High Adventure in Chamonix, Part II
An informational travelogue during which we discuss motion sickness as well as other forms of queasiness.
Note: This is the second part of a two-part series discussing sport-induced nausea and vomiting in the context of my recent adventures in Chamonix, France. Part one received solid feedback, so thank you!
Still in a glycogen-depleted haze after stumbling up the Kilométre Vertical, I stared at the dry clothes my wife Marilyne insisted I wear for my surprise paraglider ride.
In addition to various high-tech outerwear, she had brought clean underpants and suggested I change those too—a perfectly legal public activity in France. Instead, I pulled my pants over my sweat-soaked running shorts. Nuding up around strangers doesn’t bother me but nuding up in front of my in-laws as they giddily record my every move with their iPhones pushes my boundaries slightly.
I pulled on a Gore-Tex shell on loan from Elie as Dominique fitted me for a helmet. Because of my abnormally large head, none of them fit. He finally crammed one on that sat atop my head like a clown’s top hat.
He strapped me to his chest and explained the drill. Together, we ran down the steep embankment with all the grace of Dr. Dolittle’s pushmi-pullyu until the sail caught the wind, at which point we launched into the air, the ground quickly dropping away. Dominique used the air currents to pull us higher and higher as we waited for Elie, who would join us after unpacking his sail on the grass below.
I’ve skydived and bungee jumped a few times, but nothing prepared me for this. Sure, you can take in the scenery during those other activities, but I could never get past the fact that I was plunging towards the earth at human pancake-inducing speeds. With paragliding, we actually went up! We stayed in the air, soaring freely, surfing the currents. Inherent risk still existed but the danger didn’t feel as pressing (so to speak), so I enjoyed myself quite a bit more.
Chamonix sparkled in the sun. Mont Blanc loomed in the distance, smiling upon her domain. Trail runners scuttled like little ants below us, switchbacking up the hills. Weird how I’d been one of them 45 minutes ago.
Dominique had handed me a Go-Pro on a selfie stick to document the journey, but I wanted to take pictures with my iPhone, so I began the complex process of holstering the Go-Pro and pulling out the phone, all whilst spiraling upwards thousands of feet in the air.
I immediately regretted doing this.
What causes motion sickness?
Believe it or not, science is not certain about what causes motion sickness. Experts probably agree that futzing around with a bunch of selfie cameras while a guy you met 20 minutes ago steers you in circles at a high altitude is a definite cause—but they’re not sure why.
There are two popular theories. The “sensory conflict theory” postulates that motion sickness is caused by “conflict between the current pattern of sensory inputs about self-movement and the pattern that is expected on the basis of previous experience.” In other words, what you’re doing confuses your senses. They can’t agree on what’s going on, so they freak out. This explains why motion sickness can get worse when you read a map or look at your phone. Your eyes may see a stationary page or screen, but your other senses, including your inner ear, register movement and that doesn’t jibe.
The second one is called the “postural instability theory,” where your body stresses because it loses control of its position and posture. This one better explains why people are less prone to motion sickness while driving (as opposed to being a passenger).
There aren’t any homerun nutritional interventions when it comes to motion sickness. Obviously, avoid spicy, fatty, or heavy meals—anything that’ll pre-stress a digestive system that’s about to deal with motion-induced nausea.
It’s generally thought that your autonomic nervous system—which controls “fight or flight” and “rest and digest” functions—also regulates motion sickness. This is sad for many NPB readers since several studies link increased motion sickness susceptibility with aerobic fitness. This is probably because athletes tend to have a more reactive autonomic nervous system. If you’re a cyclist, runner, or Jazzercise instructor, take heed.
In my opinion, the root cause of motion sickness is probably a mishmash of both theories. As Dominique steered us towards Mont Blanc, my jetlagged, bonky, dehydrated, altitude-challenged senses were completely baffled—and I certainly had no control of my position and posture.
As a wave of nausea surged up my digestive tract, I shoved the various cameras deep into the Gore-Tex jacket, looked out to the horizon, and took several deep breathes—but to no avail.
“I’m going to throw up!” I yelled.
Dominique’s response was lost between his accent, my panic, and the wind. Somewhere in there, I heard “left,” so I lurched left and let go of a surprising volume of vomit, most of which flew back all over Elie’s jacket and Dominique’s leg.
“Sorry,” I mumbled.
“It’s okay,” replied Dominique. “Professional hazard.” He then explained that, next time, he wanted me to stick my head to left between the sail’s straps. I assured him that there would be no next time.
Five minutes later, aka “next time,” I got my head through the straps and released another surprising amount of vomit, this time with minimal soiling of our outerwear.
As Elie circled around us, I quietly worked at salvaging my ego by blaming my digestive frailty on my superior VO2 max. Dominique then gave me the controls so that I could steer for a while—I immediately felt better.
Dominique took back the reins and told me that, normally, this is when he’d do some “acrobatics” but since I was sick, maybe we should land gently.
Red rag, meet bull. I demanded that I had nothing left to barf so he should absolutely go for it. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him shrug as he banked a hard left. We lurched sideway and spiraled hard towards the earth at a terrifying speed. I’m 98% sure we went upside down. The skin on my face pushed back like an astronaut in a centrifuge and my stomach hinted that it had something left to release.
Coming in for a landing.
We straightened up as we approached the landing strip—a grass park about the size of two soccer fields lined by chalets where French kids ran around and waved at the landing paragliders. Marilyne and Nicole waited for us on the grass, all smiles.
We were a few feet above the children when my third wave of nausea hit. I cursed the little bastards. Why was this interesting to them? They saw this all day! Why couldn’t they be inside playing on their PlayStations like American kids? To avoid an international incident, I forced the vomit back and swallowed. (If you’ve ever done this, you know it is difficult and unpleasant. Those little punks should be grateful.)
Unlike the launch, I didn’t need to run to land. I just scooted on my butt as we skidded to a halt on the grass. Marilyne ran up as Dominique unhooked me.
“Did you have fun? I saw… oh!” she gasped. She knew from the crust on Elie’s jacket and my ashen skin what had happened.
“It was great,” I smiled, scraping off the sick. It was given that we’d skip our customary salutary kiss. “Amazing, in fact.”
“Yes, well, maybe it’s not something you need to do again,” she suggested.
“Are you kidding! I want to get paraglider certified! I’m going to fly one of these things on my own!”
And I meant it. There are few things that motivate me more than abject humiliation. Only next time, I’ll save the race up the Kilométre Vertical for another day. Maybe I can challenge Nicole at mahjong or gin rummy. You know, normal mother-in-law activities.
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