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BOTTOMS UP

BY ALAN BEHR

"She looks eager this morning," said the Englishman of my wife. "They're all so damned eager, aren't they?"

Seeing the Englishman again meant it was breakfast time. With the leisurely confidence of a gardener assembling a bouquet, I should be filling my plate at the buffet, as was he. Instead, I was so obviously rushed, the Englishman-a thin, gray-haired man from Bristol-took pity on me. "Came all the way to Zermatt for a holiday, did you? Expected to ski enough to get the blood going, then spend the afternoon in the sauna and bars?"

"My wife won't hear of it," I said. "On the slopes by nine, back at five, like any workday. At least at my desk, I get to sleep now and then."

"That's easily solved," said the Englishman, narrowing his brows. "I've engaged a ski instructor for the wife for half the day. I've got the entire morning off."

I thought about that as I wolfed down breakfast, then again as my wife commanded "Come on already!" and once more as, outside, I saw the Englishman's wife grinning at her instructor and the Englishman walking toward town, grinning even more.

That afternoon, I called the ski school and booked my wife a half-day private lesson. "I thought you needed more work on shoulder placement," I explained. Then I said I wouldn't be coming along.

"And what are you going to do with your free time?" asked my wife, who is thin, pretty and named Julie.

Free time! In a rush, the idea came to me: "I'm going to do something I've never done on a ski trip."

"You're washing the underwear?"

"I'm going paragliding," I announced.

The next morning, dining leisurely on extra buffet courses, I entrusted Julie to her instructor. "I'd walk you out," I said, "but my eggs will grow cold and the Champagne will warm. You'll be looking up as I fly overhead, won't you?"

Julie offered a single parting endearment. "You're an idiot."

*****

I explained my purpose to the desk clerk at our hotel. A student from Freiburg, Germany, she gave me the Teutonic version of an encouraging send-off: "Sometimes, when they fly overhead, on soft and spreading wings, you can hear the screams."

At the base of the Sunnegga funicular, Bruno Schmid of Air-Taxi was waiting with his partner, Daniel Behling. Television cameras were following them adoringly. "We're just finishing taping," said Bruno with the nonchalance of a man who, by virtue of his unique sport, has appeared on television often. He hoisted a large backpack across his shoulders. I assumed it contained a spare harness, with perhaps a bit of room for lunch. We all boarded the funicular.

  Bruno, thirty-six, wore shiny, cool-dude sunglasses. He was rugged enough, not a large man, but muscular and trim. He carried himself with the jocular, amused air of a man who lives on the edge and has learned to control his frustrations with those who don't. From his banter with his partner, you could imagine how World War I fighter pilots-who had life spans measurable in weeks-must have sounded before a sortie.

"This television crew is from Germany," said the partner.

"A contest," added Bruno. "They find a man who is terrified of heights. They pay him seventy-seven thousand deutsche marks if he flies with me. Yesterday, we go up, and a camera on the glider faces the man. Before we go, the producer says to me, 'If he doesn't look scared enough, do some hard turns.'"

Both men roared with laughter. "Did he win?" I asked.

"He made it down--with his eyes closed."

Louder laughter.

"That's not the best of it," said Bruno. "They had another man who was so afraid of water, he wouldn't stick his head under when in the bath. You should see what they did to him with a helicopter and a hole cut into the ice on the frozen lake." Bruno interrupted his laughter to give me a hard look. "Maybe you don't want to know."

*****

It's takes three lifts to ascend the Rothorn, 10,178 feet over sea level, 4,864 feet over Zermatt and a long, lateral distance away from anywhere flat and safe. It had taken an eternity to come up here on ski days, but this ascent seemed to happen in seconds.

From his backpack, Bruno pulled out a harness for himself, one for me, and a shiny, green bicycle helmet. By my rough calculations, that left 13.32 square inches of backpack, but I already had a nasty suspicion which Bruno now confirmed. He pulled out what looked like a white silk bedsheet from which dangled double rows of comically thin, florescent green and pink cords, fastened at the ends by steel clamps. "That's it?" I asked.

