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Running off Swiss mountains

Photo by Britton Perelman

Great Britton

By Britton Perelman, For The Miami Student

I wasn't going to leave Switzerland without running off the side of a mountain.

It was my first weekend on my own and all I wanted to do was go paragliding. But the weather in Interlaken was against me. I had to cancel and reschedule twice - first because of rain, then because of fog at the take-off point.

I'd seen pictures and stick figure GIFs of how paragliders take off. You and an instructor are attached to a colorful parachute. Starting at the top of a mountain, you run down and the wind eventually hoists you into the air. The rest is easy. You sit on a little seat previously disguised as your backpack, glide around, and enjoy the view.

I'd never done anything like it before.

The second cancellation left me in tears. I'd wasted one of my precious weekends to walk aimlessly around a Swiss town and hadn't even made it into the mountains. I was left with three more hours on Sunday before I absolutely needed to be on a train back to Luxembourg. My phone vibrated with a message from my mom back in the States.

"You know how amusing it is that you're so determined to jump off a cliff, right?!"

"Yes, I'm aware. But I think it's something I've convinced myself I need to do."

Then the fog began to clear and two hours later I was on the top of a mountain amid a foot or so of fresh snow. My paragliding instructor, Nick, gave me a lime green coat and plopped a helmet on my head. Then he clipped me into my equipment - a harness that went around my knees and arms - and attached my equipment to the orange parachute on the ground behind us. I tried to walk a few steps and wondered how the hell I was going to be able to run at all.

"Are you excited?" he asked.

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"Uh, I don't know," I said.

I had been excited before. Now that feeling was gone. But I wasn't scared. It was like I was in shock and had switched to auto-pilot because I didn't know how to handle the situation. I laughed a little. "I don't know."

Nick laughed, too. "That's okay."

Together, we took a few preflight pictures with the GoPro. Nick checked everything one last time. Then I heard his voice right behind me.

"Alright. One. Two. Three."

And then I was running - well, hobbling - down the side of a mountain. I felt a hard, upward pull from behind and, after only a few steps, we were in the air.

We glided through the last wisps of fog and everything opened up in front of us. Sunlight, the first I'd seen all weekend, filtered through the mountaintops across the valley. It hit the two deep-blue lakes that border Interlaken and the green grass in the fields below. It made the snowcapped mountains shine. I was so silent that Nick had to keep asking me if I was enjoying myself.

I swung my feet, heavy with borrowed boots, in the air. They looked giant compared to the bare trees covered in thin layers of snow on the mountainside beneath us.

As Nick maneuvered us upward on the gust of wind and my stomach lurched, I thought about how it was like being on a swingset hanging several thousand feet in the air.

We flew around the nearest mountain. Nick pointed - Lake Brienz on the left; Lake Thun on the right; the field in the middle of it all where we would be landing.

My fingers were pink and raw from the cold, but I didn't want to cover them with my sleeves and miss out on taking pictures. Everything below looked so minuscule. It made me feel huge, until I looked over at the mountains and felt small again.

I watched as a black bird flew in front of us. Nick said we were just like that bird now, and I realized a childhood dream of mine was coming true.

Flying is more peaceful than I had imagined - quiet and calming. Even though we were soaring through the air, it wasn't loud. It's only in the videos that you hear the deafening thunder of the wind.

I loved every second, which simultaneously felt like it went by both very slowly and way too quickly. But isn't that how the best things in life go by - far too fast and wonderfully slow all at once?

And then, though it felt like we'd just started, we were beginning our descent.

"Do you like roller coasters?" Nick asked.

I do. So, on the way down, he pulled us into turns like loops on their side. It felt nothing like a roller coaster. Instead of feeling my stomach drop while going down a hill on a ride at Kings Island, it felt like my insides had relocated to my brain. I clenched my teeth and laughed uncontrollably.

We leveled out and approached the ground, though it felt like we were doing so much too fast. I was convinced we were going to hit a man who was facing the other way and had no idea we were flying right toward him.

"Are you ready to stand?" Nick asked.

"Yes," I said, but I didn't mean it. I wasn't ready to stand because I wasn't done flying. We were so close to the ground again, but all I wanted to do was be back in the air, soaring above everything.

Later, as my train pulled out of Interlaken, I glanced out the window and up at the mountain. There, a handful of paragliders swooped and circled above me. I smiled and watched them fly until they were out of sight.