Exploring the Western Ghats

Boating around in the evening light
Boating around in the evening light

People have been asking me “What was India like?” But the truth is, I’m not sure we really saw the “real” India! We avoided the hustle and bustle of the cities, didn’t take a single 30-hour train journey, never saw more than 5 people on a scooter and didn’t once got drawn into a staring match with an old man – something my other fair-headed friends had all warned about!

Chilling out on Christmas Day
Chilling out on Christmas Day

For us, India was peaceful (mostly). We immediately escaped to a lovely hill-top town in the middle of the countryside and did loads of flying and relaxing which, after a hectic year, was exactly what we needed!

Walking out of Mumbai Airport into the heat, we weren’t surprised to meet a wall of sound from car horns. Choas reigned! But after a missed night’s sleep and 16 hours travelling, it mostly just washed over us. Leaving Mumbai in our jet-lagged stupor, we barely noticed as our driver casually weaved in and out between lorries and motorbikes, one moment in the hard shoulder, the next veering across three lanes to find the most efficient route through the traffic. In many countries, I’ve found the driving not to be as bad as the stories, but I’m convinced that if you can survive driving in India, you’ll be able to drive anywhere in the world!

Always a fan club on landing! These lovely kids were much nicer than the bands of middle ages men that stood silently watching us pack most of the time!
Always a fan club on landing! These lovely kids were much nicer than the bands of middle ages men that stood silently watching us pack most of the time!

Five hours later, we arrived at Eco Camp Panchgani 150km to the south – our oasis of calm in the Western Ghats mountains. Eco Camp is run by a motorbike tinkering, cheese making, paraglider flying Canadian, Andre, and his wife Meg who, between them, make the place feel like home for the random bunch of pilots who end up there, creating a great sense of community among the pilots from around the world.

Staying at Eco Camp makes you feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere, but in reality, 5 minutes walk will have you at the market or local restaurants. Andre will take you to take-off and his local experience beat the unreliable forecasting every time. Top landing is usually an option, so getting home often wasn’t a challenge. Occasionally the crowds gathering to watch you pack and have their photo taken with you could get a bit much, but for the most part, people were just fascinated, wanting to know where they could learn, where we came from and what we thought of India.

Landing across the lake
Landing across the lake

On the occasions when we did land out, we found ourselves travelling through little rural communities – pretty places where people point and wave at the funny looking foreigners passing by, then get back to their everyday lives, tending the land and painting their cows’ horns. Local buses or jeeps were never hard to find – as long as you don’t put yourself somewhere really foolish!

Even if you find yourself stranded, like we did one unfortunate day (I thought he had money, he thought I had money, that sort of thing), a taxi back to your door from Wai at the bottom of the hill, costs less than £3 and riding up the hill in our private bright yellow jeep only adds to the adventure!

Landing obstacles
Landing obstacles

The flying is thermic during the day. Launch sites are good, but often strong and small – particularly when the crowds gather in to watch the spectacle. While we were there this December, almost every day was flyable, but the days are fairly short and there were only a handful of days where 50km+ XC flights were possible. Our final day, however, at the start of January, was the start of a run of epic weather with friends flying several 70-80km flights. Longer flights have been known throughout the season which starts in November. Soaring in the mornings and evenings was also often an option.

For newer pilots or for anyone needing a bit of hand-holding, Kamshet to the north with its schools and reliable soaring conditions would probably be a better choice. You pay more for the support of the schools, but you’ll probably get more airtime as well. But for more experienced pilots used to flying in thermic conditions, the potential of Panchgani is great – as long as you don’t let the pressure of 60 people watching and cheering from right behind your wing affect your take-off too much!

On glide back to Panchgani. Photo by Vistasp Kharas
On glide back to Panchgani. Photo by Vistasp Kharas

One day, we’ll go back, get a motorbike and explore properly – then I’ll really be able to answer what India was like! In the meantime, I’ll enjoy being able to sit on take-off, taking my time and watching the world go by, without the watching crowds and the cry of “selfie” or “just one photo” ringing in my ears! I’ll also miss the beautiful scenery, the community of pilots and the wonderfully reliable flying with the potential of big distances there for the taking.

