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Der Gleitschirm ist so leicht, dass man ihn im Rucksack mitnehmen kann
Dream On

Run Up, Keep Flying

  • Joschko Hammermann
  • June 21, 2019
Credits cover image: Felix Woelk

Paragliding has conquered the Alps a long time ago. With the development of lighter and lighter gliders, pilots are now rediscovering the adventure that once drove the pioneers: to climb any mountain with the device in your backpack and glide from hut to hut. Hike & Fly is the trend. Our author has bought a hiking umbrella - and simply tried it out

It's so dark, you can barely see the cattle. Nevertheless, we know that the whole herd is in motion. Our way. Five hours ago, I was still sitting in my bus on the way from Munich to the mountains. Now I hurry over a barbed wire fence in the darkness, slide through a few cow patties and stand disoriented in a birch forest shortly afterwards. That's the disadvantage, if you have seen your way back only from above. So it's just the kind of adventure I was looking for.

It was clear that my first Hike & Fly weekend would be a challenge, at last at the meeting point in Lenggries. The first words of Felix Wölk, experienced pilot, flight instructor, photographer and my mentor for the next days: "We have a strong wind." The second weather check takes place at the flight school. Over there, somebody asked me, how saddle-fast I flew. Because the warm wind can suddenly break through - and then the paraglider only functions as its toy. But Felix is not a man of dithering. And even if you are a paraglider pilot and don't want to walk down a mountain, a lightweight hiking glider still leaves you with exactly this possibility. So we walk towards the Benediktenwand.

Our author on the ascent
Going up first, then flying on and on: Joschko tried the combination of paragliding and hiking for the first time - under less than ideal conditions.
Image credit: Felix Woelk / Felix Woelk

The wind is blowing strong, the view is fantastic and hiking in the deserted mountains in the evening is good for the soul. In between, I check the wind again and again at the Patscherkofel south of Innsbruck. Usually the foehn already announces itself there in 2000 meters height earlier. Today 80km/h. We plan to spend the night in the summit hut and start tomorrow.

We lay out the umbrellas, Felix sharpens the camera and I carefully pay attention to the wind.

After dinner at the hut, the foehn falls asleep. Actually the conditions are getting better and better, although a cold front with a lot of wind is announced for the night. It's this kind of wind that could put a spoke in our wheel tomorrow morning. The flight equipment weighs only five kilograms, but, for us pilots, the only fear greater than the fear of crashing, is, as I said, the fear of having to carry the glider downhill. One last time we hold our noses in the wind and decide to fly off the mountain shortly after sunset and spend the first night in our buses.

Take off with the paraglider
When hiking with a paraglider, every gram counts: The flight equipment weighs only five kilograms
Image credit: Felix Woelk / Felix Woelk

We'll lay out the umbrellas. I pull up mine and within a millisecond, it's right above me. One step is enough, and I'm up in the air. Forward motion. Down in the valley, it looks pretty dark already, Felix flies circles around me and tries to tickle the last light out of the day. After only 10 minutes, we land on a meadow, which is about one kilometer away from the parking lot. I can barely see the umbrella. Just as I'm euphorically about to congratulate myself on the first night flight, the first gust of wind from the cold front strikes down from the mountain. That was close. We pack our gliders. And then we hear the cows mooing.

A Foehn Doesn't Like Being Alone

Saturday morning is almost windless. Because the Bavarian huts are completely booked out over the Whitsun weekend, we change our plans to fly from hut to hut in the Bavarian foothills of the Alps and continue to the Tyrolean Achensee, where we want to move between peaks and water for two days. This possibility of being able to choose your destination spontaneously and without the help of railways is perhaps the most charming thing about flying with a paraglider. With Hike & Fly equipment, you do without some performance and comfort, but the possibilities are endless. As soon as you have completed your basic training as a pilot and are ready to deal independently with flight law and above all with local weather and wind conditions, the road to becoming a weekend adventurer is open wide.

The advantage of flying in Tyrol (and also in Switzerland, by the way): Unlike in Germany, you are not only allowed to take off from official starting positions. Our first day's destination above the Achensee lake has the beautiful name "Unnütz" ("useless"). Two hours ascent and huge meadows to start. The hike up is comfortable. Except for a few snowfields, things are going well. There are still huge cornices hanging from the ridge on the north side, but we want to start westwards anyway.

