For kids that love to learn
For kids that love to learn
Hi kids. Here is another adventure story for kids that love to learn. I learned a lot in my travels and now I would like to share those experiences with you. That’s me in the picture above and below is one of my stories.
Wind Riders of the Alps
A big smile came across my face as I read Michelle’s email response, in part, be- cause it was in English. Don’t get me wrong; I’m no stranger to the foreign tongue. Having traveled on six continents I have experienced many languages. At one time I knew how to say “straw” in three different dialects of Spanish. In Switzerland though, they speak Swiss- German, a bit different from the High German I learned in high school. The Alpine Center’s web page was available in several languages so I didn’t know what to expect from my inquiry.
Michelle’s response was simple and to the point, “Sure, we would love to take you.” To most people this would be a simple affirmation, but to me it all but assured a successful adventure. In any out- door adventure there are several variables - the weather, the equipment, and the people. I could only prepare for any eventuality in weather. The equipment they used was professionally made and used many times by these pilots so I was confident it was appropriate for my adventure. The most important variable is people. If the people in- volved are competent and willing then the adventure is almost an assured success. It reminded me of the time I sailed on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. The Captain said, “This ship isn’t equipped for a wheelchair, but if you’re keen on going, we’re keen on taking you.” I had emailed Michelle and told her I was paralyzed from the shoulders on down and wanted to go paragliding. I asked her if that was possible. So when she responded, “Sure, we would love to take you.” I knew my adventure had a great start.
A paraglider closely resembles a parachutes but with a lighter construction. It does not have to deal with the sudden opening shock. Paragliders have gliding characteristics and are controllable by use of cords which are held in the pilot's hand as he sits in the harness. Typically, paragliders are launched from slopes at, or close to, the summit of hills.
After a lengthy plane ride, we arrived in Zurich. I called Michelle from my hotel in Zurich. I told her I was about to leave Zurich, heading for Interlaken. It would be a two-hour train ride. The Swiss are very punctual when it comes to trains. I also knew my hotel in Interlaken was in walking distance from the train station. I reasoned I could be checked into my new hotel by one o’clock and therefore asked Michelle to have someone from Alpine Center pick me up at that time. The folks from the Alpine Center were right on time. I wasn’t however. It seems my idea of accessibility differed greatly from that of the hotel manage- ment. I had to deal with that before leaving.
James and Peter introduced themselves, each provid- ing a warm smile and a hardy handshake. They told me we were going to pick up another pilot and passen- gers before heading up to the top of the mountain. Our little van was soon loaded with pilots, passengers, equipment, and of course, my wheelchair.
Dino was the emcee. He entertained all of us while informing us about what we were about to experience. As the van, and its passengers, swayed from side to side, struggling to make it up the steep mountain road, Dino prepared us for our adventure.
When we reached the mountaintop we were unceremoniously unloaded from the van and directed to our take-off station. It was a setting taken out of almost any Switzerland tour guide. We were high on a mountain, with the city of Interlaken nestled below us and the distant mountains. On a clear day, one can look across this great expanse to see the Eiger. The Eiger is a popular interna- tional climbing destination. It was in a movie entitled, “The Eiger Sanction” starring Clint East- wood. I was ushered to a taped off area at the top of a very steep hill. Behind me was a traditional alpine cabin, with several others close by.
As Laurence wheeled me to our appointed take-off spot, I realized it was too dangerous to keep my wheels on. One false move and I would disappear down the steep grassy slope. I immediately asked Laurence to take the wheels off the back of my wheelchair. Part of learning to live in a wheelchair is learning to get around without wheels.
I really needed the back sup- port my chair provided but the wheels sometimes get in the way. I took my rear wheels off to sit on the bow of a boat while on a jungle river tour in Costa Rico, I took them off to fit my chair in many small boats, including the famous long-tail boats of Thailand made famous in James Bond movies, I even took my wheels off to ride on an Elephant in Thailand.
I didn’t have long to relax though in my wheel-less chair. I was given a helmet while Dino and Peter un- packed the para-glider – my taxi to the clouds. This gave me a chance to make my own preparations. I enjoy documenting adventure sports and travel for people with disabilities. To that end, I had just ac- quired my newest toy – Adventure Cam II from Vio- sports. It was a camera lenses about the length of a Zippo lighter and twice as thick. I asked Laurence to fasten it to my helmet. It was then attached to my mini-DV recorder which was eventually placed in a special “cargo” bag attached to the harness of the paraglider. No sooner was it stowed away than I was lifted up by a couple of the pilots.
