Sunday, April 11, 2010

07. Look at me Ma, I’m flying!

Manali, Himachal Pradesh, India

As I write this I’ve finished my sixth day of paragliding training, 5 of them here in Manali.

I’ve been training at the Solang Nala ski-field just north of Manali. In winter time it’s a bit of a ski-field, with one beginner’s slope with a rope tow, and a brand new gondola to the top of the hill (currently under repair due to a freak avalanche). But the area around Manali is great for back country skiing, if you have the energy to walk to the top of the mountains.

A local showed me a photo on his cellphone of the ski field covered in snow just 2 months ago in February. However what greeted us in April was now a dustbowl of a landing area, and dozens of paragliders in the vicinity.

Manali - 03 - Solang paragliders

The grass slope in the background is the skifield – that’s all of it. The rope tow is just out of frame to the right.

When Bruce came here in 1988 he was the first ever to paraglide in the region. Back then Solang Nala in summertime was well-grassed, attracted a few tourists as a nice picnic lunch spot, there was a bit of horseback riding in the summer, but not too much tourist activity. Lots of Bollywood productions would shoot there with all the green grass and the snow-covered mountains in the background. Bruce always intended that Solang Nala would remain a paraglider pilot training area, and that actual tourist tandem flights would be taken from nearby mountains much higher. But from what I’ve been told, Indians always go for the cheaper option, so if you offer them a 500 rupee (NZ$15) 1 minute flight at the training ground, versus a 3000 rupee half hour flight from a nearby mountain, they’ll usually go for the 500 rupee option. So now at Solang Nala in the summer it’s still a pilot training ground but the majority of paragliders are tandems taking tourists for one-minute flights. Lame.

Manali - 02 - Solang zorbs

Check it out – Zorbs, an NZ invention. Bruce said he once contacted Zorb HQ in NZ about setting up here, and they had all sorts of requirements around space, tourist numbers, revenue, marketing budget, franchise fees, safety, yadda yadda, so he didn’t bother. Sooner or later a local copied the design of a Zorb, got a bunch made in Delhi, and set it up here himself. They still call it Zorbing, and of course he’s not paying Zorb HQ any franchising fees. Well well well, I just found out that Zorb-fakery is quite popular worldwide, and it looks like Zorb NZ didn’t invent the concept either but copied it from a Frenchman. OK, enough about Zorbs.

Lessons 2 and 3

The first couple of days I was mostly practicing ground handling, which is controlling the paraglider while you’re on the ground. The most dangerous part of paragliding is the takeoff and landing, cos that’s when you’re close to the ground and can get slammed, so having good ground handling skills is essential.

I also practiced my forward launches, and got short little hops of flight in.

Most of the time it went OK but I did have the occasional crash:

Run Forrest, run!

Man, I’ve never seen video of myself running before but the above looks pretty funny, with those fast little steps as I try to drive the paraglider up and generate enough speed to get off the ground. Go boy!

Anyway, in this case the paraglider started to deflate on one side so I should have pulled the brakes on the other to catch up with it. Lesson learned!

I also started to attempt the reverse launch, which is where you stand facing backwards and use the wind to get the paraglider above you. But that was frustrating as I couldn’t figure out which strings I needed to pull to correct the paraglider on the way up.

Lesson 4 and 5

I kept battling trying to get the reverse launch figured out, but was getting more and more frustrated. I’d get confused as to which brake line I needed to pull to straighten out the glider, and I kept getting rope burn on my fingers. Bruce suggested a variation on my grip with the A lines in one hand and the Ds in the other and that worked much better for me, so I finally got the hang of the reverse launch which was a victory.


I tell you what, it’s a great cardio workout doing the sprint takeoffs, and then walking back up the hill carrying the paraglider. Especially when we’re at 2600m. Bruce likes to tell a story of the pasty English stoner he took on a week long paragliding course. By the end of the week the guy had a decent glow on, and was tanned and fit.

Man, if you had to lose some weight, a paragliding course in India would be the way to go – altitude training, cardio, plus diarrhoea thrown in for good measure (more on that in another post).


Learning to paraglide in the mountains is an exercise in patience. It’s a lot like learning to surf – first you’re battling the white wash trying to get out the back, then you’re lying there waiting and waiting for the right wave, finally it comes so you paddle and paddle and either miss it and have to turn around, or you catch the wave and barely stand up before falling off.

Here you’re battling walking to the top of the hill carrying your paraglider, unpack it and lay it out on the ground, check for line tangles, strap up your harness and then you’re standing there waiting and waiting for the right breeze. It needs to be a headwind, but not gusting too strong (8-15 km/h). If the conditions are good you won’t wait long but sometimes I’d be waiting 5 or 10 minutes. Finally the wind comes and you start to lift the paraglider over your head but then it twists to the side and crashes into the ground before you even get going. So you lay it out on the ground again, check for tangles again and wait for the right breeze.

On some days we’d only get about 3 hours in before the wind would get too strong and we’d have to call it a day. And on those short days I might only get a handful of launches in – frustrating. But on Day 6 it finally all came together – the wind conditions were good and we were able to get about 6 hours of training in before I was too tired and called it a day.

Lesson 6

With the reverse launch figured out and growing confidence in my ground handling I was able to make some reasonable flights by launching from the slope and getting a bit of air time. So it was time for me to step it up a level and fly from the top takeoff.

Here’s the view from near the top:

Manali - 14 - View from takeoff

and here we go:

Notice I start with the reverse launch, where I’m facing the glider and I use the wind to launch it, instead of doing the Run Forrest run thing I did on the forward launch.

It looks like I’m heading way out to the left over the rope tow and into the trees but I’m not, keep an eye on my shadow on the ground to know where I really am.

Altogether we did 4 takeoffs from the top and I practiced my turns in the air on the way down. Now I need to keep flying to get used to the feel of the glider in the air.

Update: Day 7 was shit, only half an hour of ground handling practice before the wind got too gusty and we called it off. Damn mountains. There’s something to be said for learning the basics near the beach with a constant sea breeze.


Haszari said...

Really appreciated the prang video.

The success video was pretty impressive!

Generally enjoying the reliably interesting Matt travel blog :)

Slag said...

Man I am cracking up at how fast your legs move in the crash video!

Shit looks awesome though.

mattyboy said...

Yeah, crackup! It almost looks like sped-up footage