Will Marks is the author of a novel, “The Highway”, which was published in India in Jun 2004. Here he shares his paragliding experiences.
Snow covered mountains ripple down to the plains like waves on a beach. An ocean of air has already taken my paraglider half a kilometre over takeoff, well over a kilometre above the valley floor, into a clear blue sky. Below, past my dangling legs, once rugged ridges and valleys seem to fold and flow. I am paragliding in the Indian Himalayas.
Then it hits me.
A cannonball thermal blasts into the paragliders wing, jerks me up vertically and rips my right brake out of my hand. I look up. Half the wing is gone. My heart pounds in my throat as I’m swung around in the violent air, half the wing flapping useless above me. Leaning hard to the side of the wing still flying, I try to stop it from entering a spin. I lunge upwards to grab the brake-handle and fight hard to pump open the collapsed side. The cells eventually pop open one-by-one as the wing reforms in a slow wave.
The Himalayas inspired me to take up paragliding when I saw people in the air above Manali, but I learnt to fly in Australia. Now, still only an intermediate level pilot with knack for the sport but relatively few hours, I’ve returned to India to fulfil my dream of flying in the world’s greatest mountains. That was the dream; after today’s air I may be starting to wake up.
The world’s best pilots have been paragliding in the Himalayas in the last few years, including Bob Drury and former world champion Robbie Whittall. But these mountains are the equivalent of surfing forty foot Hawaiian waves for only the hardiest pro’s – it’s a big step up from Sunday afternoon on the local beach. If you have to do it, and I do, then it’s best to wait until the conditions are a little less extreme. I decide to go and land and let the peak middle-of-the-day in mid-summer conditions calm down a little.
The landing on the two thousand metre ridge from where I launched is smooth, and suddenly I’m back in the calm of the Dhauladhar Ranges overlooking Kangra Valley in Himachel Pradesh. A Gaddi shepherd comes down from the mountain, dressed in brown wool trousers and a matching jacket, waves his staff as a hello, and continues on with his sheep, their bells tinkling in the crisp mountain air.
The takeoff is from a ‘town’ marked on the map as Billing, but it’s just a couple of small houses that are vacated for months over winter when snow closes the access road. The ridge it occupies, and the surrounding ranges which slope off for forty-five kilometres to Dharamsala in one direction, and forty kilometres to Mandi in the other, provide such good flying that they’ve hosted World Championships were held in 1991 and 2003.
I am paragliding in the Himalayas above the town of Bir, part Indian village and part Tibetan refugee colony with an active monastery building program, is where visiting pilots stay. Pilots and sightseers take one hundred Rs Jeep rides each morning for the forty-five minute trip to the takeoff, which climbs to almost nine hundred metres over the valley.
Paragliders have absolutely no means of lift other than lift created by thermals or from wind flowing up as it passes over ridges or cliffs. In the mountains the wind is minimal; you’re reliant on thermals of hot rising air to be continually created, pumping out great columns, like waterfalls flowing up, which you can find and corkscrew your way up in. In reality the thermals are released from points on the ground, such as the bowl formed where two ridges meet, when enough warm air as accumulated. Thermals are then triggered and release like a bubble that can send up a powerful stream of air for around twenty minutes before exhausting itself. Hot air begins to accumulate once again before another thermal is released.
In the mid-afternoon, when the rock has been heated up by the day’s sunshine, these thermals can come thick, fast, and rough. I sit with a few other less experienced pilots and eat a simple lunch of dhal and rice cooked over an open wood fire in the rustic chai shop while the sting slowly seeps out of the sun.
By 3.00 pm we’re ready to brave the air again. One of the veterans of Himalayan flying, Bruce Mills, is preparing to take a tandem passenger in the gentler air, so we decide to let him test the conditions and follow if it looks okay.
Bruce unfolds the mass of red and white nylon material that makes up his wing. It’s around twenty metres across and a couple of metres thick from the leading edge to the trailing edge. He buckles the passenger in front of him, then slips his harness around his shoulders and makes sure his lines aren’t crossed before. He puts on his gloves and helmet, tuns on the variometer, GPS and rechecks the reserve parachute. They stand facing down the hill ready for a forward launch. Their arms are raised holding the raisers up, waiting for a little wind that will help inflate the glider. After a couple of minutes, Bruce urges his passenger to run hard and takes a few powerful steps forward. The harness strains as Bruce’s arms move up like a swimmer’s butterfly stroke. The wing starts to inflate, creating resistance, but as they both surge forward the canopy comes up smoothly over their heads. The material that was lying crumpled on the grass comes to life as air flows though the cells at the leading edge and creates an aerofoil. After a few more steps the wing takes over, biting into and embracing the air, sweeping them off their feet.
Now it’s my turn. I feel the familiar tightness and tension in my stomach, a kind of nauseous nervous excitement that I still get no matter how many times I do it. It’s mainly a physical reaction – I’ve learned to I like it because when I get it, I know I’ll soon be in the air. My takeoff goes smoothly and I get a quick shot of euphoria when I step into the air, all anxiety gone, just the joy of weightless free-flight that feels like steeping into other dimension, into a more pure state of consciousness.
A warm thermal rustles in the canopy, bringing with it some light vegetation and the smell from the forest, but the lift is limited. I hug the top of the ridgeline, flying low and slow past the trees that climb the mountain. Langur monkeys start screaming and thrashing the branches, their black and white bodies flashing through the green leaves.
I can’t catch a thermal to climb away so I’m forced to fly out over the valley to the landing area. But I’ve still got enough height to pull a small spiral dive. I brake hard on one side, then the other, swinging from side to side, in an increasingly steep wingover, and use the momentum to hold a sharp turn and go into a dive, the leading edge of the wing pointing down as I spin in circles around it, g-forces pulling at the flesh on my face, pushing my body back hard into my seat, trapping me in the spin. I counter-break to come out of the spin one hundred metres above the ground and glide past a gloriously golden roofed and red walled Nyingmapa Buddhist monastery. Monks are playing cricket on the landing zone, as I fly over the pitch.