Friday, 28 November 2008

Singing Tom's song

“I’m learning to fly but I haven’t got wings and coming down is the hardest thing!”

Well, that’s not strictly true…landing is easy…but landing softly on your feet and where you want to is another matter entirely.

It all started at around 6pm on Tuesday the 18th standing outside Adam Hill’s Frontiers Paragliding shop in the lakeside area of Pokhara having a pre course briefing.

There were 6 people on the course; me, my mate Bryan who had arrived that day from slough via Bahrain. Ricky a hyper active 25 year old media sales rep from Dartford, the couple Greg and Laura (Laura made the mistake on day 2 by saying to the rest of the group that she was quite gullible…Doh!!!!) and Francesca a “silver haired” youngster from Sussex. So not only where we all English but we all came from the south east of the country, so decent folk one and all!

The next day everyone was at the shop at 9am, which meant we were all on time and according to Adam that was a 1st. The next thing to do was fit heads and arses to helmets and harnesses. When all that was sorted out it was time to clamber onto the jeep for a quick blast across town to the training site, passing the Himalayan golf course on the way. The jeep parked on a small sliver of land 100 metres or so above the river Seti. From there it was a 5 minute walk down a dirt track to a small flattish piece of grass covered land where we would be spending the day.
Without getting too technical a paraglider is a big kite you hang under. The wing needs to be inflated via a series of interconnected ram air scoops which is achieved by air passing over the wing, inflating it and creating a low pressure on the top of the wing surface thus providing lift. When you are on the ground this means running forwards at speed. So yes, I spent the day running down the slope!!! Getting the wing into the air was in reality quite easy, keeping it in the air and under control was tricky. Keeping it in the air and under control whilst running down hill was trickier still. It turns out that the ditch was a nice place to lie in after tumbling through the low lying and prickly shrubbery when it all went “Pete tong”

On the Thursday morning we all went for a tandem flight from Sarangkot. Unlike my previous tandem flight this one was more educational. The instructor showed me what a wing was capable of doing and still being able to fly, which was nice and somewhat reassuring. In the afternoon we were back at the training site, this time round the corner at a slightly steeper slope. Because the slope was steeper it meant the wing came up quicker, so you had to react quicker and you still needed to be running downhill (which was steeper) all the time looking up at the wing and responding to what it was doing. Braking left and running right, braking right and running left, braking with both hands to stop the wing flying past you and dragging you along the ground…lucky for me I can roll quite well!

The 3rd day was the day when the reality of what we were doing came up and bit us all on the arse. It was time to go to the “training hill”. The launch site was 150 metres vertically up the side of a steep and imposing hill overlooking a wide flat landscape of freshly harvested paddy fields. The walk up the steep and narrow path was to be honest knackering. Help was on hand to carry the paraglider in the form of 9 and 10 year old boys. Who says child labour is a bad thing!!!
Standing on the slope with a paraglider laid out behind me ready for take off filled me with some apprehension. Looking down the hill and at the paddy fields below wasn’t the best thing to do. Having my inner voice screaming at me for being such a bloody idiot wasn’t much help in calming my already on edge nerves. However, looking only at Adam and not what was behind him made it possible. On the count of three Adam spoke the words “towards me Drew” and as I ran towards him the wing lifted up, I ran past Adam leaning forwards with my arms behind me like some kind of 3rd rate overweight unemployed superhero and approached the point of no return…and as my feet left the ground, something happened, something magnificent; a certain kind of bliss washed over me and within 2 seconds I was calm and my inner self was smiling. All I had to do now was crash…sorry I mean land…Argh!!!!!!

Question: what’s the difference between a paddy field and a normal field like you have in England?
Answer: about every 10 metres or so there is a little foot high mud wall or embankment which is there to keep the water in when the rice is growing.

Can you guess what happened? Yep that‘s right! I came into land just before a paddy wall and as the speed of the still buoyant glider needed to be ran off I did so…only my trailing leg got caught on the back of the wall………it was the 1st time I landed and then immediately went into a “judo roll”, it certainly won’t be the last!!!!

