That first night in Chamonix, we sleep blissfully and get up in Goldilocks fashion, not too early nor too late, preparing strong coffee with the provided stove-top espresso maker. Marie has smuggled a batch from Brooklyn, a special Beirut roast recommended by Gus at the Atlantic Ave Damascus Bread and Pastry Shop. It is even more finely ground than Sahadi’s wonderful Moka Java and almost oily. It rewards us with superb coffee, yet we will never know if that result is due to the roast, the mountain tap water, the altitude or all the above.
Eventually we hit the road, bound for Annecy where I have booked a three-day advanced paragliding class which starts the following morning. I need the school to inspect and repack my reserve parachute before the action begins so Marie and I have decided to do a little touring along the way to fill the day. Google Maps serves us directions and a reasonable time en route of ninety minutes. However we soon find out that Google’s intel in the Alps is about as thin as the air. Much unaccounted-for construction is popping up everywhere and forces us to divert time after time, each turn steering us further away from our target and deeper into idyllic alpine scenery.
Roaming through an exquisitely carved countryside, we find ourselves throbbing with a mix of excitement and nostalgia. The world we are gliding by is simply too beautiful to be real, too ephemeral. We drive through the small town of Megève where we stop to photograph a flowered field buzzing with honey bees. A bakery next to the field lures us in despite our keto reservations and we carry on with a prettily boxed pair of small pastries, throwing our shame into the wind. Strangely enough, a couple of weeks later I will be tracking legendary athlete Chrigel Maurer online as he weaves his way through a sixth consecutive victory in the X-Alps race1, and I will watch his marker in real time on a race map as he runs right past that very shop, his competition glider on his back.
Flyéo, the paragliding school with which I have signed up, is located in Doussard at the very southern end of gorgeous Lake Annecy. We stop in briefly so that I can drop my chute off, and spend a few minutes watching colorful gliders land and practice ground handling in a field across the road. We then follow the lake’s western shore up. Lake Annecy is among the most beautiful bodies of water in the world. Absolutely pristine, its turquoise water is crystal clear and reminiscent of the Caribbean.
Even in early June, people are already swimming or sunbathing on small beaches despite the chilly mountain water, and the road winds lazily along the sunny shore. We pause at a farm stall and shop for fruit, vegetables and a bottle of wine from Savoie. The cantaloupe we buy will turn out to be the best either one of us remembers ever eating, but it has come from Spain.
A bit of traffic agglomerates on the outskirts of Annecy, and we notice many motorcyclists extending their right leg as they squeeze between opposing lanes. I initially postulate that they are stretching after a long ride and forget about it. It later becomes apparent that they are in fact thanking the cars that ease right to let them pass left; the right hand is busy so the right boot shoots out, a very civilized custom I do not remember witnessing elsewhere, least of all in North America.
Once in Annecy we park in a mesmerizing underground public parking that is, surprisingly, corkscrew-shaped. It has a small circular surface footprint but is deep and cars are parked on both sides of a steep two-way lane, perpendicular to it, in a long vertical spiral, like leaves off a stem. The center shaft is open to the light. No flat space anywhere, no big lots. Clever.
Immersed in a sea of tourists, we walk around the old town canals for a while, fascinated by the Thiou’s impeccably clean water flowing through the city, only a few feet deep and terribly inviting despite signs prohibiting access.
For the way back I decide to follow my instinct and head north on a larger highway towards Geneva, before angling east on an Italy approach, and the result is a much quicker trip, on mostly empty roads once we have left the city behind.
I love French roads, at least in that part of the country. The highway speed limit is one hundred and thirty kilometers per hour (eighty-two mph) unless specified. Most people do not feel a need to drive insanely faster than the limit as is the case on anarchic U.S. roads and this makes for a much more fluid traffic flow, with less relative difference between slower and faster vehicles. French drivers are by no means perfect—they are latin after all—but they still beat ours any day of the week. They are not so entitled. They understand a safe following distance. Brake use is only occasional and there is none of that ridiculous accordion effect that plagues our highways, resulting in congestion even when no cause exists. Honking is extremely rare. Red lights and stop signs are observed. Pedestrians crossing a street (always on the marks) are respected. It is such a relief.
Getting back to Cham’ is already like coming home, it paints a smile on our faces and lights a candle in our hearts. The next morning, I am up at five and leave silently, stopping for a coffee along the way and giving in to another slice of flan which I only nibble on.