"What more should there be?" asked Bruno, throwing out the cords along the snow. Seeing how these were, quite literally, the very strings from which my life would hang, whole catalogues of safer, more solid objects presented themselves to my imagination.

I tossed a Leica around my neck and strapped another to my wrist. Bruno belted the harness to my legs and waist and stuck the helmet on my head. For a windsock, he stuck a lighted Marlboro into the air. "Good," he said. "We fly now."

The next thing I knew, Bruno was breathing nicotine down my neck, fastened to my back. It was time, at last, for my first paragliding lesson. "Take three short steps, then one long step, then one short," said Bruno. "Don't sit down." Lesson over. "Ready? One, two, three!"

  Hunched over, I stumbled three quick steps, then it seemed as if all forces of nature had combined to hold me in place. I didn't know it, but the white bedsheet had become a wing, rising above us, filling with cold, Alpine air.

"Don't sit!" said Bruno. Instinctively, when I'd felt myself drawn up and back by the rush of wind into the airfoil, I had tucked in my legs. I stretched them, tried those final two steps, but the ground had fallen away.

"Okay, we're up," said Bruno.

Up indeed. We'd slid of the side of an Alp, its slope of snow, ice and rock slipping rapidly behind us. Take off, when it had come, hadn't been with the bang I'd expected, but with a smooth, efficient glide. I'd once ridden in a blimp, which made you feel buoyant, as if you weren't flying through the air but floating it. The paraglider was definitely cutting through the air, like an airplane, but without an engine. Or landing gear, or flaps, or a rudder, or seats, or anyone in apparent control except Aeolus, the king of the winds. I looked down. My legs dangled with absurd uselessness over snow-covered earth. We were level with mountain peaks, flying among them like a bird coasting by treetops.

The sun glinted from Bruno's cool-dude shades. He looked as content as a fisherman returned to the sea. "This is why I gave up skiing twelve years ago," he said. "Too boring. Too dangerous."

Skiers, those complacent daredevils, were now appearing below our feet. Way below.

"Let's see if we can bother a few," said Bruno, and pulling on a lanyard attached to the left of the airfoil, steered us west, over the white slopes which skiers traversed, over the fresh powder of morning rising in sugar puffs behind them. The Matterhorn, looming straight ahead, looked like the Sphinx, broken nose and all, studying our approach.

"The highest I've flown in a tandem glider is 4570 meters," said Bruno. "That's higher than the Matterhorn." Here Bruno parted company with many World War I pilots. 4,570 meters (nearly 15,000 feet) is higher than the service ceiling of the Fokker Eindecker, the fighter that ruled the skies of 1915. "Are you okay on roller coasters?" asked Bruno.

"Sure," I said, forgetting that I wasn't.

"Okay, we try something."

You know that scene where the World War I flying ace shoots his opponent to pieces and the plane spirals into No Man's Land? We now played the part of losing aviators. When we righted ourselves, my feet, barely adjusted to hanging purposely below me, were on the horizontal, neatly framing the Matterhorn. My stomach was still in a death spiral.

"Fantastic, wasn't that?" said Bruno. "We pulled over 2.5Gs. Now we do the wing over."

"What's that?"

We were about two hundred of feet over everything, and everything was suddenly two hundred feet over us. I wouldn't suggest that I closed my eyes and prayed for an ejection seat, but it I didn't actually see that Bruno had flipped us above the airfoil, until feet, legs and ass were getting an unexpected amount of extra sun. By the time we had crawled back below the wing, like a naughty dog retreating under a table, I was feeling far more nostalgic for planet earth than I'd been since first I saw it.

Bruno, meanwhile, had become a tour guide. "That's the Matterhorn of course, and Monte Rosa over to the left, and there, you see it? That's the Fluhalp. A really good restaurant."

"Thank you, for the recommendation, Bruno," I said, "but I'm not really hungry right now."

