Sunday, 18 April 2010


himachal pradesh, India

All the procrastination, and then preparation, had been done! It was time to go for it. After a weeks lull in the generally brilliant post-monsoonal flying season, yesterday had seen a return of the high cloudbase of 5500m, and Eddie Colfox, Debu Choudhury and I had checked out the Thumsur pass, the gateway to the remote region that lay to the north west of Mordor...the Ravi river gorge of the Manimahesh mountain range that we would need to cross.

Once the Thamsar pass had been crossed there would be no going back, and failing to fly a further 40km would mean landing high above the gorges, with no other means of transport other than a difficult walk along the gorge. The route ahead looked committing.

That evening we made preparations, sorting our bivvy food and changing the multitude of batteries in our instruments. And as usual, at the end of the season, we were throwing an impromptu party for our friends who were leaving, including Debu and Flo who had flown with us on many days throughout the season. Debu was desperate to join us on the adventure, but realised that there was no way that it could be done in less than 3 days, so suffered in silence as we manically sorted our kit, trying to remember the multitude of small details that would get us through unscathed.

Illustration 1: The 4624m Thamsar pass...5078 Thamsar on left

8th November

The day dawned clear, and we took the lift up to launch at Bir, a 40 min drive. The days were growing shorter, so we were keen to launch early, to maximise our chance of success, but fate was not on our side.

The police check point at the bottom of the hill proved the first problem...our passes were considered to have expired! We couldn't believe was THE DAY, and after a month of no problems it was today that it had to happen. There were no officials on hand because it was a weekend, and we were told that we would have to wait until tomorrow to get them sorted. Luckily we had the telephone number of the district commissioner, and he told the policeman to let us through since he knew we had rescue insurance...but it was a close thing and we wasted an hour.And then at launch Eddies radio proved faulty, and he took off cursing his misfortune, whilst Imissed the only decent cycle, and had to waste time moving to the other side of launch, taking off from the back of the hill into the dead east wind.

The next time I saw Eddie he was low in front of the Thamsar pass, as I wound it up to 5500m
before the crossing. We were late, and I had doubts that he would still want to continue, so went for it alone. This was like competition flying, racing the day and terrain to get to our goal , the Chamba valley and the next road before the sun set and we had to land.

As I glided from above Thamsar, I looked down at the unfolding terrain, deviod of roads and any
discernable villages. It was wild. Untouched. Pristine. I could see the Ravi river, deep inside its gorge, 10 000 feet below, and wondered that there was really a trail hacked into its walls, that led to the truly remote village of Bara Bangahal.

Illustration 2: the tortourous route to Bara Bangahal

I had been told that to walk along it would be difficult for a tall westerner carrying a big load like a paraglider, since the rocky overhangs might necessitate almost a crawl for a few kilometres. But flying up high I didn't care, I knew I could cross this section, and focused ahead, never looking back. Soon I was on the Manimesh massive , gliding along between beautiful easy climbs, looking rightwards to Kailash...and then another valley crossing to the Pir Panjal range, looking south along the valley to Brahmaur, a 7th century settlement of ancient temples, that looked insignificant from my perspective.

Illustration 3: the isolated temple town of Brahmaur

Crossing this wide valley, I became aware of a new valley wind from the south. The day was now
coming towards its close, and the good cumulus clouds which had assisted me so well had come to an end, so rather than continue on deeper into the mountains and the Kalicho pass, I went west into the mouth of the Chamba gorge. On a high flat hill above the precipitous valley. there were shepherds buildings at 3400m, and it looked a good place to spend the night. As I dropped lower I fell into a strong valley wind, and was left fighting in it's turbulent lee. Realising that it was still too dangerous to try to top land, and that I would have to wait for half an hour for the wind to die down, I suddenly felt tired, and the will to keep flying was hard to sustain.
And that is when I saw it, a brightly coloured paraglider out here, miles from anywhere. It felt
almost like an hallucination, totally out of place, and my first thought was that there must be a
flying site, with local pilots who had somehow learnt to fly. But I knew this was not likely, and on
closer inspection realised that it was probably Eddie. For the last 3 hours I had totally forgot about him, but he had made it, all on his own.

Suddenly things seemed better, decisions shared once again. We shouted to each other in the air, and he was thinking the same as me, wanting to land for the night. And he was the bravest, risking a dangerous landing first, and cajoling me down.

There were many huts to choose from, so we used the cleanest, and collected wood for the fire.
We had lots of varied food, this being the first night of plenty, so it was beautiful at over 3000m,
with the prospect of another great day tomorrow. Through the door of the hut the Pir Pangal stood proud in the distance, and the 4800m Kalicho pass was clearly visible below a good cloudbase, beckoning us on for the morning. This was clearly the way through to Lahaul, a backdoor route to Keylong.

