“On three, I want you to run down the hill.”
Robby, my Swiss paragliding instructor, begins counting, and slowly my shaky legs start to creep down the sheer, grassy slope. We’re atop the Schilthorn — a mountain in Switzerland overlooking Mürren — the tiny, tranquil village perched high among the clouds, where traditional wooden chalets are sprinkled over the frosted mountain like chocolate on a cappuccino. There are no cars in Mürren, and no roads. It can be reached only by cable car.
As we gather speed, the parachute catches hold of the wind, and we elegantly whoosh into the air. Ahead, the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau — three wise men with snow-white beards — rise majestically over the Lauterbrunnen valley, backlit by a piercing midday sun. My feet dangle; my arms are outspread. We’re floating gracefully through the air now, high above the streams and lush, green fields of the valley, surrounded by a panoramic postcard of the iconic mountain range.
“In the winter,” Robby shouts over the roar of the wind, “I ski down this mountain every day, and in the evenings, I come here with my parachute and fly home. I land in my garden.” He points far into the distance where the road narrows to a point and houses are just dust scattered among tiny pine trees. We’re silent for a minute while I try to imagine getting used to the experience of flying. It’s easy to see that Robby is more at home in the air than he is on the ground. The sky is his open road.
I’d ended up in Switzerland on a bit of a whim. My best friend Alice had a trip planned, driving from England through France, and finishing up in the Bernese Oberland. She was leaving in a few days time — did I want to join her? I was a chronic planner, but for some reason I decided to be spontaneous.
We stayed with Alice’s family friends who introduced us to their beautiful corner of the Earth. The Bernese Oberland is as picturesque as it gets. Pure, glassy lakes lie in valleys between peaks that look like they’ve been drawn onto the sky with chalk pastels. Narrow, winding roads take you high up into the mountains where silence is broken only by the echoing jangle of cow bells.
On our last day, Alice asked me if I wanted to jump off a mountain with her. I had a fear of heights to overcome, so naturally I shrugged.
From the vantage point of a bird, the overwhelming vastness of the mountains and the specks of people thousands of feet below make me feel small. Before taking off, I’d been full of nerves. We were so high. The parachute had seemed so flimsy and insubstantial. But as we soared, my worries vanished. This is peaceful, gentle, and I’m concerned only by the tears trickling down my cheek. From the cold, I tell myself as I wipe them away. Definitely just the cold.
Robby keeps near to the cliff’s edge so we can catch warm air currents and stay in the sky longer. Water thunders down the wrinkled and weathered rock face in a stream of white foam — we’re so close we can almost feel the spray. A flock of birds pauses to rest on the small incisions in the rock, the same footholds that mountain climbers grip when scaling the perilous ridge.
We’re now close enough to the ground to make out the faces of the people looking up at us. I feel a wave of disappointment as my flying experience is nearly over. There’s something a little sad about the sky — it’s too temporary, too fleeting, and there’s nothing to grab hold of if you want to stay. The air slips through your fingers. We’ll leave it behind soon.
Half an hour later, I’m looking through the window of the car as we wind along the road that had looked so small earlier, like a shoelace trailing through the valley. I look up at the mountain where I began my journey and search for Robby. He is on his way back up to the sky, his home sweet home.
Header image by Chris Herath