Skiing: Higher than the snow

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The Independent Online
It sounds scary but simple: you just float off a mountain with a canopy billowing over your head. Anna Rockall goes parapenting at Courchevel.

Skiing off a mountain seemed an unwise idea. Not, you understand, skiing down it, though that can be scary enough; skiing off it into space, hovering over the valley below. You're attached to some kind of flotation aid, obviously, but none the less suspended almost a kilometre above the valley floor.

I had watched in envy from the slopes as multi-coloured canopies had swooped gently in the blue heavens above the snowy peaks, twirling and rising on the thermals and putting us meagre skiers to earthbound shame. Such a calmly terrifying sport had to be tried.

The scene of the action was the Col de la Loze (already 2,300 metres high), above Courchevel in the French Alps, but the sport, known as parapente, is widely available throughout the French ski resorts. Unless you have some experience, you'll want to do this in tandem - once you are up in the air, there isn't a lot anyone can do to help you if you don't know what you are doing. My guide, Serge, was a typical French ski instructor, with skin the colour of a lightly done steak, and a flirtatious streak. He harnessed me to a contraption that seemed to have far too few buckles, and then hooked himself up behind me. With his skis either side of mine, the silk canopy neatly laid out behind us and the safety checks duly done, we were ready to launch into the thin air.

The slope we were on was gently skiable for about 50 yards, and then plummeted away into a death-defying couloir. Despite the fact that I felt comfortingly secure strapped up to Serge, I prayed we would take off before we ended up sliding down the extreme corridor of doom. No fear of that - when Serge gave the word, we let ourselves start moving down the slope for, ooh, about 5ft before we met with resistance from the canopy behind us, that had immediately filled with air and stood puffed up in a billowing wall of silk. Slowly, very slowly, we skied on down until suddenly we seemed to be airborne. Then suddenly we weren't, and then - hurrah - we made it, and were floating gently away from the mountainside.

I was expecting to be terrified, but the fear is all in the anticipation. Although we seemed miles above the valley floor - and rising - peering down between our skis at inordinate quantities of nothing, I felt safe.

The surprising thing about parapente is your ability to defy gravity. It's not like parachuting, where you simply fall very slowly; you actually ascend and fly unmotorised, using the wind and thermals like a bird. The guide used strings to control the angle of the canopy, and before we knew it we were circling higher than all the surrounding mountains. The views, of course, were a bit special, though once I had begun to relax my death grip on Serge's leg I became rather more aware of the cold. It was considerably chillier than the mountainside, so fear of falling was quickly replaced by fear of losing my extremities to frostbite.

The other unexpected (and uncool) problem was airsickness. It hadn't even occurred to me that I could get airsick while risking life and limb, but the gentle, swaying motion, compounded with the odd bumpiness when we hit a thermal, all added up to a worrying bout of nausea. Understandably concerned at the prospect of my throwing up all over his equipment, Serge brought us down after a meagre five minutes (the normal flight time being 10 minutes). As we descended, all worries about high-altitude vomiting faded into insignificance beside the fear of not landing in one piece. The cables of the chairlift looked threateningly in the way, and I had to close my eyes as we swooped just above them, avoiding an undignified death by millimetres (honest).

The ground started coming up rather more quickly than I expected, and before there was time to get concerned about broken ankles or whatever else might happen, we landed with an ungainly thump. I promptly fell over backwards, and struggled to my feet with the grace of a pregnant duck. But despite the fear, the airsickness and the cold, once safely down I longed to be floating dreamily above the peaks again. Skiing away down the mountain I felt drearily earthbound, once more a slave to the laws of gravity.

Anna Rockall paid FF450 (about pounds 45) for a parapenting session at Col de la Loze, Courchevel 1850, France. For more details call Chardon Loisirs 00 33 4 79 08 39 60.