Parapente Alpes! (Alpes with an 'e' is the European spelling, which
we'll stick with for this page.) Firstly parachutists, then Alpine
mountaineers played an early part in paragliding as a sport.
Flying in the northern French Alpes will give you a hint of what it must have been like for those early para-pilots who started in 1978. Working paragliders had been around since 1965, however!
After a long climb, they would unpack what was really not much more than a modified parachute.
Then, with a lot of help from a breeze coming up the slope, they would part company with the mountain and sail back down into the valley. It had its risks, the canopies were crude, heavy, and came down at a steep angle. The technology has moved on incredibly since then, now giving great increases in both safety and performance.
One of the most well-known spots for parapente in the Alpes is the Chamonix Valley, not far from the famous Mont-Blanc, Europe’s highest mountain.
This mountainous area is just an hour from Geneva Airport or about 9 hours by road from the northern coast of France. There are numerous launch sites facing into the valley, where you can (after waiting your turn sometimes) take a few brisk steps and soar into the alpine air.
Two of these sites are accessible by cable car, and are over 3000m (about 10,000ft) above sea level! For the most awesome views, it's hard to beat the Aiguille du Midi launch at 3700m (12,100ft), directly over the town of Chamonix. The town itself is at 1000m (3,300ft).
It is possible to paraglide down from here for a distance of 18km (11 miles), right over the Vallee Blanche Glacier, with a height drop of 2700m (8,900ft). What glide ratio is that, I hear you ask? Ok smarty, it's just under 7 to 1, so any decent Intermediate canopy could do it.
A bit further up the valley is Les Grands Montets at 3200m (10,500ft). It faces into a huge bowl and is popular for afternoon and evening flying in the warm evening air.
All the sites in the Chamonix area can be accessed by either road or cable car.
Try lugging any other kind of aircraft with you in a cable car! Paragliders are so portable.
The north of France is a high pressure area and consequently the Chamonix region has four seasons, the humidity averaging less than 50% year-round. Winter days are chilly but during Summer the weather is sunny and quite hot by European standards, with maximums often in the 30's (Centigrade). Great for parapente Alpes-style!
From February to late September, most days are flyable and this is the time for local or cross-country flying in thermals. In fact, this area is known for long-distance flights and many European records have been set here. For pilots flying in parapente, Alpes thermals are active early and continue until sunset, often being triggered off rocky mountain faces and hillsides. Perfect! In Spring, thermals can top out at 3500m (11,500ft).
At other times of the year, there are of course numerous ridge soaring opportunities for paragliding in these mountains. However, it can take a bit of patience sometimes, as each site has its own special requirements. For example, you might hear an instructor say 'this face works best in south-easterlies of around such-and-such kph'.
Wrong direction, and the air tends to flow around the ridge rather than up and over. Not enough wind and the lift is too weak to enable you to maintain height. If it's blowing a gale you will get 'blown back' out of the lift area, if you can get launched at all! You get the picture. But when everything is right - such smooth air, such a relaxing ride in your arial arm-chair!