Meet the man who skis with eagles (and how you can do it too)

Damien Gabet
Soar with, and like, an eagle in the French resort of Morzine - Christian Pfahl

Sounds dangerous, doesn’t it? Having an eagle with a 2.5m wing span and razor-sharp beak, one of nature’s finest killing machines, follow you as you try to ski down a mountain.

However, that is the new experience being offered this ski season in the French resort of Morzine, part of the large French/Swiss Portes du Soleil ski area.

The man behind it, born of his idea to reintroduce the rare white-tailed eagle to its native France, is renowned ornithologist and falconer Jacques-Olivier Travers. He has moved 15 of his prize raptors from their comfortable dwellings at his bird park, Les Aigles du Léman near Thonon-les-Bains in France, to a recently acquired Savoyard chalet near the base of the Pointe de Nyon gondola in Morzine.

It’s from here, a 70-cover restaurant-cum-aviary, that he is offering visitors to the resort the chance to ski with an eagle. “It’s a proposition I’m confident exists nowhere else in the world,” Travers told me, ahead of my afternoon with his birds of prey, a flock that also includes buzzards, owls and condors.

After studying ornithology in France’s largest bird park in Villars les Dombes near Lyon, Travers worked as a journalist. This short stint in the press clearly gave him an eye for what makes news: in 2007, he took a bald eagle to the top of Europe’s highest mountain, Mont Blanc, and paraglided beside it down to the ski resort of Chamonix.

Jacques-Olivier Travers is a man on a mission to reintroduce these birds into the wild Credit: CHRISTIAN PFAHL

“I wanted to find a way to teach a bird born in captivity to fly, so they can survive in the wild. We spent a year training together, then flew down,” he said. In 2015 Travers also released an eagle from the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, broadcast live on BBC World.

Our two-hour experience began with each member of the group (a maximum of four) holding a much smaller buzzard called Odin on their arm in the safety of the restaurant, with either Travers or one of his team of falconers. Before the main event of skiing with Fletcher, a white-tailed eagle – Europe’s largest bird of prey – we had to prove our worth. 

Once Travers was confident we were comfortable handling Odin, and assured himself we were all competent skiers or snowboarders on the gentle slopes outside, it was time to ski – without ski poles, and still wearing our protective falconer’s gloves. Skiing at our own speed, from there we were in charge, raising our medieval-looking hands to summon the buzzard to swoop towards us when we were ready.

To my relief, the birds are not the slightest bit interested in getting their talons into, say, your head. It was all about the easy meat – rat or chicken – that we had in our leather-clad hands. With eyes that Travers says are 10 times better than humans, Odin picked out the prize and swooped in, landing rather neatly atop my glove. It was exhilarating to watch such an elegant creature glide towards me, but it also felt very natural and at no point unsafe. Travers is great at making you feel at ease around the birds.

Finally it was time for us to ski the red run that starts at the top of the mountain, with big-boy Fletcher, who weighs in at 5kg. This time we had our poles and, following Travers, had the pleasure of witnessing the speed and strength of the white-tailed eagle close up, as it zeroed in on his hand – Fletcher is little too big to risk being handled by novices like us.

For those happier on foot, Travers and his team lead snowshoe rambles up the mountain, introducing groups of up to four people to the art of falconry, and the birds of prey that still fly wild in the Alps, including, in Morzine, the Griffon vulture.

The resort of Morzine is popular with British holidaymakers Credit: VVOEVALE

Part of the aim is to show people that the birds aren’t dangerous, said Travers. “There are still a lot of people in France that think eagles kill babies, but see a bird of prey fly above your head and it’ll change your mind.”

But what’s behind it all? “Well, it’s something fun to do in the winter, isn’t it?,” Travers told me, with a glint in his eye. But behind the publicity stunts and tourist attractions, the primary goal of his conservation and breeding programme at Les Aigles du Léman is to reintroduce white-tailed eagles to France “in the next five years”, for the first time in 200 years.

It’s also to raise awareness for creatures listed as ‘globally threatened’ by the RSPB. “If you tell people about this sort of thing at a conference, they don’t care,” Travers said. “But if they spend time with the birds themselves and then you say, ‘This bird deserves to be in the wild’ – everyone listens!”

“This is a chance for birds born in captivity to really fly in the wild. There’s nowhere else they can do that.”

In Morzine, there are also options for children, who can spend a happy hour with an instructor on a bird trail near the restaurant, involving games and an interactive show. There are lunchtime shows in the restaurant too, when raptors of different kinds fly inches above diners heads, and it’s free to watch regular flights by one of the flock from the top of the mountain, over a vin chaud on the restaurant terrace. Of all the birds on parade, perhaps the most impressive is the Andean Condor, the world’s largest bird of prey and a cousin of the local Griffon vulture. 

Travers’ reintroduction programme is run from the birds’ summer home near Thonon-les-Bains, which attracts some 40,000 visitors between June and August. They come to see 220 birds from 70 species fly free around an 18,000 square metres aviary. “The world’s biggest, I think,” said Travers. “Three football fields.”

“Breeding in captivity is very difficult,” he added. If they’re to stand a chance of making it out there in the wild, birds have to learn how to fly and fish properly in that vast aviary. “It’s a fight. Every day we try to improve our knowledge, find new breeding pairs and improve the aviary. I just hope that in the small time I spend on this earth I can be the one who can help white-tailed eagles come back into the wild.”

The trained birds follow skiers down the piste Credit: CHRISTIAN PFAHL

Travers is setting the bar high, hoping to reintroduce 5 to 10 young birds every year for 10 years, but things seem to be going his way. Last year his three breeding pairs produced eight little eaglets. 

How to do it

Les Aigles du Léman Winter Park’s two-hour ski with an eagle or falconry-student snowshoe experiences in Morzine costs €120. Exploring the children’s bird trail with an instructor is free to diners; lunchtime shows cost €29 for adults, €22 for children, which includes a meal. Find out more at lesaiglesduleman.com.