Jean-Claude Bétemps stands a few feet away from me, hands on his hips, eyes searching the sky, like a sailor scanning the waves. A breeze lifts his hair as he considers the view. Is he tracking the movement of the clouds? The shifting light? The way the birds are riding the wind?
“No, it’s not going to work. There’s too much wind,” he says quietly, shaking his head as he turns to me. “We’ll have to try another time.”
For more than six weeks, the two of us have been looking for the right moment to do our vol, as he calls it: our flight. This is already our fourth attempt—or is it the fifth?—and we’ll have to try again.
I approached Bétemps, the father of paragliding, a few months ago with a specific request: Would he take me to the spot where, on a sunny Sunday in June 1978, he unpacked his skydiving parachute, ran down a steep mountain slope, and launched himself into the air? And would he recreate the feat, 41 years later, this time with a passenger (me) in tow?
I was fascinated by the origin story of what’s now considered a classic Alpine sport, and when I made my request, over coffee down on the valley floor, Bétemps, who is now 70, shrugged: mais oui, pourquoi pas? Now here we are: standing together near the top of Mont Pertuiset, a modest peak that overlooks the quiet French village of Mieussy, less than an hour from Geneva. We have all the gear. The sun is shining. But today isn’t the day. Instead of soaring down from the summit under Bétemps’s bright fabric wing, we drive back down the twisting road that we just came up in his car.
I’m disappointed, but the feeling is mixed with relief. The prospect of looking down at my legs dangling a few thousand feet above the valley floor makes my stomach weak. It reassures me that Bétemps is cautious, and I tell him as much.
“You don’t live to my age by taking risks,” he says.
Any paragliding enthusiast will tell you that the sport (parapente in French) is the purest form of human flight. You don’t need a plane, or a motor of any kind, really. The only true requirements are your feet, to walk you up the hill; a fabric wing, which you unsheathe from its pack at the top of your chosen peak; and the wind, to fill your canopy and lift you into the heavenly void. You direct your movement by pulling on handles that hang above your shoulders on either side, and you land by circling down to the landing point—a soccer field, an empty lot, an open beach—and simply setting your feet back on the earth. Most flights for tourists last about 30 minutes, but a skilled paraglider can fly for hours at a time, covering hundreds of miles if the conditions are right.
“Every paragliding pilot will probably tell you the same thing: Flying is freedom,” says Jean-Michel Ara-Somohano, 44, an enthusiast who took up the sport at the age of 13, with Bétemps as his teacher. “As soon as your feet leave the ground, you shift to another relationship with time, with the elements. The sense of liberation is instantaneous and absolute.”
Every year, 150,000 people in France take a tandem flight in search of that sensation. Many of them do so in the Alps, but paragliders can also be seen in the Pyrenees, along the cliffs of Normandy, and on the extinct volcanoes of the Massif Central. And while the sport is now practiced around the world, the mountainous countries of Western Europe—France, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, Austria—remain its spiritual home. Perhaps that’s because this is where it all started.
They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and so it was with paragliding. Bétemps had the idea to run down the side of a mountain in 1978, when he was 29 years old, for one simple reason: He was broke.
At the time, Bétemps was laying floors for a living, but he pursued his passion, skydiving, whenever he could. He and his friend André Bohn wanted to train for France’s national sky-diving championships, but they didn’t have enough cash to buy the fuel for a plane to take them up. For a few months, Bétemps had been toying with the idea of running down a steep slope with his chute open as a cheaper way to get aloft. He had never heard of anyone trying this, so he called scientists in France and Switzerland to ask what they thought of his idea; he also discussed it with his skydiving buddies. “Everybody told me that it should be possible,” he recalls, “but they all said, ‘Better you than me.’”
Bétemps had no idea at the time, but more than a decade earlier, on the other side of the Atlantic, a NASA consultant named David Barish had developed a “sailwing” meant to help space capsules fall safely back to Earth. Barish had flown under the wing himself, and he even tried to introduce the concept of “slope-soaring” at U.S. ski resorts. But he’d never leaped from a mountain with a normal chute, and his ideas hadn’t spread.
I feel as though I’m watching a flyover shot from a movie set in some mythical mountain landscape, but without the barrier of a screen.
It was Bohn who told Bétemps about Mont Pertuiset, saying it would be the perfect spot for a first attempt. They drove there together, parked near the summit, and walked to the spot with the steepest drop. Bétemps went first, opening his parachute and launching himself down the slope. To his immense delight, it worked: The chute lifted him off the ground, and he flew about 100 yards. He landed in the grass, then clambered back up to the takeoff point. He took off again, and this time Bohn followed. They flew all the way down to the valley floor.
The success of their experiment attracted a great deal of attention, Bétemps recalls. In France, they were in newspapers and on the evening news. That meant, of course, that other people now wanted to try. At first it was just skydivers, but as the technology matured, a broader audience was attracted to the sport. In 1985, the first paragliding-specific wing hit the market. The fabric was stiffer, the lines less elastic than with a standard parachute, to allow for a more controlled flight. In 1979, the first paragliding school was established, in Mieussy. Bétemps was both an instructor and, for a time, the director of the school, training people who came from around the world to learn to fly.