We flew over an expanse of snow and then Zermatt, blue under the long shadow of morning, abruptly appeared beneath us, its tidy chalets facing danger from above. Would I really throw up over a spotless Swiss town? Lesser crimes had made it into the local papers. "How long does the fun continue?" I asked.

"Maybe twenty minutes. My record flight is six and one-half hours, with a Greek fellow, over Crete. I called him and said, 'We go up. You bring the food and wine.' What a day!"

Reflexively, the turpentine smell of Greek retsina wine filled my nostrils. My hand was clamped over my mouth when Bruno asked, "You want to fly?" He positioned my hands on the lanyards and guided them in slight left and right turns. Perhaps he sensed my lack of athletic zest because he quickly said, "Okay, that's enough," and took control himself.

"Where do we land?" I asked.

"You see the open area above the train station?" In the far distance, on a rise abutting a latticework of railroad tracks, was a small, flat tuft of snow.

"Here comes Elmar for a landing," said Bruno. Below us, to our left, a purple paraglider was heading the same way. Figures. I was 3,935 miles from New York City, spending close to four dollars a minute to hang from a bedsheet with a Swiss lashed to my back, and I still had to fight for a parking space. "Elmar has less experience, so we land first," Bruno said. "We must make a few turns-" And with that, he put our rig into another death spiral.

"That's better," said Bruno when he pulled us out of the spin. "Elmar is fifty-nine years old, and a pupil of mine. He rode his bicycle from Düsseldorf a few summers ago take his lessons. Seven-hundred kilometers. That's dangerous."

"Taking lessons at his age?"

"No, riding a bicycle. On the land, things are dangerous. You're only safe up here. Nothing happens to you when you fly."

It was my distinct impression that plenty was happening, but my twenty minutes were just about up. The tuft of snow above the train tracks hove into view. "Legs out a little," said Bruno. The ground came closer, and before I knew it, I was on my knees, both Leicas lying in the snow and Bruno lying top of me.

Bruno said solicitously, "Are the cameras okay?"

"Yes. I'm doing okay too."

"Sorry. You can stand?"

I stood. Elmar Kremers, the overaged apprentice from Düsseldorf, landed a few paces off. He was affable and portly, with a large, blond-white mustache and a vigorous smile framing scraggly teeth. He was a technical applications director who, by every appearance except for his jumpsuit, could have been any German businessman whose biggest thrill is speeding along the autobahn. He spoke with almost spiritual affection for Bruno and the sport he had learned from his master. "Magnificent to fly like this, isn't it?"

Bruno came up, the paraglider and its accoutrements magically restored to the backpack. "I have to make my next appointment," he said. In the air, Bruno was a daredevil, a dreamer, half-mad. Back on terra firma, he was a dutiful, punctual Swiss.

I paid Bruno, then followed him to an ice-covered concrete embankment leading down to the tracks. "Careful here," said Bruno with studied gravity. "The most dangerous part of the trip."

I walked behind Bruno, taking notes with such seasick intensity, I was nearly hit by one of the small electric-powered buses that serve as mass transportation in Zermatt.

"Ah, as I told you," said Bruno with the sincerity of a man who has just seen his faith confirmed by miracle. "More dangerous on the ground. Two years ago, there was another German television crew here, making a rescue program. We finish filming and at night we all go to a restaurant on the mountain to celebrate. We ride sleds down for fun. One of the Germans knocks into me, and I hit the side, and my finger gets caught." Bruno raised his left hand into the air. I had not noticed it before: his ring finger was severed at the top knuckle.

He sauntered off to pick up his next customer and do it all over again. Long hours would pass before I could talk myself into another hearty mountain meal. Though I'm glad to have flown with Bruno, I haven't been paragliding since. But I did see an interesting ad for the chopper that takes you to the hole in the ice on that frozen lake. . . .

A version of "Bottoms Up" first appeared in Robb Report.
Copyright © 2000, 2002 by Alan Behr