Monday, June 25, 2012

An Unexpected Picnic

June 16th, 2012

I’ve been trying to max out my paragliding experience in Bir as it is a world class site so I should take advantage of it while I’m here.  So today was like one of my many other “work days” - I got up around 8am, checked the weather and after fuelling up with some breakfast I hopped in a taxi with some other solo pilots to head up to launch.  Lately I’ve had some amazing flights up by the big snow capped mountains and so my confidence in the air has been steadily growing…but today I received a bit of a reality check.

Two other solo pilots, Thomas from Switzerland and Ron (originally from the US and then the UK), were with me and we all took off around the same time.  I followed Ron towards the peak back behind launch.  Just recently Ron and I shared a fantastic flight together by the summit of Mill’s Peak so I decided to follow Ron today as he sometimes ventures to places I wouldn’t normally go and that’s been part of my game of late.  I was less than a kilometre behind him and a couple of hundred meters lower as I saw him hook into a nice thermal near the peak and blast up above it.  As I cruised over to that spot I could not locate that thermal…sink, sink, sink…  Hmm, where was it?  I turned to the right, heading east along the back rim hoping to find some lift.  Nope.  I ridge soared just above a big saddle shaped grassy patch in the forest for 3-4 minutes while praying to the thermal gods.  “C’mon, just give me that one bump!”  I could hear a few dogs frantically barking at me from below and could see many sheep lying about near the local shepherd’s rudimentary shelter covered with blue plastic.  Looking forward all I could see were trees covering all of the land down the snaking valley.  I was only 2-300 meters above launch and 3 kilometres back from it so a glide out in this oncoming wind didn’t seem like a good idea…I’ll end up landing in a tree somewhere I’m sure.  “Stay above this emergency landing field Dave and wait patiently for some lift.”  Well, it never arrived…

Flying towards the peak behind launch (the tree covered one...not the snow capped mountain way in the background:

I landed safely in the field with my biggest concern being the 4-5 dogs barking at me from 50 meters away.  How much do they love their flock?  Do they think I’m a serious sheep-napper that has descended from the skies in a sneak attack?  Thankfully no, they kept their distance but that didn’t prevent me from picking up a few small rocks for defence as I began hiking out after packing up my wing.  I’m glad I didn’t have to use them.

Flying above my "emergency landing zone":

Safely down on the ground:

Although I did get close to some rocks:

The walk along the ridgeline had some beautiful views of the valley to the north (which is somewhat remote…takes about a day to get out of there if you land out).  I decided that I would take this opportunity to hike up to the top peak of the ridge behind the Billing launch…might as well; I’m pretty close to it already.  I startled a shepherd lying in the grass trying to fix some problem with his beedie cigarette.  In my minimal Hindi I tried to ascertain the easiest way up to the peak and then back to a dirt road I could see lower down but did not glean any earth shattering information from him, he seemed more interested in returning to his smoke and relaxation.

My goal: the peak on the right:

< span style="font-family: Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif;">The valley to the north:

I am a man who stares at goats: 

The last push to the summit:

Within an hour I reached the peak and much to my surprise, I was not the only one there.  Eleven local teenage girls, 16 to 18 years old, were in the midst of a picnic!  I dropped my paraglider backpack and walked over to introduce myself.  They were from a small village called Baragaran which we could see down in the valley to the north and one of them quickly offered me a chapatti with some veg sabji.  Well thank you very much!  I hadn’t anticipated to be hiking as much as I had today and all I had were some oatmeal cookies (which I later offered to them for dessert). 

The girls at the summit:

Posing with one of the less shy ones:

Their English was about as good as my Hindi but we were able to fumble our way through some discourse.  I pointed out to them the clearing where I had landed and that two of my friends were still in the air just as Ron came flying overhead.  I had heard Thomas trying unsuccessfully to talk to Ron on the radio earlier so I assumed that his batteries were dead.  I quickly told the girls to yell out Ron’s name to get his attention on my command:  “Ek, do, teen (1,2,3)…RON!!!”  But our effort was in vain as he was quite high up and also upwind from us.  I did find out later that Ron had seen us up there, but didn’t realize it was me.