“Jean-Claude was the one who did the first jump, but today he’s mostly known for being the motor behind the early development of the sport,” says Ara-Somohano, who describes Bétemps as a disciplined and enthusiastic teacher. “He’s someone with a lot of energy, who has devoted his life to paragliding. He’s trained an enormous number of people, and he’s still helping more people discover the sport.”
“It’s now or never.” This is how Bétemps greets me as I emerge from my car into the warm morning sun. It’s the middle of May now, nearly a month after our last attempt, and the slopes above Mieussy are radiating every shade of green. The air, as we hoped, is almost perfectly still.
I climb into Bétemps’s car, and we drive up the now familiar winding road: through the village outskirts, past fields of grazing cattle, into the sudden darkness of a tunnel, then out again into the sparsely inhabited mountain wilds. He parks next to an old barn and takes two bulky packs out of the trunk. He passes the smaller one to me, heaves the bigger one onto his back, and points the way to the trail.
It isn’t a long walk, but it’s steep, and the path is rocky and uneven. Bétemps walks ahead of me, leaning forward like a Sherpa under the bulk of his pack. After a few minutes, he stops to look at the view—his house is on the plateau just over there, can you see it?—and I realize that he’s out of breath. Given his deep brown hair and youthful outfit—jeans, fleece, dark sneakers, aerodynamic sunglasses, gold hoop in his left ear—it’s easy to forget that he’s 70 years old.
Twenty minutes later, we make it to the takeoff point, a patch of field about the size of a large swimming pool, with steep drops on three sides. He starts humming and singing to himself as he unpacks the gear, moving with an energy that I haven’t seen in him before.
“It was just like this for that first flight,” he says, pacing across the grass and taking it all in. “Very calm, just a light breeze. I had to have a very steep slope, so I took off from over here.”
He walks me to the exact spot of that first takeoff, but I’m too nervous to approach the edge, which is vanishingly steep. The wind isn’t right for us to do it from here, he tells me, perhaps sensing my nervousness, so we walk a few yards to where the slope is a bit gentler. He straps me into the harness, then attaches himself behind me. We stand there for a minute or two, waiting for the wind.
Suddenly, I hear his instructions: Avancez! Avancez! We take one awkward step forward, then another, and then my foot fails to reach the ground. A whoosh of air pulls us upward, forcing me down into the seat of my harness. We make an arching turn to the left, flying past the takeoff point and then out over the valley below.
“Are you OK?” Bétemps shouts in my ear. “Relax!” I sit back, and my butt slides so far down into the harness that my knees are now above my hips. It’s actually pretty comfortable: I feel as though I’m in a lounge chair with an abnormally high footrest—and an amazing view.
Mont Blanc, Western Europe’s highest peak, stands white and majestic on the horizon, flanked by its craggy, snow-covered sisters. Below us, forest and pasture intermingle with the roads and roofs and schoolyards of French village life. Cows amble along the vein-like paths that crisscross the grassy slopes, their bells dinging. The narrow Giffre River snakes its way through the scene, glinting in the sun. I spot our shadow, a small, dark crescent slipping over the tops of the trees.
I’m lucky enough to make my home about a 30-minute drive from Mieussy (in fact, my bedroom window affords me a view of the very same river), but the scene below my dangling feet strikes me as remarkably, unexpectedly beautiful. I feel as though I’m watching a flyover shot from a movie set in some mythical mountain landscape, but without the barrier of a screen. Instead—with the wind in my face, and the occasional rough patch of air giving my stomach a jolt—I’m fully engaged, and free to explore.
After about half an hour, we’re nearly down. Bétemps directs us to the landing area, a former soccer field that’s now reserved for paragliders and anyone else descending from the sky. We touch down and jog a couple of steps, and the chute deflates into a crumple of fabric on the grass behind us. It’s only when I’m standing on the ground that I realize my hands are shaking.
I take a breath, then help Bétemps pack away the chute. His car is still parked up on the mountain, so I offer him a ride back to the top. We’re a few turns into the drive when he addresses me as tu, the informal you, for the first time in our many conversations. Now that we’ve flown together, he tells me, there’s no more need for formality.
It feels as if I’ve been let into a distinguished club, and while I’m pretty happy to be back on terra firma, I’m proud to be a member. As we wend our way back up the road, I see the countryside with new eyes. I now know what the spire of that church looks like from above; how that ridge on the horizon hides a deep, narrow gorge on the other side; how Mont Blanc is always there looking over us, even though we can’t see it from this corner of the valley. I’m reminded of that slightly out-of-place feeling you get when you come home from a life-changing trip: Everything around you is exactly the same as it always has been, but you’re not the same person in it.
“After that first flight,” I ask Bétemps as we near the top, “did you have any sense that this could turn into a sport that people would practice around the world?”
He thinks for a moment, then shrugs. “The dream of flying is a dream of all humanity,” he tells me. “And this is the easiest way to do it.
Ready to take the leap? These days, paragliding is popular across the Alps; it’s also very safe, as long as you go in calm conditions and with a qualified instructor. Paragliding companies throughout the region offer tandem flights for tourists, starting from roughly $95 for a short flight. If you want to become qualified to fly by yourself, you can sign up for an introductory course; these usually last about a week and cost in the range of $550–$800. To find a paragliding school in France, visit the website of the French Federation of Free Flight: efvl.fr/carte_choisir_ecole