I am headed to my first ever paragliding SIV and leaving the Mont Blanc behind, I ponder the wisdom of such an endeavor now that I am fully committed.
An SIV is meant to ruffle one’s feathers, both figuratively and practically speaking. Standing for Simulation d’Incident en Vol, a French term that has been widely adopted by the international paragliding community and means “simulation of in-flight incidents”, an SIV allows pilots to experience unusual flights situations, to push their wing beyond their normal envelope, to practice the recovery of in-flight mishaps and to gain a level of control and confidence not allowed by conservative day-to-day routine, all under the supervision of qualified instruction and within the carefully established boundaries of a test environment. In order words, the proverbial cushion.
Serious SIV’s are performed over water. That is because water is more forgiving than ground when it comes to pilots and their glider giving up the status of aircraft for that of a projectile. Flotation devices are worn in flight, fragile electronic equipment such as varios, cameras and phones ditched just in case, and the remaining essential guiding VHF radio is carried in a waterproof pouch, providing real-time guidance. Safety boats are on hand and manned at all times during the exercices, and video cameras follow the pilots, recording maneuvers to allow better debriefing analysis later, things tending to happen much too fast in the air.
The class starts with an extended ground briefing explaining the setup, describing the launch and LZ areas, planning bus pick-ups back to the top, discussing expected weather and local conditions, and finally dissecting the maneuvers to be practiced, their cause, recovery, etc.
Students are reminded of basic aerodynamic facts which are best summarized by this classic quote, attributed to a Navy training manual: “Try to stay in the middle of the air. Do not go near the edges of it. The edges of the air can be recognized by the appearance of ground, buildings, sea, trees and interstellar space. It is much more difficult to fly there.”
More practical concepts are also approached, such as landing in trees, water ditching and the nasty habit of a harness full of air to flip the pilot face down into the water, a fighter pilot’s forced breathing technique to resist high G forces without blacking out (I kid you not), or the need to throw a reserve parachute away from the current relative airflow, or else.
The rest will be a series of short, very intense flights. Adrenaline peaks, high G’s are experienced, pride is swallowed, and a systematic sigh of relief is breathed out upon landing.
I must say that regardless of the stunning view—we take off far above the lake’s southern tip and Annecy, at the northern end, seems so close I could also touch it—I dread each flight and struggle with the maneuvers.
The class tests my resolve. With only a dozen flights in the last twelve months and a new, more advance wing, I struggle to keep up with my peers. All other class attendees have more airtime than I do, have logged more flying recently, and possess more mountain experience as they all live somewhere in the Alps. One of the guys is even a professional Swiss mountain guide.
The place we launch from far above the lake is renowned in the paragliding world for being exceptionally well suited to SIV training. As a consequence, the launch site is almost perpetually busy as entire groups from all over the world compete in a friendly way for space and air time.
Access to the launch zone is strictly controlled and only authorized vehicles having a pass are allowed through an automated, two-part barrier functioning like an air lock. In peak season, a dispatcher is also on station, radio in hand, acting like an air traffic controller and coordinating the launch sequence.
The pad is enormous and ideal, covered in AstroTurf—not the prettiest material but definitely the friendliest to gliders and their tangle-prone lines. The areas on each side and at the top are reserved for setting up, which is normally done on a surface as flat, wide and protected as possible. Setting up can take from five or six minutes in the case of experienced pilots, to a good half-hour when it comes to fumbling beginners.
One normally needs enough space to spread the entire canopy wide-open, and from there stretch the lines at a perpendicular angle as far as they will go to make sure they are not twisted. In other words, each pilot setting up would require a bubble with a flat diameter of at least 50 feet.
This is hardly the case at busy launch sites and in the afternoon I find myself often setting up in a tight corner, with only enough space to open half of the canopy at once, on a slope angling the wrong way, and without enough space to stretch my lines completely. I must then rely on a good packing routine after my last landing, and enough experience to judge the status of my aircraft in that situation.
People cohabit as best as possible in that organized chaos, stepping more or less carefully over lines and fabric and often sweating profusely in a suit, helmet and gloves, as temperatures in flight are typically much cooler then on the ground, a paraglider travelling through the air at around twenty or thirty miles per hour.
