Sunday, 8 June 2008

Nail biting or sphincter clenching?

One of those crazy things about flying is being dependent on the weather. Regardless of how frustrating it can be, in my experience it's never worth letting that frustration get to you, after all it's out of your control, rather like internet connections in the Karakorum!!
For example no sooner had Alun decided he couldn't wait another day for filming Rakaposhi it got flyable, in fact, really flyable. It fact it was fantastic. We could see the bases were higher and the clouds slower to develop. John and I had decided to stay and enjoy some of the fabulous flying that Hunza has to offer before continuing our adventure into China.

The first day John and I set off from Karimabad together. John had announced on launch that his radio wasn’t working and that he was going to try to fly to Skardu, over 150kms away with a 6000m+ col and a 45km glide down a shallow glacier. I hadn’t really responded, it took a while to process the information: 150km, no radio, incredibly inhospitable terrain, and as we were a little late to launch there was a lot to get ready. After getting to about 6000m John glided off, I stayed in the climb and followed him at about 6500. It was hard to see his orange Addict 2 against the ochre terrain but I had a cloud to head to. After gliding for about 8kms the cloud worked its magic and I climbed in a ballistic 13m/s on the averager.
For some of this I could see John circling someway beneath me however I wasn’t going to wait beneath that climb! So heading to the south side of the climb I followed the cloud sometimes above its base and the ones forming in front of it towards Spantic 7027m and Golden peak. Hispar Glacier all the way to Snow Lake looked magnificent but of course my camera was almost as frozen as I was.

The clouds were leading towards Spantic, however the gaps were now large and the ground I was over was a huge crevassed glacier, about 20kms long and 5 wide. I chose to alter course following a spur, not a Britsh style spur, a 10km one crowned with a 6000m+ unnamed peak and where the valley led to Hispar valley, glacier and ultimately Snow lake, the largest ice cap not on the poles. Following this "spur" and topping up with altitude on route I noticed John a little way behind and lowish but climbing on the other side of the valley.

I then had to focus a little getting a good but snotty climb on Rash Lake and lost sight of John again. So I continued along the ridge towards Spantic but kept an eye out for John where I last saw him. After about ½ hour of this I still could see him so fearful of doing the col and the following glacier and 80 odd kms I decided to look for him or head back to Hunza so I headed to the North side of the valley where I expected to get up as it was facing sun and in the lee of the meteo wind.

However, crossing the valley I was getting strong sink, but feeling committed I continued. I was also slightly worried about John and keen to put my mind at rest. Anyway having lost most of my precious height I discovered there was a strong valley wind and being a glaciated valley no spurs to soar along. There were some good thermals coming through but the drift was taking me further up the Hispar and I was already over 2 days walk to the nearest road. What to do? Work the gorges and then bar it into wind and try to keep edging in until I got above the valley wind and onto the higher slopes that had better aspects and where the thermals didn’t drift so much.
Guess what? It was fantasy! I only made 3 kms progress in 2 hours, I was being buffeted like a yoyo but not really gaining any altitude other than the gradient of the valley. I wasn’t really scared but I knew it could get very scary and it did. I saw some dust blowing in the wind further down the valley. After witnessing some gust fronts here where sometimes their only signal was the huge amount of dust and knowing that the only place I had to run was the isolation, cold and dodgy landing ground of a glacier. I made a beeline for Hispar village where I landed going gently backwards.
10 mins later the wind increased considerably. But I was down safe and a long way from Hunza and still not knowing what had happened to John.

John meanwhile, had seen me climb from the frozen Rash Lake and had headed there as I left. He was actually closer than I thought, and on arriving at the lake, he had got a ballistic climb and rather than following my ridge route had made directly to the col on Golden Peak assuming I hadn’t been so silly as to worry about him. He’d claimed he was low to keep warm and conserve his energies for the following part of the journey.

On crossing the col at about 7000m he had a nail biting, sphincter clenching flight down a glacier where he was rarely more than 1000ft above the ice for about 25kms. We’ve had many subsequent discussions about which parts of the ice created lift and why?!? He finally landed in the Shigar valley about 30kms short of Skardu. A flight of over 130kms through unbelievable scenery yet terrifying terrain.

The journeys back were another story. I think it’s important to realize that I get vertigo and despite finding a tractor that could cope with the track. There was no denying that it was the most loose and wobbly track I had ever been along and it was along the most precipitous routes ever. One of the great joys of a tractor is you can leap out it as it goes over the edge. The trick is not to do that on every bend. It causes a lot of hilarity for the driver and embarrassment for me. Besides the journey took over 5 hours without the hour it took to clear avalanche debris and there were more bends than you could shake a stick at. John on the other hand stayed the night with the local teacher and then had a 13 hr bus ride the following day.

Yes! the following day dawned fantastically blue and stayed that way until after ten when the first very small cu started to form near Ultar peak (7388). It was a Rakaposhi day and I was the only pilot available, John still being stuck on the bus.

Whizzing up to launch, with Manzoor in his trusty mountain tiger jeep I was keen to launch. There was a breeze fantastic! But god, what a struggle to get up. The thermals were close in, tiny but strong, and I found it hard and scary to get more than 2 turns in them. After about 1 hour of this only gaining 1500m I was tired and almost ready to give in. Instead I went on a long glide to where I’d noticed a regular convergence cloud at the base of the Shispar glacier. Yes. It worked I went up like a rocket, just holding onto the controls to stop the wing diving too radically and continued round in circles until I could make the crossing known locally as Eddie’s. From there it was easy although cold to continue gliding to Chalt where I noticed some clouds forming in the middle of the valley. Crossing towards Secord peak (5800m) on Rakaposhi (7788m) I lost very little altitude arriving at about 5600m. I then spent about 2 hours trying very hard to climb Rakaposhi. Despite cloudbases approaching 7000m off the mountain I couldn’t get above 6200m on the mountain itself. Returning to Karimabad I had magical experience eking the lift close to shepherds and their flocks and thinking I saw a herd of Ibex. I couldn’t tell anyone locally as the meat is so prized they’re scarce outside of wildlife sanctuaries.

John had returned elated and exhausted after his flight. The following day dawned beautifully. We were both enthusiastic. However on the walk to launch, John realized he had flu. He couldn’t move, despite the wonderful conditions it was really not wise for him to fly and he didn’t. Rather than spending a second day trying to climb Rakaposhi which still didn’t have any cumulus actually on it, I spent the day climbing Ultar peak. I got very close, had the most unbelievable and inexplicable time up there. I took loads of photos and film in a hypoxic haze dangerously close to the peak but couldn't quite claim the peak. Despite over 1 hour of being about 100m below that is where I remained until I couldn’t handle it anymore and just cruised around the valley at a more convivial 5500m until I land fully downwind on a sandy beach by the river literally as the valley wind switched off.