The Day We Got To Be Birds

On Mount Vogel

“The only thing you have to do is run. When I tell you, you must run as fast as you can—at least 15 or 20 kilometers per hour—and not stop until we are in the air.”

I rise on my toes in preparation, like a sprinter.

The voice behind my ear yells “Now, run!” and I try to push off. But my feet are being lifted off the ground—the man strapped in behind me is taller than I am—and the great red sail above us is catching the air like a kite, trying to pull us backward. Against that resistance I can’t get any purchase, and I have the feeling you get when you’re trying to run in a dream and your legs are churning and churning but nothing happens.

But the bulk behind me pushes me forward—all the while screaming at me to run, as I scream back “I’m trying!” And we scrabble closer to the edge of the mountain and then go over and settle with a jolt into the seats of our harness, slowly sinking.

“That was not good,” he hisses. “Not fast enough. Very dangerous to take off that way.”

But then, a second later, the air fills out our sail and we move forward smoothly, with a sigh of relief.

At that moment it really sinks in that I’m gliding high in the air over pine-covered foothills, with tall mountains and jewel-blue Lake Bohinj spread out below and in front of me. It’s breathtakingly beautiful, and I’m not even frightened (the motion is too gentle for that). I’m just utterly awestruck to be here. Ahead of me is another sail with Melissa and her pilot sitting underneath. I can’t see her face, but I suspect it looks as amazed and delighted as mine.

For days before we went paragliding, I would look up at the mountains around our village and wonder whether I could actually jump off one. But when the time came, we had so much company at the takeoff spot that it seemed the most natural thing in the world.

It was the first clear morning after days of rain and (as we later learned) the best day for paragliding in months. So, as we rode a cable car and then a chairlift up Vogel mountain and trudged to the clearing for takeoff, we were joined by eight or nine other paragliders. Some had tandem passengers, like us, but most were individual fliers, there for the sport. Watching other people run off the mountain and go airborne ahead of us made it seem a lot less scary.

Now, after a minute or two of gliding through the air, we turn and begin to climb, higher and higher in slow circles like a bird. The air grows colder; my fingers start to freeze, and I wish I’d worn thicker socks on my dangling ankles. The mountain with its cable-car station dwindles away below us. The altimeter behind me beeps incessantly, the tones coming closer together as we rise. My pilot calls out the altitude: 2,600 meters, 2,800, 2,900 (nearly 9,000 feet). Across the lake I have a clear view of the Julian Alps, including their crown: Mount Triglav, the highest point in Slovenia. At 2,864 meters, it’s now lower than we are.

From here, my pilot tells me, nodding directions, you can see Austria, Italy, Croatia, and the Adriatic Sea, as well as most of Slovenia. Now I finally start to feel frightened, because it seems like our two sails and four people are tiny specks of almost nothing, dangling by a few threads and a bit of cloth way up here all by ourselves. There’s an awful lot of air up here and not much else. (I can’t see any of the other gliders that took off before or after us, as they remain far below.)

Having gone as high as paragliders can legally go in this area without hitting controlled airspace, we descend a little. The temperature, which had fallen to 6 degrees at our peak, warms up and I begin to feel my fingers again. But the fun isn’t over yet.

“You like adrenaline? Do you want to try some acrobatics?” my pilot asks. “Sure!” I call back to him. And the next thing I know, the horizon is spinning and swerving, the lake seems to be above and the mountains below, and I have to close my eyes to keep from getting impossibly dizzy. After a few minutes of that my stomach is starting to protest, so we right ourselves again and circle in over the lake toward the big meadow at one end.

It’s so beautiful up here that I never want to land. But soon the voice over my shoulder tells me that we’ll be touching down in 30 seconds. That’s hard to believe; we still seem pretty high. But the ground approaches quickly, and in a moment my pilot is telling me to stand up in the harness. I brace for a heavy impact but get only a light one. I stumble forward a few steps and fall to my knees, and we’re back on terra firma. Wow! It feels like no time at all since we took off, but we actually flew for almost 40 minutes.

The village of Ribcev Laz

I turn in time to see Melissa coming down a little ways away. And then we’re unbuckled and sitting on a bench swapping stories of our flights while our pilots swiftly pack up the sails and harnesses into backpack-size bundles. From the efficiency of their motions, you can tell they’ve done this a few times.

As we share a drink with them afterward, we discover several things. Our pilots—who call themselves the Loop Team—have been paragliding for 21 years. They’ve competed in flying events around Europe and abroad and even set a world record. So we were in safer hands than we’d realized. We also got incredibly lucky in our chosen day. Apparently, the conditions we had occur only a few times a year. And according to the pilots, we were the first passengers they’d taken as high as 2,900 meters. Even when the air conditions are right for that height, most people don’t like going that far up and opt for a lower, smoother flight, they said.

Back in town, I stop at the bankomat to get out cash to pay for our flights. Although we’re usually as tight-fisted as a proverbial Scotsman when it comes to money these days, I don’t bat an eye as I hand over 240 euros (half a week’s budget). For the chance to be a bird, it was worth it.

Incredibly, Melissa had her camera around her neck during her flight. She managed to take some wonderful pictures—including all of the ones in this post—despite freezing fingers and a fear of dropping her lens cap a few thousand meters into the lake.

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