Out of Switzerland: Daredevil Brits fly the flag in Alpine skies

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VERBIER - Most of us, when we think Alps, think winter. I'd been skiing the slopes of this Swiss Alpine resort regularly for 15 winters. Well, for the first few of those it might more accurately have been described as bumsledding, using regular shots of pomme (apple schnapps) as painkillers.

When I discovered the wonders of the Alps in summer, walking the same, now-grassy slopes, pinpointing the friendly looking rocks and ravines that turn into wintertime hazards, it stood me in good stead. Thanks to the summer-gained knowledge, I once led a panicking bunch of Americans down a piste, holding hands, step by sideways-step, during a 'white-out'. That's when a blizzard turns snow, air and sky into one disorientating blur. You don't know whether you're coming or going, up or down. We got down. More pomme.

This month, Verbier became the mecca for the world's best exponents of paragliding. While the eyes of most British sporting enthusiasts, and sports editors, were on the fortunes of Kevin Keegan and Linford Christie, a valiant bunch of Brits, largely ignored back home, were flying the flag, and their brightly coloured parachutes, at the World Paragliding Championships.

Paragliding, running off mountain ledges while harnessed to narrow parachutes, manoeuvring from point to point, 'picking up thermals' (hot air currents where the sun heats mountain slopes) to rise and slaloming while hauling in the sides of the 'chute to fall quickly, is sweeping Europe and elsewhere.

Is it dangerous? One German competitor was badly injured on a non-competition day when he disregarded expert advice on wind conditions, hit turbulence and was forced to open his emergency parachute at low altitude. Another German, Till Bauer, 36, was killed when he flew in tricky winds and was pushed over the back of the Attelas mountain and hurled on to rocks.

With obliging winds, paragliders have reached heights up to 4,230 metres, or around 13,000ft. It's awfully cold up there and the two cameras usually carried in competition - they have to photograph given landmarks to prove their course - tend to freeze up. The distance record stands at 281km, or around 170 miles in a single flight. Competitors also carry two-way radios tuned in to an emergency frequency.

After entangling himself in a pine tree in the championships, a Swiss competitor was heard to call in: 'I'm okay. But I think I'll go water skiing next year.'

The British competitors here were a bit disappointed that their efforts were passing largely unnoticed back home. While sports photographers from France, Germany and Japan were there with their big bazooka lenses, the British team's official photographer, Ray Wood, couldn't get a nibble from football- and athletics-engrossed picture editors back home.

The Brits didn't do too badly, although reigning World Champion Robbie Whittall of Leeds, running into what in the jargon is known as 'heavy sink' (the downward pressure of cold air) and untimely cloud, lost his title to Switzerland's Hans Bollinger and slipped to 15th in the world rankings. Thanks to a magnificent piece of flying and a daredevil finish on the final day, however, John Pendry of the Isle of Wight snatched the individual bronze medal and helped the British team to third place in the nations' trophy behind Switzerland and Austria.

Pendry had been running behind the leaders on the last day but gained altitude and, arriving high above the finishing line, hauled in the sides of his 'chute and swung dramatically from side to side in a rapid fall to cross the finish line first within the maximum finishing altitude of 300 metres.

You might think Ukrainian Sergey Shelenkov would have been disappointed with his 119th place finish out of 121 competitors. But Sergey, using a paraglider he stitched together himself based on photographs in magazines, won over the other competitors with his pluckiness and broken English - 'I no afraid. Ukraine man no afraid nothing' - and went home with several sophisticated gliders donated by the sponsored teams.

The Taiwanese team leader, Augustine Pan, appeared satisfied with the 70th place of his best flyer, K C Weng, particularly since the team had been formed only two months ago. 'Trouble with other flyers. They fly okay. Go here. Go there. But forget take pictures. Without pictures, no points,' Mr Pan explained.

Gin Song, a likeably cocky Korean who had been threatening the leaders in the early stages, had a bad fall on the penultimate day and was winched onto a helicopter to hospital, ruining his championship hopes. But he insisted on flying on the final day in excruciating pain, with the help of a tight corset beneath his overalls, and was one of only eight competitors out of 80 who reached the finish behind Pendry.

Limping across the meadow to where the Englishman, already stripped of his gear, was playing with his daughter, the flyer from Seoul told me: 'John's my hero. He like a bird, you know. He climb faster than anybody else. He smell the thermals.'