I'm afraid of heights. that should have made me the least likely candidate to float 3,000 m over the Alps in a hot-air balloon. But the prospect of taking the trip with a world-famous adventurer like Bertrand Piccard, the man who made history with his 1999 round-the-world balloon flight, was enough to overcome my inhibitions.
Piccard, a 42-year-old Swiss psychiatrist, hypnotist, balloonist and acrobatic sky-diver, proposed a 7 a.m. rendezvous at a ballooning field in Château d'Oex, near the eastern shore of Lake Geneva. Piccard's pale green eyes glow with enthusiasm as he explains his philosophy of ballooning. "It's a metaphor for life itself," he says. "The balloon is pushed by the winds and is a prisoner of them, just as a human being is a prisoner of life. For a balloon to change direction, it has to change altitude and find other wind currents. In life, we also have to change altitudes — psychological, philosophical and spiritual — and find other directions."
The day is just dawning, and the air is chilly. While we wait for copilot Bernard Klaus, Piccard elaborates on his theory of risk. "Contrary to what most people think," he says, "the biggest danger is not stress but routines — everything that makes humans function in an automatic way. True adventure confronts the human being with the unknown and forces him to find other ways to relate to himself and to others. Risk is an apprenticeship in flexibility, a game with life's unknowns."
At 7:30 a.m., Klaus arrives in a black pickup truck with a canvas-covered trailer behind. Along with an assistant, he starts to pull off the tarp, revealing the wicker gondola, the burner and other bits of equipment. The gondola looks disturbingly fragile to me.
As the balloon begins to float gently skyward, I am disturbed to note that the first thing we fly over is a cemetery. I swallow hard and gaze over the side at the green valley below. The cows look like ants as they graze on the green pastures. As we fly over a series of lakes, Piccard grins and looks out with an almost childlike delight at the panorama unfolding below. "This is the light I love," he says. "The mountains to the left are bathed in sunlight, those on the right are still in shadow." He points out the Jura range, Mont Blanc with its majestic snowy cap, Lake Geneva, the blue-gray Plaine Morte glacier over Crans-Montana. The scene is breathtaking, and my anxiety eases in the face of all that beauty.
"Speaking of risk taking," I ask, "what is the most dangerous thing about ballooning?" "Having to land in a bad place," Piccard replies. "That can happen when there is no wind and your gas starts to run out. You can find yourself blocked over the Alps for two hours and have to land on a forest or a rocky mountain peak." I'm sorry I asked.
The balloon has reversed direction and is now headed northeast. Piccard checks the altimeter: 2,700 m and falling, back from where we came. "I have to brief you on the landing," he announces suddenly. "When we hit the ground, it can be a real jolt. Bend your knees to absorb the shock, hold the handles on the side of the gondola. Otherwise, you can be ejected." Piccard squeezes the throttle to prevent the balloon from descending too fast. We feel the hot blast of the burners. Piccard points to a barnyard where a dozen or so pigs are running frantically in a circle. "Pigs always go berserk. Sometimes one of them drops dead of a heart attack, and the farmers make us pay for it."
Notwithstanding the porcine panic, Piccard eases the craft toward a field less than 100 m from the pigpen. I brace for the jolt, gripping the sides of the basket to avoid the indignity of being ejected into a pile of cow manure. But the gondola lands like a soap bubble on water. The pickup truck arrives within minutes to collect the equipment and take us back to Château d'Oex. As far as I know, all the pigs survived. And I am elated to be back on terra firma. I have faced risk, braved the unknown, and, hopefully, emerged a better man for it. But I'm still afraid of heights.
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