August 1st greets me with a crisp blue sky as I emerge from my VW bus tucked away in some trees behind Grindelwald. The morning sun slowly sets the mountains alight, from the peaks downwards. First outlined in a soft yellow, they transform with the intensifying light into sharp glistening white summits. The smell of fresh coffee reaches me from the stove, and clutching a steaming mug-full I smile in anticipation at what the day might have in store.
Today is a good day to be alive.
After completing toothbrush and breakfast rituals, I shoulder my trekking pack – a prototype XIX-WildArt! design that also functions as a harness, and settle in to a comfortable rhythm up to the Grosse Scheidegg saddle. Breathe, step, absorb the morning; a multitude of ragged peaks and icy ridges are progressively revealed the higher I climb. Fleeting dreams of circling high over glaciers pass through my mind, and are dismissed with a grin at my own delusions of grandeur. Let's just try and stay up today for starters...
After a stop amongst the cyclists and Japanese, all gathered at the café, I turn my attentions to the Schwarzhorn – a long inviting grassy flank looks like an ideal place to start. Leaving the footpaths and tourists behind I work my way slowly up, criss-crossing up the mountain as a sailor might tack against the wind. Far from the madding crowd, the steady climbing becomes almost meditative; half entranced I slowly gain height and arrive at my chosen launch point.
Watching the thermals wafting their way up through the long grass, and feeling them tousle my hair, the excited feelings of anticipation begin to course through my veins. It's still a little early to start, so I force myself to lie back in the grass and try to relax. Wetterhorn, Schreckhorn, Finsterarhorn, Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau spread their mighty walls before me; truly an awe-inspiring arena that soon has my pulse racing once again. An unpredictable stadium filled with violent beauty; how many glorious adventures, trials and tragedies have been written in its snows?
The pilots over the First ski lift seem to be holding their own now, and I can hardly contain myself - I've got to get in the air. With trembling hands I stuff the remains of my half-eaten sandwich back in its paper bag, spread out my canopy and dress in my flying-suit and harness. Breathing deeply I check everything, then check once again, mentally trying to reduce the risks to a minimum. A short prayer, count to three, a sharp pull on the risers, untwist, a last glance at the canopy and I’m airborne. Let the battle commence!
In rough air my nervous excitement is quickly replaced with nervous concentration. Flying tight figures-of-eight to stay in the small lift zone, I soon have enough clearance to start circling. Coring hard the ground recedes rapidly; a few deep breaths and I'm telling myself I've made it, and am trying to calm my racing pulse.
Having half-lulled myself into some sort of sense of security I am then grabbed by a real bloomer, fly it, fly it, I keep telling myself. A couple of hundred meters further up I’m then spat out with a vengeance and have to fight hard to control the wild surge. This isn’t really a lot of fun and I’m beginning to loose trust in this piece of air. I decide to beat the retreat to the gaggle of pilots over the lift station – maybe there’s safety in numbers.
At least the glide over there gives me a chance to catch my breath. On arrival I am quickly confronted with the hard reality of crowded airspace: dog-fights in 3D and swearing tandem pilots are enough to convince me of my mistake - I am loosing this round and rapidly going down. Gritting my teeth I take another big lumpy thermal on the edge of the activity, and manage to clear the pulk with a couple of other pilots. No longer in all the dirty wind from the fleet below, I’m still asking myself why every direction seems to be in the lee, and see no real reason why the air should be so rough.
With a bit of elbowroom at last I continue my trip along the ridge, but I'm still too pumped to sit back and relax. Keeping an extra large safety margin between the ground and my backside I cross over the Reeti and head to the Faulhorn. A hang glider is way up high in the blue skies above it, but somehow I’ve judged it wrong again and am back in the washing machine. Another retreat, another lee thermal and I’m thinking “not with me”. Feeling like Pooh-bear hanging under his umbrella in a storm, I'm ready to surrender and call it a day, my blood having reached its adrenaline saturation point.