Cross country flying – a state of mind

Jenni landing out after her first XC
Your first XC doesn’t have to be epic – just cut the apron strongs and go on a glide! This is a very happy Jenni looking back the 8km to take-off after her first ever XC

When we’re talking about XC flying, we find the mental stuff often gets the better of people and that people share the same questions and fears.

This summer we ran an introduction to XC course in Annecy for a small group of pilots who wanted to do their first XCs and learn enough so they could go on to progress on their own after the course. We talked a lot about the mental side of XC flying. This is every bit as important as the practical flying skills if you want to fly XC.

Here are some of the common issues and a few of the tactics we use when we’re flying XC that might help…

1) What if there’s nowhere to land?

Why would you put yourself somewhere with nowhere to land? XC isn’t just about joining up ridges and thermals, it’s also about flying from one landing field to another. When we’re flying, we’re always looking at landing options and making sure we’ve got a selection of friendly-looking fields in easy reach. Never leave one landing field behind until you’ve got another one within reach!

2) What if I bomb out?

Get used to it – you will bomb out!

There are lots of ways indications for whether you’ll make a glide – other pilots, you instruments, estimating the angle with your feet, etc. But you’ve got to put it to the test in the end and risk being wrong.

If you never bomb out, you’re probably not pushing yourself. Don’t be afraid to fail – you will make mistakes and you WILL bomb out. That’s one of the ways you learn (and often where the real adventure begins!).

3) Sometimes I get scared in the air…

Everyone does! Fear can be healthy – firstly work out if it’s rational or irrational. Having something to take your mind off it will help when irrational fear strikes. Chewing gum, singing songs, thinking about your shopping list, having something to eat or drink all help.

As I turn in a beautiful thermal, I see another glider heading over to join me
As I turn in a beautiful thermal, I see another glider heading over to join me

4) I don’t know where to go!

Pimp off others! Other pilots give you some of the biggest clues about what the air’s doing. If you’re not using them to maximise your climb, glide and distance, you’re missing out. BUT don’t follow them until you know they’re going somewhere good (not to work or to pick their kids up from school)!

5) It wasn’t really working over there…

Pilots often lose patience if they have to wait a while for the next thermal or when banging their heads against an inversion. They give up and wander off even if they don’t have anywhere better in mind and end up bombing out. They are often rewarded by getting to watch the other pilots they were scratching with then climb up and carry on while they’re packing their wing!

Be patient and don’t give up! Sometime’s it just takes perseverance to hang on until the next thermal cycle or fight your way through an inversion. As long as you’ve got a safe landing in glide, keep fighting!

6) I get tired and distracted after a while

Don’t forget the creature comforts. Have food and water easily available and go for a wee before you launch. Get your harness set up nicely and get familiar with your instruments in a stress free environment. Being uncomfortable in the air is distracting and will have you thinking too much about your landing field.

Happy pilots in goal after a challenging sunset task!
Happy pilots in goal after a challenging sunset task!

7) I started going for the next ridge, but changed my mind…

Make a decision and stick with it! Don’t just bimble around – you’ll either never leave the ridge or just keep changing your mind until you find yourself on the ground. Use all the information available, choose a (safe) route and follow it through. Then you can ask yourself: “Was it the right decision?” You’ll never know and learn if you keep changing your mind.

Chabre Open – reminiscing

Looking over the back from Chabre
Looking over the back from Chabre

The Ozone Chabre Open finished weeks ago now! The results are in and most people have left Laragne either back home or onto their next adventure. In all we got four full tasks in, from three different launches with many happy pilots in goal every day. It really felt like a fun comp where every pilot could learn something in a supportive environment with just enough friendly competitiveness to keep things interesting. Unfortunately, registration for next year doesn’t start for another 7 months or so, but if I could sign up now, I would!

