Paragliding in the Himalayas | Reaching for the Sky
Flying in the Himalayas is no joke, as Mark Brightwell found out...
Words by Mark Brightwell | Main photograph by Ivan Ripoll
I am standing on the lakeshore of Phewa Tal in Nepal’s calm tourist town of Lakeside Pokhara. From here the terrain jacks up steeply, reaching its zenith at Sarankot’s summit, a vertical gain of 800m, from which hundreds of paragliders launch into the thermals. Most of them are commercial tandem flights, and this will be as far as their paragliding experience goes, but for the more adventurous, it is just the beginning.
Though a paragliding rookie myself, I am here with pilots whose skill and experience is derived from decades of flying on the World Cup circuit as well as in the great ranges of Asia, Europe and even Alaska. For this group it is Sarankot’s Annapurna backdrop, the 7,000-8,000m peaks, which capture their imagination. Among them, Machapuchare, so named for its fishtailed twin peaks. It’s the jewel in the Annapurna crown and it is towards this peak that we venture. The aim is to launch from 3,500m and fly right back to Pokhara, a rare accomplishment, even among experienced pilots.
"The aim is to launch from 3,500m and fly right back to Pokhara, a rare accomplishment, even among experienced pilots."
While the most carbon-free approach would be on foot from Pokhara, a beautiful marathon distance route with a vertical height gain of 3,500m, on this occasion we opt-easy and take a 4x4. In no time we are beyond the fringes of Pokhara’s urban sprawl and bumping up a rough track. We follow the valley, passing bare paddy fields, temples and small villages. Above us, from one of the jungled walls a thin veil of water draws a vertical white line, hundreds of feet in length, to the valley floor.
By mid-morning the roughly hewn track has led up the valley’s eastern slopes, over terrain that increasingly challenges the Mahindra Bolero and its skilful driver, until finally it goes no further. We spill out of it, shake off the dust and enjoy the peaceful scene.
“Sidding pugyo!" (“We’ve reached Sidding!")
The next phase of our journey will be on foot, and as this will require energy and plenty of it we avail ourselves of a local teahouse and devour large quantities of mostly organic food, fresh from the surrounding fields. Porridge never tasted so good.
"Soon the jungle has wrapped us in its cool embrace. Our ascent is slow and steady. We stop to adjust to the thinning air or simply to admire the delicate purple flowers"
We sit on sun-warmed flagstones outside the mud-walled teahouse and delay the breaking of sweat for as long as possible. Finally, the idea of not reaching High Camp by nightfall looms large enough to shake our sun-induced lethargy. We shoulder our packs and climb steeply up an exposed shoulder.
Soon the jungle has wrapped us in its cool embrace. Our ascent is slow and steady. We stop regularly to adjust to the thinning air or simply to admire the carpets of delicate purple flowers or the sound of the wind moving gently through the canopy.
Our passage is a peaceful one, punctuated only by passing encounters with muleteers driving their animals down to Sidding for resupplies. Their presence is reassuring as these jungle trails are largely unmapped and we are navigating on a best guess basis: the most steeply ascending trail must be the right one.
Sure enough, we emerge after several steep hours into a clearing. There is one ‘teahouse’ serving food and we lose no time in consuming vegetable noodles, washed down with hot lemon and followed by pancakes with honey. A sign tells us that Forest Camp, as this place is known, lies at 2,950m, which means we have climbed 1,000m and have a mere 600m remaining.
"A thin, dusty trail…brings us to a long, low shelter with smoke seeping through its straw roof. Inside a shepherd is tending baby yaks."
After a steep 100m ascent we emerge from the tree line and onto the ridge that leads not only to our destination, the High Camp teahouse, but ultimately to Mardi Himal, an outlier of Machapuchare which at 5,500m, dominates the head of the valley.
The long grass covering the narrow ridgeline glows gold in this late afternoon sunlight. A thin, dusty trail snakes through it, bringing us to a long, low shelter with smoke seeping through its straw roof. Inside a shepherd is tending baby yaks. In spite of his attention we would learn a few days later that a snow leopard had attacked at night, killing several of the woolly infants.
It’s an hour from here to High Camp. The peaks of the Annapurna punctuate the horizon and every step takes us deeper into their realm. Any question of fatigue is entirely masked by the beauty of what we are seeing. I slide the pack from my shoulders at High Camp and scurry on, fleet-footed into the dusk. At 3,650m I reach a knoll, recover my breath and watch the sun sink below a distant horizon. Painted a watery pink in the day’s fading glow the twin peaks of Machapuchare stand out against the beckoning darkness beyond them.
Back in the High Camp teahouse we huddle around a wood burner, on top of which a pan of snow is being melted. With everything frozen, this is the only means of obtaining the water needed for cooking our evening meal of traditional Nepali dhal bhat (lentil and rice).