The girls passing around my cookies:

My goodbye waves:

After the lovely impromptu picnic (at least for me), I sussed out where I could launch from.  The main peak certainly wasn’t an option but there was a lower peak about a hundred meters away.  I bid farewell to the girls and hiked down to check it out.  It was steep enough in some spots and there was a narrow rocky gorge that could work but there was a plethora of rocks, boulders and small grabby bushes just waiting to snag my paraglider lines.  The girls had walked over to the area and were interested in seeing me take off and in the end some of them volunteered to help out by holding up my wing.  I have to admire their dedication as over the course of the next hour I reset up my wing in three different locations and had a handful of aborted launches.  Unfortunately during one of those aborts a line on my wing broke…my first one in 10 years of flying!  It was the outer left line, not a load bearing one and I decided that it would be okay to fly regardless.

Looking back at where I's the small grassy patch on the ridge in the middle of the picture:

Looking back at the young women on the top peak:

Looking for my "runway":

My first launch spot...not a good choice, too many rocks:

My helpers waiting patiently:

By this time I was drenched in sweat and I could tell the girls were ready to see me off and begin their hike back to their village.  We waited and waited for a cycle of wind to come up the hill and finally when one did I popped up the wing to their gleeful cheers.  I spun around to face forward and was quickly lifted up just as I stepped on a small boulder.  The right side of my wing folded inwards and the cheers from the young women immediately ceased as they must have feared the worst.  I wasn’t as concerned as the paraglider was still flying and I leaned to the left as I pumped the wingtip out and then once again heard the cheers from below.  I rocketed up, hardly spending anytime in the narrow gulley and waved as I flew off.

I looked up at the left side of my wing and the tip of it flapped slowly in the wind thanks to the missing line.  Strangely I had to apply a bit of left brake to keep flying straight (odd as I would have thought I would need some right brake as the broken side should have created more drag).  I decided to put on big ears as that made my wing symmetrical.  Big ears is a descent technique yet as I flew straight out towards the valley I climbed up an extra 800 meters and had to boat around for some time before finally landing safely in Bir.

It was definitely a different “workday” than usual…but pleasant nonetheless.  Thanks for the picnic girls!

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Flying High…Then Flying Far

May 20th-29th, 2012

As is typical with hanging out at a paragliding place, the days become “Groundhog Days”, with a routine that generally repeats every 24 hours.  In Bir at this time of the year it is imperative to wake up early (7am-ish), assess the weather and be ready to head up the mountain by 8:30.  Most flying occurs from mid morning to mid afternoon.  After landing a late lunch ensues with your fellow fliers in order to discuss the action in the air.

A number of days I would head up to launch with Matthew, Thomas and Ron (or some combination thereof) but lo and behold, who returned to the hotel: the Spaniards!  This time it wasn’t just Miquel and Tolo but also their friend Oscar whom they met up with in Shimla, some 50 kilometres east of Bir.  Their plans to vol bivouac to close to the Nepalese border had been thwarted by strong wind and dodgy landing options along the way.  It was a pleasant surprise to see them again.

