Interlaken, Switzerland: Paragliding without Regret

scenic view of Interlaken and surrounding mountains

I didn’t quite jump off the mountain so much as run off it. Or that’s what I like to tell people. Our paragliding flight had been delayed by strong winds sweeping through the valley between the three mountains—Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau—that encircle Interlaken.

After 30 or 40 minutes, they told us we were good to go. We signed consent forms then piled into a van for the short, winding drive up the mountain (“Does anyone get motion sick? Yes? Well, that’s not good…”). After a brief review of the flight and safety instructions, we paired up with our pilots and walked a short distance through a thinly wooded area to the take off point.

I hadn’t actually (seriously) considered paragliding before going to Europe. I hemmed and hawed as we backpacked our way towards Switzerland; I was still going back and forth when we arrived in Zermatt, our last stop before Interlaken. I’m scared of heights, for one thing, and paragliding is expensive, especially in Switzerland, where most everything is expensive.

Afraid I might be permanently paralyzed with indecision, I texted my parents to see if they would try to talk me out of it. “DO IT” was their unequivocal response. This was a once-in-a-lifetime trip, they said, who knew when I would get another chance. And if I was going to risk life and limb, I might as well do it somewhere spectacular. You don’t want to leave any regrets behind, they said.

Which is how I found myself on a grassy alpine slope overlooking Interlaken, scanning the surrounding scenery. The thin veil of clouds was beginning to seep sunshine, but the skies were still ashy and gray with drizzle; the wind whistled and threatened to pick up again. Too late for second thoughts now. Now I was strapped into my little cushioned bucket seat, the pilot harnessed behind me and the paraglider fanned out on the ground like a giant deflated balloon. A few cows nibbled grass nearby, unperturbed by the sight of people running and gliding off the side of a mountain.

This is what it’s like: You’re lumbering downhill, dragging and awkward, running and running and running…and suddenly you aren’t running any more. Your legs are still pumping but your feet don’t connect with anything. And then you feel the current of air lifting you up, as though some giant mechanical arm had just yanked the glider skywards. Your skin tingles, and maybe your stomach drops and you realize there’s nothing between you and the ground but air.

The sky, still streaked with feathery cotton and slate, was just starting to clear as we got into the air. The pilot let us glide along, swerving this way and that in wide, casual arcs. Every so often, we’d catch another current of air under the glider wings, pulling us up again with invisible gusto. We sailed, dipping and swooping, over Interlaken’s forested peaks and shadowy valleys.

As we neared ever closer to the basin formed by the mountain trio—the alluvial plain known as the Bodelli—flat yellow, green, and brown squares slowly distinguished themselves as fields and neighborhoods. Soon I could make out buildings, houses, and cars. The apprehension grew like a tightening knot in my chest as our landing area—the wide greenbelt (Park Höhematte) in front of the historic Victoria-Jungfrau Grand Hotel*—came into view.

As it turns out, I worried for nothing. The landing was so swift and uneventful that I only really remember it as a blur of bumpiness and adrenaline. The pilot, I think, gave me a few short instructions as the earth grew larger and more real beneath us, and before I knew it, we had come to a jarring, running slowdown and halt. As the pilot unbuckled me from the glider, I felt my legs wobble a bit. I was tired and windblown, but it had been exhilarating, and I had no regrets.

May 2015 [652]

*The Victoria-Jungfrau, a Belle Epoque resort over 150 years old, looks up from the foothills towards the Jungfrau, which Mark Twain (just one of its many VIP guests) described in his travelogue, A Tramp Abroad:

Across the valley, and apparently quite neighborly and close at hand, the giant form of the Jungfrau rose cold and white into the clear sky, beyond a gateway in the nearer highlands. It reminded me, somehow, of one of those colossal billows which swells suddenly up beside one’s ship, at sea, sometimes, with its crest and shoulders snowy white, and the rest of its noble proportions streaked downward with creamy foam.

That day was cloudier and more opaque, the mountains forested more in shades of green rather than snowcapped, but the view from my glider was no less breathtaking (an overused descriptor that seemed appropriate here) than in Twain’s day.

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