As the day progressed so did the students. Each glide down took around 2 or 3 minutes. This was enough time to practise “S turns” or 180’s and landing approaches. Once on the ground we all could practise the packing up of the glider or for 20 rupees have 2 young children do it for you. I think you can guess which option I went with most of the time! When that was all done it was time to walk back up the steep mountain track and do it all over again. The following day we returned to the same place and carried on with getting better with are take offs and landings.

On the 5th day of the course we all got just a little bit higher, about 650 metres higher as we changed locations and started to take off from a launch site a mile or so down the ridge from sarangkot. The road to sarangkot village is the same one I biked up before only this time standing on the tailgate of the jeep it was just the views that were taking my breath away. Once we ran out of tarmac it all got a little bit dusty. Actually that’s a bit far from the truth, it got very dusty (if you ever come here try and get a seat in the cab!). Sitting in the pickup section I wondered how the thin metal sheet roof had got all those little bumps in it. A few minutes later I was rubbing the top of my head and I had the answer…ouch!

Arriving at the stop off point we all climbed out of the jeep to be met by several very keen looking locals. I avoided the scramble for the bags by standing to one side and trying to get all the dust of me. Once those lucky enough to have bags started walking we followed them up the mountain path. 20 minutes later I was sitting semi collapsed at the launch site. This site is about 50m below the ridge line and on a good day (which is everyday!) you can see for miles. Looking down you could see the world’s biggest landing zone in the valley 800m below.

Now we were really paragliding and for the rest of the course we would be launching from here twice a day. On the 1st day the flights lasted for 10 to 15 minutes. This gave Adam plenty of time to get us doing drills on the glide down.

a) Pitch control: basically you make yourself swing forwards and backwards and then come to a controlled stop directly underneath the canopy.
b) Roll control: by braking left then right several times in quick succession the glider rolls left and right whilst you get shaken about till it calms itself down.
c) Weight shift steering: you grab hold of the harness and lean back and then tilt your body left or right depending on the direction you wish to turn towards.
D)”d” riser steering: this is what you do if your brake line fails.
e) 360 turns: this is a tight turn 1st one way then the next and when you stop turning you need to control the pitch of the wing.
f) Big ears: this is when you collapse the wing at each end by pulling on the single line “A” riser thus reducing your lift and airspeed.

All of these exercises were helping us all to build up our confidence in not only what the wing was capable of doing (without spinning out of control and crashing into the ground) but also getting us all used to how a paraglider flies through the air.

The flight plan was he same everyday. Launch then head towards the school across a small thermal area, then turn to the right and follow the gully down the side of the mountain passing over a second thermal area before ending up soaring up and down on a small ridge before heading over to the landing zone. For the 1st few days we were launching before the thermals became to strong, so as we passed over the thermal sites it was a bumpy ride. The glider would roll and pitch just like when we did it during the drills, so this time we all knew what to expect and more importantly what to do.
The last two days we were taking off when the thermals were a little bit stronger. On afternoon flight my mate Bryan became the object of envy as his flight coincided with “magic air”. This is when the valley releases all of its thermic energy in one huge valley wide thermal. The bastard just kept going up whilst floating in a straight line across the valley. In a few minutes he was 500 metres higher!
When we took of Adam was there to instruct us during the take off and whilst we were flying. For landing, Graham was on the ground to guide us in. The way we 1st learnt to land was the “S turn” approach. You flew downwind and perpendicular of the landing zone, making a series of “S” or 180 degree turns to lose height before making a 90 degree turn and gliding into land. On one of my flights Graham was talking me down; I had just done my final S turn and was waiting for Graham to tell me when to make my final 90 degree turn to the right. Imagine my surprise when he told me to make a 90 degree turn to the left. After a short pause for thought I raised my right arm up and pointed to the landing zone. Graham quickly got back on the radio and said “yes that’s right drew make a 90 degree turn to the right”. By the next day all of the other instructors and tandem pilots had heard about it on the grapevine and he got the ribbing he deserved.

The morning flight on the last day was my best one of the course. Soon after launch I hit a small thermal and Adam guided me in. I climbed up past the take off point and carried on till I was higher than the ridge. Coming out of the thermal I looked north over the ridge and saw the snow covered peaks of the Himalayas in the distance…it was glorious!!!

