Flying like a bird

The  view over Mont Blanc was spectacular in the spring sunshine. I was surrounded by spectators on the launch site and suitably messed up my first couple of attempts at take-off. It is the difficult thing about paragliding. You lay out the canopy in front of you and then put it upright with a clean smooth movement, hold it over your head flying in the slight breeze and when you feel satisfied, you turn around and run off the cliff. At least that's the theory. Clearly you want to get this right.

The moment of flight is a wonderful thing. Suddenly this febrile kite that is delicately balanced  above your head becomes something solid. You are securely suspended below it and all you can hear is a very slight sound of wind going past the wing as the valley opens below your feet. I looked around nervously for other flyers. Collisions are not good for one's health. I tracked along the face of the mountain looking for lift from the warm air that is heated by the  sun and which gets detached from the ground to rise up as a thermal - nature's very own lift system if you can catch it. Attached to my helmet was a vario, a device that measures how fast you are descending or rising by beeping.

I felt a bump and knew that I had hit a thermal.. The vario started to beep but, as I had been trained, I waited for five seconds and then started to turn in tight circles seeing myself beginning to climb against the mountainside. A buzzard appeared in the same thermal, rising effortlessly past me with his vastly superior glide ratio. Superior it may be, but I was still flying in a very real way. Up and up I rose above  the launch site and halfway up the sheer limestone cliff facing the massif of Mont Blanc. The thermal began to fade and I looked along the face  where I could see in the distance a hang glider and another paraglider rising on strong up current. I flew two miles along the edge of the mountain turning every now and again to try and find some more lift.

Suddenly I hit it. The vario started to bleep manically, indicating a strong updraft and I started to turn into it. With each revolution I could see myself rising fast up the mountainside. It was getting colder and I regretted not putting on my gloves. I was expecting the thermal  to fade but it got even stronger and I hung in there rising faster and faster. Soon I was above the level of the ridge and looking over the snow field plateau to the green of the next valley.  I was now over three thousand foot above where I had taken off and at nearly ten thousand feet. The contrast between the snowfields and crags and the spring flowers and sunshine at the valley below was stark and beautiful. I abandoned the thermal at about a thousand foot above the ridge and flew out over the valley knowing it would take me half an hour to reach the landing site, now a tiny patch of green from my heavenly perspective. 

As I slowly descended the air warmed and smelt of cut grass. I could hear individual voices but their owners were still pinheads on the pavements below unaware that I was eavesdropping from the clouds. My landing was neat apart from stumbling into a cow pat - but I couldn't have cared less.

I had been a bird for an hour and a half.  

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