As soon as ready, I ironically bunch up my carefully laid out glider, as methodically as possible, and coil my lines in one hand, lifting the whole apparatus in the other to move closer to launch and take my place in the queue of pilots awaiting their turn under the spotlight.
And a spotlight is indeed what we find ourselves under once the time to take off has come. There can be forty to fifty pilots and helpers on such a large site, plus maybe as many spectators on the side, and only one glider takes off at a time. That’s a lot of eyes trained on a single point of focus, and launching is among the most complicated maneuvers in the sport.
In calm conditions, one must launch facing away from the glider and run forward, sacrificing a very important visual control of the canopy’s reaction and often ending in aborted take-offs. When the wind picks up, it becomes possible to launch by simply pulling the canopy up while facing it, in a much more static and controlled fashion, then turning to face the slope and taking a few steps off.
Of course with wind comes tension, and eventually a threshold is reached beyond which taking off becomes too risky. The wind speed for that threshold depends on the site’s features and obstacles, the pilot’s experience, familiarity with his gear, and resistance to peer pressure.
Failing a launch or packing it up is never pleasant, but doing so under the eyes and cameras of dozens of people whose understanding of the situation ranges from a blissful ignorance making you a god, to extreme competence picking up the slightest of your mistakes, can be daunting. I think this, as much as the actual SIV maneuvers, is among the best training one can receive.
Once airborne, the heat is off for a few minutes. Flight plans are simple: sit back in the harness, take in a twist of brake lines to better feel the air, check the canopy, and fly straight to the exercice box, a three-dimensional rectangular area just off the LZ over water, compensating for drift. A simple crab into the wind, a few minutes to relax, to take in the magnificent view, to mentally rehearse the maneuvers to come, or to practice a few repetitive grabs of the reserve handle from a hands up position, without looking at it, burning the muscle memory in.
The earpiece attached to my radio and worn around an ear and under the helmet hurts a bit, and it most often ends up being much too loud, everyone including myself tending to turn the radio volume up in fear of not hearing the instructions clearly enough.
Somewhere into the long glide, the victims ahead of me complete their maneuvers and head towards the LZ, far below. The radio crackles: “OK Vincent, mets toi parallèle à la caméra, je te rappelle qu’on pratique le 360 engagé et une sortie dynamique avec chandelle, abattée et tempo. Tu es prêt? Allez on engage côté droit, top!”2
I would love to answer that no, I am not quite ready and really need to go to the bathroom, or write an important email, but this is what I came for and I just take a deep breath. I could not answer anyway because my hands are full and a microphone control has not been provided, the conversation being unilateral.
First swinging the glider into a left turn to give it dynamic momentum, I then reverse the turn, lean into my harness sticking my head outside of the right riser and pull the right brake down deep. The glider hesitates upon such a drastic direction change but it has energy and soon settles into the turn and accelerates. The rate of turn increases very fast and the centrifuge force pushes me into my seat and out, as I look up at the leading edge getting more horizontal and down at the center of my rotation on the water to try and gauge descent speed and bank.
The instructor on the radio is rarely satisfied with my initial commitment and asks for more brake, more speed. At that point I am experiencing maybe three G’s which is high for a normal earth-crust-crawling creature, adrenaline is surging and heartbeat is enthusiastic, to say the least.
Once my glider and I have finally achieved a state of entropy capable of leading into a spiral that would eventually terminate in the lake at a very high rate of descent, he gives me my next cue. “Allez, top, sortie.”3 The inner hand climbs back up above my head, releasing the brake, and the left descends half-way down, enticing the glider to not only stop its right turn but immediately want to swing into an opposite roll to dissipate its stored energy.
“Vas-y, contre!”4 Right when the glider passes somewhere along the vertical axis between lake and sky, I swiftly counter its tendency to enter the next turn by again reversing the brakes, trying to keep it going straight. This slows us down a great deal and the canopy falls behind me, inertia swinging me in my harness well forward in an awkward pendulum.
Both hands go up, letting the glider recover. For a very uncomfortable instant, the wing is behind me, almost at my level, and it seems as though we have stopped flying. Then my weight takes over, I fall back down and this makes the glider surge forward violently. It will go so far that if not controlled it could end up below me and collapse, the worse case scenario then being a risk of falling into the fabric, a very, very bad way to end the morning.
