Run, run, run!” Leo yells into my ear – something I’m not particularly inclined to do when I’m standing on the precipice of a 2000 ft-high mountain, looking down over its rocky, scree-covered slopes dropping sharply away beneath me. But the simple thought of soaring freely above these Alpine peaks is all that it takes to get my legs into motion. I’m strapped into a tandem paraglider harness and Leo, my Austrian pilot, is inches behind me ensuring that the canopy rises correctly and the guidelines don’t tangle, while simultaneously trying, I assume, not to trip over my legs. After a few steps the canopy is inflated and fiercely resisting our efforts to run downhill. Then, before I know it, the canopy creeps overhead and we are gently lifted off the ground with my legs still frantically treading circles beneath me like a cartoon character who’s just run off a cliff. Suddenly liberated from the restrictions of gravity, I find myself gliding swiftly over the treetops, my cries of exhilaration equally acute and unrestrained.
Leo has been flying paragliders since 1988 and has notched up moe than 3500 incident-free flights to date, statistics that instill me with the confidence to relax into my seat and take in all around me. There seems to be so much to see from up here, it’s as if the world has acquired a fourth dimension. The perspective and views are so novel that my mind seems unsure just where to concentrate its senses. “Are you OK?” Leo hollers suddenly, shocking me into realising just how quiet it really is.
Embarking on a gentle turn we catch sight of another paraglider as it cruises elegantly past, the smile from its passenger acting like an expansive, toothy beacon. We follow the line of the mountain ridge and I become mesmerised by the endless pine trees sweeping by beneath us. And then, as the ridge drops away, we soar out over the valley, and the town of Zell am See, some 1000 metres below us. To quote a cliché, time flies and all too quickly the miniature world beneath us has regained its normal proportions and Leo is guiding us down into a field where my colleagues and a snow-cushioned landing await. My mind reluctantly accompanies my feet back to terra firma, though the effects of the adrenaline linger until we are sipping rum-enhanced hot chocolate in an Austrian après-ski a short while later.
It is here that Leo and his paragliding wingman Tom regale us with anecdotes of their airborne adventures. During the busy summer months they fly an average of five flights a day, each passenger paying €100 for the 20-minute privilege. Most of their passengers are English or German. The only difference,” Leo explains dolefully, “is that the Germans always complain about the price.” So just what is it that keeps him so enthralled with paragliding? “I enjoy having both the silence and the adrenaline,” he answers simply. “And, of course, there’s the scenery.” When I enquire about adverse passenger reactions, Leo simply chuckles, plunges one hand into each of his jacket’s pockets and withdraws a bottle of water and a packet of chewing gum. “If they throw up I give them water to rinse their mouths and then I offer them some gum,” he explains, though hastening to add that it is not a common occurrence. Nevertheless, I make a mental note to wear a hat when I next walk beneath paragliders.”