I’m in Chamonix and the most adventurous thing I’ve done all summer is Paraglide down La Vallée Blanche. I know that for some people this would be an experience of a life time; running down a snow slope at full commitment, hoping your boots don’t slide and at the brow of the hill you feel that glorious feeling of lift and you’re up in the air flying through the mountains…
But everything is relative.
I saw crevasses from above in great detail, I whizzed past thousands of routes that would take a lifetime to climb. I saw summits I’d stood on years previously. I soared past rock architecture more magnificent than all the cathedrals in the world. I traveled the length of Le Mer de Glace in minutes not hours and I landed back in Chamonix 2000m lower than where we’d started, quite a few degrees warmer and psyched out of my mind. At last I got Jonny on the radio; true to his character of always being late it had taken him a few attempts to launch but now he’s finally in the air whooping like a mad man at the ecstasy of flight.
Jonny mid flight mildly psyched
Paragliding is a magical thing; it feels so wild yet at the same time so natural. No engines, no help from others, nothing artificial. Who knew that with just a piece of fabric above your head you can do so much and go so far?
Flying in Flatanger
After finally realising that I need to get my shoulder and body stronger by systematic physio and training (versus my usual approach which is to cure everything by going on climbing adventures) I resigned myself to a summer of training, mostly inside. Luckily for me I can do that anywhere. Chamonix is great because you have good indoor climbing facilities but you also have ridiculously easy access to the mountains. I get incredibly low if I can’t be outside. It’s a sort of special gift and also a handicap to have lived a life outside. If you were to put me in an office now, I’d be sure to shrivel up and die.
Saint-Hilaire: amazing for climbing and flying but mostly has the nicest sounding place name in the world
Since I have never done any structured training and I have next to no clue about how to get stronger safely I employed the resources of Tom Randal. I’ve been doing his training for a few months now (or as much as I can) and it’s been pretty interesting. I think the most valuable thing I’ve learnt so far is that instead of waiting for bits of your body to stop hurting, you can work around them. I’ve been clinging on to this notion that I should be injury free and one day that will happen. After accepting that the likelihood of this is minimal I’ve become way happier about my injuries and way more productive with my time. With the attitude of just ‘getting on with it’ I have seen myself improve on all fronts: less pain, more strength, more happiness.
Yes I crossed to the dark side
It certainly has been hard to throw away perfect weather days in the mountains to go into the sweaty climbing gym and lap boulder problems. This is not my idea of climbing. And yet I’ve come to realise that all I want to do in climbing, will be come to me sooner with this approach. But I needed a cure for adventure withdrawals and flying has filled this gap. Unless you’re doing epic hike and flies or you have a hic up, flying has next to no impact on your body, so it’s the perfect restful yet adventurous activity.
Chamonix the adventure play ground
I’m still an absolute beginner and have no idea what I’m doing. This feeling of being unsure all the time has made me quite scared of flying at times. A nasty wing collapse too early in my flying life probably didn’t help. It’s been really interesting applying what I’ve learnt (and now teach) about mental training for climbing to flying. I’ve found that once I’m engaged in the challenge I’m OK, I can deal with the stress of being in the air and not knowing what I’m doing. I never freeze up or panic. Yet my main difficulty is engaging in the challenge to begin with. So many days I’ve been ‘too busy’ to fly, or ‘the conditions aren’t good’ or ‘I need to train’. Little excuses persuading myself not to fly that day.
It’s weird when the thing that holds you up doesn’t hold you up anymore
When I teach fall practice to climbers who are scared of falling I have to be careful to make sure their positive experience of climbing outweighs their negative experience. For me the negative experience of almost dying paragliding almost outweighed all the positive experiences (which are few since I just started flying). This coupled with the negative experience of handing over money for all the gear at one point nearly made me quit. I know that with climbing I have had so many positive experiences (millions) I can’t imagine a negative one ever being big enough to cancel them all out. Hopefully I’ll never need to think about that.
So right now I’m growing my muscles and I’m growing my positive experiences of flying, because really the dream of climbing something cool and flying off the top is too beautiful and too possible.
Thanks to Tom Randall for helping me get strong, Pablo Scorza for helping to heal my shoulder and Jonny Baker for helping me get in the air.
Of course there have been some climbing adventures
It’s been great fun getting involved in the development of the bouldering here in Cham - world class for sure
Fantastic little blog hazel! I love that you’re taking up paragliding to compliment your love of the outdoors. I too have just started paragliding this year as i was feeling a bit burnt out on climbing and needed a new adventure activity to distance myself from it for a while. You’re always a fantastic source of inspiration to me! I was the guy starting to lead my friend up ‘bard’ at mount arapiles when you and cedar rocked up to solo it a couple of years back. I still have a grainy photo of you guys soloing up above me and its one of my favourites.
Great write up Hammy. Collapses are pretty scary, and can hit you out of the blue, When it gets rough. keep quite a lot of brake on, and watch the wing. Keep an even pressure on. If it goes back in a mess, hands up, then be ready to hit the brakes when it reinflates. If it goes forward, lift off brake. Just keep the wing above your head.
Best is do an SIV course in Annecy. That will sort you out as your wing is very benign. Flyeo are really good and you could probably wangle a discount if you present yourself as a superstar, and smile sweetly All the best!