A bird with an impressive wingspan is circling steadily through the air. A golden eagle, perhaps, or a bearded vulture? Hard to tell from this distance. It does, however, reveal the invisible column of warm air that is carrying the bird up to the heights. Just a couple of quick paces and we are emulating it, lifted into the air by a colourful wing of ripstop woven nylon: 13 metres wingspan, and a total area of 42 square metres. The pilot, Peter Käch, masterfully steers the paraglider into the thermal and circles steadily skywards. From this bird’s-eye view, it is clear that the Engadin has none of the oppressively narrow and cut-off nature of many other alpine valleys. This is true not only of the topography of the landscape but also of life in the valley. So it is not unusual that Peter Käch – whose dialect clearly reveals that he is from the canton of Bern – is not only a paraglider pilot and operator of the Morteratsch campsite, but also a member of the Pontresina local council. And of the seven councillors, he is not the only one to have ended up here from other parts of Switzerland or indeed the world. There are many different ways to the Engadin, linking it via various mountain passes in all directions of the compass to the world outside the valley. “The thing that makes the Engadin so open to the world also makes it harder to fly here,” Peter explains. Different winds blow over the passes and through all the valleys and side valleys – such as the Bernina wind, which blows from the eponymous mountain pass in the direction of Pontresina. By far the best known is the Maloja wind: the reason that this high valley, at an altitude of about 1,800 metres, has gained a reputation as a paradise for windsurfing, kitesurfing and snowkiting.
Peter Käch’s involvement with the Engadin began in 1990 with a small ad in the “Berner Zeitung” daily newspaper. Pontresina Youth Hostel was advertising for deputy directors. “I didn’t even know where Pontresina was exactly,” recalls Peter, who was working as a teacher at the time. Nonetheless, he and his wife Kathrin, who had qualified as a housekeeping manager, decided to go for the adventure. “If not now, when?” they said, “after all, we were young and flexible.” Peter had discovered a passion for paragliding only a few years earlier when the sport, still in its infancy, was experiencing a real boom. He soon met like-minded people in his new home region with whom he could share his love of flying – and whose friendship also facilitated his integration in local life in the mountain resort. After a few years in Pontresina, the couple returned to the lowlands for a while, but the high valley never quite lost its hold on them. So in 2012, when the Morteratsch campsite was looking for new managers, the Kächs returned to Pontresina – this time as a family, with two children.
High up in the air, it is hard to have an exact sense of space and time – though the variometer, a device that measures vertical speed, beeps steadily to show that the paraglider is gaining height, and the thermal makes itself felt through gentle vibrations. The view down is bewitching: the landscape could be from a model railway. The buildings on Muottas Muragl seem tiny, like the red funicular crawling up the snow-covered mountainside. Later, we are able to read from the navigation device that we have climbed about three metres per second and circled up to 250 vertical metres above our starting point. The smaller the landscape becomes way below our feet, the more distant the worries and problems of day-to-day life seem. “Two flights a week work wonders for the soul,” Peter says. “Up in the air, there’s no time to be preoccupied with other thoughts. You have to be constantly alert, observe the surroundings and be able to react when wind conditions change – sometimes quickly.” This may sound stressful for the uninitiated, but for the 57-year-old pilot this is a major part of the fasci - nation of flying. Studying the weather, taking account of the topography of the landscape, trying to make the most of the day… For Peter, a good day means staying in the air from morning until evening, without a break. That’s a long time, in which pilots can also clock up impressive distances. “In about 1990 I flew from the Upper Engadin as far as Scuol; back then, that caused quite a sensation,” Peter recalls. Thanks to major advances in equipment and also his own skill, he can now fly from the Corvatsch even as far as near Salzburg, about 300 kilometres away. He rarely has time for such adventures, but the urge to discover new routes and regions from on high still has Peter reaching for the skies time and again, even after more than 30 years as a paraglider pilot. And he will not be giving up for a long time to come: “As long I can carry the rucksack and run a few paces, I’ll keep flying.