On one flight I had a bit of a scare.  I had flown over to “Waldo’s Ridge” to check out Tatopani, the hot springs I had visited with Matthew and Thomas, from the air and when I returned over the peak behind launch I began to head out to the valley but I was slowed down to 6 km/hr and sometimes I was drifting to the left.  I also started to go up at a constant 4-5 m/s.  There was no cloud directly above me but there was behind me and it must have been sucking me up.  I put on big ears (a paragliding manoeuvre where the tips of the wing are folded over to increase sink) and that caused all hell to break loose.  I spun to the right as part of the wing collapsed and it fell backwards.  I went hands up (no brakes) to let it sort itself out and weight shifted to the left.  I didn’t spin for long but then I was wildly pitching back and forth with the wing coming almost straight in front of me.  I applied the brakes as best as I could to minimize the pitching but then the wing collapsed almost completely…hands up again…  I got it flying properly again within 10 seconds (but long seconds indeed).  Now I need to get out of here.  I tried big ears again but found myself going up at 3-4 m/s.  Okay, spiral dive time.  My first spiral basically maintained my height.  The next 2 or 3 were more aggressive and did get me down a few hundred meters and I gained some forward speed towards the valley.  Over the valley I hit major sink and my vario’s sink alarm was music to my ears.  It was constant for a number of minutes which I didn’t mind at all.  Coming in to land I was perplexed by the flags at 3 different spots around the LZ which all pointed in different directions so I trusted my GPS the most.  Once safely on the ground…I kissed it!  Tolo and Oscar were already there, Matthew and Thomas came in soon after and then Miquel returned, having made it to Dharamshala and back...well done boys!  It’s definitely time for lunch.

Me coming in for a landing:

With my landing gear out:

Just after kissing the ground...still buzzing!

Matthew landing:

Oscar at lunch:

Thomas telling one of his many interesting stories: 

Our evaluation of the never tried before "Meakins 10000" beer:

Later enjoying sunset with the Spaniards:

And a nice sunset it was...

On May 25th, we were up at launch again and today for some reason I thought would be a big day.  As usual Thomas was the first one to launch and I went next, hoping to maybe follow this wizard of the sky.  My goal was to make it to the next ridge after Waldo known as “Big Face”.  It lives up to its name as it is an intimidatingly large rock face.  It was fairly easy to work along the front of it and fly around the corner, following the way that Thomas had flown.  There I hit a boomer of a thermal…10.2 m/s up for at least 3-4 seconds!  I continued to gain height before attempting the next valley crossing but then decided to follow a ridge up to the snowline and the big mountains instead.  Wow!  My first time flying close to snow covered mountains.  At first I’d dismissed trying to go much further towards Dharamsala but flying along the rock faces I was able to maintain height and it wasn’t turbulent.  I continued along, gobsmacked at the views and I sure wished I had had my camera (which was in the shop getting fixed).  Some of the areas were pretty gnarly and it looked like a long glide out to the safety of the main valley and I wondered whose balls I’d put on that morning but I continued on.  The mountains got bigger and bigger as did the steepness of the chutes running down from them…but it all seemed okay although slightly unnerving. 

A couple of crappy quality pics I snapped with my cellphone (and not on the flight I just wrote about...but I had to give you some idea):

I got a bit worried that high cirrus cloud was covering the sun and might shut down any thermals but hugging close to the mountains I remained at 4100 meters ASL (above sea level) or higher.  At 30 kilometers from Bir, I arrived at a huge mountain and by this time my fingers, only protected by my thin gloves with wool socks over them, felt like blocks of ice.  I decided it was more important to try and make it back to Bir than to worry about going another 10 km to Dharamsala.  When I was 25 km away from Bir I saw Miquel fly by, about 1 km out from the mountains where I was (sadly I later found out that he didn’t see me).  When I was back near the launch area, I experienced the roughest air of the flight.  “Come on already…I just want to go and land!”  I slowly flew out to the valley, had half a pee over the forest and then pulled big ears and did a few spirals to come down.  What a flight!  My longest time wise at just over 4 hours and furthest out and return (60km) and also my highest flight and probably strongest thermal…oh la la!!!

The Spaniards (from left to right): Oscar, Tolo, Miquel

Miquel had a problem with getting cold fingers and so he took my idea of putting socks over gloves to the next level...on a non-flyable day he cut and sewed his socks into proper gloves...the boy's got talent!

