Known as “parapenting” in France, today there are a great number of clubs and organisations in the area whose sole purpose is to get you flying. So, if it is something that you have always fancied trying, or if you would just like to know a bit more about what it involves and who can do it...
From the heights of the mountain tops one can glide down to the bottom of the valley on a tandem paraglider controlled by the instructor. He manoeuvres the parachute while the passenger enjoys the ride and fantastic views. Taking off is the only scary moment; once you have been equipped with a helmet and strapped to the instructor behind you in a rather intimate way, both of you simply point your skis (or board) downhill, and carry on getting faster and faster until the parachute lifts you into the air.
An early intermediate skier can manage the take-off, but for boarders a good technical level is needed. In summer one simply runs down a slope until you take off; no particular level of fitness is required, just the ability to sit back and enjoy the view! One then peacefully glides above the pistes for ten to twenty minutes, aiming to catch thermals to keep you up for longer. Landing is very gentle and no more of an impact than jumping off a step. Top tip: go on a sunny, warm day when the thermals will keep your airborne for longer.
Often described as the "purest and simplest form of aviation", stemming from man’s long term ambition to be able to fly, others simply call it "a pure joy"! Either way, it is currently one of the fastest growing air sports in the world with much of its attraction being in the portability of the equipment; a canopy that weighs relatively little, fits in a rucksack & can be taken all over the world!
Flights can be undertaken solo (but only with prior training from a qualified instructor) or in tandem with a qualified paragliding pilot, therefore opening up the experience to pretty much anyone. Pilots (and passengers!) wear a comfortable “seated” harness that is securely attached to the paraglider (and also to each other, with the pilot behind in the case of tandem flights). The paraglider itself is laid out flat on the ground of the take-off area and the pilot then fully inflates the wing by moving forward when a gentle gust of wind blows. Once inflated, both pilot and passenger run forward a few steps on a downward incline and, with a little manoeuvre from the pilot, you’re airborne!
So how do they stay up there? Paragliders originally developed from parachuting canopies, although it soon became apparent that the two required very different design criteria. Whilst a parachute has to withstand the incredible stresses of opening in free-fall and enable the pilot to descend at a fairly rapid rate; a paraglider is fully inflated before take-off, launched from the ground and requires a good gliding performance and a slow rate of descent. Once this realisation was made, paragliders began to take on more of the design features of the hang glider with a high-lift aerofoil shape and long slender wings.
Now for the science bit……when a paraglider is fully inflated it forms a solid “wing” which creates lift in the same way as that of a conventional aircraft. In order to fly it must create enough lift to carry its own weight and that of the pilot and any passengers, and it achieves this with “gliding flight”. This means that the wing is constantly flying forwards and downwards through the air and in doing so provides a flow over the aerofoil section.
The pilot controls the wing with a series of suspension lines that are thin, but very strong, in order to minimise drag and weight. These lines converge into “risers” (usually 25mm webbing straps) that are attached to the harness and spread the weight load evenly over the wing. They also provide the pilot with a convenient single point to hold when launching, and channel the control lines down to the pilots’ hands so that he/she can steer. The controls are the equivalent of the brakes and steering wheel of a car and so by turning left and right and into and out of the wind or thermals, the pilot is able to speed up, slow down and gain or lose height. Modern paragliders are made out of super lightweight nylon meaning they can soar effortlessly through the air for hours on end in the right conditions.
Pretty much anyone can paraglide from little nippers to your granny, as long as they can run approximately 10m. Flying itself does not require much physical effort (especially if you’re the passenger!), hence why people of all ages and occupations can experience the delights of soaring above the mountain tops with only the birds for company! The main take off areas can be accessed by one of the chair lifts, and from the top, it is usually just a short walk to the take off area.
Clothing is an important factor when flying so you want to wear something that offers a degree of protection from sun/wind/cold etc, even if the weather is hot. Long trousers, a wind proof top, sunglasses and sun cream are essentials, as are good sturdy footwear such as walking boots (with ankle support), which will reduce the chance of slipping on take off or landing.
If this is catching your interest so far, then let us explain the different flying opportunities available...
Plan B : Learning to Fly Solo
If flying tandem was not enough for you and you have decided that “going solo” is the only way fly, then you should book yourself onto a Beginners Paragliding Course. Regardless of what some reckless souls may say, THE ONLY SAFE WAY TO LEARN TO FLY IS TO BE TRAINED BY A PROFESSIONAL QUALIFIED INSTRUCTOR!