I glide out not really high enough to think of crossing the valley, mentally postponing my dreams of looking down on alpine 4000ers for another day, and glad that the turbulence has stopped. Looking down over the rooftops of Grindelwald, my vario indicates a gentle zero - not going up, but then again not going down either. Thankful for this small reprise, I look longingly over to the Eiger and allow my first small hopes to rekindle. Keep going, keep going, come on, come on I mutter to myself as the northwest face of the Mättenberg comes slowly within my grasp. I'm across! but down low – and nothing much is working here. Thinking now’s really the time to park yourself, and you’ll probably regret this, I took another glide and crossed the Untere Grindelwald glacier to the foot of the Eiger, at least a small taste of greater things would be my reward.
Almost 2000m of vertical rock up above me, and I’ve probably got enough height for one run along the face before turning for the landing field. Concentrate, concentrate I tell myself, you won't get another chance... there - weak lift! - easy does it - nice flat turn - and again... I'm almost holding my breath, working my way meter for meter up the north face of the Eiger!
The lift becomes more constant but remains thankfully smooth, and I relax a little as I reach the top of the Hörnli ridge. I glide again along the face, looking down on some climbers tents pitched at its base. The wall is cold and still, the air heavy with history, a falling rock makes me jump as it clatters its way down to the valley below. 50 meters from one of the biggest challenges in alpinism, I can feel the magical attraction it radiates, but am frightened at the thought of being stranded on it. Even when the sun's at its highest, the face remains unwarmed in the shade - rocks, ice and snow stuck in vertical patterns with more rocks, ice and snow on top of them. I picture the climbers clinging to these frail handholds, willing the Eiger to remain at bay and not bombard them with a lethal disintegration. So many trials, adventures and deaths - the face commands reverence - an almost holy presence. Overwhelmed by its scale I feel like a privileged thief, stealing dreams and pictures, from under the nose of a sleeping giant.
Back into the sunshine over the railway leading up from the Kleine Scheidegg I find some more lift and the company of two other pilots. Waving a greeting to each other we work together, one leading the other into new thermals and climb together. No competition, just a sense that we are all incredibly lucky to be up here. We alternate between the north face and the Eiger glacier, thermals rising up the west ridge, while keeping a watchful eye on the ribbon cloud developing at the summit. The warm air from below carries me to a maximum of 3534m before breathing its last; from here the peak is almost within my grasp but no matter where I fly, the last 450m are unreachable - today the Eiger will not give all her secrets prize.
I glide over the Eiger glacier towards the Jungfrau, imagining the looks on the faces of the tourists seeing me land there, but this little foray brings nothing but sink, sinking feelings and a deflating ego. White glaciers filled with seracs and crevasses are not the best places to go looking for thermals. Turning back to the Lauberhorn, I content myself with circling high and join a thermal with two playful alpine dolen. I can hardly soak up enough of the majestic view spread out in front of me, and reluctantly plan my descent route back home again.
A long last glide across the face and I’m secretly glad to thaw out my stiffened limbs in the warmer airs in the valley. I still don’t manage to find any lift on the Mättenberg, in spite of a prolonged search up the moraines of the Untere Grindelwald glacier. The Wetterhorn looks inviting, but for today I am already filled to overflowing with fulfilled dreams.
A blast from the icy heights of the Lauteraarhorn jerks me back to reality and calls for a last moment of concentration. 50m over my landing field and the wind is coming from three different directions once again, first approach aborted, second approach and I’m climbing again… third time and I’m in big sink. With more luck than judgment I am deposited back on solid ground, reminded again not to underestimate the power of the elements.
Bundling my canopy together, I shed my wings and lay back in the grass, the final tensions of the flight evaporating with every new breath. Looking up at the Eiger, I can still hardly believe where I’ve been, and I try and make out the distant features I’d flown so close to.
A warm glow fills me from the inside out, as I carefully fold my canopy away, that was really a flight to last a month. Savoring the rich experiences I walk back to my bus in the evening light - solid earth under my feet again but not landed by far.