My month-long trip to Switzerland can be summarized with a mere two-word mantra: why not? But I never knew that this phrase would lead me to jump off the Niederhorn, 1950 meters in elevation, with a hang glider in hand.
The hang gliding venture was conceived during sunset at Hotel Gloria in Beatenberg. My rosé perfectly paired with the pink peaks in the distance, I was joined by the hotel owner, Jackie. I told her about my lovely day trip to Lauterbrunnen. And about how curious I was about those tiny specks attached to billowing parachutes I saw among the clouds on the horizon.
“Do you like doing things like that?” Jackie asked, as her eyes narrowed a bit. I had a feeling I knew where this conversation was going.
Flying in the air, jumping off cliffs, skydiving, and all other things that I would fit under the category of “Like That” weren’t in my repertoire. I told her I didn’t know, but I’d be curious to find out.
I was getting used to saying “yes” to the types of experiences I just couldn’t run into in my life in San Francisco. It was almost like letting the universe dictate my life with a random generator.
“Operate a tractor and stack towers of wood like a giant Jenga game” was a recent pick, as was “Try Schnapps in coffee one morning, for tradition’s sake.”
Jackie went on to marvel about her love for hang gliding with her Aussie friend Bernie of Hang Gliding Interlaken who’s been in business for over 15 years. She then offered to give him a call to see if I could fly with them one morning.
“Ok! Sounds good,” was all I could really say, and I tried to hide my nervousness with a casual tone.
Agree now and think later was my approach. I knew if I processed this offer beyond the “cool opportunity” category in my head, I’d back out and say no. So I trusted Jackie’s glowing review and let the rest follow.
Mentally preparing for the hang gliding flight
The following morning I was writing to distract myself from the tremor in my hands, which partially came from a restless night’s sleep and from nervously sipping too much coffee at breakfast. The two hang gliding pilots arrived at the hotel, and before I could look up, Bernie greeted me with a jump scare.
I felt myself relax and ease into laughter with the two at the breakfast table. There was even a brief “hello” to Bernie’s toad key chain, followed up with an introductory course on how and why some toads turn into keychains in Australia.
I felt I was in good company.
We loaded up in the van and drove a few minutes to arrive at the Beatenberg station, where my pilot, Luke, tied down the gear onto one of the gondola’s racks. Luke (1.95 m) and I (1.78 m) are both decently tall. But next to the massive casing that carried the contents of what would be our hang glider, we looked short.
At the time, I didn’t really understand how big of a deal this launch would be until we were on our way up. This is when Bernie and Luke described that they traditionally take people on a grassy slope halfway up the mountain, a place with plenty of room to run for momentum.
They rarely agree to do the Niederhorn route on request. Not only because their typical route is perfectly exhilarating and incredible on its own, but because they are frequently booked with up to nine rides a day. Hoisting all that equipment up and down a mountain is no easy task.
But they had a free day, so I was to fly into oblivion off a wooden ramp, with only a few steps to give myself enough momentum.
In short, my first flight was to be two times higher, rarer, and crazier than what is typically an already life-changing experience for many people. I didn’t know if I should consider myself lucky or doomed.
Bernie said not to worry because I only need to focus on two things: running fast and looking good. Done and done.
Meet HANG GLIDER (that’s me!)
And so the work began. We started assembling the glider, but the only raincloud in a 100-kilometer radius decided to loom right over the Niederhorn.
Despite the intensifying rain, a loyal audience developed around us while we assembled the glider. A unanimous grumble of disappointment came from our soggy friends when we walked away from the glider to wait inside for better conditions.
My heart sank a little. I began to feel a sense of urgency to fly into the air, despite the obvious bad weather and the fact that I technically didn’t owe a thing to the strangers waiting outside.
I just didn’t want them to give up on us. Because oddly enough, their presence reminded me that I was no longer just absorbing the magic of the Bernese Oberland region, but I was playing an active role in it. Hang gliders, paragliders, and other friends of the sky make the views that much more special for those who admire from the ground, and I know this because I’ve been in their shoes before.
I was now HANG GLIDER, my identity shielded by a striped helmet and reflective shades, and I became a part of their memories just by agreeing to strap into a majestic-looking blue and red structure. I was to be their speck in the air, and I felt determined to keep up this unspoken, self-proclaimed prophecy.
A quick lesson about thermals in hang gliding
Wind strength and direction are usually big factors in hang gliding, Luke told me. But the altitude in the Bernese Oberland region is what makes it a notoriously great spot for air sports: winds don’t need to be strong to fly long, as thermals are everywhere.
Thermals, I learned that morning, are essentially columns of lifting air formed by the sun warming the ground beneath them. Luke told me that hang gliding is like “playing chess in the air,” because pilots are hopping from thermal to thermal in order to sustain their flight and gain elevation.
Then Luke told me something I found inquisitively contradictory. He doesn’t consider himself to be a daredevil. And he even said that he’s a little afraid of heights, even though he probably spends as much time in the air as he does on land.
To Luke, hang gliding is not a risk, but a sport backed by intrinsic navigation skills and science.
Switzerland has some of the strictest conditions to be considered a qualified hang gliding pilot. And after maneuvering the skies for 11 years, the rules of the air are second nature to Luke. (Though he still jokes that he has a 50 percent success rate on his flights.)
Even when he’s not flying, he frequently looks towards the clouds and thinks about how he would fly in the current conditions. He lives vicariously through the fliers who are up there when he’s not. Birds too, because they also use thermals in order to fly.
Don't stop me now! I’m hang gliding off the Niederhorn!
We passed the time with French fries and hot chocolate. After the rain had ceased, Bernie and Luke deemed the conditions good enough to fly. As we didn’t know when we would get our chance again, things suddenly moved quickly.
“Don’t Stop Me Now,” blared from Luke’s speaker, per my request, and it was time to launch.
“Ready?” Luke asked. I was able to mutter an unconvincing “yeah,” though admittedly I don’t think I could ever really say “I’m ready” to jump off a mountain.
My feet hit the wooden panels seemingly on their own, running because they knew there was no other option. I was still kicking and flailing around well after we launched into the sky.
At first, I was holding onto Luke for dear life, hyperventilating and saying a lot of “omigods” … until I wasn’t. Freddie Mercury’s voice faded, and a calm feeling washed over me.
I was in the clouds, which is a frequent daydream of mine when I look out from a plane window. I did it, I survived, and now I was able to see expansive forests, Lake Thun, and all of Interlaken below me.
We even had a full-fledged photoshoot to celebrate.
Eventually, we gracefully slid onto the landing field. Though it felt so good to feel the ground beneath me again, another feeling hit me: I want to go again.
That same night, I was wearing my Hang Gliding Interlaken T-shirt as a badge of honor.
And I dreamed of flying.