I’m not going to do a write-up of the fourth and final task – the time has passed. But I’d already written this one, so it may be a bit late, but here goes…

Day 3 was another beautiful looking day, forecast similar to the day before. Initially it looked good for a task to Gap, some 50km to the north east.  But cloud development in that direction meant that the task was revised to Aspres again, this time via Beaumont and the Sailplane Ridge.

As often happens in the mountains, despite the similar forecast, it was a totally different day! The ridge was scratchy and even seasoned locals like Rachael Evans of Allez-Up had to work hard in dribbly thermals before finally getting something that went up to cloudbase.

For me, I let my short attention span get the better of me for the first time in the comp. Frustration at having to scrabble on the ridge, sometimes with quite selfish pilots, led me to make a couple of bad decisions, eventually taking a weak climb too low over the back meaning I couldn’t get back for the first turnpoint on the ridge.

I headed for Orpiere as the realisation sank in – no points for today – for myself or for my team, and probably an afternoon sat miserably at camping waiting for everyone to come back with their happy tales. I had chosen my landing field, planned my approach and was almost getting my feet down to land when I connected with a climb at the bottom of ridge. This gave me some thinking time and I decided that if I’d scuppered the task anyway, I may as well do something interesting. I wondered if it would actually be possible to push back from Orpiere to the Chabre ridge and get the turnpoint…

When the sky looked friendly over Beaumont
When the sky looked friendly over Beaumont

So, while I was hearing on the radio talk about the clouds and wind over Beaumont, I was thermalling up high over Orpiere. As the radio reports moved on to clouds over the Sailplane Ridge, I was pushing slowly and patiently forwards trying different routes back to the ridge, still only 1km or so south of the Orpiere ridge. By the time I finally clipped the first turnpoint, Jockey was on the radio warning pilots coming in to land at goal that the field was thermic.

I managed to reach the next turnpoint at Beaumont then pushed out to land, as the wind around there and Serres was now too strong for me to carry on safely.

Distance-wise, it may not have been an epic flight (16km of the task route). But for me, I was delighted! Losing concentration and giving up too easily is one of my biggest weaknesses in XC flying. For this flight, I had to call on all my determination and concentration so that I didn’t just give up. I tried something, risked failing, learnt a lot and achieved something genuinely difficult. What a day!

Chabre Open day 2

After three pretty epic days with masses of flying, I think the whole comp is pretty relieved to have a day off today.

On Monday, the forecast was for a pretty much perfect Chabre day – light southerly winds and high cloud base. Our lovely task committee came up with an interesting task to get us to Aspres – a 50km route via a point on the Chabre ridge about 5km to the west, Orpiere to the north, then east to the far end of “the volcano”.

For me, the most challenging part of the race was the start – an hour on the ridge before we could enter the start cylinder. This is fairly usual for competitions, but I wasn’t prepared for it – all I could think about was my  hungry belly and having to wait until 2.15pm when we’d be off on glide and I’d be able to faff around and get at my lunch!

Finally, 2.15 arrived and off we went! Hands off, lunch out, eaten and time to focus back on the race! I clipped the first turn point at Orpiere in what felt like a good position. I pushed on to the volcano looking for lift to top up on the way, but didn’t find anything. Having just missed goal the day before, my strategy was to fly conservatively and get as much height as I could. So when I reached the volcano, I took my time to look around for another climb, rather than pushing on for the turnpoint.

After finding nothing workable on the corner of the volcano, I saw Chris White climbing on the tandem further back. As I went to join him, he pushed out, and I scrabbled around not able to connect with anything there either! Seeing pilots struggling on the front ridge, I was beginning to worry a little. There was obviously no point going back the way I’d come, so I carried on along the rising ground, keeping an eye on my escape route over the back of the volcano. But when I reached the high point, I was rewarded with a strong climb all the way to cloudbase at about 2800m!

