Bertrand Piccard’s Laps Around the World


Halfway through day nineteen, with the journey’s end in sight, Jacques Piccard spoke to his son from the control room in Geneva. “You still have to land,” he said. “When you land, you must bend your knees.” They set down in the Egyptian desert with one per cent of their fuel remaining. But, for Piccard, the elation of a world first was tempered by the scale of consumption it required. “I made a promise to myself,” he recalled. “The next time I would fly around the world, it would be with no fuel.”

When Bertrand was a child, the director of NASA‘s Marshall Space Flight Center expressed a hope that he would “continue the Piccard family tradition of exploring both inner and outer space.” For as long as he had been alive, he had been tagging along to functions where scientists and astronauts treated him as the future of their fields. But, in secret, Bertrand was afraid that he might not live up to his family name. He was terrified of heights. He was scared to hike in the Alps with his grandfather; he could hardly climb trees to pick fruit. Once, he tied a rope to his house’s balcony and attempted to let himself down, but got stuck and screamed for his father.

“I didn’t come to Washington to compromise. I came here because I was bored and rich and I like parking for free at the airport.”

Cartoon by Lars Kenseth

One day, when Bertrand was sixteen, he saw a man soaring through the skies over an alpine village near Lake Geneva, attached only to a triangular wing. It was the first time he had seen a hang glider, and in that moment—against his deepest insecurities—he decided that this sport was for him. His father, Jacques, opposed the idea, but Bertrand started trading antique rifles to buy his own equipment. Jacques paid only for his safety gear—his helmet, parachute, and pads. During Bertrand’s first flight, he crashed into a chimney. But before long he was training in aerobatics—launching his hang glider out of hot-air balloons, performing loops and rolls over the Swiss Alps, chasing eagles between thermal lifts in the sky.

When Piccard’s body was cutting through the air at seventy miles an hour, his mind was a blank, his fears forgotten. What mattered was the tensing of his muscles, the shifting of his weight, the angles of his joints. He wasn’t dismissive of the stakes—he lost friends to accidents, and his body, at times, was subject to forces more than four times that of gravity. But in the sky he felt fully in the moment, and utterly alive. “The word ‘vigilance’ takes on a new meaning when your life is in your hands,” he wrote. “Your own existence takes on a new dimension, it acquires a special flavor when you learn to preserve it personally, when you are in charge of it.”

After high school, Piccard enrolled in the psychiatry department at the University of Lausanne, where he continued his study of fear and ways to overcome it. He learned to parse its meaning as an irrational projection of a negative future scenario that, with sufficient focus and training, was unlikely to come about. “This was such a revelation to me,” he recalled. “When you are fully in what you do—fully in the presence of yourself, in your body—there is no space for fear. There is just no space for fear! Because you are inside yourself, in the present moment, and not projecting yourself in the future.” As part of his preparation for school exams, Piccard would set aside his reading and take to the sky. He began to think of the lower atmosphere above the Swiss Alps as a vast laboratory of solitude, a place where he could study his inner world and experience, second by second, the ways in which his decisions determined his trajectory. Hang gliding, he wrote, was “a meeting face to face with the present, almost a way of stopping time.”

After college, Piccard recalled, “I thought, I have to go into psychiatry and psychotherapy, because it is where I will be able to implement professionally what I learned through hang gliding.” He attended medical school, worked in a hospital, and studied Freud, while also performing in air shows. In 1985, when he was twenty-seven, he won a European hang-gliding aerobatics competition. A few years later, as a practicing psychotherapist, he began studying hypnosis and incorporating it into sessions. “In psychoanalysis, people understand where the problem comes from, but they don’t necessarily feel better,” he told me. “In hypnosis, you have the exact opposite! After a few sessions, you don’t necessarily know why you have the problem, but you feel much better.”

For his patients, as in the sky, Piccard sought to consider and manipulate the experience of time. He found that his depressed patients were fixed on the past, and his most anxious ones were consumed by the future. Through hypnosis, he sought to re-create the intermediate space, where patients could heal from past traumas and confront their fears. “You have to invent a new strategy for every patient,” he said. But certain aphorisms could be universally applied: “You must overcome the past by doing something in the present that helps you in the future.”

In 1992, Piccard attended a dinner at the annual balloon festival in Château-d’Oex. Then in his mid-thirties, he had a trim, athletic build and piercing blue eyes, and he’d developed an intense manner of listening to people that left them grasping for his attention the moment it was withdrawn. He arrived late, and took the only remaining seat, next to Wim Verstraeten, an accomplished Belgian pilot out of whose balloon Piccard had previously jumped with his hang glider. During the meal, Verstraeten explained that he was preparing to take part in the first ever transatlantic balloon race. The journey would last almost a week, he said, and he was searching for a co-pilot. Another dinner guest suggested Piccard. As a hypnotherapist, she proposed, he could help Verstraeten alternate smoothly between states of hyper-alertness and rest. Verstraeten leaped at the idea; Piccard, who had never piloted a balloon, agreed. When they took off from Bangor, Maine, a few months later, he had completed only five hours of pilot training.

