FLYIN’ HIGH IN THE FRIENDLY SKY

So I did it! Day 1 of my paragliding course under my belt and I have lived to tell the tale – well, blog the tale. I knew that I was booked in for my course all week but whether it happened or not was completely dependent on the weather. My instructions were to ring at 8.00 am on Saturday morning to see if it was a runner. Saturday dawned wet and incredibly windy. No flying for me. Sunday looked better and I was told to make my way to the centre in Kirby Stephen on the edge of the Lake District and we would see if we could go out when I arrived.

And so I made my sandwiches, packed my bag and said my good byes. The children barely looked up as I left on my adventure but my husband was doing his best to hide his nerves. “I’ll be fine,” I said. “I’ll text.” And with that I was off. It was a journey that I needed to make on my own both actually and in my head. This was the realisation of a dream and an important step in the rediscovery of what makes me me. I felt fine. No real nerves to speak of. Just a growing sense of excitement.

I arrived at the centre and met the rest of the group. We were a motley crew. Six in total, three men and three women. I was the third oldest which I took some comfort from and they all seemed quite normal. No extreme sport junkies as far as I could tell.

First, a safety briefing. I listened to what was said carefully and pushed any thoughts of tumbling from the sky from my mind. Then we were allocated our kit, leaped in the minibus and headed for the hills. The kit was made up of three bits. First, a helmet which would do no good if I fell from a height but would come into its own if I was dragged for any distance along the ground. Next, the harness. This looked a bit like a child’s car seat but with more buckles. It was attached to my back a bit like a ruck sack and fastened round my thighs and waist. This was the thing that was going to ensure that I didn’t fall. Finally, the wing itself. When the instructor unrolled his on the grass in front of me I felt my first pang of real fear. It was absolutely huge! I’m not sure what I was expecting but when I saw the brightly coloured fabric lifting slightly in the breeze, suddenly it all became very real. And then the heavens opened and we had to hop back in the minibus and back to the centre to wait for the weather to improve. I was disappointed. Having come so far I was really keen to have a go.

By mid afternoon the rain had stopped and after consulting various weather websites the instructors worked out which way the wind was blowing and consequently which hill we needed to hit.

Thirty minutes later and I was standing at the top of a gentle incline waiting for the nod. I had to lean forward, bring my arms up and inflate the wing and then run like the clappers. When it was my turn I did as I was told. The wing duly inflated above my head and off I ran. I half ran half floated down the slope until I received the instruction to collapse my wing which promptly deflated on top of my head causing much hilarity all round. It’s always good to have something to laugh at in moments of terror. And laugh they did.

Then came the really hard bit. I had to gather up my wing and carry it back up the slope. The kit weighs about 15kg and so it was tough trudging back up the hillside to the starting place.

By the time it came to my second run there was a slight crosswind. This proved to be problematic for me. I only weigh a little over eight stone wet through and whilst I could get the wing up, it kept pulling me off course before I could get any speed up. I had three goes and could sense the instructor’s growing frustration with me as I failed to do as I was asked. In the end, he left me and went to let the others have their turn. This was hard for me. Never before have I been the one in a group that can’t do it or holds the others up. I could feel my confidence oozing away.

When it was my turn again I gave it all I had. I got the wing up and started to run and it was fine until the wind took me and I lost control. I bounced up and down from the ground, landing on my feet each time but with an increasing sense of danger and then I lost my footing, hit the floor and was dragged a short distance until the wing lost its shape and collapsed. Shaken and with a sore elbow where it had taken the impact of my fall, it took a few moments to compose myself. I signalled back up the hill that I was alright and then began to fold my wing to carry it back up the hill but I could hardly remember what I was supposed to do and it took me a while before I was finally striding back up the hill.

But the gods were clearly smiling on me for the wind dropped and the crosswind left us. As part of the exercise you have to keep running even when you leave the floor. I have to say it feels really strange to be running in mid air but it looks absolutely hilarious. There were some bikers who has stopped for a break near where the minibus was parked and I could hear their laughter echoing around the valleys.

My next run was fine and after that we stopped for refreshment and then set off walking to another slope to see what we could make of that. When we arrived I realised that our moment had come. There was a gentle slope but then a sharp cutaway, obviously the point that, if all went to plan, we would become airborne. So this was going to be it. My first proper flight. I leant into the wind, raised my arms and started to run. I lifted off before I got to the cutaway and then suddenly I was high, flying noiselessly. I had to concentrate on my steering to make sure that I landed where I was supposed to but for a brief moment I was able to take in my surroundings. The clouds of the morning had dispersed and the sky was blue and visibility perfect. I could see the mountains of the Lake District and beyond. It was incredible. I became aware of the ground approaching. “Run” shouted a voice behind me so I ran as hard as I could and up I went again, not with the same height but enough to allow me to savour the moment again. I landed without incident, gathered up my wing and set off back up the hill. By now, carrying the kit was really hard and the hill was long and steep. I got to the top and sat down on my harness. ” That was fantastic!” I said to the instructor. “How high was I?” “About 100 feet,” he said.

As I sat there contemplating what had just happened, I realised that the wind was now hitting the back of my head rather than my face and so our flying was over for the day. We headed back to the pub for a brief post mortem and then wended my weary way home.

And how do I feel? Sore mainly. This morning all my muscles ache both from the exertion and the tension that goes with adrenalin. But mainly I feel elated and proud. I only did one relatively high flight. It was short and I have only had the smallest taste of what paragliding is all about but I am hungry for more. Day 2 is scheduled for next weekend, weather permitting and it can’t come fast enough for me.

What do you think? I'd love to know...