The official regulatory body in the UK is the British Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association (BHPA). They have a list of all the registered flight schools in the UK that offer tuition for all levels of pilot. However, what could be nicer than learning to fly in Chamonix?? If fatigue or frustration begins to get the better of you then you only have to glance skywards to be reminded what it’s all about.
The French training is split into three separate weeks: the Initiation course, then the Perf 1 and Perf 2 courses. These can be taken individually or back to back, but they don't have to completed all in the same year. A number of schools in the area offer 5 day Learn to Fly courses, every week from June to October. Courses cost around €450 per person (excluding insurance (approx €40) and ski lifts). During the 5 days you will become familiar with your equipment, learn to master the control of your wing on the ground and make your first solo take offs from the gentle nursery slopes. The remainder of the course is spent building your skills and confidence with a number of smaller flights and then culminating in long flights from the mid-mountain take off zones whilst in full radio contact with your flight instructor. These courses are interactive affaires where you are encouraged to ask questions and the instructors will test you on topics covered – after all, your safety depends on it. In order to make the most of these courses, you should be in reasonable physical shape beforehand as you will be walking up and down the nursery slopes several times while you get the hang of it!
If you have already completed a basic level course (here or elsewhere), then further tuition is available (and necessary) in order to hone and improve your skills in the sky. Improver courses or specialist training in flying thermals, cross-country and even tips on competitive flying are available. You will be asked for proof of previous flying experience (FFVL niveau vert / BHPA Elementary or Club Pilot or equivalent) before being accepted onto these more advances courses.
If you are already an experienced pilot then you will have an absolute field day flying in Chamonix. However, before setting out to fly in completely unfamiliar territory it is always worth seeking advice from your fellow flying club members or from local pilots when you arrive. The more you know about the site and the region, the safer and more enjoyable your flying will be. Don’t rush to be the first to launch; sit and watch what the local pilots are doing as their actions will give you a good indication of prevailing conditions and thermal activity, in addition to your own assessment of the area. Always carry your flying licence or membership card with you and ensure that your medical insurance covers you sufficiently for flying abroad, including 3rd party liability cover.
In the Mont Blanc region, there are a number of flying clubs and schools that you can seek advice from before taking off for the first time. Each is a member of the FFVL – The Federation Francaise de Vol Libre (French Federation of Free Flight) and you can find links to their websites below (in French only):
Club des Gratte-Ciel, Chamonix - has around 100 members and dedicates much time to maintaining and developing paragliding sites in the Chamonix valley.
Daily weather forecasts can be tracked down at the Tourist Office, flying schools, local flying clubs such as those listed above, local newspaper or by telephone. Invariably they will be in French but you can call 0892 68 74 20 and choosing Option 3 (Haute Savoie) where an amusing American robot will tell you what to expect!
Tandem Paragliding in Chamonix
Whether paragliding is a sport that you are thinking of taking up and want to know if you’re going to like it; or if you simply want to experience the truly wonderful feeling of flying amongst Chamonix’ breathtaking scenery - a tandem flight is the perfect introduction.
There are a number of take-off areas up and down the valley where it is possible to fly tandem and you can find more detail on these sites below/here. However, the most popular ones are: Planpraz (Brevent) or Plan de l’Aiguille (Midi mid-station) to land in Chamonix, Grands Montets to Chamonix and Les Houches to Le Fayet. It is even possible to fly from the top of the Aiguille du Midi over the length of the Vallée Blanche! In July and August, it is not possible to take off from the Mont Blanc side of the valley (the Aiguille du Midi lift is just too busy), but at this time of year flying from Grands Montets is a fantastic alternative.
When booking a tandem flight, it is best to do so a day or two in advance and try and allow yourself some leeway in case of bad weather. It is not possible to fly in poor weather conditions so if your flight is cancelled for this reason, every effort would be made to reschedule it for the next mutually convenient time. It would be a terrible shame to miss out on the experience because you left it until your last day. The actual timing of your flight will be influenced to a certain extent by your age and size, but only in so much as it is better for children or petite adults to fly earlier in the day when the wind is not as strong. Certain take-off sites are also better at particular times of the day when known weather patterns will be present.
By far the most popular jump is Planpraz to the Savoy area in Chamonix due to the ease of access from town. It’s a quick ride by minibus to the Brevent gondola. Once at the top, there is a short walk to the take off area where the whole process is clearly and calmly explained and a number of safety checks are carried out before the off. There is no rush at all and even the services of a professional photographer are available at the top to record your big moment! The take off is progressive with no feeling of dropping; it is much more a gentle lift up and away from the ground. Once in the air, very few people feel afraid of the exposure (even vertigo sufferers) as the harness is seated and comfortable and it can feel rather like sitting on a plane (albeit with the windows open!) rather than being on the edge of a cliff.