One of the many times I said goodbye to the Spaniards (with Naresh the hotel owner in the middle):

Within a week, I raised the bar with a 5 hour and 10 minute flight to Dharamsala and back, about 83 kilometres in total.  I flew a lower route this time, not playing up in the snowline of the big mountains but that didn’t mean the flight wasn’t full of excitement and challenges.  Once again I was chasing Thomas to Big Face and beyond while Matthew, the only other solo pilot in the air, had a local flight as he was still recuperating from an aborted launch from a week ago where he injured his back.  Thomas and I were in regular radio communication about the developing clouds which would push out from the mountain range and then quickly retreat back.  At any time we were prepared to head out into the valley to land if it looked as if a thunderstorm was imminent.

In-flight action:

Thomas and I met up at the 30km point from Bir, with him having already made it to Dharamsala (so he had flown 20 more kilometres than me at this point).  I decided to press on to see if I could also reach Dharamsala and make it back, which was one of my goals on this trip.  Thomas told me that I only had 3 more ridges to go but each one of those required me to climb up, glide to the next one and then repeat (like big stepping stones).  Soon I saw the huge cricket stadium of Dharamsala down in the valley along with the conglomeration of buildings and homes of the city...I’m getting close! 

Big Face:

Crisscrossing roads on the hillside: 

As I pushed my way to a lower barren ridge, I recognized that I was approaching McLeod Ganj, the home of the Dalai Lama, and a place I had briefly visited three weeks prior.  I could pick out the large triangular awnings of the Dalai’s temple and tried, in vain, to pick out the guesthouse where I had stayed.  I have to admit that from the air McLeod Ganj looked pretty ugly which initially surprised me but then again the prettiest part of staying in McLeod was looking up at the mountains!  While reaching this ridge I was hit by strong sink and a stiff headwind.  I was at only 2250 meters above sea level, lower than the launch I had left back in Bir some 40 kilometres away.  It looked like it was going to be a bit of a challenge to get back...but in fact, it wasn’t too bad.  The first 5-6 kilometres took a while as I worked every piece of lift I could find and seemed to take forever to fly above 3000 meters but then I hooked into a solid thermal and was up to 4100 meters and began to cruise back east to Bir.  It took me three and a quarter hours to reach Dharamsala but only two to return.

As I glided towards the landing zone with plenty of height, I cracked open a chocolate bar, which by now was nicely chilled, sat back and enjoyed the ride with a big grin on my face...

Tatopani Hot Springs

May 19th, 2012

With paragliding still being banned today as a result of the Indian Premier League cricket match in Dharamsala, Matthew suggested that I join him and Thomas on an adventure up to a place called Tatopani (which means “hot springs”).  Sounds good to me.  Matthew has a big Royal Enfield motorcycle, originally a British made bike it is now quite popular in India and manufactured here  He also has a Honda Bullet and he offered that I could ride it while he would take Thomas with him on the Enfield.  My experience on motorbikes comprises of only about 5 days of riding with all of these being in Nepal and India but I do have a lot of scootering under my belt…so how hard can it be?

The hot springs are located up a valley, between the second and third ridges to the west from where we launch for paragliding.  It would take us about an hour to bike there and then another hour to hike in so we were up early (6am!) and off on our adventure.  Unfortunately we had a number of delays such as a slow leak on my front tire which needed tending to but nonetheless we were in great spirits as we slowly cruised along the winding road through the pine forest.  Soon the landscape changed to terraced fields where locals were busy reaping their harvests of wheat.  I couldn’t help but wear a permanent grin on my face as I saw many Indians smiling and giggling at the sight of Matthew and Thomas on their bike, both sporting wide brimmed canvas hats, Matthew’s a camouflaged one and Thomas’s white, with the wind bending them upwards giving them more of a “Pony Express” look than a couple of bikers.

I'm happy to go to the hot springs:

As is Matthew:

Live to Ride...Ride to Live...

