Due to the pain of jetlag, we were wide awake as the sunlight started to crest the high alpine mountains and flood into the valley. Ensuring all the equipment was packed properly and nothing forgotten, I pulled the tandem rucksack onto my back, tightening the buckles so it sat comfortably on my body. I asked my 3.5-year-old daughter if she was ready for our adventure and she replied with a loud, chirpy “YES”!!! I then asked her if she wanted to start the hike from the bottom in which she also happily replied “Not yet Daddy, you can carry me”. Begrudgingly I lifted her on top of the tandem rucksack and with the use of the tandem compression strap, strapped her legs around my arms, ensuring she couldn’t fall off. As I began the hike and felt the full weight of equipment plus child combined with the steepness of the trail, I began to realise this wasn’t going to be as easy as I first imagined…….
The idea of this Daddy Daughter hike and fly first came to me in October 2017 with the aim to raise money for Spinal Injury Research. I contacted a number of charities in Australia who all loved the concept, but also quickly replied that they couldn’t be involved with a fundraising event which involved lobbing a 3.5-year-old girl off an Austrian Mountain. Disappointed that we couldn’t fund raise, but still excited about the adventure I could share with my daughter, we changed our focus from doing it for charity to doing it for the family, and making it as fun as possible.
Selfishly, I quickly realised that the more my daughter Skye could hike the less I had to carry her. That became the start to our weekly “Daddy Daughter Hikes”, which involved hiking and bouldering around the bush land that surrounds the Sydney Harbour foreshore. As this became routine, we pushed our distances out to 6.5km, and she loved being in nature and seeing the lizards, birds and other wildlife. Just before our departure to Europe, she completed 2 x 4km hikes with reasonable vertical gain and I thought of myself as a genius, as she would be able to hike the majority of the way to the top of the mountain in Austria. I was wrong………
The mountain we chose to hike up is called the BurgStall, which sits at 2606m (It was one of Hillarys training mountains in the lead up to his Everest ascent). Our aim was to start from our amazing accommodation and head directly up a trail to the Starkenburger Hutte, launching at around 2250m. We had just over 5km of distance and 1300 vertical meters to climb. We would try to launch before 0900 and avoid the morning thermals as I would be flying the tandem just inside the weight limit, landing in a small field directly behind our hotel.
25mins into the hike, the trail met a forest service road and I put Skye down for her first hiking section. We then slowly hiked the road together for the next 20mins until we reached the next section of the trail. Skye had decided it was more fun (or more comfortable) to walk rather than to be carried, and we began our next section hiking through deep alpine forest. We continued like this for another 15mins, looking at the wild flowers and listening to the cuckoo birds, until the trail became too steep and technical. I realised at that point that I would be carrying her for the rest of the way and mentally prepared myself for another 3km with the added weight (and the never ending chit chat and questions, directly into my ear hole).
Our progress immediately slowed down and I was forced to stop every 10-15mins to rest my back and recover.
Anxious that time was escaping our proposed launch time, we attempted to increase our moving speed and shorten our rest stops. It was 0930 by the time we cleared the tree line and could see the summit of the mountain and the Hutte which was our proposed launch site, still an agonizing 200 vertical meters to climb. The day had already started working and thermals were consistently coming up the east facing side of the mountain. At 1000 I decided it was too late to make the final push to the Hutte and began looking for a suitable launch spot in our vicinity. 150m of traversing a steep grassy hill and we found a nice take off with thermals coming up the face.
After getting Skye rugged up into warm kit and safely secured in her harness, I made the final pre-flight checks and connected daddy and daughter together. With the help of my good friend Howie holding Skye in the air via her carabiners, we waited for a thermal breeze. We didn’t have to wait long before we noticed the thermal tracking up the grassy slope. It started with a small patch of grass moving and as it came closer we could see the wild flowers and grass starting to move more violently. I asked Skye and Howie if they were ready for take off and they both replied “Ready, lets go”. As the thermal arrived and I was happy with the strength and consistency, I reverse launched the wing. The wing quickly climbed over our heads and Skye’s weight was supported by the wing, then with a quick visual check of the wing we started running down the slope. 1,2,3 steps and take off….. All the hard work of the hike up was forgotten and our Daddy Daughter team was rewarded with amazing views from the Stubai Glacier, all the way down to the Inn Valley and Innsbruck.
The lightly loaded wing felt unresponsive as the leading edge bit into the first thermal, but after counting the obligatory 3 seconds (I left my vario behind to save weight on the hike), we started to turn and began climbing higher than launch. With a celebratory Yodel from Howie, we headed Nth and started flying towards the Inn Valley. Skye, who had flown many times with me on the small coastal sites of Sydney, was in awe of the huge landscape opening to us, and kept telling me to “Look Daddy, snow…. Sheep…. mountains…”.
It wasnt long into the flight that I really noticed just how light we were on the tandem (a wing I fly a lot and am very current on) and how easy the tips were collapsing in the moving air. Wanting her to have an amazing, positive experience of mountain flying, I switched the focus of the flight from Xc to just having the most fun we could possibly have together. I turned away from the SthEast facing ridge line and headed out into the valley. I asked Skye where she wanted to fly to and she replied, “To Mummy”, so we headed to our holiday apartments, Schone Aussicht, where my wife was watching our flight from our designated LZ. I gave Skye the radio mike and she radio’d her mother “ Can you see us mummy, we are flying towards you”. After hearing on the radio that mum was watching, Skye was smiling like a toothless toddler in a candy store…. “Now let’s fly over the Church Daddy”. After a 90 degree turn to the left we started heading over the picturesque village of Neustift and their incredible catholic church (with painted ceiling, a la 16th chapel)…. “I want to do wing overs Daddy”. … Now I am an old school acro pilot so I didnt need to be asked twice. The lightly loaded glider was behaving like a bus and struggled to gain energy. Skye, unhappy with our mediocre acro, kept telling me to go “higher, higher”. I proudly laughed at her boisterous nature and told her we couldn’t go higher (liar) as we had to get ready to land. After another quick radio communication with my wife to confirm our landing intentions, we started setting up our final approach directly behind our accommodation. The small field was covered in knee high grass and we would have to slope land due to its steep slope, and had approx. 100m before the next house. We arrived with slightly more height than desired, so we headed higher up the slope to burn off the height, and with a smooth progressive flare we landed smoothly in the soft grass. We high fived and hugged, excited that we had completed our little challenge set 7 months earlier. Walking the 30m down the grassy slope to my anxious wife, I let out a very content sigh and thought to myself “Thank F$%k that worked out well”. Absolutely exhausted from the 30hr international flight 2 days earlier, physical exhaustion and mentally drained from the responsibility of the last 4 hrs, I wanted nothing more than to take a nap. On reaching my wife and 6month old 2nd daughter, waiting for us on the path, My wife asked Skye “ How was that”….. With a slight pause, Skye replied “It was good, but Im ready to go horse riding now…..” Oh to have the energy of the youth…….
As all pilots know, free flight is one of the most rewarding and challenging pursuits to occupy our “spare time”. Unfortunatley it is also an incredibly selfish sport, resulting in the pilot spending hours chasing the sky whilst our families either sit at home, or on the ground. Involving your family/friends in paragliding activities allows you to share the adventure, opening their eyes to our amazing sport and potentially increasing our sports numbers. Whether it be hiking up to a launch together, or sharing the skies in a tandem, a family free flight adventure is never forgotten…..