Standing, frozen-still, my heart is pounding through my chest. At this elevation I can feel the thinness of the air, the cool breeze forcing my eyes shut to wet them. The silence is deafening. I open my eyes and look down the side of the mountain at the Google Earth view of the city below. My already booming heart seems to lose rhythm for a few beats. I’ve got to pull it together. I can’t go back down the way I came. I close my eyes and see…my mother? She’s on the ground below in a long white flowing gown, the wind lifting her shoulder-length blond hair; her comely face distorted in anguish. She reaches down and embraces the limp, broken body she gave birth to 45 years earlier and pulls me closer to her. I shake my head to clear the gruesome image.
Forty-eight hours earlier I was four days into a two-week cycling trip through the Swiss Alps and the Italian Lakes. The day’s ride was over and the ten of us, including my partner of 15 years, Damon, were laughing and talking over each other telling stories from the day. I remember the wine; a local red, full-bodied with a musky hint of oak. Few things satisfy more fully after a long bike ride than a shower, a thick medium-rare cut of meat, and a few glasses of good wine…the order in which you partake is not important.
With the bikes safely locked in the hotel basement a five-minute walk away, I was fairly certain my life-or-death decisions had already been made for the day. As such, I was on about my third glass of that tasty local red when Jimmy, one of the cycling guides, said to no one and everyone at the table, “Hey, you guys will be in Zermatt tomorrow—the Matterhorn…you should go paragliding. I’ve got some buddies I can call….” He kept talking, but my mind couldn’t get past that “p” word.
I tried to process Jimmy’s suggestion, laughing a little on the inside. Me? Paragliding? You mean the guy who doesn’t change light bulbs because his world starts wobbling uncontrollably above the second rung of a step ladder? You’ve got to be out of your freakin’ mind if you think I’m going to….
“Hey, that sounds like fun!” said Damon, silencing my inner dialog.
I turned to look at him just as the rest of our group was visually following the wine cork sailing across the table and bouncing off my shoulder, getting my attention as it was intended. I caught his eye… and then the smirk…the slight head tilt and, oh, god no…the raised eyebrows! I will never forgive you if you say…
“Let’s do it!” Damon said.
Shit. In a wave of perceived peer pressure not felt since I was dared to stick my tongue on the frozen tetherball pole in my elementary school back in Colorado, I responded, “Um…sure…sounds like, ah, fun.” It doesn’t count as a lie if you…what…cross something, right? I regretted my feeble affirmation the second it left my wine-stained lips. Just then the waiter appeared. Trying not to be too obvious, I picked up my nearly empty glass of courage, caught his eye, and tapped the rim for more.
The next morning we were the first to the hotel dining room. As we served ourselves the standard breakfast of coffee, bread, butter, Danish, yogurt, and Nutella, we were quietly wondering if we would be held to the previous night’s misplaced bravery. As we sat in silence, potential co-jumpers, Nick and Shelley, arrived and sat at a table next to us. “You guys still gonna go…you know…?” Shelly asked, unable to fully populate her question. Maybe, like ole’ Voldermort, paragliding is safe to talk about if you don’t actually use the word for “it-that-must-not-be-named.”
Before we had time to concoct a half-truth as to why none of us would be following through with our it-sounded-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time plan, Jimmy walked in and sat down between our two tables. “I need to confirm with the guys in Zermatt if you still want to go paragliding.” Oh geez, he said it… We all sat there and looked at each other for a bit too long. Finally, Shelly spoke up, “We’ll go if you guys go….” Five minutes later Jimmy was walking away from the table with his iPhone to his ear and a thumb’s up, mouthing “you’re gonna love it!”
The following morning in Zermatt, all five of the potential “jumpers” seemed a bit out of sorts. We acted excited on the outside, but I’m sure it was because none of us wanted to admit that it was a mistake….a burgundy colored, musky-oaky, tannin-laced mistake. After breakfast, we headed over to a small, dimly lit office behind a bustling market in the center of town. On one wall of the room were a couple of computer screens with videos of other idiots who got drunk and agreed to do this. Holy Mary mother of God…
We then met the group of overly tanned, wrinkled German thirty-somethings who would accompany us on our flight—literally, as they would be strapped to us, or we to them, however you want to look at it. We completed the paperwork and were each given an invoice for €125.00, though the money didn’t really matter. If I died, I wouldn’t miss it…if I lived, I’d be so happy, it would be worth every hard-earned, currency-converted penny.