Illustration 4: home for the night...5656m Kailash in distance

I was woken at 7am by Eddie, telling me there was snow. It was 6 inches deep and falling fast, a
total whiteout, so we immediately packed to escape. We were 1500m above a dangerous precipitous valley, and our only knowledge of the terrain was from flying over it the night before. The ground was covered in fresh snow, obscuring the tell tale signs of shepherds tracks, and on such steep ground our soft soled flying boots were slippy. 2 hours later, soaked and strained with our heavy loads, we stumbled into the first dwelling, happy to see the surprised faces, and accept the cups of sweet chai.

So our journey was over, the Kalicho La would have to wait for another year. The flying season was firmly finished, and it snowed for 2 more days, laying down more than a metre at the Rhotang pass, which was closed until next spring.

If it had come one day later we would have been trapped beyond the Rhotang, and the 2 days travelling which it took us to get back to Bir would have seemed like nothing.

You win some, you loose some. We had had the most brilliant season.

Monday, 1 February 2010

enforced vol biv

The flying at Bir had been fantastic. The season had not fully got underway but Dharamsala had been reached by many. There had been a relatively late start as the monsoon had lingered a little. However this left the great advantage that cloudbase had remained fairly high allowing some wonderful flights along the high route to Dharamsala. We had some incredible flights over the back discovering areas where the likelihood of been pinned at 5500m was probable, as both John and I discovered at different times. A soviet pilot (Andre) had gone missing and people were rightfully concerned.

Due to language difficulties people didn't know what each other were up to, many didn't even know Andre had gone missing, very few, us included had any idea where.
John, Jim and I had gone for a search hoping to check suitable high landings, as possible vol biv sites. It was a gap between our expeditions and we were on the look out to improve them. Whilst flying near Waldo struggling to get through the lift and join John at a top landing, the Scot, Julian Robinson came over the radio saying someone had crashed just beyond Big Face somewhere. We all set off to check the story and see what we could do help.
The information was basic so Jim took a lower route and I took a higher route. John whose radio was down (we weren't working) launched wondering what we were up to. Austrian Mike Blubb joined us. It was clear that this wouldn't be easy without more information and we passed Big face and the next 2 spurs with no luck. On the 3rd spur I noticed a splash of red. Normally there are red flags on the many temples however I was unfamiliar with this one. It was near the top of the spur and not far below cloudbase, so hard to see from where I was so I went closer to get a better look. Fortunately we'd found the downed pilot. Unfortunately, not only had he crashed, he'd managed to wrap himself around a huge 120ft rock at about 3100m on a very steep grass slope. See orange bit on the blurred photo below.
Landing up here was not easy, the cloud was sucking on the top and base was sometimes around the casualty. After experiencing cloud suck and a few aborted attempts I got down safely and Jim and Mike headed off to tell others exactly where we were. It appears that cloud was the cause of his accident. By now it was about 3.45 and going to get dark at about 6.

After scrambling down the steep slope and climbing up the back of the rock I finally viewed the pilot from up close. What a place to crash! He had got out of his harness and was on a small ledge about 2ft wide, 20ft below me and 100ft above the ground.

I am not a climber and I couldn't take on the risk involved to get closer to him. He was conscious and coherent, although I don't speak Kazach and he appeared to have an injury to the lower leg. I lowered some water and my first aid equipment for him to self administer and got on the radio and SAT phone for help. It was great to know that Jim, John and the Kazach group from Almaty had informed Suresh Thakur and help was on its way. However it was beginning to get dark. Help started to arrive but it was just 1 person, Evgeny the Kazach instructor arrived with Morphine based painkillers and a climbing harness. Evgeny proceeded to treat and comfort,
The ledge with Sergai and casualty.
I found a prominent position, gathered wood and lit a fire, which had the dual advantage of keeping me warm and providing a point for the rescuers to walk to.
Rescuers finally arrived at about 8.30pm they were well resourced with splints, ropes, additional pain relief and a backboard,
Suresh and Kazach climber fix ropes .

The casualty was lowered, attached to the board and carried up a 60+ degree grass slope, through a boulder choke and by 3am was in hospital. This was much easier to write than to do.

the boulder choke path

I believe he has made a good recovery from a compound lower leg fracture, broken arm and some ribs. He was an extremely lucky man, I believe Andre has not been found over 3 months later and during a search for another lost Soviet, a rescuer was killed through losing his footing.

