Paragliding Anecdote, French Alps

     We were in the minivan, driving up the mountain to the launching site. The group was enthusiastic and we were hoping that the incoming darkish clouds would go away.

Bobby took his radio and called Yann:

‘Hey buddy! Have you seen the movie Godzilla??’

   ‘Yea, why?’ asked Yann who was still in the valley and couldn’t see what was coming toward us.

   ‘ ‘Cause the monster is paying us a visit!!’ Bobby said, pointing at the menacing clouds. Hearing the instructor talk like that about the weather was not a good sign, and the higher we were getting, the darker the sky was.

Finally we arrived at the launching spot, at an altitude of about 2000m/6600ft. Romain and Bobby started talking about whether or not to fly. After some time, they saw that the storm seemed to make its way toward the Aiguille des Glaciers and the Mont Blanc. In front of us, though, the sky was pretty dark still. The guys hesitated and finally asked for a volunteer to ‘check the quality of the air’.

   ‘Me!’ I said without letting anyone else get a chance to volunteer first. I really wanted to fly and was only more excited because of the weather conditions.

   ‘Okay man, you go first’ Bobby said. He called Yann and asked if he would let me lead the way.

   ‘It’s quiet down here. Fine with me, it’s your call’.

I sat in the harness and got ready to go. But as soon as I started moving, a right-side wind of about 30° swept the area and I had to abort the launch. It was no surprise: the wind is always stronger in the afternoon. Now, the problem was that I had a chairlift on my right and another on my left! I didn’t want to land up hung in the cables. After 10 long minutes, Romain said:

   ‘Alright Orel you take off when you feel it but remember to be careful with the wind.’

He didn’t need to say it twice. I immediately rushed down the slope to inflate my wing and soon took off. Just twenty meters high now, the harness started shaking like crazy. I passed just two meters far from a treetop before being roughly sucked up by a rising column of air which threw me away from the face of the mountain.

As I was getting farther and farther away, it got more intense. I was struggling to maintain my course, fighting against a strong wind that was making me drift in the wrong direction. I was focused to control my wing and my trajectory. I had taken off for only what seemed to be two minutes when I heard the voice of an instructor coming from the radio, and here’s all he said :

   ‘Ok, I don’t think we should send anyone else.’

All of a sudden, I felt very lonely. I looked around. I was the only person flying in the valley. I was so high and so far from everything and everyone… I was wishing someone could talk on the radio, but the only things I could hear were the wind blowing in my ears and the rustle of the wing, as if there wasn’t enough air to keep it flying. The sky was so dark above me. On the other side of the valley I could see a huge mass of clouds that had covered a range of glaciers and was now rushing down its slopes. And the worst part was that I had the feeling that I was getting higher instead of going down. At that point, I thought about this life insurance they made me sign when I registered for the program. It was making sense now.

   ‘Dang! I got a paraglider in sight! Is that Orel?’ Yann asked from the landing site which I couldn’t even see from where I was.

   ‘Huh, I think so, he’s the only one in the valley’ Bobby said.

   ‘We should probably start telling him about the “big ears” technique cause he’s just going higher and higher right now.’

   ‘Yea, I’ve noticed that too and I’ve been thinking about it for a moment.’

So there I was, hung on this mere canvas wing,  actually taken in an ascending column of air, going up instead of down, with instructors telling me how to do a technique I had just heard of. Great! I started to be really worried, but followed the instructions of the guys and did the big ears, which consist in folding the wingtips of your wing to increase the rate of descent. I couldn’t use the brakes anymore because of the maneuver, so I had to use my body weight to control my course. The big ears technique was physical and I was getting tired, but after a few minutes, I noticed I was finally losing altitude, going away from the scary ceiling of dark clouds in which I thought, at some point, I would disappear.

I succeeded to reach the bottom of the valley. If I thought the launching had been tough, the landing was even worse because I had to do it without the brakes! When I touched the ground I felt relieved and happy of what I had just done. I’ve had very few paragliding experiences but this solo one was definitely the best. This flight brought a bunch of different sensations inside of me, from excitement to fear, and even in the evening I was still feeling like I was in an alternative reality.

Paragliding can be dangerous as it can be safe, it just depends on you. Sometimes I get upset when people talk about this sport, and they obviously just assume things. For them it’s just a lazy sport: you run, you seat, you enjoy. They seem to completely ignore the issue of physics. You have to do it yourself to understand how vulnerable you are, but as my instructors told me, ‘ if you ever dreamed of being a bird, then paragliding is the thing for you’.

Photo : Nick from Sierra Trip Reports.
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37 Responses to Paragliding Anecdote, French Alps

  1. aj vosse says:

    Fantastic experience… I’m pleased it ended well!

    That photo is special… I love it! ;-)

    Many happy flights… stay safe!

  2. Dave says:

    What a rush, Orel. Great post all around!

  3. I have always wanted to try paragliding. i;m so envious! :)
    i love the way you narrate your story. good your able to land safely!

  4. xandimusic says:

    like our alps! Great story!!
    Peace and regards,
    xandi

  5. Northern Narratives says:

    Thank you for visiting my photoblog http://northernprints.wordpress.com

    I enjoyed reading your story :)

  6. flyboy7600 says:

    Excellent story! I am a pilot and reading of your experience brought back the emotions I felt on my first solo flight. Thanks for posting and fly safe!

  7. Wow, Orel. Kudos to you for living life to the fullest. Great post, and I’m glad you’re still with us to post another day. :)

  8. thirdeyemom says:

    Wow what an experience! I have done tandem paragliding in New Zealand and screamed the entire way down. The driver told me that I was his best customer ever! I guess he loved the fact that I basically screamed my head off! It was the most exhilarating experience I’ve ever had. I would be scared out of my mind to go alone. Must take some serious guts! Great post!!!!

  9. Vu le froid qu’il y fait en ce moment, tu n’aurais pas besoin de te servir des grandes oreilles. ;) Ca descend tout seul. Ca doit être grandiose de voler en compagnie du Mont Blanc.

  10. Wow Orel, a great story! We have the national paragliding championships in Sun Valley, and it’s so beautiful to watch. 9150 at the mountain top, 5500 at the valley floor. I don’t think I’d ever be daring enough to try it. I can’t imagine how it felt when you realized you were going UP!

  11. Jo Woolf says:

    Well done for being daring enough to try, and calm enough not to panic… an amazing story to be proud of.

  12. melissakoski says:

    What an exciting and gripping story. My daughter and I are both afraid of heights, but have wanted to fly our entire lives.

    • That’d be a great opportunity to defeat your fear :D. I hope this story didn’t scare you ahah. I wrote what I felt and the real thing was probably less impressive than what it seemed to me. Early flights are absolutely safe, most of all if it’s a tandem flight with a professional instructor. I hope you will do it some day!

  13. elizabeth says:

    Well done Orel! That had to be the scariest moment knowing you were going higher when you should have been descending.

  14. This is one sport I really want to try. I have been a support driver for a friend that did it in Zimbabwe and ever since have wanted to go up. Great story.

    • Wow. Your friends does paragliding crosses in Zimbabwe?? That sounds awesome. I’m sure being the support driver is a lot of fun too! Hope you can take your friends place sometime :)

  15. Alex Autin says:

    Orel! Your stories are so well written……you have a way of taking people along with you and it’s VERY exciting! I’ve always wanted to do this and now I know I will.

  16. Gripping story, Orel!!

    Paragliding is something that I’ve wanted to try but never got round to – shame!

  17. Oops – that was supposed to be beating LOL

  18. Wow, that was such an intense and exciting story!! You had my heart bearing a mile a minute. Thanks for sharing!!

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