The flight that started it all…
After about a week in Bir, I had pretty much made the most out on the front ridge, like the Mandi and the Dharamshala and back flights, in less than ideal conditions.
Even tough I had seen the back of Bir on a few of those flights, the low ceilings made it unsafe to venture over there, with the ever increasing mountain altitudes and the extreme remoteness of it all. Somehow the fact that many pilots have already died back there tends to make one less willing to just jump in the first time.
The morning of this flight started as usual in Bir, great Indian breakfast at the Colonel’s resort then pack too many people in and on top of a truck and up to take off the merry party goes. After about 45 uneventful minutes every one piled out and headed up to the chai hut to have tea and take in the view.
We decided to trek up to the small upper take off to avoid the frenzy of the Bir competition. In the best conditions, taking off at Bir sucks because it’s hot at that altitude but you have to dress extra warm because a freezing cold layer is not far above your head… Add to that the mayhem of a competition and a horde of clueless rude Russians and you get an idea of how bad taking off here is.
John and I managed the crowds well, caught a thermal up to the top of the ridge early and discussed going over to Manali, even though the conditions did not look perfect for it.
Once we agreed to go for it, John didn’t wait to climb over the ridge and just dived for it just above tree level, with me drafting him and hoping for the best!!
The front ridge in Bir is covered by a nice green forest with relatively smooth air. The back is an arid, rocky, ocean of mountains as far as the eye can see., with the mountains peaks getting progressively higher and the conditions building from rough to nasty to crazy.
Here I was, first time over the back of Bir and already low… As I was leaning back in my harness, arms tucked in trying to squeeze out every last bit of glide out of my wing, I hear John on the radio “if we bomb out at the end of this glide it’s a 2 days hike back home.” Thank you, I am fully motivated now…
The way up from this is usually found on a small triangular hill two thirds of the glide across the valley that looks like it should work on it’s west face, but I was told earlier in the week that there is always an east wind in this valley and I should always hit the east face first.
As we get closer and lower I see some vultures climbing fast in a tight thermal on the west face and, forgetting about my wingman, hammer down all my speed bar to get there before it’s too late.
I arrive just in time to get my ass kicked by a nasty disorganized +6m/s thermal and, without any other options, fight my way up to the vultures and an improving thermal… Saved! But where is John??
John had chosen the east side but got really low until he saw me getting beamed up and just made it into my thermal in time.
We should have really taken a minute to understand why it didn’t work as it was supposed to, but anyone that knows John and I will understand when I say we are not exactly too inclined to waste much time on thinking before we act. And we would pay for that lack of use of that lump sitting under our helmets.
What an introduction to the backside of Bir, it was everything I had heard and more, but we had jumped in, survived a low point and now comfortably soaring up a large steep mountainside that was rising and taking us up with it.
When I say soaring it is a bit misleading… We were bee lining it with our wing tips at times only a few meters away from the mountain side, skimming huge boulders, surfing spines and generally having a blast flying in the most efficient way ever.
Welcome to the Himalayan flying style, once you have been bitten you will be screwed for life!
This was taking us a bit away from Manali but the ceiling was not high enough to safely fly over this first mountain so we just used it to get altitude while going around it. Once we made it to the other side, I figured it was time to get some major altitude to safely cross the massive valley to connect with the mountains overlooking the Manali valley.
Once again this insane flying area delivered the goods and I connected with another booming thermal that got me my highest altitude ever yet, 4,600m, with still a good 500m left to the tiny cloud marking the thermal.
As soon as I took my camera out to take a picture of the altitude reading on my vario for a little souvenir (the battery froze up so no luck there,) I started getting pelted by small hail… Now I am flying in a beautiful blue sky with only one tiny cloud spewing hail on me as I head straight for it. For some reasonJ, I felt uncomfortable and bailed out as fast as I could, taking a beating falling out of the thermal and started my glide towards what I thought was our goal.
“Rony, where are you going?” I hadn’t heard from John since the good laugh after our low save at the beginning of the flight.