At the top of the mountain, the five chutes were laid out, staggered on a sloping snowy ledge about the size of a soccer field. Already in my harness, my German was going over our instructions for the last time. In his heavy Inglorious-Bastards-meets-Hogan’s-Heroes German accent, he gave instructions I hoped I had heard correctly.
Glancing over at Damon, who was about 50 meters to the right and a little in front of me, I couldn’t believe what we were about to do. Just as I was searching for another silent-but-deadly expletive to lob his way for getting us into this mess, he turned his head in my direction. He looked a little….unsure? For the briefest moment I was happy because it was his fault we were there to begin with. But that feeling quickly faded because I love his guts and didn’t want to see them splattered all over the roof of a $400-a-night Swiss chalet with a random German guy (“So tell me, was Damon part German?” Um, eventually…). Our eyes locked briefly before his head was again facing forward. Seconds later the two of them initiated Damon’s launch sequence…run….stop….chute up….run….air.
A few minutes later and in sync with the next wind gust, the words hit my ears like shots from a 10mm Glock—“Gho…now!” I felt the German movement behind me and didn’t have time to consider not doing my part. I took a few steps and then… “Schtop!” my German ordered. I felt the chute pull my harness from behind and then up. Two to three seconds later he prompted again “Gho now…ron…ron….!” Hoping those wouldn’t be the last words I ever heard, I obeyed…running until my size 11 Adidas were off the ground. I pushed my butt back into the harness seat and suddenly felt a bit like I was at the top of a Ferris wheel…well, without the wheel, the ground, or the little cage thingy to keep me from falling out.
Finally…air born! I wasn’t sure exactly what I had expected. Actually, that’s not true, but since the chute didn’t collapse upon itself, throwing me to my death somewhere in downtown Zermatt, I was pleasantly surprised at how peaceful and beautiful everything was. So peaceful, in fact, that I was startled when my German spoke for the first time since leaving the ground. “Das iz da hotel ver you ahr schtaying.” he shouted over the wind, while motioning to one of the groups of buildings in the toy village below. I just nodded my head and with characteristic eloquence responded, “wow…cool.”
I couldn’t believe how relaxed I was—that is until I realized that if he was pointing at things, he didn’t have both hands on the steering pulleys. I closed my eyes and immediately saw the spiraling chute…the twisted strings…and my mother in her flowing gown holding the dead me in her arms. I turned my head and looked up at the dangling pulley handle. I shouted in his general direction, “shouldn’t you be holding both handles?” As he replied, “no, it’s OK…see?” he released the other handle and put both hands out in front of us.
Twenty minutes later our little joy ride was coming to an end. Zermatt was looking life-sized again as we glided towards an open field a couple hundred meters from the train station. The instructions for landing were even easier than takeoff, “Just start running when your feet hit the ground.” I was told…easy enough. No drama, no death and no motherly apparition waiting for me on the ground…it was a good day.
Once back on terra firma, and after unbuckling myself from my German, I walked over to where Damon was sitting on the ground. “Oh…my…God…that was amazing!” I said, having a hard time containing my excitement. He looked at me with a puzzled look, “You’re kidding…” he said, “and you’re going to tell me you weren’t scared?” I thought about it for a split second and answered, “No, my God I’d do it again in a second if we could.” It was at that point I realized what was happening. “What…? YOU were scared?” I asked. The look in Damon’s eyes made his spoken “yes” redundant. I smiled and gave a little tug on his crash helmet strap, trying not to betray my sudden sense of satisfaction. “Come on” I said, “Let’s go back to the hotel. I’m sure they’ve got a fine musky-oaky bottle of bad-ass with your name on it.”