Paragliding in Switzerland
I've rarely felt at peace and exhilarated at the same time, but when I did a tandem paragliding flight in southern Oregon in 2012, I felt both of those things. My tandem pilot had a business card and talked about how he taught lessons and I immediately began contemplating how I could figure it out. I was working with people in southern Oregon. Maybe I could live with them for a little bit while taking lessons? Maybe I could get an odd job - some of the people I knew were having kids, so maybe they'd need some help around the house. Eventually the day dreaming subsided, but the thought and desire to get my paragliding license was there from that day forward.
In my original post about how I came to move into a van and travel the U.S., I may not have listed it, but one of the original dreams was to be able to paraglide. The two main schools I looked up were in Santa Barbara, California and Boulder, Colorado. Neither place are incredibly cheap and looking at the lessons and equipment prices, neither were those. As I thought about all the things I might want to do in time off from work, musing about taking paragliding lessons in Santa Barbara and learning to surf in my free time was an appealing thought. Living out of a van could make that experience more affordable, but I ultimately decided that was too limited a scope of what I wanted from my time away from work and it would also eat a lot of money. So I put paragliding aside, but held onto the growing idea of how living out of a van could enable opportunities to do different activities.
Fast forward to my commitment to quit my job, convert a van, and travel around the country partnered with my cousin Joe and his fiancé, May Lan, deciding to get married this August in Italy. I hadn't chosen a date to leave my job, but with a potential trip to Europe in August, it didn't make sense to be working at that point, so I set my date for the end of June and started thinking about how I could extend this wedding trip into a bigger European adventure before starting my journey through the U.S.
As I thought about what I'd like to do in the 2-3 weeks before their wedding, I was set on spending a good amount of time in Switzerland. I'd always wanted to go there and hike some of their famous locations in the Alps. With a northern Italy wedding in the books, Switzerland made a lot of sense, but I couldn't figure out how long to stay there or where else to go in Europe. I've rigged several of my abroad adventures against me by trying to do too much in too little time, so I eventually settled on just doing Switzerland for the 16 days before I needed to be in Italy. Then I started working on my agenda for those days.
Back in 2012 when I was invested in dreaming up ways to be a paragliding bum, I learned about a term in the flying community called "vol biv" (bivouac), French for "fly camping." This was one of the things that helped attract me to the sport - the idea that you could hike to a beautiful spot, fly cross-country until you landed, then tent up for the night before repeating the cycle the next day. It seemed like a perfect marriage between two differently awesome activities. It's especially popular in certain communities in Europe, with the Alps being a famous destination for vol biv.
One day at work, while day dreaming about my future adventures, I found myself connecting logical statements in my mind, "Switzerland has the Alps. The alps are famous for flying. I have a decent amount of time in Switzerland… I wonder if there's a couple day introductory class into paragliding where I could get to the point of doing at least one solo flight." That's when Google introduced me to Verbier Summits, based out of French-speaking southern Switzerland. The paragliding school is seemingly famous when you go to their website. Quotes from Bill Gates, Bear Grylls, and Sir Richard Branson cycle across the front page praising Mike and Stu, the UK native twins who started Verbier Summits in 2003 and have been flying for almost 25 years. That established a lot of trust on their end, so I started investigating further.
"Offers" - not something I expected to see on a paragliding school website, but I went there anyway. "Free EP or CP course with accommodation if you buy your kit pre-course." Woah, now we were talking! The greatest factor for me giving up the idea of paragliding was the combined price of everything. Here I had an opportunity to walk away from a one week course with the equipment at a decently discounted rate. But I needed two weeks of courses to get my license, so I contacted Mike and Stu to inquire about the offer and see if I could work out my own housing, applying that portion of the discount to my second week of courses. They happily agreed to make that work. So I had a decision: do I or don't I actually do this now?
It was going to require more money than I had set aside for my year, which meant I was going to need to dip into savings I hadn't intended to touch. I didn't need to wrestle with this decision for very long when I thought about my year of pure freedom, the opportunities I'd have to do different activities, and what I'd already invested in this journey. I was pretty much all in on the year ahead, so why would I pull up short when given the right opportunities? I sent confirmation to Mike and Stu that I wanted to sign up for the course. That made my time in Switzerland easy to plan, because it would take up 13 of my 16 days.
I arrived in Zurich on Friday morning, August 4 and explored the city for the day before hopping on a train to Interlaken for the next two nights. On the train ride into Interlaken, as you're pulling into the city, you start to see countless tandem paragliders descending from the sky with bright eyed passengers. I could feel the excitement start to take hold of me as I came to the realization that it would be me, flying, descending from the sky within a week. The next day I took a train to Lauterbrunnen and spent the day hiking around Mürren, Gimmelwald, and other small villages on the sides of the mountains. As I passed through various parts of the valley, I could see more paragliders descending on their rides. I couldn't escape the excitement.
On Sunday I took a train to Le Chȃble, the small town at the base of Verbier where I'd be staying and where the school was based. The cheapest option I'd found for my own housing was in a hostel that was an old military bunker. It smelled oddly of old tomato soup (or what I imagine that smells like), had no windows as it was a basement, only had a microwave and mini fridge in the kitchen, and was empty with no traveling companions with which to bond. It's obvious the bunker becomes filled during the winter season when skiing is at it's peak in Verbier. But for now it was me, the basement funk, and 7 unoccupied rooms. It didn't matter, because the next day I got to start learning to fly. Plus, I bought a scented candle to burn at night to help with the smell.