I tried to find him around, thinking he was just behind me but just couldn’t see him.
He had just kept running along the ridges on the west edge of the valley and was far below me and a bit ahead… And he was probably much warmer than my freezing ass up there.
I was heading to the eastern tip of the valley, but was supposed to be going to the west side. I guess checking maps before take off would not be such a bad idea from now on.
We finally meet at the entrance of the Manali valley and I thought that was it, find a landing spot and have a laugh on land. The first hint that we were far from done was the fact there were absolutely no landing options anywhere in the valley, with a raging river surrounded by a small city, apple orchards and trees everywhere…Everywhere not being an exaggeration.
I find out that the official landing of the Bir-Manali flight is in Losang, 20kms up this valley but it is usually a quick trip with the help of the valley wind so no use to get much altitude as you can ridge run at mach speed and get there in no time.
I run into a nice thermal just as we get into the last leg of our flight and hesitate to let it go, so I get about 200meters in it before running after John at ridge height. We should be going about 60km/h or more with that wind, right?
Wrong! We are idiots… Should have realized early on that our low save hill was not working right because there were no valley winds that day.
And now we were low, in light sink, skimming trees and the odd shepherd’s hut, still with about 15kms to go… Yippee life is good, I love where I am right this minute… No hope of making it but somehow knowing that I will make it… Total confusion of the mind at it’s best.
Somehow we manage to reach Losang and are now low over the sketchy valley, slowly drifting in zero lift towards a military base with a beautiful asphalt parking lot , and a boulder field just outside of it… After a very quick radio exchange we opted to take our chances with the boulders instead of the Indian military.
The wind was light and just swirling around so the right direction for the final was a wild guess, at 3m above the ground I decided on a little grassy spot in between a bunch of boulders, just in time before the bottom fell out from under me and I cratered, luckily in another tiny grassy spot…
Glad to be ok, I look for John and spot him over my shoulder approaching in a totally different direction with the same end result, free fall in, crater and walk away laughing!!
We had made it and, as a little added bonus, we were the first ones to make it that season.
We gather our gear and take a little break after packing, to watch the sun disappear behind the steep ridge above us.
This was only a small 65kms flight but the immensity of the playing field and the severity of the consequences for messing up made it my first true experience of paragliding as a tool for adventure and I was addicted, no turning back, my next few years are booked up trying to feed the new monster…
On the walk back to relative civilization we had to cross a beautiful and massive steel bridge over the raging river. Before crossing we were taking some pictures of each other when a military guard came over and explained to us we couldn’t use our cameras because we were in a military area. We started across the bridge with John and his glider in front of me… This would make a cool picture with the dusk light so I turned my camera on and snapped a shot without looking into the viewfinder…
The flash went off lighting up the whole bridge like fireworks at a wedding, John did not flinch or turn around but asked me “did you really take a picture??” Another brain fart moment to file in the last moments reel.
In India, the landing usually marks the end of one great adventure and the start of a new one. I was not disappointed.
After chai and some nan in a small two benches and a stove shop, we hook up with a tuk tuk driver that told us his brother has a taxi and will drive us back to Bir, something like a 120kms drive. John and I were not too convinced we would fit with our gear in this camper of mopeds, so we tried to catch a bus stopped near by.
Let’s just say that the crowds and smells of the bus convinced us the tuk tuk was a better option and leave it at that!!!
The ride in the now pitch black night, over an extremely potholed road, being constantly overtaken by buses, trucks and cars and feeling them coming way too close to us many times, was much sketchier than the flight over.
But the brother did have a taxi and drove us back to the Colonel’s Resort (he drove the first half until we took a break, then I think he was flying and the taxi was driving itself, but that’s a whole other story…)
Since this flight I have shifted my paragliding from always trying to go far (although I still go for big flights if I can because it’s a blast in it’s own right) to vol bivouac style flying where distance does not matter as much as flying along a defined route to get to a good take off for the next day to be ready to do it again and again, until the goal is reached.
For me this was my first real flight.