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.