A paraglider’s paradise?

DCIM100GOPRO
Ready to take off at Bucaramanga

Imagine a flying site which is so reliable you can almost guarantee it will be flyable. Sounds almost perfect, doesn’t it?

OK, so let’s see if we can make it better… Let’s add somewhere to stay right by take-off with a friendly vibe where you can lie in a hammock in the shade watching the sky until the conditions are just right for you. Is that perfect yet?

Well, almost. But let’s throw in breakfast, unlimited good coffee, retrieves, and radio support from two excellent instructors, just for good measure.

And while we’re imagining our perfect paragliding retreat, let’s set the price. We all know pilots don’t like spending much money, so we’ll chuck in all the extras for free and keep it about the same price as any other hostel in the area.

It all sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? So imagine our surprise when we arrived in Bucaramanga to find exactly that!

Getting to Hostel El Nido at 8am, exhausted after a 9-hour night bus ride across Colombia, Sarah, the Colombian lady who runs the hostel, did everything she could to make us welcome, magicking up a couple of extra plates of breakfast for us and pouring the tastiest coffee we’ve found in Colombia down our throats.

Hostel El Nido - a great place to hang out and watch the sky!
Hostel El Nido – a great place to hang out and watch the sky

As we ate our breakfast, we watched the birds exploring the first morning thermals in the valley in front, so we quickly polished off our third coffee and headed out to join them.

A badly timed launch on the tandem (neither of us are known for our patience) meant that our first flight can only be described as a brief orientation to the site as we found ourselves in the landing field in no time. But not a problem – the retrieve van was there waiting for us. Within less than half an hour we were back in the air. This time, staying up was no problem and we were high above takeoff before we knew it and able to explore the area properly.

The site tends to blow out in the middle of the day for all but the heavily loaded tandems (there are no skinny tandem pilots here) and those on mini wings. This may not suit everyone, but we found the enforced lunch break welcome setting us up nicely for the evening of soaring and restitution until the sun set.

The next day, the same. And again, and again and again! On the one day the weather wasn’t so good, the overcast sky slowed down the thermals, but it was still flyable with enough wind to soar by the end of the morning.

The place isn’t great for XC at the moment thanks to a recent reduction in the air space allowed by nearby Bucaramanga airport. Maybe this will be relaxed again in future? Let’s hope so!

But in the meantime, it’s still a great place to practice your XC skills and clock up loads of airtime. The thermals are just boisterous enough to warm you up for the European spring, without being so strong that they throw you around the sky. The flatish land out front gives you the chance to practice identifying thermal sources and joining up thermals. And if you’re wrong, you just land and have another go! You can set yourself little triangles to fly to build your skills.

Despite the lack of big distance potential, we certainly found enough to keep us entertained for a few days, so if you’re in Colombia, it’s definitely worth considering adding Bucaramanga to your itinerary!

Beautiful flying at Bucaramanga
Beautiful flying at Bucaramanga

Going with the flow

We always try to go with the flow, never more so than in the last few days…

Leaving Pana at 6am on Saturday had us reeling with mixed emotions – sadness at leaving our friends and the place that had come to feel like home and excitement about the next stage of our journey – Colombia!

As soon as we entered Guatemala airport, everything was different! The building was built with straight lines and modern design, there was air conditioning, good coffee, WiFi everywhere and everything operating smoothly. Other than the slightly awkward moment when I had to try and explain in faltering Spanish why I had three parachutes in my hand luggage, all went smoothly. It felt like we had already left Guatemala!

Welcome to America!
Welcome to America!

Arriving in America was a different matter… They have their procedures, and that’s just fine. But over 2 hours in queues from getting off the plane to out of the airport did seem a little much!

So first impressions of Fort Lauderdale? Everything is VERY BIG. And there are signs everywhere! Signs telling what you’re not allowed to do, where you should and shouldn’t go, things you should buy, ordering you to have a nice day, etc, etc. No one walks. I knew this, but it’s still a strange feeling driving along streets totally empty of pedestrians. The taxi driver seemed to have way more trouble understanding my English accent than any Spanish speaking Guatemalan had done in the previous 2 months and tried twice to drop us at the wrong house!

