May 11th-16th, 2012
The taxi brought me to Hotel Surya Classic (Surya means sun in Hindi) and I met one of the managers Suresh and later his brother Naresh whom I had heard about from my Canadian paragliding friend Elli. Both are super friendly guys with a modern three storey hotel in the Tibetan colony called Chougan, close to the small town of Bir (pronounced “beer”). It is a world famous site for paragliding and I could quickly see why. Based at the foot of the tree covered foothills of the Himalayas, Bir makes a perfect starting point for many cross country flights with the mountains running from east to west. A common flight is to reach Dharamshala, 40 kilometres away, and return back...something I hope to do while I’m here.
It might be tough to read but the sign says: "Himachal Tourism Welcomes You To The World Famous Paragliding Site":
Hotel Surya Classic:
Unfortunately the weather didn’t start off well when I first arrived with a thunderstorm on the first afternoon and the following morning but later in the afternoon of the second day it cleared up. Two Spaniards, Tolo and Miquel arrived at the hotel and Naresh took us up to launch for a late afternoon flight, a perfect way to get familiar with a new flying site.
Tolo and Miquel hail from the Spanish island of Mallorca where they run a paragliding school and fly commercial tandems. They had spent months planning a “vol bivouac” trip starting in Dharamshala and finishing near the Nepalese border, hundreds kilometres away. Vol bivouac entails flying a paraglider with basic camping equipment such as a tent, sleeping bag and food. They would fly anywhere from 10-50 kilometres a day and hopefully land up on a clearing on a mountain, stay the night and then fly off the following day. What a fantastic day to get around. However they had experienced the same thunderstorm in Dharamshala yesterday and had therefore taken a taxi to Bir to stay on schedule as they had another friend, Oscar, meeting them part way along their trip.
Bir sits at 1400 meters above sea level while the takeoff is at 2400 meters, so even a sled ride (just flying down without going up at all) takes at least 15-20 minutes. For me, it was my first time flying solo in the mountains since my crash a year ago last March in Panchgani where I compressed a disc in my back so needless to say I was a bit nervous. Thermal flying in the mountains is a much different game than ridge soaring in the smooth ocean breeze back in Goa.
Standing behind Tolo's expensive vol bivouac equipment:
Tolo and Miquel:
The Spaniards took off first and I had a few botched attempts before I took to the air. I felt like a beginner pilot again as even the wimpy late afternoon thermals seemed to jostle me around in my harness. I didn’t fly too long and safely made it to the landing zone and felt happy about getting some flying cobwebs out of my system.
The landing zone:
Happy after my first flight in Bir:
The next morning Naresh took us up to launch again and this time the Spaniards had all of their equipment with them. I wished them luck and jokingly told them that I hoped to not see them again, as that would mean that they were successful in beginning their vol bivouac adventure. Miquel was off first and quickly climbed away while I joined Tolo in the thermals in front of launch. He flies a more advanced wing than I do and therefore flies faster and more efficiently than me so I made sure to get out of the way in a few thermals as it was definitely more important for him to get up and away...which he did.
I had some challenges properly thermalling and at one point I was working a spine on which a hairpin turn of the road up to launch is exposed. There was a film crew staying at the hotel and they happened to be shooting at this bend in the road and I saw a few of them waving their arms at me, signalling to get out of the shot. Sorry dudes, I need to climb up a bit first...I don’t really want to land down in the narrow valley below! I flew longer and a bit further than the day before and since I plan to be here for a number of weeks I’ve decided to take baby steps with my flying and this was a solid step forward today.
That afternoon, while eating lunch back at the hotel, another pilot sat down and joined me. Thomas, who hails from Switzerland, has been in the area for three weeks and is staying with an American pilot Matthew who has been living in Bir for a few years. We made plans to share a taxi up to launch the following morning.
Right from the get go I could tell I would get along swimmingly with these two fellows. Matthew is laid back, straight shooting guy originally from California but prior to moving to India he was working in the solar panel installation in Hawaii. Having now been in India for 3 years, he’s picked up some Hindi and has been an inspiration to me to try and learn some more. Thomas meanwhile is quite the interesting character who is not only an excellent pilot with over 3000 flying hours but also has his sailboat skipper’s licence. He shipped his Swiss campervan to India and plans to continue with it to Myanmar, Malaysia, Australia and finally New Zealand...quite an adventurous guy.
I had another good flight this day and progressed one ridge further to the west to a spine that has a big open grassy area on the top known as the “golf course” to pilots. I climbed 1600 meters above the launch to a height of 4000 meters above sea level. With this height I thought it would be cool to fly way above the valley, towards a very large monastery to the east. I began to lose height and realized I wouldn’t make it there so I headed back west towards the landing zone. I passed the spine with the launch and was still 1000 meters above the valley but I hit massive sink and was heading into the wind. I soon clued in that I wasn’t going to make it back to the landing zone. There are many terraced fields in the valley and it is harvest time right now. Some fields have had their wheat crops cut while others haven’t. Back at the hotel, Naresh had told me not to worry too much should I end up landing in someone’s crops as safety was paramount. He also stated that the biggest worry is to keep an eye open for power lines as they crisscross all over the valley. At first I thought my best option might be a gravelly school field but it was surrounded by tall trees so I opted for a terraced field which was fallow. The landing was fine and my walk back to the hotel was no further than the landing field...no harm, no foul.
The obligatory foot shot:
Cruising out to the valley:
I'm staying somewhere down there:
A happy pilot:
Safely down in the LZ...with my wing and matching t-shirt:
The next day, on the 16th, another pilot, another American, Ron joined the three of us in the taxi up. Ron has also been living in Bir for a few years (Americans can get a 10 year visa for India so it’s easy for them to stay a long time) and he used to be a hang glider pilot. We had heard that there were going to be a few days where paragliding in the area would be banned as there was going to be a couple of Indian Premier League cricket matches in Dharamshala. I guess the officials were concerned we might fly over the pitch and drop a bomb or something...how silly. Anyways, we decided to chance this day as the first match was tomorrow and it proved to be a great decision as the conditions were the best I’d experienced here yet.
Once again, continuing in my baby steps, I progressed yet one ridge further to the west to one known as “Waldo” along with Thomas and Ron. My max height was my highest yet, climbing 1776 meters above the launch! (ironic number considering I was flying with two Americans) The views of the snow capped mountains to the north were stunning to say the least. Unfortunately, and stupidly, I didn’t bring my thicker gloves with me from Goa, figuring I needed to keep my weight down for taking the plane. My fingers had gotten quite cold in my previous two flights so this time I put some wool socks over my gloved fingers which helped a bit but they still became frozen at this height...and I also had to pee so I worked my way back to the launch area and as I cruised out towards the valley in relatively smooth air, I decided to try my first attempt at “in-flight urination”. I’d heard of male pilots doing this before including Thomas just a few days prior on an epic 7 hour, 150 kilometre flight he did. The concept is easy: lean forward and let it rain. You have to have total trust in your chest harness straps that you’re not going to fall forward out of the harness but it went off without a hitch…I don’t think I even got a drop on me!
The view of the mountains to the west from launch:
Parawaiting...Ron, Matthew and Thomas solving the problems of the world:
Thomas setting up:
Thomas in flight (the spec in the middle in front of the snow):
Well on that note…I think I’ll end this blog entry…there will definitely be some more news from Bir!