So there you go, 9 days to learn how to paraglide. My longest flight was around the 25 minute mark and I got over an hour and a half of air time. If you were to learn to paraglide in the UK it would take you several months and your flight time would be measured in minutes.
Frontiers paragliding: all the people at this outfit are top banana. Adam is a very skilled instructor who teaches you in a way that makes the rapid progression from walking to flying a non scary experience. If after reading this you’re maybe thinking about learning to fly yourself then frontiers paragliding gets my seal of approval and complete recommendation.

Check out the website for yourself

This afternoon the 6 of us went rafting. What happened on the river stays on the river…ALRIGHT!!!!!

p.s: Graham now knows how to tell his left from right, we are all very happy for him.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

this is what happens when i get too lazy!

I’ve been hanging out in Pokhara for a while now; it’s a lot busier than when I first arrived! Mind you I am still being tracked down the road by the “Tibetan Ladies Mafia” who for some reason still want to sell me jewellery.
When I’m in the bar of an evening you can tell which group of people have come back from trekking and which have yet to go, just by the look of relief and sense of achievement that is on one set of faces

For the last week I have done absolutely nothing at all. Well unless you count lounging and sleeping as something, which I don’t. So it was time for some punishment!!! Definitely cruel but not that unusual

In the morning I got on my bike and started cycling uphill (which is pretty much all you can do from Pokhara) heading along the road to the Sarangkot turn off. Sarangkot is a place I’ve been to once before, it’s where the paragliders take off from and overlooks the lake and the town several hundred metres below. As such I knew how steep the road was and yet I still turned left when I came to the turn off!

I would like to say that I didn’t start off in the lowest gear possible but if I did that I really would be lying. It’s about a 10k ride to the not quite top, but it’s where the road stops so that was good enough for me!

Oh dear oh dear oh dear….you can spilt the ascent into thirds. The 1st third was quite frankly steep. Lots of little switchback hairpins, each one just a little bit steeper than the last. In between each one was a stretch of road that just went up. A couple of times the road flatten out to an easy 12% incline but most of the time it hovered around the 15%-18% mark.
The 2nd third was just a long crawl with sweeping bends that tighten up on the apexes. Passing along tree shaded tarmac with glimpses of snow covered mountains and fast flowing glacial rivers beyond the bark. As the ascent got higher the road got steeper. Coming round one bend I looked up and thought to myself “this has got to be a 1 in 4” which I believe is 25% in the decimal way of thinking. Personally all I was really thinking was “f##k me” as I lifted my sorry arse out of the saddle and pushed the peddle downwards. I have to admit I did stop a few times, just to let my heart rate get back below 130 beats per minutes and make apologies to my legs before continuing.
The last third…well that was easy (ish). By now my legs had warmed up. For some reason it takes my legs about an hour to get up to “racing” speed, which is a really annoying sometimes…like today for instance! Around one corner, oh joy of joys, the road went downhill for a few hundred metres. However joy quickly turned to pain as once again the road continued its relentless uphill journey. The final kilometre was a tale of two halves with the final 500 metres definitely making up for the relatively flat 1st 500 metres.

When the tarmac gave way to dirt I stopped, my head drooped and the sweat dripped of the end of my nose.

Easing myself of the bike I got a cool drink from the nearby shop. The shopkeeper chatted away and then asked if it had taken me 20 or 30 minutes to get here. I replied 20 minutes but only if you add an extra 60! Bloody cheek!!!!

Once refreshed it was time to get back on the bike, sing the uphill song* and descend. 10k of downhill fun and frivolity followed and as I passed the half way mark I started to brake earlier and earlier as my brake pads got hot and started to fade big time. Near the end I was pretty much braking all the time just trying to slow down enough for the multitude of hairpin bends which nestled on the edge of large life changing drops.

Yes I know I could have stopped and let the pads cool down but where’s the fun in that!

The uphill song

This is why I go uphill, go uphill, go uphill
This is why I go uphill, to go down again
Going down again, I’m going down again
This is why I go uphill to go down again