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Airborne and `Alp'ping it up


The Swiss love their mountains ... flying over them gives you a whole new perspective.

Layer after Layer...a world of white glaciers and blue ranges.

PERSPECTIVES matter. Through the wide windows of our train, hamlets flicker past: wooden chalets sitting on fat, green fields, cows with bells on their collars cropping grass contentedly, ice-melt streams gushing between hamlets; and everywhere, everywhere, the snow-topped mountains rising into the clear blue sky. There seems to be a permanent serenity about Switzerland as if the Gods of the High Alps had banished disharmony from this land.

It's a comforting, Walt Disney-ish, flight of fancy. Or is it? After this morning's experience, it doesn't seem so unreal after all.

This morning, Eddy Peter, our friend in Sion drove us out of his exquisite little village, to the Flying Club. There, 28-year-old Didier Grieb towed a four-seater Robin out of a hanger, wiped down its windows, helped us in ("Step only on the black strip on the wing") and asked us if we had any breathing problems.

"We'll be flying up to 13,000 feet," he said. Our little single prop plane was not pressurised.

We replied that we live at 6,500 feet in the Himalayas and, last month, we'd walked at 13,700 feet in our State of Arunachal. He was reassured. We snapped on our seat belts, he closed the canopy, and the propeller began to turn, faster and faster, till it became a blur. We taxied down the runway, felt a slight lift as if we were in an elevator, and started our one-hour flight over the Alps.

Down below...Human settlements clinging to the valleys

The valley of the Rhone fell away, mountains hunched, hemming it in and extending their fat, knobbly, fingers as if they were holding down the green cushions of the valleys. The gnarled knuckles of these fingers were the high peaks, covered in snow, and the "flesh" between these knuckles were the snowfields and glaciers.

We were high enough now to see how the human settlements clung to the valleys, separated from each other by the intruding fingers of the mountains. A rugged independence was built into the geography of the land. Villagers, forced to be self-reliant with their fields in the valleys, their meadows and farms rising up the slopes, became the Communes of today, levying their own taxes, merging into Cantons that were still independent states with their own flags and laws and language, surrendering only part of their rights to the Confederation.

Didier pointed down. There, far below was the ancient town of Martigny in the bend of the Rhone. Then the nose of the little plane rose, we left the valley behind and began to swing over the mountains. The grey, flinty slopes covered in the serried ranks of vineyards, gave way to the high pastures, the Alpine meadows, which nourished the famed milch cattle of Switzerland. Now, below us was a world of white glaciers and blue ranges rising layer after layer. And there, at the far end, grew the great, squat, snow-covered peak of Mont Blanc, 4,807 metres high: the highest mountain in Western Europe.

We were now soaring on the borders of Italy and France. Wars and unrest had harried those nations repeatedly. But all these troubles had crashed like surf against the foot of the Alps, and mountain-girt Switzerland had lived in peace for 200 years.

In the cockpit a little red light blinked persistently. "That's the radar keeping track of us," Didier said. The tri-junction of three nations was as peaceful and white as the snowfields below. We thought of our Abodes of Snow, our Himalayas, and felt a little anguished. Then we spotted the Great St. Bernard Pass at 2469 m linking Switzerland and Italy and wondered if the Augustinian monks of the monastery still have their burly St. Bernard dogs. These mastiff-like gentle animals saved the lives of over 2,500 people lost in the snow before airborne rescue teams reduced their responsibilities.

All this while, Didier had been pointing out other fascinating things below: skiers and trekkers' huts with the snail-tracks of skis leading away from them; a lonely farm-house sitting atop a quilt of snow; azure lakes scooped out by glaciers; a restaurant and observatory linked by the gossamer strands of a cable car and filled with the colourful dots of waving people; a helicopter like a dragonfly, carrying a sling of supplies for a remote winter-sports facility; the foaming might of hydro-electric stations.

Pilot Didler Grieb and his four-seater Robin aircraft

"Others don't attack us," Eddy Peter had explained, "because we have no base minerals. All we have is the white ore of our glaciers and nice people." But from here, flying high up above them, we saw what they had done. They had tapped their "white ore" to give them unlimited power and irrigation for their smokeless industries, farms and dairies. They had used their harsh flint slopes to grow vines, which liked the drainage and the reflected heat and light of these stony slopes. They had, quite literally, created winter tourism and made their little land into the picture-postcard holiday destination of the world.

We were lost in our thoughts, relaxed on our little flying carpet, when Didier pointed ahead. There, rising like a triumphant finger into the cobalt-blue sky, was the 4,478 m high peak of the Mattterhorn. This was its dramatic southwest face; its other side lay in Italy. We did a sharp left turn here and began to head back to Sion.

We were very pensive as we began to descend into the valley. We too, have mountains at home: higher mountains with more ice-melt streams and rivers than anywhere else in the world; and more "white ore" than any other place excluding the Polar regions. We revere our mountains and rivers deeply, we worship them. The Swiss love their mountains and work with them, reaching out to the world to make their mountains and rivers and lakes better known and better loved by everyone.

We landed, stepped out of our flying carpet and looked up at the high, benign, Alps. Everyone should wing over the Alps. It gives one a new perspective on things. And perspectives do matter.

Our flight was arranged by Alpine Tours, Aeroport de Sion, Sion — Tel: 0273235707 — Fax: 027335707. Cost: S.Fr.290 for two passengers for 60 minutes.

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