It felt like I was a long way behind by now though.  I was flying on my own watching pilots heading off towards goal as I bumbled along under the cloud in the other direction to get the turnpoint. I’d planned to take the same cloud street back towards the goal, but drifted slightly off course and lost a bit of height on the way. But one ratty climb halfway put my glide to goal at about 2:1. Here being conservative paid off – otherwise the wicked sink and a slight confusion with my instruments could have left me scrabbling over Aspres town struggling to get up to get the final turnpoint.

I was delighted to get to goal, along with about 70 other pilots! Lots of smiles all round! I was the 4th girl in, behind Susie Burt, Foram Pandya and Christelle Tabarle, currently first place for the girls. You can see all the results at www.flylaragne.com

The main lesson for me was, like before, stay focused. There were several times in the flight I had to give myself a stern talking to. Being hungry at the start had made the landing field look very inviting and I was almost lured into ending my flight early! I was also tempted on more than one occasion to leave a climb before base and race on. But I kept my focus and it paid off in the end. I was relatively late into goal – 46th overall. But I got there! And in comps, there’s no point being quick if you don’t actually make goal…

Sorry – no pictures today. I was too busy flying!

Chabre open day 1

OK, I’m a day behind with posting now. That’s the problem when it’s flyable – so busy!

Sunday’s challenge was a 40km elapsed time task. With a fair bit of north wind still around after the Mistral yesterday, we were flying from Bergies near Sederon. This in itself was a plus for me – I’ve flown around Laragne a fair bit, but this is one site I hadn’t flown!

DSCF7496

Catching the first thermal is known as a challenge and several good pilots were quickly in the landing field. Those who were lucky enough to get up and away enjoyed smooth strong climbs up to base at around 2300m.

It was a fairly straightforward task – two turnpoints and goal back in Laragne. A massive proportion of the pilots were downed by an into-wind leg on the final glide into the landing field. But with nearly 40 pilots in goal and lots of happy faces, it really was a great day.

Highlights for me were flying (and getting away from) a new site, bobbling along under a cloud street for several km and and seeing one of my best mates get into goal for the very first time!

As for the results (sorry I only really paid attention to the girls’ results, so apologies to those who were looking for a more objective report)…

IMAG0352Of the 16 girls in the competition, five got to goal (a slightly higher ratio than the blokes). Massive congrautations to Catherine Castle, Karlien Engelen and Ella Pyrah for popping their goal cherry! Particularly well done to Karlien who won the day flying her first ever comp task (and thanks for marking a
few thermals for me)!

As for me, at the end of the first task, I was 5th out of the girls and a fairly respectable 36th overall. I was one of a mass of pilots landing about 1km short of goal. If only Jockey’s transmission warning of a low level north wind had come two minutes sooner!

I learned some good lessons from the day. Most important, it’s that you have to keep working all the way to the end! Don’t assume you’re going to make it into goal until you’re actually there as you never know what’s going to present itself! So next time, I’m going to try and look at goal as just a waypoint on a longer flight, aiming to fly high over the top of it… And who know where I’ll end up?!

EDIT – OK, so we’ve already flown the second task before I got chance to post this, but no sneak previews, otherwise this will never get posted!

A different kind of flying

Buses loaded up ready to go to take-off
The buses all loaded up ready to go to take-off

While I was in Pokhara, I took part in my first competition – the 13th Nepali Paragliding Open. I didn’t do quite as well as I’d have liked, but it was a great experience.

Everyone’s heard about the perils of competition flying and it put me off for a long time. When I went to wind dummy for the Women’s Open in August, I chose not to compete. I was uncertain about what a competition involved and I was reluctant to put myself in a situation where I would be pushing myself to much. But I liked what I saw there and I’ve learnt a lot in the past few months and know there’s a lot more for me to learn, so why not?