Ready for the off
Starting to inflate
Off, off and away!
As the passenger, you can choose how you want to fly, usually moving around the mountain to get different views and perspectives instead of circling over the one spot. Don’t forget your camera!! Ensure that it has a strap on it so that it can be securely attached to the harness leaving you free to snap away and not worry about dropping it should you fancy taking the controls yourself for a while. The landing is also a gradual affair due to the excellent manoeuvrability of the wing; you may need to run a few steps but it is usually gentle and certainly less dramatic than a parachute landing. Friends and family can wait for you at the landing area (or see you off at the top if you prefer) and you have time to relax and talk to your pilot once back on terra firma.
The whole activity takes an hour with the flight itself lasting about 20 minutes, taking in 1000m of vertical drop!!. It is possible for a group of you to fly at the same time so you can normally take photos of each other in the air as the pilots will endeavour to fly you close to one another. This flight from Planpraz to Chamonix costs €100per person (+ lift ticket) with Fly Chamonix although reduced prices are available for large groups. A single ride up to Plan Praz costs €11.20 or it is included in your ski pass or summer Mont Blanc Multipass.
If you want to see the photos taken by the professional photographer, then they will give you a card explaining when and how you can view them. There is no obligation to buy one but they make a really nice souvenir to take home (especially to act as proof of your achievement for any non-believers!)
Tandem flights are possible any day of the year……..weather permitting….. and that includes the winter! Flying in winter is actually no colder than skiing and in fact conditions are often more stable in the winter months making it an ideal time to take to the air. The launch is generally done on foot although it can be possible to take off on skis by special request and therefore miss the end of day rush to get off the mountain!
All flight schools have strict safety standards to meet and equipment must be checked and maintained regularly. It takes many, many hours of flying to qualify as a tandem pilot so you can rest assured that you will be in highly qualified hands! There are many professional paragliding companies in the Chamonix valley, please see our Flying & Parapenting listings for details.
Nearly all flying sites in France are open to the public although they may be controlled by one of the local flying schools or clubs, in conjunction with the FFVL. You may find these schools and their tandem pilots have priority at the launch areas. Some sites, for various reasons may well be closed during parts of the year (especially in the nature reserves when animals have young) so it is important to respect these closure periods.
All the official (FFVL) sites have notice boards placed at both the launch and landing areas, giving information of school or club address and phone numbers, rescue services phone number or radio frequencies. These notice boards describe launch directions and landing approaches, flying restrictions, wind and thermal turbulence problems if any, areas that may be dangerous to fly near, and so on. Again this information tends to be in French but English translations are becoming more and more common. Keep your pocket dictionary handy just in case!
Remember that all of the sites described below are areas of outstanding natural beauty and you should ensure that you leave them in perfect condition. Always stick to the marked trails en route to the take off areas and take any rubbish with you. The following site descriptions are courtesy of the FFVL clubs of the Mont Blanc region (see links below), who produce a free guide book (PDF version) (in English and French) covering numerous sites in the area. You can pick up the latest copy at any of the local paragliding schools in town.
Where to take-off in Chamonix: high altitude
High Mountain Take Off Areas
Attention, the following take off areas are on high mountain glacier terrain. The areas are not marked or surveyed and have numerous dangerous crevasses nearby. Those not experienced in glaciers are strongly advised to employ the services of a high mountain guide before venturing to these areas.
Access & Ability
N 45° 56' 52"
E 006° 57' 36" Direction: West Altitude: 3100m Vertical Drop: 2100m
Access: Cable car Lognan and Grands Montets (2 stages). 10 minute walk down from lift station and across glacier. Ability: Qualified autonomous pilot with a basic knowledge of alpinism or the presence of a mountain guide.
Grands Montets is a fabulous flying site for the experienced pilot, yet surprisingly it is much less frequently flown than the previously mentioned areas. However, at 3100m, this is a high altitude take off area so you will need to be in good physical condition to fly here. Also be aware that take off is actually on the glacier so be very careful as crevasses are present close by. Best flown in the afternoon once the warm Chamonix air has been pushed up here by the valley wind, this site offers excellent potential for cross country flying.