If not for the visual evidence, a passenger in a balloon might hardly know that he had left the ground. You don’t feel the wind; you simply inhabit it. Sounds from below—children playing, dogs barking—come at a muted remove. For some fliers, the stillness is accompanied by a sense of negation of the self. You are suspended as if living in a postcard, or perhaps undergoing the kind of out-of-body experience some people report after brushes with death. Now you can stare a mountain peak in the face. Only the rhythmic burning of the fuel—a jet of flames for a few seconds, followed by silence for several more—serves as a reminder that you’re in a wicker basket, kept aloft by the temperature of some air particles.

The pilot has less time to take it all in. There are tasks to complete for maintaining altitude and direction, instruments to monitor, fuel tanks to swap out when empty. As Verstraeten grew tired, he asked Piccard to help him fall into a deep, regenerative sleep.

Piccard instructed Verstraeten to hold out his thumb and tense his muscles as much as possible. “Stretch it above the skyline,” he said. “There we are . . . that’s fine.” Now relax the muscles. “Your arm is stretched . . . and it may become a little heavier . . . perhaps a lot heavier . . . like your eyelids . . . which will eventually close by themselves.” He matched his breathing to Verstraeten’s, and spoke only as Verstraeten exhaled. Every fifteen seconds, Piccard fired up the burners, to stay aloft. “That noise you can hear is all right,” he told Verstraeten. “I’m the one who’s piloting . . . you don’t have to do anything . . . your breathing is getting heavier . . . like your arms . . . and your eyelids. . . . Verstraeten nodded off. Piccard, who did not yet have a balloon license, flew over the Atlantic.

The wind carried the balloon east, toward the Portuguese coast, and Verstraeten and Piccard won the race. Two other teams completed it, and the rest ditched over the ocean.

Back in Switzerland, Piccard returned to his psychiatry practice, transformed. He adopted a new ballooning metaphor for his patients—and for the corporate and TED-talk circuits, where he has honed his skills in public speaking. “In the balloon, like in life, we go in unforeseen directions,” he said. “And as long as we fight horizontally—against the winds, against what’s happening to us—life is a nightmare.” The solution, he proposed, was to change altitude, and catch a different wind. “And how do you change altitude? You drop ballast.” Identify what is holding you back, and shed the excess, in order to rise. Pioneers, he argued, are those who not only seek conclusions but live the questions themselves, unattached to unhealthy habits, dogmas, or beliefs. Exploring the vertical axis, he continued, “means to explore all the different ways to do, all the different ways to behave, all the different ways to think, before we find the one that goes in the direction we wish.”

E. O. Wilson writes of a Swedish physiologist who was once asked what he thought of the Pope’s assertion that the Virgin Mary was taken bodily into Heaven. He reportedly replied that he couldn’t be sure, because he wasn’t there, but of one thing he was certain: she passed out at thirty thousand feet.

All human settlements fall within a tiny band of the lower atmosphere, from the Dead Sea region to La Rinconada, a Peruvian gold-mining village in the high Andes, three miles up. At that altitude, half of the atmospheric pressure is gone, and, if you go a little higher, the air becomes so thin that your lungs struggle to inflate. Beyond five miles, there isn’t enough oxygen for humans to survive. Hypoxia sets in. Twelve miles up, where there is barely any atmospheric pressure, your blood would start to boil. No one knows exactly where to define the limits of the atmosphere; by one measure, it extends nearly to the moon. But the range of what for us is habitable is astonishingly small—a mere film around the planet, making possible the formation of complex life.

Every planet has an atmosphere, and each, besides our own, is unique in its particular hostility to life. The average wind speed on Neptune is seven hundred miles per hour. Jupiter’s swirling red spot is a multicentury storm. Venus’s surface temperature is nine hundred degrees. But Earth’s atmosphere—for us, for now—works. It allows for liquid water in the oceans. It insulates the planet from wild fluctuations in surface temperature between daytime and night. Its weather, even at its most extreme, is incredibly mild on a cosmic scale. Still, it is indifferent to the maintenance of our existence. “I don’t think the planet is in danger,” the Italian physicist Giorgio Parisi said, in a recent interview. “But we are.”

What the atmosphere maintains within it is no more important than what it keeps out; its mass of particles serves as a defense against constant bombardment by cosmic rays—high-energy particles, hurtling toward us at nearly the speed of light, from the births and deaths of stars in the farthest reaches of the universe. Were they to hit us directly, they would cause damage to every aspect of our bodies, by breaking the strands of our DNA.

Perhaps the most audacious study of cosmic rays was carried out in 1931, by Auguste Piccard, Bertrand’s grandfather, an eccentric, bespectacled physicist who wrote several groundbreaking scientific papers and predicted the existence of uranium 235. Six and a half feet tall, with ill- fitting clothes and untamed hair, he was known as “the absent-minded professor.” He attended conferences with Max Planck, Niels Bohr, and Marie Curie, and he always carried a slide rule in his pocket. Each morning, he strapped on two watches; that way, if they didn’t match, he knew he had the wrong time.

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