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.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Shanghai Splendour in Manali

It was great to meet Vojtek, Myriam, Florian, Gregory and Zeon relaxing in the late afternoon with beers on their balcony, after 24 hours of travel from Shanghai to Bir. Jim and I had spent the day under a low base flying from Billing to Palampur and back.

We all went to the Colonels for dinner where he entertained us with delicious Indian cuisine and Chivas Regal whiskey. The Shanghai crew’s experience varied from 30 hrs to 130 hrs but most of this was thermal flying in the Southern Hemisphere. Everyone was excited about the days ahead. Jim and I were concerned, on the drive up everyone had been talking of the torrential rains that had not altogether stopped. The cloudbase around Bir was still not much above take off at Billing.

The first morning after briefings at breakfast using Google Earth and Jim’s finely adapted British Raj maps we set off for Billing. Gurpreet had 40 lucky Indian soldiers who were benefiting from the risks of joining the army by having 2 weeks paragliding training prior to a final selection where some would be chosen to represent their country in the upcoming pre pwc. Base was still relatively low and getting lower. The wind was fine as was the cloud development, although towering did not show real signs of going bang! We chose to launch, a daunting moment for us as guides. It was the first moment when the talk of experience of the group members could be shown up. Psychologically it is a stressful time for everyone, first launching in light flukey winds and only a smallish area to work in. Everyone pulled it off, the launches were clean and the pilots were committed. Shit, I had to hurry and get with them, I had not had time to fully prepare my own kit being last off and now the cloud had come down below launch. I launched and flew on a bearing for a few minutes to arrive nicely above the front ridge and near the Shanghai crew, Jim and Debu.

Debu Choudhuri is the Indian Paragliding Champion, Manali resident, fluent in 5 languages, a regular in the PWC and acro scene and an all-round great guy. He has joined us for this year’s Bir expeditions because John, in a non-flying incident, damaged his back and has been unable to come out. Although not as tall as everyone in the picture Debu has been an invaluable addition to

Everyone was soaring comfortably in the light lift over the valley, looking towards the Dauladhar that were beneath towering cu’s. The shelf some 5 kms in front of the main ridge was in clear air but with a promising line of smaller cu’s immediately above it. Given the choices it seemed the obvious place to go, the issue was when?

Debu and I bullishly set off with the male Shanghai contingent tentatively lingering in the lift. Our bravado didn’t pay off. A km behind the shelf it became obvious we would not make it and we turned 180 degrees to make it back to the Sunset landing zone or another thermal. Already at the back, Myriam and Zeon led by Jim managed to make it back up to base Debu, Florian, Gregory, Vojtek and I were forced to land near sunset. Although the flight was over an hour long, the packing was swift whilst Debu called for a taxi to meet us and the kids showed us the ways through the paddy fields to get back in time for another flight. Jim taunted us with his radio guidance to Myriam and Zeon clearly indicating that they were all have a fantastic time up there flying with the vultures and watching the prayer flags on the various promontories. We were soon back at Billing to launch again. Jim’s crew landed whilst we waited for the cloud to lift around Billing. When it did we all had a great another hour flying around the spurs on either side of launch. When we eventually also landed at Sunset Point we joined the others for chai whilst watching Gurpreet lecturing the 40 soldiers on the physics of flight. Gurpreet embarrassed me into giving an impromptu talk on my experiences as a “pioneer of paragliding in the Himalaya”. Good for my ego but a little daunting nonetheless.

Enjoying the tales of the day over chai and beers at the Tibetan Friends restaurant we noticed that the conditions looked likely to worsen with stratus showing above the cu. Remembering the higher base northwards and bearing in mind it was early in the season we asked everyone to be ready for movement he following day

In the few days we’d been at Bir, we’d noticed that there were fewer and smaller clouds behind the front ridge and that base was higher. So, on the second day, after waiting for a couple of hours for the clouds to lift on launch, we confirmed our observations with a few telephone calls to the Manali tandem pilots and we all headed off as a group to Manali some five hours distant. The hotel we arrived at made up for the drive and the chill clear air held great promise for the future.

