“We can do a little ‘hike and fly,’ what do you think?”
I’m on the phone with Yael Margelisch, the 2021 world champion of women’s paragliding, and she wants to know if I am free the next day. We had discussed meeting the following week, but the forecast was now for snow. The next morning was our best bet. Could I drive two hours from my home in the French Alps to Verbier, Switzerland, that night?
Margelisch, 31, doesn’t mess around. In addition to the world champion title, she holds two official world records in women’s paragliding, including the longest distance covered in a single flight: 343 miles, during 10 hours and 20 minutes in the air. She’s traveled around the globe to compete—Ecuador, Argentina, Turkey—but she says she’ll never move away from Verbier, her hometown, where she can do all the sports she loves while staying close to her family. She can also earn a living practicing her passions, working as a ski instructor in winter and as a paragliding guide year-round.
Margelisch had a different dream as a child: She wanted to become a helicopter pilot. When a minor problem with her vision disqualified her from that career, she was crushed. But she now says it’s a good thing—it’s what led her to paragliding, an engineless form of flight in which she uses suspended handles to steer a curved wing. Under the guidance of a friend’s brother, a paragliding instructor, she made her first solo flight at 18. She landed in the trees but loved it nonetheless. Flying felt like the ultimate freedom, and Margelisch was enthralled by the perspective it gave her. Instantly, she says, she was hooked.
Progress was slow at first, in part because Margelisch struggled to gain confidence in her own ability to fly. But she kept at it, building her endurance for hike-and-fly situations through running, biking, and weight training, all while paragliding as much as she could. In 2015, after she’d been flying for about six years, she participated in her first competition, racing other paragliders to fly between fixed points in the shortest time possible. “From the beginning, I performed well, so that motivated me to continue,” she says.
There weren’t many women in the sport when Margelisch began flying, though she sees more now than she used to. But paragliding, which gained more widespread popularity in the 1980s, still remains dominated by men. At the international level, Margelisch says, about 10 percent of competitors are women; in the U.S. Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association, just under 11 percent of members are women. Even in the outdoor sports hub of Verbier, of the town’s 11 paragliding instructors, Margelisch is the only woman—but hopefully not for long.
Roughly half of Margelisch’s clients for tandem flights are women, and in the past year she’s received about a dozen messages from young women paragliders, saying they’ve been inspired by her. Margelisch is excited to see more women joining the sport, though a desire for recognition has never been her motivation. She’s always just done what she wanted: spend as much time in the air as she can.
The morning after our phone call, Margelisch and I meet at the tidy apartment she shares with a roommate in Verbier. Margelisch has the trim, strong build of a middle-distance runner, and her brown hair is tied back in a tightly cinched ponytail. We drive to a quiet spot on the edge of town and park below a broad, treeless slope that rises more than 2,500 feet above us.
Margelisch passes me the smaller of two backpacks, then straps the bigger one—the one with the wing inside—across her shoulders. We set off hiking a roughly 2.5-mile trail that feels like it goes straight up the side of the mountain. I’m out of breath within minutes but manage to keep up—mainly because Margelisch is doing most of the talking. When she first started to paraglide, she says, she feared the turbulence, which feels like what you might experience on an airplane, but without a metal tube to shield your body from the wind.
“When you’re flying, things are always shaking a bit,” she says. “I had to learn to tell the difference between normal thermals and wind turbulence. Once I understood what was OK, things were much better.”
After we get to the top of the slope, it takes Margelisch mere minutes to unfurl the wing from her pack. She splays it on the ground: a 37-foot-wide crescent of paper-thin fabric, its bright white, azure, and orange colors vibrant against the dull brown grass. She steps into the harness and helps me do the same, then offers a couple of brief instructions: lean forward when you feel resistance, keep walking no matter what. I hear the wing rustle to life behind us. Then our feet are off the ground, and the Earth falls away. Though we’re floating a couple hundred feet above land, I feel more relaxed than I have in a long time.
The sunlit roofs of Verbier gleam in the distance, framed by sparkling snowcapped mountains. Above us, the wing swells in the breeze and holds our weight with a steadiness that surprises me: On this day, the crisp, late-autumn air is almost perfectly still. Behind me, Margelisch is mostly quiet as she steers us in gentle loops. My bare face tingles in the cold, and I start to laugh like a five year old on a merry-go-round. The only other noise is the wind, until I hear a yodeling sound coming from somewhere below.
“That’s my father,” Margelisch says. I look down and see a figure standing in a field next to a house, which Margelisch tells me is her childhood home. We float quietly, and some 20 minutes later, we land.
A few days after I return to France, Margelisch texts me a video that her father took at that moment. From a distance, we seem to be almost still in the bright blue sky. I can make out Margelisch’s voice, low and steady, and then I hear my own laugh in the wind.
Three popular paragliding schools near Verbier provide training and one-off flights: Gravité0, Fly Verbier, and Verbier Summits. Margelisch also offers visitors and locals 20-minute tandem flights for a fee. Travelers can contact her via her website, yaelmargelisch.com.