Bois du Bouchet (There is no landing area in Argentiere as all previous sites are now completely forbidden)
Aiguille du Midi
N 45° 52' 52"
E 006° 53' 50"
(North Take Off)
N 45° 52' 51"
E 006° 53' 48"
(South Take Off) Direction: North and South Altitude: 3800m Vertical Drop: 2700m
Access: Aiguille du Midi cable car (2 stages). 30 minute descent down the arête (a knife edge ridge) necessitating the use of crampons preferably a rope. The take offs are both situated on high mountain glaciers with crevasses. Mountaineering experience or the presence of a mountain guide is absolutely essential! Ability: Autonomous pilot with excellent take off technique and a sound knowledge of alpinism or the presence of a mountain guide.
With 2700m of vertical drop this is possibly the biggest flight in Europe! The southern take off sends you on an 18km journey above the fabulous Vallée Blanche – the views are amazing! However, as with Grands Montets, this is a high altitude take off area requiring good physical shape and snow conditions can make the take off very tricky. The area can be flown throughout the day although during the winter months; access to the take off area is made slightly easier once the fixed line is put in place for skiers doing the Vallée Blanche. It is not possible to fly in this area during July and August.
Bois du Bouchet
Where to take-off in Chamonix: lower altitude
Access & Ability
GPS: N 45° 56' 08" E 006° 51' 18" Direction: South & North East Altitude: 2000m Vertical Drop:1000m
Access: Planpraz gondola and then 10 minute walk uphill to launch site Ability: Supervised beginner to cross country (XC) pilot
Situated on the north side of the Chamonix Valley, Planpraz has two take-off sites in close proximity to each other – one south facing and the other north easterly. This is one of the most popular sites in the area with local schools and clubs, meaning the take-off area can get quite busy, particularly during summer. This site is useable from 8am through to early afternoon after which, the wind tends to become too strong to fly. As this is a popular area, if nobody is flying there, there is probably a good reason!
Bois du Bouchet or Clos du Savoy
Flegere & Index
GPS: N 45° 58' 06.6" E 006° 52' 33.4" Direction: South to East Altitude: 2350m Vertical Drop:1350m
Access: Flegere cable car and Index chairlift and then a 5 minute walkto take off situated below old lift station (or alternatively on the piste but not during winter). Ability: Supervised beginner to XC pilot
Due to the closure of the popular Brevent/Plan Praz area during summer 2008 to replace the gondola, a new launch site was developed on Flegere to ensure that pilots could continue to enjoy the great thermic flying conditions on this side of the valley. Having said that, Flegere is an area that should be tackled early in the day, generally before 11am, as the wind and thermals become strong as the day goes on requiring good piloting skills. On arrival at this launch site take a moment to absorb the stunning views of the Mont Blanc range and the Mer de Glace as they are among some of the finest from anywhere in the valley.
Bois du Bouchet
GPS: N 45° 54' 17" E 006° 52' 59" Direction: West & North East Altitude: 2233m Vertical Drop: 1233m
Access: 1st stage of the Aiguille du Midi cable car and then a 5 minute walk down beneath the cable car. Ability: Supervised beginner to XC pilot
Situated on the southern side of the valley, right opposite Planpraz, the Plan d’Aiguille has Mont Blanc looming overhead and the Bossons Glacier stretching out below. It is a truly beautiful setting and flights from here are best planned from the beginning of the afternoon into the evening. The take off area is pretty rocky underfoot so caution is required. It is forbidden to launch from or overfly this area in July and August
Bois du Bouchet
Merlet - Les Houches
GPS: N 45° 54' 41" E 006° 49' 09" Direction: South & South West Altitude: 1600m Vertical Drop: 600m
Access: By car travelling from Les Houches, route de Coupeau towards the Merlet animal park. 10 minute walk following the signs for the footpath to “Aiguilette des Houches”. Ability: Autonomous to XC pilot
This launch area is quite small and stony with only really space for one glider at a time. You can catch great thermals from here if the wind conditions are light and is best used late in the afternoon. Avoid flying over the animal park itself so as to avoid scaring the animals and causing conflict with the owners.
Cachat gravel pits **See warning below**
Grand Prarion - Les Houches
GPS: N 45° 53' 46" E 006° 44' 62" Direction: West Altitude: 1900m Vertical Drop: 1300m
Access: From Les Houches Prarion gondola, turn directly right after leaving the cable car station and follow the path marked Grand Prarion for 15-20 minutes. The take-off should be on your left, marked with a windsock or streamers. Ability: Beginner to XC pilot
Similar to the Merlet take off, Grande Prarion is small and steep and only has space for one glider at a time. It is only possible to fly from here if the breeze is directly on which generally happens at the beginning or end of the afternoon.