The following morning in Nagar dawned beautifully clear and coolly crisp. The surrounding mountains looked down magnificently beckoning us with their 5000m permanent snowlines. The crows around the roof gardens balustrade showed no menace and were close enough to display their awesome vermillion plumage. After a fantastic breakfast, a quick perusal of the bomb out options, a short scary drive and a short steep and unnerving walk we were at launch spreading out our own wings and preparing to join the vultures who were pointing out the route to those awesome peaks above Hallan. Debu led the way, with Vojtek quick to follow establishing himself and using the spur as an aerial highway to the big stuff. The others were soon to follow. Some with a little assistance from me on the radio soon climbed out to join Jim guiding them back on each climb along the spurs before getting to the clouds now forming and lowering on the big stuff. I and one other took longer to get the initial climb.

As the cloud lowered Debu, leading Vojtek, headed off up valley aware from the clouds. Although large the clouds were not sucking strongly so Jim and his group climbed to them and soon followed on. We climbed in front and deciding the clouds were pretty much level with us, decided to take their route along the ends of the spurs to catch the others who were following the heads of the valley. Jim meanwhile found his group of three was getting split up and we were able to reunite Florian and Myriam, whilst Jim, Greg and Zeon tried to blast on to catch Debu and Vojtek. Florian and I followed along spur by spur until hearing that Jim and his crew were landing at the foot of the next spur. We decided to join them. Debu and Vojtek managed to make it to the head of the valley landing at Cochin, not far from Rohtang Pass. Johnson’s Bar in Manali was a fine place to exchange stories at the end of the day. Gregory’s smile suggests he is on E but the smile hardly fades all holiday. I don’t think the pills last that long.

The next day we went to Solang, which is near the head of the Manali valley on the west side. At the bomb out, it appeared there was a grassed over nursery ski slope, complete with not commissioned chair lift stations. The activities taking place were tandem paragliding and Zorbing down the nursery slope. The walk up was a hard 40 minutes although we all had porters and some of the team were even carried on horseback. I thought paragliding was dangerous enough but riding a beast up a narrow steep sided track, no way!

Again climbing out was tricky but the rewards were tremendous. Everyone managed, with some assistance. The rocky 5000-metre mountain baked in the morning sun and the snowy peaks shone and glittered like the massive jewels they are. Once at base we glided eastwards across the valley. Vojtek and Debu being earlier were the higher pilots and flew around much of the valley. Vojtek top landed at Gulaba launch whilst some landed in Solang with Jim, and others at Cochin with me. Our driver had a tummy like Buddha but resembled him in no other way other than his great humour, collected us all up and we reached Gulaba for an evening glass off in the fading light followed by a meal to celebrate the birth of the hotel’s owner’s son. Another beautiful day.

A beautiful morning dawned in Nagar again and we planed a drive to the 3600-metre take off above Marhi near to the Rohtang pass. Spectacular views above the inversion meant a late launch and a glide around to Gulaba for an afternoon soar amongst the clouds, wondering where to land and eat the chocolate that was hidden deep in the harness. Another delicious meal in Naggar but the pilots were now too knackered to talk. An early night was necessary.

The Shanghai group’s final flying day meant a flight from Halan to link up all the Manali sites we’d visited. The vultures were still on launch when we arrived and the visibility down the valley looked poor. There was wind coming consistently on launch and none of the cloud development caused significant worry. Debu launched and struggle to maintain the height of take off, in fact he slowly and consistently started to lose height until he was forced to land. The signs that the inversion was lifting were some extra clouds forming and when the vultures stopped appearing to bang against something repetitively at the same height and soared majestically away. I launched, struggled, and then climbed well. As did everyone else. Vojtek as ever, screamed away from the crowd. I was left in an in-between stage monitoring where Vojtek was and where Jim was guiding the rest of the crew along the difficult climbs back along the spur to the main range. Vojtek had a little tour around the adjacent valleys at altitude whilst I stayed low on the slopes to help show areas of lift to the others and giving me the opportunity to notice the smells of cannabis plants and the people rubbing them to make hashish. When we all assembled beneath the same cloud Jim and I led off with everyone choosing the best lines. We noticed the valley wind increasing so abandoned our original plan of flying up to the head of the valley as there were narrow areas with limited landing options. Instead we had a marvellous 3 hours exploring the region of Nagar and a lovely landing near the river, kids playing cricket and the potato harvest being assembled prior to transportation.

Gregory’s smile hadn’t diminished all week. He positively beamed. Everyone was in a similar state, many personal bests had been beaten but there was the sad realisation it was the end of the tour. There were hugs all round when we had to say good bye and head back to Bir to meet Jim and Miha who were arriving early for our next group.

More photos from this tour are available at