But when we finally arrived our hosts for the night, Heather and Benjamin welcomed us into their lovely home with open arms. If you’ve never tried www.airbnb.com (which you probably haven’t), I can highly recommend it. I have to admit we were a little wary of the idea of a website where people rent out their spare room, but with photos and reviews, it really is no different to finding any kind of hotel or b&b online. And at less than a third of the price of any hotel in town, we thought, “why not”?

Heather gave us a quick tour and offered us the choice of making ourselves at home with a takeout or joining her and Benjamin at a “young couples meet-up” they organise. The deal was further sweetened by a $5 brewery tour and beer tasting, and we bit (although I’m still not convinced the Funky Buddha Brewery pint glasses we were given will survive all the way back to the Uk)!

Unexpectedly finding ourselves in an American brewery
Unexpectedly finding ourselves in an American brewery

Not quite sure what to expect as we walked into the restaurant, we were pleasantly surprised to find a roomful of normal looking smiling and welcoming people! Apparently this kind of event is normal there. I suppose it’s natural that the culture that gave us internet dating has taken it one step further… As far as I understood it, these couples can network online and come together to make new friends. I remember how hard it was at times in London to meet new people and build up a good social network. This event seemed to solve that problem and there was definitely a great vibe.

Off early again, getting out of America was MUCH easier than getting in to it. The lady at security even complemented Graham on his new Guatemalan pant (and I genuinely don’t think she was being insulting when she called them PJs)!

Killing time at Fort Lauderdale airport
Killing time at Fort Lauderdale airport

With ideas of a new digital camera and some good quality suncream, we were looking forward to a bit of shopping at the airport. But America, the capital of consumerism, let us down! The airport had one small gift shop, a small duty free shop selling only drink and cigarettes and a bland café selling even more bland coffee. Puzzled and a little disappointed we had to content ourselves with people watching as we finished off the leftovers from the monster sized dinner of the previous night.

Arriving in Colombia the strangest thing was how normal everything felt. We were somewhat shocked by the sheer scale of Medellin town and relieved to find tranquillity, space and greenery a couple of miles outside the centre in El Poblado.

First flight at Medellin -  best way to take in the city!
First flight at Medellin – best way to take in the city!

The 2 hour taxi-metro-bus trip up to takeoff the next day slightly undermined the benefits of our peaceful haven, but we finally made it to launch receiving a warm welcome from the local pilots. They seemed surprised to see a girl flying tandem and rushed over to watch and help! They called over the only other female tandem pilot there to meet me which restored a little normality and Graham managed to fight his way through the crowd to claim his place as my co-pilot. But it was all friendly and extremely welcoming and after posing for a couple of pictures, off we went.

We were rewarded with a lovely evening soaring taking in the amazing views of this enormous city climbing up the sides of a huge valley with steep mountains all around. We finished the day with a lift back down the hill in an overheating banger (I quickly recognised that driving style), with a couple of teenagers teaching us Spanish swear words and talking to us about salsa music.

We decided to head south today to meet up with friends in Roldanillo, before working our way back up the country, stopping off to fly Medellin again on our way back north. Like the rest of the last couple of days, the journey through stunning countryside has been spiced up with random and amusing little moments, from fitting all our belongings into the smallest taxi in the world (getting them in a tuk tuk was easier) to being proudly served pãn lasagne – yes, that’s lasagne made with bread instead of pasta! We just keep on going with the flow and look forward to the next little piece of randomness to make us giggle as we go 🙂

Moments

One of the real joys of travelling for me is the way we nomads come together and then move on again. It may only be for a short time, but the memories and shared experiences last much longer.

Fun and games in the truck to take-off
Fun and games in the truck to take-off

Most of us didn’t know each other a month ago. But travelling pilots are already part of a bigger family. We are practised at making ourselves at home in any given environment. We already have friends and experiences in common. The moments we share may be surprising or they may be mundane. I was delighted to discover that Tommy, our new Venezuelan friend, knew the trout smoking German we’d stayed with in the Andes during a visit to Venezuela in 1984.

Graham's first piñata
Graham’s first piñata

We’ll never forget our first ever piñata for Graham’s birthday – thanks all for the piñata bashing lessons! And even though it was the last thing we expected to be doing, hosting Christmas dinner for our new-found family of 8 was a joy! The whole of our Christmas and New Year period was spent working and playing together. Together we broke the record for Real World Paragliding’s busiest day ever, Cade and Becca from America, Tonno from Guatemala, Tommy and of course Mr and Mrs Real World, Christian and Steffi.