The Pony Express:

The road began to wind up the mountain and it was pretty easy going at first but I have to admit that there were a couple of challenging sections near the end with big loose rocks all over the steep road.  We arrived at a hydro station where the bikes had to be parked and we would continue on foot.  The security guard at the gate mentioned to Matthew in Hindi that there was a group of Tibetan nuns already at the hot springs...hmm, didn’t expect that.

Live to Ride...Ride to Live...

Head out on the highway...

Parking our steeds under the curious watch of the security guard:

The hike was uphill to begin with, running beside the pipeline feeding the hydro station and then descended down to a river with the pipe emerging from the base of the hill.  We had a few moments of confusion as to which path to take but made all the right decisions and soon arrived at the hot springs.  There are a couple of small lodgings by the river along with a mandir (a small Hindu temple).  The source of the hot water was not obvious due to the large boulders that line the riverbed but it was clear which streams were hot by the bright, almost translucent algae lining the heated waterways.

Approaching the hot springs:

Which got my approval:

Watch out for cows...

Although they are friendly looking:

There were already twenty or so people milling about with some of them just exiting a square concrete hot pool.  Both Thomas and I were not thrilled by the cleanliness, or lack thereof, of the pool but first things first, let’s have lunch.  Following our meal of pasta and watermelon (with a lack of dishes, one guy would eat the pasta from a large Tupperware container while the other two worked on one half of the melon, then we’d trade), we wandered over to a natural pool where hot and cold water mixed.  The Tibetan nuns (if they were in fact nuns as they were dressed in Western clothing) were just finishing up cleaning some clothes and we chatted with them for a bit while we hopped in the water.  It was shocking at first as the top few inches of the water were quite toasty warm while your feet were in frigid water.  The temperature from top to bottom must have ranged about 20 degrees Celsius at least!  Shortly after the women left, they were replaced with 5 rambunctious young Indian teenage boys.  Yikes, there goes the peace.  Oh was still a gorgeous place to hang out and bathe.

Assessing the situation:

Darker clouds began to roll in and soon the skies opened up and it began to rain, ultimately followed by sleet and borderline snow!  Thomas and I remained in the natural pool, our best defence against the inclement weather while Matthew had gone off to check out the concrete pool.  Thanks to the continuing precipitation we were stuck in the water for about 2 hours and eventually emerged like prunes.  We dried off, put on our clothes and kept an eye on the next set of ominous clouds approaching.  Perhaps it’s not time to leave just yet...

The rain and sleet has now stopped...but this was my refuge:

I had no hat and for some reason Thomas had this lady's one in his van that he gave me before we started the turned out to be useful in protecting my face from the falling ice particles!

In the post hot springs glow:

We watched a herd of goats descend a steep hill and cross the river right near us, all the while eating any nearby vegetation.  The rain began again and on Matthew’s prompting we were back in the hot water of the concrete pool which he had cleaned out with the help of the young boys to ride out the last storm which didn’t last too long.

We began to hike out at 5pm and then rode down the mountain on the bikes.  I was a bit more concerned of descending the steep roads as it’s easier to spill the bike and sure enough, right near the start I did put the bike down once but at next to no speed and there was no damage to me nor the motorcycle.

Almost back to the power station (the little white dot in the middle)...we were tempted to slide down these cables to get there but no one brought their James Bond gear with them...

Me and my good new American friend Matthew:

Not sure what poses we were pulling here: 

The skies were still looking a bit uncertain as we left:

Halfway down we encountered smoke from some small fires in the forest.  We stopped for a moment as an older Indian man walked up to us and Matthew asked him about the fire in Hindi.  The man said that he had started it.  Why?  No reason...oh India.  At least it was just burning the brush and none of the trees were catching on fire.

Down in the valley we turned off our bike engines as we coasted down a freshly paved road.  Almost everyone by the roadsides or in nearby fields were smiling, waving and yelling “Namaste” as we passed awesome!  That kind of thing doesn’t happen in the Western world and it can only help but warm your heart.  What a great way to finish a great day!