Le Fayet/ Passy-Marlioz (Batistock)
Prarion North Easterly
GPS: N 45° 53' 46" E 006° 44' 62" Direction:North East Altitude: 1853m Vertical Drop: 843m
Access: 1st stage of the Les Houches Prarion gondola and the launch site is next to the drag lift, 100m across from the lift. Ability: Beginner to XC pilot
As a complement to the Grand Prarion site, this north-easterly facing launch site is best flown in the morning. It is possible to fly from here in light fohn conditions if the wind at take off is gentle. If in doubt, ask at the lift station. In winter, it is not possible to take off from the piste but there is a possibility to take off from the plateau by the gondola station but beware of the cables.
The Chamonix valley has a number of well established official landing areas dotted up and down its length. They are generally well marked with windsocks or flags and you should always visit your chosen landing area prior to taking off as some of them have limited landing sections or tricky aspects to negotiate.
None of the Chamonix landing areas can be seen from the launch sites, however, once in the air they are all very easy to spot.
It is imperative that you only land on official sites as not doing so can cause conflict with local landowners. A number of landing areas in the valley have already been lost as a result of the impolite and disrespectful attitudes of a few pilots. If you do encounter problems and are forced to make an emergency landing somewhere, always be polite and apologetic and offer to pay for any damage caused to the landowners’ property or crops if necessary (your 3rd party liability covers you for such eventualities).
Where to land in Chamonix
Access & Ability
Landing field for:
Bois du Bouchet
GPS: N 45° 55' 53" E 006° 52' 43" Altitude: 1040m
Access: By car, leave the Mont Blanc roundabout (in the centre of town) heading towards Argentiere and the landing area is 500m further on, on the left just after the sports centre. Ability: Beginners to XC pilots
This large landing field surrounded by trees is the principle landing area for Chamonix. It is important to go no further downwind than the small road leading to the gravel pit in order to ensure you hit target. In the afternoons, valley winds can reach speeds of up to 20/30km/h. In winter time, cross country skiing takes priority at the Bois du Bouchet so check with one of the clubs or schools for the alternative landing area.
Planpraz, Plan d’Aiguille, Grands Montets, Aiguille du Midi.
Clos du Savoy
GPS: N 45° 55' 42" E 006° 51' 65" Altitude: 1050m
Access: By car, leave the Mont Blanc roundabout (in the centre of town) heading towards Le Brevent and at the cross roads by Hotel Alpina turn right – direction Les Praz/Argentiere. After 500m, turn left and the landing is on the left, opposite Hotel Sapiniere. Ability: Autonomous to XC pilots
Although this site is large, it is enclosed and surrounded by buildings so you need to be careful especially later in the day when the valley breeze picks up. There has been more than one errant pilot landing on the roof of the nearby hotel! This area transforms into the nursery ski slopes in winter when landing is completely forbidden. Check with one of the clubs or schools for the alternative landing area.
Cachat Gravel Pits
GPS: N 45° 53' 60" E 006° 49' 24" Altitude: 950m
Access: From Chamonix, take the Route des Gaillands in the direction of Les Houches. After Taconnaz, turn right into a narrow lane by the roundabout on the main road. Ability: Autonomous to XC pilot
Essential to visit this site before take-off to ensure that the landing area is free of obstacles and that work is not being carried out moving gravel. Approach can be turbulent.
Le Fayet/Passy-Marlioz (Batistock)
Access: Le Fayet/Passy is at the bottom of the valley and the landing area is on Avenue Grange Vallet (opposite Batistock). Ability: Supervised beginner XC pilots
Landing area is in the north-east corner of the field by the windsock. Be respectful of the crops that grow in the remainder of the field and pack your glider up along the edge of the road.
Prarion - Les Houches
Bois du Bouchet
GPS: UTM 0327610 E -5085185 Altitude: 1010m
Access: Pass by the Prarion cash desk, turn right at the roundabout and follow the metalled road to the end. Do not enter the private gravelled road. Ability: Autonomous pilots
The use of this landing field is highly sensitive and your care and consideration when using it will help further negotiations to fully register this site with the FFVL. Please respect the indicated packing and landing areas and do not drive upon, unfold your glider or even look at (!) the small track to the south of the landing field. Once the valley wind picks up (from around 11am) landing conditions can be variable and difficult here. To be avoided later in the day.
Prarion North Easterly
Paragliding the Vallee Blanche
The 2010 Summer Nissan Outdoor Games videos from Chamonix –
Look skywards on any given day in Chamonix and you're sure to see at least a couple of colourful parachutes floating down from the summits, on a sunny day the clear blue skies are full of them!
The Vallee Blanche is one of the most stunning take-off points and gives incredible views of the landscape on the way down, as seen in this video by Chamonix local Tim Reeve.