Eyes ahead on the horizon. As soon as the canopy enters my field of vision, rushing down, the last radio cue comes in. “Tempo!”5 I slam both brakes down as far as I can reach, and hold them just long enough for the forward pitch to stop. The canopy flutters, settles, the brakes are up, we are flying normally again.
Well, normally might be an overstatement. My mouth is dry, my heart pumping. I am much lower than before, these maneuvers wasting a lot of altitude. The radio crackles again, and I get verbally spanked for being late on this or that. “Allez, on recommence, à gauche cette fois.”6
I cannot wait to be in bed.
Over a few days, dealing with wind and weather the best we can, we repeatedly practice multiple maneuvers. We do B-line descents, a high, near-vertical descent rate achieved by pulling on the second set of lines from the leading edge, effectively distorting the airflow and destroying the lift, very handy to come down quickly in an emergency.
We rehearse partial collapses, where fifty percent of the canopy is manually collapsed onto itself—as could happen accidentally during flight—and then steering must be maintained despite the glider’s tendency to spin towards the closed side as it no longer generates lift. We pull big ears, another descent technique where both wing tips are tucked down and held in. We fly very tight approaches into a narrow LZ, with a camping ground on one side, water beyond the final and no-fly zones everywhere else.
The valley wind, a normal weather phenomenon where a strong airflow tends to run up valleys as the day progresses, can get quite nasty here, fast. One early afternoon, it picks up so quickly that between the time of my launch and the end of the flight, it is blowing harder down near the lake than my accelerated Iota can manage. The boat crew has seen it coming and terminating the drill early, confirms what I was itching to do and guides me into a rather unique approach that starts far over the lake and takes me in a straight reverse flight into the LZ.
No turns are allowed, they waste valuable speed and altitude; when fighting a high wind speed, the hands must be up. Stepping on the bar7, I face away from the landing field and let it creep closer from behind, literally flying backwards. Once over the touch down zone, the wind decreases slightly due to ground friction and I am able to descend the last fifty or so feet perfectly vertically. Stupidly, upon touching down, routine takes over and I automatically pull both brakes down. I hear a “Noooooo, don’t brake!” yelled by one of the English speaking instructors nearby.
It’s too late. Aeolus, keeper of the winds, delighted to have found more canopy to fight with, lifts me off the ground and blows me backwards. Off balance, I try to kill the wing by pulling more brake lines in but get dragged across grass and soil before succeeding, ending up with a bloodied elbow and roughed up pride.
Another verbal spanking. I am fuming inside, because of my mistake but also the lack of pedagogy shown throughout the class. No maneuver simulator, no videos, a few roughly sketched white-board drawings. The radio could have reminded me of the importance of not touching the brakes in a high wind landing, maybe? A nagging memory from the scuba diving instruction days is floating around my mind after a few days of coaching: when the student fails, often the teacher has, too. But the bottom line is that I am an autonomous pilot and cannot count on third-party clues.
By the end of the class, I am quite exhausted, mentally at least. I had come seeking confidence and mastery but as it turns out, I found neither. The road to those extends far ahead of me and patience will be required. If anything, I learned that extreme flying is not for me, and that I have no interest in pushing either envelope or luck. When in doubt, just don’t fly. There is always another day.
A couple of mornings later, Marie drops me off at the Passy Plaine-Joux site and I manage to get a nice leisurely flight in, thermaling for a while and moving south along the ridge where I watch hikers and climbers up close, while my poor driver who had intended beating me down to the LZ to take the infamous landing snapshots for posterity, gets lost in the many switches of a sharply descending road and misses me by a few minutes.
That is probably for the best as I manage to land on the wrong side of a fence, siding with the cows instead of my fellow pilots. Oh well, there is always another flight.
• ♦ •
1. The X-Alps is an adventure race involving paragliding and trail running, where the athletes must complete a one thousand kilometer trip from the heart of the Alps to Monaco either in the air or hiking/running with their glider on their back. Some thirty participants battle through four or five countries, from waypoint to waypoint, with a small support team which provides food and a bed at night.
2. OK Vincent, turn parallel to the camera, as a reminder we are practicing a spiral turn with a dynamic exit, pitch, dive and control. Ready? Let’s go, to the right.
5. From the French word “temporiser”, to slow something down or delay it.
6. Let’s do it again, to the left this time.
7. The speed bar, pushed on by both feet, is connected to the leading edge which it reshapes slightly, increasing the wing’s speed through the air at the expense of some canopy integrity.