Paragliding Odyssey in the Indian Himalaya
Snow covered mountains ripple down to the plains like waves on a beach. An ocean of air has already taken my paraglider half a kilometre over takeoff, well over a kilometre above the valley floor, into a clear blue sky. Below, past my dangling legs, once rugged ridges and valleys seem to fold and flow.
Then it hits me.
A cannonball thermal blasts into the paragliders wing, jerks me up vertically and rips my right brake out of my hand. I look up. Half the wing is gone. My heart pounds in my throat as I'm swung around in the violent air, half the wing flapping useless above me. Leaning hard to the side of the wing still flying, I try to stop it from entering a spin. I lunge upwards to grab the brake-handle and fight hard to pump open the collapsed side. The cells eventually pop open one-by-one as the wing reforms in a slow wave.
Paragliding in India
The Himalayas inspired me to take up paragliding when I saw people in the air above Manali, but I learnt to fly in Australia. Now, still only an intermediate level pilot with knack for the sport but relatively few hours, I've returned to India to fulfil my dream of flying in the world's greatest mountains. That was the dream; after today's air I may be starting to wake up.
Paragliders have absolutely no means of lift other than lift created by thermals or from wind flowing up as it passes over ridges or cliffs. In the mountains the wind is minimal; you're reliant on thermals of hot rising air to be continually created, pumping out great columns, like waterfalls flowing up, which you can find and corkscrew your way up in. In reality the thermals are released from points on the ground, such as the bowl formed where two ridges meet, when enough warm air as accumulated. Thermals are then triggered and release like a bubble that can send up a powerful stream of air for around twenty minutes before exhausting itself. Hot air begins to accumulate once again before another thermal is released.
In the mid-afternoon, when the rock has been heated up by the day's sunshine, these thermals can come thick, fast, and rough. I sit with a few other less experienced pilots and eat a simple lunch of dhal and rice cooked over an open wood fire in the rustic chai shop while the sting slowly seeps out of the sun.
By 3.00pm we're ready to brave the air again. One of the veterans of Himalayan flying, Bruce Mills, is preparing to take a tandem passenger in the gentler air, so we decide to let him test the conditions and follow if it looks okay.
Now it's my turn. I feel the familiar tightness and tension in my stomach, a kind of nauseous nervous excitement that I still get no matter how many times I do it. It's mainly a physical reaction - I've learned to I like it because when I get it, I know I'll soon be in the air. My takeoff goes smoothly and I get a quick shot of euphoria when I step into the air, all anxiety gone, just the joy of weightless free-flight that feels like steeping into other dimension, into a more pure state of consciousness.
A warm thermal rustles in the canopy, bringing with it some light vegetation and the smell from the forest, but the lift is limited. I hug the top of the ridgeline, flying low and slow past the trees that climb the mountain. Langur monkeys start screaming and thrashing the branches, their black and white bodies flashing through the green leaves.
I can't catch a thermal to climb away so I'm forced to fly out over the valley to the landing area. But I've still got enough height to pull a small spiral dive. I brake hard on one side, then the other, swinging from side to side, in an increasingly steep wingover, and use the momentum to hold a sharp turn and go into a dive, the leading edge of the wing pointing down as I spin in circles around it, g-forces pulling at the flesh on my face, pushing my body back hard into my seat, trapping me in the spin. I counter-break to come out of the spin one hundred metres above the ground and glide past a gloriously golden roofed and red walled Nyingmapa Buddhist monastery. Monks are playing cricket on the landing zone, as I fly over the pitch.
Looking south I can see over the Shivalik range into the valleys and plains beyond, looking north reveals endless ranges of permanently snow-covered formidable peaks, each layer higher than the last.
A shadow passes over the sun. I'd been so intent on climbing that I hadn't noticed a cloud had formed above me. A light white mist starts to obscure the view until there is total white out - cloud base. I look at my vario - over four thousand metres. I spend half a minute in 'the white room', unable to see anything but pure white peace. The cloud thins, recreating the world.
In front of me, the valley below is hazy, almost three kilometres away straight down. I notice a light plane, at least a kilometre below me. To the left an enormous column of cloud stretches into a deep blue infinity. To the right a huge bank of cloud runs away like a flat white desert beneath me until it reaches the tops of the big grey-brown mountains that break through like icebergs. It's like being on a moon above the moon.
The air is now noticeably thin and very cold. My mouth is dry, my head hurts and I feel a little breathless. I'm fine with heights, but at this kind of extreme altitude with just flimsy nylon to support you there is a special kind of vertigo that kicks in, but mainly it's the early signs of hypoxia or altitude sickness. The thermal is now exhausted, and so am I, so I take advantage of the still air and sit forward in the harness and consciously relax, setting course and gliding down so that I might be able to regain feeling in my fingers. The only noise is the wind whispers the wing and my breath amplified in my helmet.
That's when I hear the whack against my wing.
A flash of the old stomach churning anxiety returns. My head snaps back to check the wing. It's still above me, but so is a dark shadow. It looks like huge flying Labrador, but it's a bird, a Himalayan Griffin Vulture (HGV) flying close to the trailing edge of my wing. The wingspan is bigger than a man and the sharp beak and claws make it about as welcome as a flying shark. I can't see any rips in my glider, but it looks like that's what it wants to do. If it fly's into the lines the tangle will bring us both down. I pull and release my brakes hard, making the trailing edge flap. The HGV jolts in surprise, dropping back, but still close enough for me to see its head moving, its eyes watching me, its wings outstretched with four big feathers pointing out at the end like fingers rippling in the wind.
Then the vulture simply banks and flies away. Seconds later it's found the middle of a beautiful thermal and is climbing steadily. I fly towards it, and soon my friend, me and the HGV are circling together, riding the thermal to gain the height we need to make the next transition over a low stretch of fields with enough height to make it over the next ridge.
The next thermal is marked by half a dozen HGV's, who we join, continuing on as part of the pack for the next twenty kilometres as we worked a perfect cloud street that ran all the way to Dharamsala. We alternately fly over rocky peaks and past huge lonely meadows, until we end up five hundred metres over the high pass of Triund, and the familiar village of Upper Dharamsala, McLeod Ganj, occupying the curve on a steep ridge. As I slowly get closer we see the Dalai Lama's temple and residence perched where the ridge drops off to the mist.
The call of momos and the German Bakery is too strong, so we spiral dive down to celebrate the flight with a feast in a restaurant overlooked by snow-covered mountains.
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Editor: Romola Butalia   (c) India Travelogue. All rights reserved.