralled and at last came in to land in the soft white snow of the plateau just below the top where the booking kiosk is. It hadn’t been much of a descent but the flight itself had been pretty high-altitude and it felt like it had lasted forever.
My third and most recent flight was a year later, back at Altitude, on the very same mountain. I booked the flight on Monday for the following Friday, with my snowboarding instructor as pilot, right before my last snowboarding lesson.
It turned out it makes a huge difference if you already know and trust your pilot. However, much to my horror, in the last four and a bit years, I’ve completely forgotten his name. This time I was properly dressed for a freezing flight in full snowboarding kit and after the best part of a week being the chicken of the snowboarding class, some part of me wanted to be absolutely fearless about the paraglide – although the enthusiastic leap off the mountain was partly propelled by a desire to escape the underage Iranian boy who had very unrequited designs on me and had come to watch the launch procedures.
Third time lucky – here at last was the magic! We soared far out from the mountain, no snow far below our feet, just the village, thousands of metres down – too far for my brain to really comprehend. At that height, my brain must have decided it was in a plane or something, a layer of incomprehension to shield me from the reality of being suspended from nothing more tangible than a parachute so high up. Yes, my pilot spun us around and the world tilted at some incredible angles but I couldn’t really find it in myself to be really scared, except when my pilot handed over the controls to me while he took some photos. That’s when you suddenly remember that those two webbing handles are all that stands between you and a long plummet to your death, long enough to scream two or three times before you splatter on the valley floor
We spiralled gently down to land at the end of the piste that goes from the Ahorn into Mayrhofen, a single strip of fading snow in the green pastures and it was only when we were in the gondola heading back up for our snowboarding lesson that I confessed it was actually my third jump.
Next time I have the time and money to go to Altitude again, I’m probably going to skip the snowboarding. It’s been more than four years already – I’d need to start lessons again almost from scratch and for the cost of lessons, lift pass and equipment hire, I could do a basic five day paragliding licence course – which is particularly appealing when I pay attention to the fact that I’ve never seen a female paraglider. So some day you might see me jumping off a mountain all by myself.