Altitude 2012: 25th March

In the morning I did indeed have a slow start and was down at the Europahaus again by about ten. They were open but the office wasn’t because the person who had the key hadn’t turned up. The nice Irishman behind the counter told me to come back in half an hour so I went to the station, with the intention of booking a ticket for the steam train on Friday. The steam train doesn’t run until May. I went back. I was presented with a packet of vouchers and I had a white and blue wristband fastened on me. And I do mean fastened. It looks like a ribbon and it’s held on by a big silver bead. It felt a bit loose and a bit insecure, so I pushed the bead up to tighten it, only to find it’s got something inside it that means it won’t slide down. Fortunately, it wasn’t cutting-off-hand tight but I do wish I’d left it alone.

I decided to make the most of my Sunday. I’d go up the mountain. I exchanged a voucher for a lift pass and up I went. I’ve been up it once before, in high summer, several years ago. I remember that the gondolas go very high over the road. What I wasn’t expecting was to get over the mountain top and find a second, even deeper valley behind it. Up we went, towards a pretty sheer cliff face, over the top of that and finally the landscape opened up, into this vast, gently sloping winter wonderland. I hopped out and slithered out into the snow. This is the Penken.

At the top of the Penkenbahn is a vast open area of snow I came to call the runway. It’s at the bottom of a couple of red runs coming from the very top and it’s smooth and flat and skiers come straight off the run and whizz across it either to the cafes and bars or back to the lift. I wandered, taking in the view, trying not to get in the way of fast-moving people on skis and snowboards. Then I spotted a cabin. Tandem paraglide flights. And they had a sign saying “Book here now!” I stopped and stared at it. It was something I’d been planning to do; it was something I’d been looking forward to doing. Booking right there at the cabin on the mountain seemed easier than hunting down the tourist information and trying to book through them. I hovered and then approached to ask how much it was. I nodded, said I’d be back later and wandered off. Then I looked at the sky. It was a beautiful clear day, blue sky, hot, amazing. It occurred to me that by Tuesday, which was when I planned to do it, it might have clouded over and I might hugely regret not doing this right away. I went back.

Somehow, despite those thoughts, I hadn’t actually been expecting to jump off a mountain right away but two minutes later, I found myself with a parachute on my back, getting on a gondola to the top station. Ten minutes later, I was attached to a harness, with a German strapped to me, tied by a few bits of string to a big hanky.

“Ready?” he asked. I looked at the edge of the mountain about ten feet in front of me.

“No.”

He peered round at me, surprised. “No? Yes, I think you are.”

On the count of three, we ran. Or he ran. I waddled because I’m not very good at running, especially when I’ve got a harness flapping around my knees. And then we were in the air.

I’d been looking forward to this for weeks but once I found myself in the air, I remembered that I’m not a huge fan of heights. Being a couple of thousand feet up in the air, with my life completely in a stranger’s hands and nothing between me and certain death but a bit of string and a parachute, I was suddenly petrified. I sat there in total silence, quivering, trying to relax and enjoy it. We swooped down over the middle station, over the runway and headed straight for the gondola lines. I braced myself for entanglement and death. We circled away from there, now heading for the sheer cliff edges. Gradually I realsed that we were circling upwards, higher and higher, using the wind and the thermals to soar like birds. Gradually I began to relax and enjoy the flight. I also realised that I hadn’t brought enough warm clothes to be flying like this. I’d come up in a long-sleeved t-shirt and a thin fleece. Paragliders look so serene but the wind howls when you’re actually up there. I hugely regretted turning down the pilot’s offer of gloves. Fortunately, he realised my hands were freezing and he gave them to me in mid-air, keeping hold of them until they were safely on my hands and not dropped into the valley so far below. Now, he said, I could concentrate on enjoying the flight and not on getting frostbite. We soared, we circled, we were right up above where we’d started. The pilot took photos of us flying and then said “Screaming is allowed, you know.” I was confused. I’d been scared for the last twenty minutes but I hadn’t felt the need to scream and I couldn’t see why I would suddenly want to. Until he pulled his lines and we went into a really tight corkscrew downwards, the sort that flips a paraglider out horizontally. I shrieked and begged him to stop and he laughed and kept going.

I know I sound like I spent most of that in mortal terror but I actually really enjoyed it and was disappointed when he finally said we had to land. He’d already offered to stop if I was too scared but I’d been determed – no, keep flying for as long as we can. We landed in a roped off bit of field near the runway. I had to keep my feet up so the pilot could land us and then promptly landed in knee-deep snow from which my poor pilot had to haul me, giggling and full of adrenaline and delighted. Of course, the problem came when it came to paying. He hadn’t taken any money off me before we went up and afterwards, it transpired that although they could take cards, they would prefer cash. I didn’t have enough cash. That’s ok, he said. You can pay tomorrow when you come to collect your photos. I descended, fetched warm clothes, found a cashpoint and went back up. My pilot was no longer at his cabin so I paid his colleagues and then took myself back to the top station. Up there I felt even more in the way of the skiers than I had earlier and concluded that the mountaintop really isn’t a place for a pedestrian.

My next trip was to the top of the Ahorn, via the huge modern cablecar that runs from the very top of the high street, over the bridge. They’d kept a single ski run open right from the top to the valley station, a narrow tongue of snow only about twenty feet wide by the time it reached the village.

The top was agonisingly bright. The view was amazing but even with my polarised sunglasses on, my retinas were getting burnt out and it was far too hot. I took some photos, descended and went to get my snowboard, since it seemed easier than having to get up extra early on Monday.

There were a few other people in there, also with Altitude vouchers and by method of knowing my shoe size in European, I managed to get out first, even though I was brought two boots in different sizes, one a US 5.5, the other a US8. I didn’t realise at first – I thought it was just that my feet aren’t quite the same size. But the left one was definitely painfully too small so I took them both off and explained that one didn’t fit. It was then noticed that they were different, I got two matching ones which fitted nicely, then a board which was set up for a goofy-footer and despite being third in the queue, I got out first by quite a long way.

I took my board and boots, with the boots strapped to the board and the whole contraption weighing a ton, back to my guesthouse, put them away in my boot room and headed back out again. I can’t remember exactly where I went but I know that I spotted the two from the shop walking down the road towards me. I think I went to the Spar. I do remember being surprised that the one food shop in the entire town was open Sunday evening but not Sunday afternoon.

Sunday night I discovered just how hot and sunny mountains are. I’d got my face a bit pink. Not too much but enough to feel hot and need to put cold water on it.

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