“If you push the stick forward, the houses get bigger…” Defying the odds in a ULM, Ecrins National Park, France.

Should I be worried? I fear my life might be in danger. Recently I have begun to suspect that someone close to me is in fact trying to bump me off!

As is currently the case for all human beings, the annual arrival of my birthday brings me one year closer to an inevitable end to it all and the ‘time to face my final curtain.’ In addition, with each passing year and as every candle on the cake starts to ‘represent’ a number greater than one in order for said cake to fit in the oven, along comes a more acute awareness of my mortality and some thoughts along the lines of ‘one days this’ll all be over’. However until a couple of birthdays back I have been able to restrict these reflections to a not too severe dose of self-reproach for never making the England football team, generally not exercising enough and thankfulness that I never learned enough Math to calculate any kind of probable percentage time left on planet Earth, coupled with a vague ‘must do better/more’ next year and in the plenty of years after that sort of sentiments.

This all changed a couple of July’s ago. A pattern was started that three years down the track leads me now to the conclusion that if my girlfriend is ultimately successful we needn’t worry about getting a bigger cake oven on my account. Time could be running out…

On this particular birthday I was awoken very early, placed in a car and driven to the bijoux altiport of Alpe d’Huez in the French Alps, pretty much thrown off a mountain in a tiny four-seater aircraft more reminiscent of a scooter than something in which one would even contemplate going up into the air in and given a closer-up-than-I-would-have-liked tour of the 3000m plus glaciers. The year after a very similar series of events, involving a crack of dawn alarm (must I be semi-unconscious to agree to this?), a drive to the French Alpine Resort of Les Deux Alpes, only to be strapped to a big Frenchman who assured me he in turn was securely strapped to a piece of silk. This time the order was to run off the nearby cliff as fast as possible and then hang on… This was to be my one and only experience of ‘parapenting’. Two failed attempts?

It shouldn’t have been a huge shock then that this year come that auspicious day I found myself back at Alpe d’Huez Altiport getting into this…

Really? This flies?

‘This’ is in fact a microlight or ULM as they call them here in France. Believe it or not it is designed to fly. The history of flying these flimsy creations is based on money. Or rather lack of it. During the 1970s and 80s more people than could afford to do so wanted to fly. The result was a veritable aircraft development bonanza with all sorts of weird and wonderful creations springing forth that would not look out of place in Leonardo’s scrap yard. The common denominator was/is light weight, slow flying and being subject to a minimum of regulations. I did a little research post flight (had it been pre-flight, I might never have gotten anywhere near the thing) and the suspicions regarding the exact intentions of my girlfriend arose when I stumbled across this on the source of all knowledge, Wikipedia: The safety regulations used to approve microlights vary between countries, the strictest being the United Kingdom, Italy, Sweden and Germany, while they are almost non-existent in France. Hang-on! What was that again? ‘Non-existent?’ More pearls of wisdom from Wikipedia on the subject include this gem: Historically ultralights have a poor safety reputation. And in an attempt perhaps to excuse these flying ‘mopeds’… pilot error was shown to the cause of the vast majority of accidents. Great!


Separated at birth? The Da Vinci version and 500 years on...

‘You can only get vertigo while your feet touch the ground’ said Frederick, my pilot from the tiny ULM Evasion Alpe d’Huez flying school. Ground Control gave us the all clear to attempt a take-off. Perhaps he was responding to the way in which I was gripping the seat (his seat) in front, perhaps he was simply starting his safety briefing. If the latter was the case, well then he was also at the end of his safety briefing as those were the entire instructions I was given. For the next 35 minutes, my contribution in the unlikely (?) event of an emergency would have been exactly zilch! The fact that I was clearly sitting in an emergency aisle did not help, but at least there’d be no concerns regarding how to open the doors- there were none and I guess when literally the only thing preventing passengers from exiting the ‘aircraft’ prematurely is a thin cord round your shoulders and waist, there is not too much need for a ‘seatbelts on’ sign. So anyway, off we went.

Taking off from the small Alpe d’Huez altiport is quite incredible. As whatever aircraft you have been placed in starts to build up speed and races past the lego-like control tower all seems normal. Then the runway suddenly just dips and falls away downwards at an incredible angle with the view now filled with cliff edge and sky. Previously when flying, perhaps due to ignorance I always feel that if my airplane were for some reason not to get enough speed to take off, well then we would simply slow down turn around and start again. Here when all you have in front of you, and not far in front of you I might add, is nothing there is no doubt at least for a short while you are going to fly.

So fly we did. And stunning it was.

Basic Flying Rules: "Try to stay in the middle of the air. Do not go near the edges of it. The edges of the air can be recognized by the appearance of ground, buildings, sea, trees and interstellar space. It is much more difficult to fly there."

My flight took off from Alpe d’Huez of Tour de France fame and took a course high (and low) over the Ecrins National Park, one of nine nationally recognised French parks. After its original defining in 1913 the park emerged renamed in 1973 attaining official park status in response to recognition and pressure from mountaineers, nature organisations and the French Alpine Club. The park is a veritable flora and fauna paradise with over 350 species of vertebras and more than 1800 varieties of plants. It has proven a success story above all for the elusive and iconic Chamois (a sort of deer/goat cross) which thanks to this new protected habitat has seen its numbers rise from 3000 to over 15000 in 30 years. Also despite the French mountain-man’s desire to hunt anything that moves, Ibex and Golden Eagles, the symbol the park, are on the rise. There are even suggestions that wolves and lynx have moved back in of their own accord.

Forming a shape akin to a leaf between the towns of Gap, Briançon and Grenoble, the Ecrins National Park boasts more than 1500 peaks stretching up from the valley floor at roughly 1000m above sea level to way above 3000m. The park network of paths takes you along more than 700kms of mountain walks, the core of which is traditionally only explored on foot. I cannot claim to have covered much more than ten percent of this until now, so exploring for the first time by microlight was a wonderful way of seeing vast stretches in a short time and from a perspective few non-feathered creatures ever experience. Walking across mountain plateaux I have often looked up to see the Golden Eagles soar high, high above. Today I was sharing their airspace. It was quite an honour, quite a thrill and quite a view!

Thanks to increased awareness for the need to preserve this unique Alpine landscape, humans are increasingly trying to blend in. For sure these dramatic natural settings have always dictated and indeed continue to do so man living here. Indeed surviving and etching out and existence amongst these huge snow-covered peaks or in valley floors below meant man was never able to impose himself to too great, or damaging an extent. The rich cultural and architectural heritage which has emerged from centuries of Alpine living is therefore now seen as just as important to preserve as the nature that has brought this about. As we flew high above tiny hamlets, for the first time revealing to me their impossible looking windy, access roads, far below the legacy of a pastoral way of life that has endured to the present day continues.

The Ecrins National Park, stunning.

Seeing all this from above felt entirely akin with how I feel about this area when I have walked on the paths below; I am a privileged visitor, glancing in from the outside. The beauty of the Ecrins there in full view, but the incredible processes that shaped this landscape and the day to day life that has gone on for centuries and continues to do so, even from this angle, do not permit the uninitiated more than a brief glimpse, a hint of understanding. So, despite my fears for what my girlfriend may line up for when I turn 35 next year, I think I’ll continue to do the safety ‘googling’ research after the even and take my chances. In the words of the great Leonardo (who as far as we know, never flew)…

“For once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return”

For more pictures from this great day click here

~ by 2ndcupoftea on September 6, 2010.

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