In the morning on Monday, everyone gathered at Cantaloupe, a restaurant in Le Chȃble run by Stamatia, an incredibly nice Greek woman. I had a beginner class with 8 other people in it: Sarah and Andreas from New York, Bassil from Saudi Arabia, Ido and his son Johav from Israel, Simon and his daughter Tamsin from Scotland, and Andrew from Australia. Bassil, Simon, and Tamsin were all staying for the second week as well. And there were also several other people there on their second week, third week, or return trips after years of coming to fly with Mike and Stu. It was clear I was stepping into something that had a continued reputation of bringing people back.
The weather wasn't looking very great for the week, but we kept hearing not to trust traditional weather sources since Verbier is in a special valley that's nearly always perfect for flying. Sure enough, the first day was gorgeous and we worked on take off technique for the majority of the day. We initially learned about the glider, how to lay it out and check it for safety before take off, and then we started learning how to actually take off. We were on hill repeats. We would set out glider on top, complete safety checks, check the airspace and weather, lean forward, hustle with all our might to run forward, raise the glider up with our arms, keep running with the glider above us, and then flare on the brakes to bring ourselves to the ground and a stop. Then we'd gather the lines and glider over our shoulder, climb to the top of the hill, and do it all again. They call this "ground school" and we had two days of it before we would be ready to truly leave the ground. The most dangerous times for a paraglider are when they're close to the ground - take off and landing. So it was important to get this exercise right.
Our second day wasn't as perfect as the first; in fact it was raining. Rain meant we couldn't do ground school, so we went to the classroom for theory. Theory is just as important to new paragliders as ground school and Emi, our main instructor, didn't short change us on this education. In class we went into detail about the physics of why we can fly with our gliders, what our glide ratios are (distance traveled to height lost), what types of weather considerations need to be taken into account, air traffic laws and rules of the road sky, and more. Over the course of the two weeks there was to be several afternoons of classroom theory… or at least that WAS the theory. Wednesday proved to be better weather, but still not perfect, with fog rolling in for a large portion of the day. But it didn't hold us back from practice and created an opportunity for some eerie, cool photos. By the end of Wednesday, we were all ready to take our first flight the next day! But Thursday it rained. So we went back to our classroom theory. Due to our two full days of rain, we actually finished both weeks of classroom theory by the end of Thursday. So Friday we would have our first flight. But Friday it rained.
It was a frustrating experience to be delayed by the rain and be caught with one of the few unlucky weeks of the year in Verbier. But it was a very important lesson for me as a paraglider - we are subject to the weather and can't dictate our conditions. Paragliders often have to abandon a proposed flight because of the weather, or they have to wait around for hours for the conditions to improve. The life of an ultralight pilot involves a lot of patience, and we were definitely tested in that way during the first week.
Normally they don't fly on the weekend. It's a time for Mike, Stu, and their staff to take a break and maybe catch up on their own flying. But because of the conditions during the week, they were gracious enough to have us take our first flight on Saturday morning and a second flight on Sunday morning. Our first flight was a 7 minute "sled ride" (top to bottom without any lift). For most pilots, to have a first flight that's 7 minutes long is amazing. Many pilots in the U.S. start on hills where they're doing 30-60 second flights for a while. Our second flight was from an even higher launch site: a 15 minute sled ride. We were spoiled in Verbier.
On our first flight we were guided through everything over the radio. Take off, heading, turning, landing… Mike and Stu left no room for error. Which was really good. It established a level of trust in them and in the glider to carry us safely through the air. This first flight was surprisingly not as satisfying as I thought it might be though. A large part of this had to do with our constant monitoring and commands from Mike and Stu. One of my major attractions to flying is the pure sense of freedom being in the air, in control of your own path through the sky. With someone telling you what to do, this part of the experience was a little lost on me. Not to say it wasn't still amazing from the start, but as we progressed through our lessons and were given more and more autonomy to fly on our own and make our own decisions, I began to really feel the pure joy of flying. I wanted to constantly be in the air.
Monday through Friday we saw perfect, sunny conditions. On my best of these days I was able to get in four flights, two before and after lunch. We worked on different skills to come down quickly in bad situations, speed up our glider into head winds, control and fix partial collapses of the wing, and more. At the end of the week I left with 18 flights and my license within the British system (more about converting that to U.S. standards in a future post about Vermont). More importantly, by the end of those two weeks I left with a community of pilot friends from around the world.
One of my favorite things about the two weeks was the culture and lifestyle we were all living while there in Le Chȃble. We would wake up, go to the top of a mountain in the Alps, fly for several hours, break for lunch in small cafes or picnic at the top of the mountain (mostly me to save money), fly some more, and at the end of the day gather at the bar in Cantaloupe in Le Chȃble for drinks, stories about our day, and stories about our lives. Emi, a former researcher/PhD student who quit to paraglide full time, was from Portugal and in the evenings on Wednesday and Friday would teach a tango class. It was a great opportunity for new activities and for you to meet other people (non-pilots) from around the area. On Wednesday nights it was also burger night at a bar in town, offering a burger and beer for 15 Swiss Francs (it may not sounds like it, but that's a huge bargain there). It was a guarantee that you'd go with or find many other pilots there if you went. We all went.
Le Chȃble was a place for people to bond and become friends, sharing this common connection and sharing other bits about themselves. It was a community in the finest sense, welcoming newcomers openly at the start of each week and welcoming back old-timers who'd been to Verbier time and time again. It really wasn't a surprise to me that those old-timers exist (not actually old), coming back year after year. They get to be a part of that Verbier Summits community AND they get to fly in one of the most beautiful places I've ever been. I continue to tell people that I think going to Le Chȃble for paragliding school is one of the best decisions I've ever made for myself. The experience and people I met left me wanting more and plotting my return in the future to join Mike, Stu, and Emi back on the slopes with my glider. Come to think of it, my best friend Pat is getting married in Ireland next year…