The paraglider, which our author has to carry uphill, weighs about five kilos.
Ascent to the summit of Unnütz. Joschko had to start from this mountain massif with a tailwind.
Image credit: Felix Woelk / Felix Woelk

At the summit, we have a little snack. The only thing that brings you back to civilization up here, is the horn of the excursion steamer on the Achensee. It booms up to the mountain. The Karwendel opposite offers a huge scenery. We want to land somewhere on the east side of the lake and walk diagonally over towards Rofan to spend the night there.

In the cabin, you must always be the perpetrator, never the victim.

Slowly I realize that the planned start to the west of the Unnütz will actually be a tailwind start. So I have to run so fast that the glider - plus the wind from behind - flies. I'm getting nervous again. It's a well-known fact about the Achensee that it has a strong valley wind system and that the foehn can also whip through there strongly. Nevertheless, I start running and run across the meadow. The legs get lighter and lighter and I fly. Felix is right next to me, we circle over the Achensee in a formation. There's nothing between my feet and the surface of the water. A sense of freedom that grows stronger with each flight.

Take off with the paraglider. Flying can be dangerous, especially with a hairdryer.
Race off, see if everything is in order with the glider - and then hope for the right thermal.
Image credit: Felix Woelk / Felix Woelk

After landing we continue on foot. The way up to the Rofan takes three hours. Slowly, my old friend comes back: the foehn. When I think about tomorrow, I get goosebumps. When we arrive at the mountain inn Rofan around seven, we need something to eat immediately. It was a few meters of altitude today. The innkeeper serves us a little snack: "Here boys: Bavarian, uhhhh, Tyrolean sausage salad." We laugh and enjoy the deer ragout, immediately after the snack - as it should be for Tyrol: of course with cranberries.

Flight over the Achensee
Moments of peace - and a view that is reserved for the few. Our author about 400 meters above the Achensee
Image credit: Felix Woelk / Felix Woelk

At dinner we are advised by local pilots. The locals point at almost everyone of the surrounding summits and rave about how well you could start there - except from the usual starting point. There you have a "washing machine" in the afternoon, which you have to pass. We drink a few more beers and decide to climb one of the higher peaks the next morning. Then we stumble into the camp.

Practicing Mindfulness

Bright blue sky. I'll check the foehn chart on the phone. Oh, crap. Our friend foehn will be back by noon, at the latest. There it is again: The fear of descent. Nevertheless we enjoy our breakfast and as dessert, we get a kick-off from the three ladies beside whom we slept in the camp. We were probably too loud and should please "practice our "mindfulness". They're not wrong. Felix bends over to me: "In the hut you must always belong to the perpetrators, never to the victims."

Break on the Alm between two flights with the paraglider
Breakfast, packing, starting: On the last day of the tour dangerously strong foehn winds are blowing
Image credit: Felix Woelk / Felix Woelk

The wind is blowing properly, already. I have a dull feeling in my stomach, but we still set off for a summit. The days are long in June, and Felix says, "It's not over until it's over." In my mind, the flight day is already over. At the summit, the wind comes exactly from the wrong direction and is clearly too strong. I'm gonna lie down in the sun and take a little nap.

When I wake up, there's a screen on the horizon. That's flying German for "cloudiness." We decide to wait until it is above us. Maybe the wind will calm down and we can still start. Immediately, the emotional roller coaster starts again. Critically, I watch every shred of wind. Throw tufts of grass in the air and hold my hand over the slope to check if there are thermals during the foehn. In his mind, Felix is already in the air and expects a "bearish" flight.

The start leads us over a small meadow directly to the edge of the slope. I move up, run - and then this feeling of freedom is there again immediately

Slowly the clouds push themselves over us and the wind actually falls asleep. I'm skeptical, but actually everything speaks for flying. We are standing on one of the highest peaks of the massif and there is hardly a breeze. I sort the lines meticulously. The start leads us directly to the edge of the slope, after passing a short meadow. I wind up, run, and then that sense of freedom is right back. Quickly around the mountain, and the Achensee presents itself from its most beautiful side again - from a bird's-eye view. There's no umbrella in the air other than us.

The paraglider must be checked before take-off
Ideal flying weather looks different. Concentration and control on the glider before departure
Image credit: Felix Woelk / Felix Woelk

After twenty minutes we gently touch down in the valley. I still can't believe that we made it. I'm actually a little speechless. Unlike another Hike & Fly pilot who started from another mountain shortly after us. He misses the landing spot, but expresses his enthusiasm for it even louder. Our common conclusion of the follow-up of the weekend weather: It's nice with foehn - and running down is actually not an option. And my personal conclusion after my first Hike & Fly weekend? Our original plan to fly from hut to hut wasn't quite realized - but actually that's the attraction of my new favorite outdoor tool: that you can just see where your wings take you.