"Any question of fatigue is entirely masked by the beauty of what we are seeing."
Under borrowed blankets we settle down for the night. The old sweats tell bedtime stories of paragliding survival epics, at once enthralling and unsettling, and I can’t help wonder whether tomorrow I might add to this genre of misadventure.
Sleep after a rapid ascent to 3,500m is fitful enough at the best of times but when you’re also contemplating the most daunting take off of your life …
After breakfast we take our wings to the grassy slope from where we will launch and begin paragliding’s less loved sibling sport: para-waiting – an intense period of weather watching until the right conditions for flying are observed. A few hours later the cycles of lifting air finally become stronger and more consistent. The most experienced Mardi pilot among us, Bella, takes off first. Her wing is dwarfed as she flies towards the headwall of this monstrous valley, deeper yet into the clutches of intimidatingly massive terrain.
"I tune in to my senses, seeing the cycles of rising air moving towards me through the grasses, feeling them on my face until at some defining micro-point in time my brain initiates a pattern of well-rehearsed muscular movements."
It’s my turn now and although there’s an experienced pilot in the air and another standing just behind me, for all the will in the world, they can’t do this for me. Only I can launch this wing. So I start to focus my mind, to anticipate what could happen, and to visualise what I want to happen. I tune in to my senses, seeing the cycles of rising air moving towards me through the grasses, feeling them on my face until at some defining micro-point in time my brain initiates a pattern of well-rehearsed muscular movements.
My arms are swept back behind me, I flex at the hip allowing my chest to go forwards with gravity and stepping forward I feel power of the air through the lines as my wing comes up behind me. It rises fast, faster that usual in this thinner air, and at the critical moment, as it tries to overtake me, I catch it on the brakes and feel my bodyweight release from the ground. With another step I am airborne and sliding back into my harness.
I turn away from the mountains, soar next to the terrain and am violently boosted as I cross above a smouldering bush fire. Seconds later I am above the ridge. Not more than 50m above the terrain, I soar backwards and forwards, carving figure of eights in the sky. With each turn the view alternates between the Himalaya and the ridgelines that descend from them, ultimately to the plains of India, somewhere to the south under a blanket of cumulous.
Cloud has quite suddenly covered the lower reaches of the ridgeline so I drop again to the side of the ridge and plot a course between jungle and cloud, allowing me to continue visually navigating. In the cloud shadow there’s little rising air and it looks as though I’ll put down somewhere in the valley. Reaching Pokhara would have been nice but I’ll be happy just to land safely.
Ahead of me a thin finger of terrain offers one last possibility to stay airborne. If I can cross to its sun-warmed southern side I can expect rising air. I reach it above the village of Lwang and sure enough, soar up the south-facing aspect. The Sarankot ridge, separating me from Pokhara, still seems impossibly high but I’m still flying and still having fun. The longer I stay airborne the more the lift develops, the shading recedes and the impossible becomes tempting. I roll the dice, remembering a mantra from last night’s storytelling:
“When in doubt, go deeper."
I transition across the jungled back wall of the valley and watch my altimeter chart my descent. Although this is what I anticipate, the shaded jungle designating cold, sinking air, it is nonetheless hard to observe without getting spooked and losing the courage of one’s conviction.
Cue more mantras fresh from last night’s recounting:
“Stick with it. Don’t bail now! Back yourself!"
With little height to spare I reach the bare shoulder and find that the rising air I’d been reckoning on exists. The next ridgeline now looks reachable but there’s not long to think about it: the thermal of rising air in which I’ve been turning has just died and with my next circle I’ll be losing height. I throw the dice again, turn out and set a course for the next ridge, reaching it so low that I can clearly see the faces of the children shouting up at me.
For a few uncomfortable moments it looks as though I will struggle to stay airborne. Then I use what I know, move to the southern aspect and work my way along and up the ridge, again going deeper. This time a thermal boosts me so high that I can see right over the Sarankot ridge and into the Pokhara valley. Home! A wave of elation sweeps over me and with a feeling more of certainty than hope I cross the final valley, soar the ridge and land, against all odds and expectation, back on the lakeshore where I had stood a mere 36 hours before.
The overwhelming feeling is disbelief – such is the paradigm shift. I have just totally redefined what I knew to be possible. My mind is blown, sensory overload. I am as drained as I am elated. How did this happen? There are many strands to the thread but perhaps I can distil it to this simple mantra:
“You have to be in the game to win it."
Many were the opportunities to opt out, to be conservative, to talk myself down: to doubt. Instead, I trusted: I trusted others, I trusted myself and I took a challenging step into the unknown. What I found there will be etched into who I am for as long as I continue to be.