Satisfied that the harness and rigging were correctly in place, everyone took a step forward. The paraglider ballooned open. Another two steps and we were airborne. It was as if were we being gently lifted by a giant hand. In a matter of seconds we were hundreds of feet above the Swiss Alps. We were moving slowly yet it sounded like the wind was whistling through our canopy at 80 miles an hour.
I was afraid the wind would tangle our canopy and we would plunge to the ground. Peter was a great pilot though so I was safe. Later, I learned that Peter recently placed second in international paragliding competition. I wasn’t seated in the harness very well though and was a little uncomfortable. Peter kept trying to reposition me to make me comfortable but it was just too difficult to do while in the air. Peter flew us all over the hillside and city. The thermals kept us airborne for quite awhile and I enjoyed every minute of it.
As we began to descend Peter asked me if I wanted to do a stunt. I gave an enthusiastic “Abso- lutely!”. Peter steered the para- glider in a circle, spinning us around, that caused me to be thrown towards the outside of the circle. It was a lot of “G” force. I started to feel sick but then Peter brought us out of the spin and landed us safely.
Paragliding is quite different from sky diving. I’ve gone sky diving several times and we were never able to manipulate our chutes like these paragliders. Sky divers descend almost straight down, with some sideways movement, depending on the wind. Paragliders though, look for thermals and steer into them. They can’t really see the thermals but rather figure out where they should be. Thermals are bubbles of rising air. Thermals are caused by heated air on the ground being abnormally hot- ter than the air above. They “break” off of any pointed object, as small as a shrub. Paragliders are taught – turn the ground upside down after a rainstorm and anywhere water would drip off is where thermals rise. They might extend all the way from the ground to a cloud or they might be just a bubble. A lava light provides a good exam- ple as the rising lava in the light is nothing more than a thermal.
If a thermal bubble leaves the ground and rushes up in a column of air, there is a void that must be filled - with the same amount of air going down or sideways outside the thermal as is going up in the thermal. Again, think of the lava light – as the lava rises, the oil fills the void where the lava was.
In paragliding, you know you are about to enter a thermal when you start to feel turbulence or even go down a bit. You actually judge your angle of attack into the thermal by looking at how the wing turns as you enter it. If your wing flies straight but surges back evenly, you entered it straight on. If your wing turns, part of your wing hit the thermal first causing the turn. If your wing surges forward, you probably just left the thermal.
After landing, Laurence and I took a walking tour of Interlaken. It is incredibly quiet and peaceful. There was almost no car traffic. The town is spilt in two by a glacier fed stream which had a distinct “glacier” hue. Lake Brienzersee and Interlaken Ost are to the east, Lake Thunersee and Interlaken West to the west. The town is situated on the Bödeli, a small alluvial neck of land between the Thunersee and Brienzersee. It’s one of the oldest resorts in the country, famed for its superb views towards the Jungfrau massif, which lies perfectly framed between two hills to the south of town.
We dropped off some film to be developed, then stopped at the Alpine Center to regale Michelle with our adrenaline filled escapades. It turns out the Alpine Center was within walking distance of our hotel. We had a scenic walk back to our hotel then went out to eat some delicious sausage.
The next day I flew with Stephan. Stephan is also a world class paraglider. He set a distance re- cord, in Spain, of 197 kilometers and was in the air for more than 8 hours. The day I flew with Stephan there were a lot of paragliders in the air but the thermals weren’t very good. We couldn’t stay airborne as long as I wanted but it was long enough for Stephan to take some good pictures. We couldn’t do any stunt but still had a good time. As we descended over town Stephan steered us toward a soccer field. Paragliders love soccer fields – they provide a relatively soft landing zone without creating thermals. We came down at about a 40 degree angle. Someone was waiting to catch me. Just before landing Stephan flared the chute and we floated to the ground for a perfect landing.
If you would like to go paragliding with world class people, you can make arrangements through the Alpine Center in Switzerland. Send mail addressed to:
Alpin Center Interlaken Beim Bahnhof
Their phone is 033 823 55 23
Or send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit them on the web at: http://www.alpincenter.ch/en,summer,paragliding.html
1. Which countries surround Switzerland?
2. What languages do they speak in Switzerland?
3. What are thermals?
4. Where would you expect to find them?
5. How would you know if you found one?
6. Why would you find thermals on streets but not soccer fields?
7. Where does the water come from that feeds the lakes and rivers in Interlaken? 8. Why don’t paragliding chutes have to be as strong as parachutes?
In 1797 Andrew Garnerin was the first person recorded to jump with a parachute without a rigid frame. Garnerin jumped from hot air balloons as high as 8,000 feet in the air.
The first paraglider wasn’t invented until the 1960’s.