At the moment I can do a 30 or 40km flight without too much problem, but I rarely go further. I fly in a relaxed way, climb as high as I can, take my time deciding what to do next. But if you want distance (or to fly with friends with more experience on hotter wings), this doesn’t always work. You need to be able to make the most of the conditions when they’re right, or if, like me, you only have the stamina for a 3-4 hour flight, you need to move more quickly if you want to go further.

I got to see the difference competing could make to my flying on the first day – competition flying is all about moving quickly.

The less than perfect conditions posed a challenge for the task setting committee. But the ridge based task for sports class (the lower category of wings) was pitched just right. I took off a bit too early, climbed to the top, then had to wait it out in a crowded sky until the start. Hating the crowds, I pushed out, losing height, but picked up another quieter thermal which brought me back above the start just a minute before the race began.

Local boy on landing
The locals in Nepal are always happy to help – a young boy rushes off to hold the jeep for me after landing out on practice day

When I left the house thermal, lower than some of the others, I was more trying to get away from the crowds rather than get a racing lead. However, I soon realised that flying to avoid the crowds meant I was holding my own in the front gaggle. Initially, I was frustrated that the same wing was always in my way when I wanted to turn in the lift. Then I realised he was simply racing, only stopping to climb when necessary. Aha – tactics! I hadn’t thought of that! So I push on along the ridge, keeping as much height as possible and soon tag the first turn point.

Sometimes while flying, I still get nervous when putting on my speed bar, even though I know from experience how solid my Epsilon 6 is. But in the race, with so much else to think about, I suddenly realised I was using the bar, adjusting for lift or turbulence, without even thinking about it. So much of my attention was on the other pilots around me, other hazards, the best route to the next turn point, etc, etc, that the business of just flying the wing was instinctive. A year ago, I had done one “XC” flight (if you can call it that) – a 7km downwind dash in Algodonales – so I still find this feeling of being a real pilot quite a novelty! But it’s thanks to putting myself in different situations like this competition that I’m getting to experience that feeling.

Coming back from the first turnpoint, I take the first good climb as high as I can to fly back along the top of the ridge back on one straight glide back into the house thermal. Using all my patience (a skill I’ve learnt while flying with some of the great pilots that come in and out of Maison du Moulin in Annecy), I make myself stay there until I see the lift is working most of the way to the next turn point. Then I leave, making the turnpoint and back to the house thermal without needing to stop.

But getting back to the house thermal low, ignoring good lift on the way back, I’m worried I’ve made a big mistake as I now need to find something quickly! But with a bit of luck, a strong climb kicks off exactly where it should be and up I go! The rest of the race is a repeat of the ridge run from the beginning. Confident with this now, I set off on bar, only stopping to top up my height when I need to, tagging the final turn point with two Nepali pilots. As we race to the finish in relatively smooth air with masses of height, I stand on the bar and push towards the finish, thinking I’ll get in ahead of both of them. But I didn’t feel too bad when the Factor 2 to my left suddenly pushed out and left my much slower wing for dust, easily beating me to the finish, particularly when I find out I’m the first girl to complete the task and fourth overall – not bad for my first task of my first ever comp!

But I also got to see how easy it is for pilots in competitions to push it just a little too far, with two pilots ending up in the trees – at least one of which, a good pilot with lots of local flying experience, was because of flying into rotor on the leeside of a ridge.

High cloud over the Green Wall
High cloud over the Green Wall

The next day, the task was cancelled because of low cloudbase. Day three gave us a longer task. While the big boys in open class headed off on a 60km route around the Korchon circuit, our sports class task was just over 30km, involving a short ridge run followed by a circuit of the Green Wall, one of Pokhara’s classic XC routes. Determined not to make the same mistake as the previous task, I waited to take off until about 15 minutes before the start. However, with a little bit of faffing on my part along with waiting my turn on launch, I ended up in the air just five minutes before the start, scrambling with 30 other pilots while waiting for a good cycle to come through.