After helping with the initial rescue, I missed the carry down and spent the night wrapped around the fire trying to keep warm and not thinking of food. I woke stiff and hungry with frost in my beard. Soon the morning sun warmed the ground enough for a launch and a wonderful morning flight back to Billing. I arrived at Chatchujees for breakfast and a very warming welcome from the pilots gathered for the days flying.

If any of the Kazach crew read this and have any photos or viewpoints to add they would be most welcome.

Blogs and Late updates

Opps, it's been a long time since I published anything, sorry, it just happens that when life is busy it's hard to do a blog and then sometime later its still hard because the detail gets a bit blurred. The advantage is that it gets more concise. Hopefully that's because only the best bits get remembered. Ok not just the best bits, obviously the more memorable. Not sure soviet accidents are the best bits. Oh well, I hope so because here goes, I'm going to try to catch up with a whole load of stuff now.

The order of what follows may not be correct, even some of the details may be dubious and due to 2 hard drives crashing I'm not sure how many photos will be there. However I'm still confident that it should be pretty good reading and viewing. Lets just think about how fantastic it would have been without all those techie failures. It certainly was amazing in the real.

Hopefully new vol biv routes, 8 to Manali and beyond, 6 back again, camping, Dahramsala for cricket and para urban commutes hopefully will make up for my lateness and make some of you consider a spring or Autumn trip with us this year.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Debu does a big one - twice!

Having already gained the Indian out and return record on the 31st March,

On the 14 April Debu managed to break the Indian out and return distance record again with a flight of 211kms from billing to beyond Dahramsala-Mandi and back to Billing.

A fantastic flight. Made all the more brilliant by the fact that he'd announced it as his Spring 2009 goal during the Autumn 2008 interview for his profile in this months xcmag.

Jim was gutted because despite being in India he was not in Bir that day. Although he, Hugh Miller and Debu had some great flying including more visits to Hobbiton and other "Temples in the clouds".

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Ominous emails- fantastic flying

The 3rd expedition started with an ominous email – Colin Hawke had hurt himself on a flying trip in the Dolomites, fortunately he was okish but unfortunately he wouldn’t be coming to India. But he’s already booked for next year.

However Kevin Bigland, Greg Walsh and Scott Rigg did turn up and judging from some of their comments had “a near perfect trip” on “the coolest paragliding holiday around”

We had every day being flyable, no serious incidents and personal bests for all the pilots who between them had over 20yrs experience, descents from Aconcagua and a podium place in the 2008 xscotia competition.

Greg’s track logs are representative of what the group did and these photos are a good indicator of how spectacular it was.

Although photo’s often show a great story better:

It was a fantastic trip with great pilots. Jim and I are ready for more this Spring and hope to be seeing some of you guys there.

Monday, 13 October 2008

Vol Bivouac, Sky Safari’s, Personal bests, peeing in the air.

It's been another fantastic flying week in Himalayas: 7 days on the trot.
We've discovered new bivy sites which wouldn’t look out of place in the next Lord of the Rings. Had a wonderful 5 star safari, explored yet more of the range, stopped for pees on isolated mountaintops, adapted condoms for peeing, flown to Dahramsala and back, landed in Mandi - a significant enough city to get ourselves on regional television and learnt more about pressure flows whilst using condoms designed for inflight bladder relief, and all us (guides included) have had some of the most memorable flying of our lives.

To crown it all, after doing a tour with us Miha Ratzinger came 3rd in the Pre PWC winning enough money to cover over half of the costs of the trip.

The central building is the Dalai Lama's palace in Mcleod Gange. It is considered disrespectful to fly above any temple whilst wearing shoes. This is extremely difficult to do as there are so many temples along the Dhauladhar. According to the local flying permit you are technically in breach of contract if you fly above the palace at all.

The problem about landing for a pee is it's often difficult to get privacy.

Miha and Debu needing one

After regular flights of over 4 hours Jim was forced to try his specially adapted peeing condoms. A sagly word of advice is "remember if you tape it on you've got to remove the tape at the end of the flight and if you don't tape you may as well not have it on, at all". As he learnt to his embarassment when he let flow with particular gusto prior shrtly before landing.

A vulture getting very close to Miha.

Vultures in a more relaxed mood at the Shire

Arriving in Mandi. The landing zone ie the cricket pitch middle left in picture

Miha and Chewie landing in cricket ground and being interviewed by local media.

Chewie over the back in Barot valley

Miha flying high beyond Barot

Miha at Hobbiton's landing

Supper with the shepherds. We had some ingredients for the dish plus a crucial bag of sugar. The shepherds were concerned about not being able to have sweet milk chai for a week before they could next buy supplies.