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Winter wonderland

November 6, 2012

Take off at Les Ruinettes

“Are you a skier or a boarder?” ask my new workmates as we mill about in Geneva airport waiting for the last of our team to land. Err, I’m a paraglider…

If I had any doubts about dropping everything to go to Switzerland for a season when I didn’t even know how to ski, they are dispelled within the first week as the long awaited snow starts to pour from the sky.   I can count the number of times I’ve seen more than a few centimetres of snow on one hand before, and the heaps of snow that appear each morning don’t seem to lose their magic even when you have to shovel them out the way to find the hot tub again.

The masses of snowdrifts provide a soft bailout from my inept skiing.   I wobble, totter, slide and end up in heaps whilst tiny children whizz past gracefully.

Mid January to March is dominated by sunshine with a fresh snowfall once a week or so.  More often than not I head out the door with a paraglider rather than my skis to play in the winter  sunshine.  This was what I went for,  I have left my flight deck at home and finally get the quality time with my glider I have longed for.  I’m averaging 3-5 days a week in the air all through winter, its a dream come true :).   There are often thermals, but I can’t really catch them.  This is not too stressful as I know I can try again in a hour, or tomorrow, or the day after…   In February the air temperature is -20 and once or twice I am almost in tears on the landing field from the pain of my frozen hands, but i’m still smiling from flying with the whole valley to myself.  I go to my wednesday afternoon seasonnaire ski lesson and gradually the skiing starts to improve too.  I realise through the skiing I’m a really slow learner and  I need to practice things a lot in a safe environment to gain my confidence, so I try and be patient with the flying, hoping it will at some point start coming together.   I head to the house thermal trigger point and find excuses to run away most days, but by the end of january I think I have at least cracked the pitch control during my spirals so I always land with a massive grin :).

There is so much to learn about the mountain weather so I study the sky, the forecasts, the pilots in the air, though I think it will take a lifetime to come close to understanding what is actually going on.  On the days I’m not sure about the flying,  I go skiing and head down to the bar by take off at the end of the day to check out who’s flying and ask them about the air.  The local pilots are so lovely and patiently answer my questions.   I love the fact that people just let me get on with flying here even though my skills are obviously inferior to most of them, though when I tripped over while taking off  three pilots were re-laying my wing by the time I was back on my feet, and the experienced pilots warn me to watch out for the valley winds today or tell me that friday is going to be the best day of the week.   I finally find the space I need to play without feeling watched here, and no matter how ridiculous the locals must think I am, they treat me with absolute kindness.

Finally going up!

Finally going up!

By the end of March I finally get some thermals in the valley.  My thermalling technique is pretty poor though my glider is more than game for it, and I’ve never made it very far above the treeline here, even in summer.  Now my glider is my friend and my legs aren’t shaking and with some helpful instructions about how to latch into the bottom section I finally make it.  There are 40 or so pilots scattered across the sky and its the most perfect day as I rise up level with Mont Fort and finally get to view the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc from the air glittering in the late afternoon sunshine – small steps forwards :).    My last flight in Verbier is on a thermic day into a reasonable valley wind and I feel happy. I understand my glider better now, and feel I can finally start to progress as a pilot again. Mission accomplished!

The awesome Ski verbier crew

In April the snow comes back and we are engulfed in clouds. I still go up most days, skiing in the white outs.  I’ve always thought there is a kind of introspective cosiness to not being able to see much.  Once or twice I turn onto the wrong piste off a lift or start to stray off the piste in really thick cloud – a reminder I still have so much to learn!   I also feel happy enough with my skiing to have my first time alone on the mogul fields of Mont Fort and Tortin when the sun comes back. My technique is still shocking, but it feels so good to be out on my own and feeling serene.  The guys in my company are awesome and introduce me to skiing (or rather falling over even more) off piste and in the trees :).  Now I finally understand why people love skiing, and begin to choose my skis over my paraglider to eke out the last of my winter!

I am heartbroken on my last day then Aurelia arrives and we head up to the slopes as it is too windy to fly.  The mountain is quiet, and everywhere there is powder.  It is so incredibly beautiful, and the skiing so wonderful that I can only feel happy. We end up bumping into a group of local pilots in the Pub and having an awesome random evening to top off a truly amazing season.

Sunset on the way to work

Perhaps its because the nights have drawn in and I’ve had to dig out my winter duvet or that I sometimes catch the scent of woodsmoke as I head home in the chill autumn dusk.  But, when I close my eyes now, all I can see are the mountains; heaped in pristine snow, or swirling with cloud, or starkly outlined against the starry sky, and I finally understand why people get really excited about winter.

I have absolutely no regrets about breaking the routine to chase my dreams last year and am reassured that if you do get a nagging feeling that there is something you have always wanted to do, then it is advisable to go for it.  This summer has been a shocker for flying in the Southwest, but I hope the things I learnt last winter have stayed with me and I’m also really excited about going on some ski trips soon now the snow has come back! 😀

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