By the time I got high enough to go, I was already 15 minutes behind the other girls. Trying to play catch-up, and keen to get away from the crowds as ever, I pushed on a bit low and ended up scrabbling again for a climb, which when it came, took me back to the ridge, but further west than I wanted. This meant I had to leave the climb and make a short push into wind to tag the next turn point. By the time I was leaving the ridge, I was nearly 45 minutes behind the rest of the girls, and Jessica, who went on to win the task and the competition, was already on glide back to Sarangkot before I’d even hit Green Wall. The superior glide of her Factor 2, coupled with the increase in the valley wind by the time I was coming back meant that while she made goal with height to spare, I was packing my wing behind the ridge.

Raft landings
The raft landings make for good entertainment on the final day

The next day, my friend Emily lent me her Mentor 2 to help overcome the difference of the performance in wings. But the decision backfired. A much more technical day, with small weak climbs, I would have been better off on the wing I know. After two hours fighting to get above the ridge, I realised that even if I did get away, I was now so tired that I would struggle to make the course. Admitting my competition was over, I headed for the landing field to nurse a splitting headache and slight disappointment at turning the first day’s victory into a decisive defeat!

But overall, I wasn’t really disappointed. I’d flown well most of the time and learnt a lot. Being able to fly the same routes as pilots on a similar level and later compare our routes, our good and bad decisions online using Xcontest was invaluable for seeing how I could improve my flying, and less than a week later, I went on to complete my first ever 50km XC flight. And now I know that when it comes to competing, as long as I can learn to be consistent, I stand a good chance of getting some decent results.

But even for those who aren’t interested in winning, I think competitions are still a worthwhile exercise. You get full briefings on the sites. You get lifts to take-off and retrieves. You get routes set out for you. You learn from much more experienced pilots and discuss ways round the route, things to look out for, information on what works and doesn’t.

Busy skies
Busy skies on practice day

That said, it isn’t for everyone. You’re flying busy skies, sometimes with pilots who are there to prove something and fly aggressively. And however hard you try to tell yourself and others: “I don’t want to win. I’m just here to fly,” as my friends would willingly confirm, it’s human nature to feel the stress of being in a competitive situation.

But for me, I think I can enjoy the flying while using competitions to improve my flying, hopefully even getting a few good results on the way.

A girly comp

Today was a bikini briefing – you wouldn’t get that in another comp. Ok, it’s not exactly what it sounds – we didn’t have our briefing in bikinis. But goal was the lake for swimming and relaxing and pilots who didn’t make it could get a retrieve to the lake instead of the usual situation where you get taken back to HQ.  

That’s just one of the things that makes this comp different. Maybe we shouldn’t be, but girls do sometimes get intimidated by the blokey nature of paragliding. It’s not so bad on your local site where we get to know people over time – although even there, it’s got easier over the past couple of years as more of the girls have been out flying more often. But starting out at competitions – or even finding out enough about them to decide whether you want to do them – feels hard.

I was nervous about coming to Ager, even as wind dummy, but so far, it’s been great. The whole competition is about having fun in the air and finding out what competing is all about. It’s OK to admit you have no idea how your GPS works. And whether pilots get to goal or bomb out before the first turn point, everyone wants to share and learn from their experience.

OK, so I saw a lot of that at the British Open in St Jean. New pilots were welcomed and coached by the more experienced pilots and there was a great buzz about the competition. 

But there’s a different atmosphere here. Every single person seems to want everyone else to do well and learn from the flights. This is an entry level competition and everyone seems to have something they can teach to the other pilots. And besides, I can imagine the looks I’d have got at St Jean if I’d gone up to one of my competitors and given them a hug in congratulations because they’d overtaken me 200m before the end of the race! 

It’s the end of day 2 now and it’s not looking too promising for a task tomorrow. Fingers crossed for the rest of the week though as the first two days have been awesome, with my two best flights yet! But in the meantime, we can get back to plaiting each others’ hair and having pillow fights. That’s what girls do isn’t it? 😉

Sorry – no pictures as my camera’s broken – see the Women’s Paragliding Open Facebook page for the latest…