Waking up to sunrise on takeoff on new year's day
Waking up to sunrise on takeoff on new year’s day

So, even though half the gang has moved on, the memories live on. Thanks for making the last few weeks awesome! This video from Cade and Becca really says it all…
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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.

Déjà vu

You can’t fly from the summit of Mont Blanc in a westerly wind. It’s a well known fact.

Groundhandling the Geo ii
Thanks Ozone! Getting to know the Geo ii again 😀

But that’s exactly what Irwyn and I ended up doing last time we went up there. The forecast wasn’t straight westerly, but when we got to the summit, the wind was coming directly up the arête. We waited until the sunshine brought the wind up the southerly face and we were able to take off.

The last forecast showed the weather improving enough to make the attempt at the summit look sensible. But while the wind is dropping, it’s also turning westerly again. But this time, it’s unlikely we’ll be waiting around for the sun to do its work – while the temperatures are increasing, we’re still looking a frosty  -13C at 5,000m.

But it’s the best opportunity on the horizon, so we’re taking it and just in case the wind does exactly as forecast (for once), we’ll be checking out the terrain on the way up for a nice launchable westerly facing slope!

ITV Awak 2
Irwyn having a play with the ITV Awak 2 tandem

The last couple of days have been filled with preparing our kit – a job which seems to expand to fill all available time! I’m delighted that Ozone have agreed to sponsor me again with a wing. The Geo II behaved perfectly last time – just as well as the first chance I had to inflate the wing was on the summit. This time I’ve had plenty of chance to play with it on the ground and it’s just as I remember. It inflates beautifully in any wind strength, feels solid overhead even in gusty conditions and is nice and responsive on the brakes, so I’m confident that however challenging the climbing side of the adventure might be, the flying side should be trouble free.

ITV Parapentes in Doussard have been incredibly supportive with the loan of two lightweight tandem wings. Graham will be flying the new Skyman tandem and Irwyn will be flying the ITV Awak 2. At 5.8kg and 6.4kg respectively, either wing represents a considerable weight saving compared to a normal tandem wing, so will make a huge difference to Jam and Sam’s chances of making the summit. First impressions of both wings are good… now we’re off to put them through their paces and give the boys some last minute take-off practice over Lake Annecy!

Sam’s first flight

Graham and Sam sailing past the Aguille de Midi at dawn
Sam’s first tandem! Graham and Sam sailing past the Aguille de Midi at dawn

Meet Sam Forman and Jam Jones. A year ago they were sat in a pub in Vauxhall coming up with ideas for an adventure. This week, we met them for the first time in Chamonix to begin our training to help them fly from the summit of Mont Blanc in aid of Macmillan Cancer Support and the Alzheimer’s Society.

Sam has cycled from London to Chamonix, where he rendezvoused with Jam ready to climb Mont Blanc and fly from the 4810m summit. They haven’t let the fact that they’d never done any mountaineering or paragliding before put them off!

Jam's first tandem flight with Graham at Passy
Jam’s first tandem flight with Graham at Passy

Some people may see that as foolhardy. But the fact that they’ve got this far just goes to show what a can-do attitude can achieve. They’ve both been training for this for months, so are both incredibly fit. But as we discovered for ourselves recently, getting properly mountain fit is almost impossible in the UK. There‘s nowhere you can climb 1,000m in one go! And there’s definitely nowhere to get acclimatised to being at altitude – without that, just breathing at 4,800m will be challenging, even before you factor in the physical and mental exertion!

Dan Shane and Irwyn on the summit of Mont Blanc
Dan, Shane and Irwyn on the summit of Mont Blanc getting ready to fly

Within 2 days of Sam’s arrival a window of opportunity appeared for the summit seemingly out of the blue. From our perspective, this was almost the worst possible timing! Along with Sam, we had to sit by and watch our friends set off for the summit without us. Dan and Shane had been in Chamonix for weeks training and getting used to high altitude. Irwyn had joined them on many of their training expeditions and couldn’t resist it as a training opportunity for the forthcoming flight with Sam and Jam. Whereas we had just arrived from the UK.

Preparing for a dawn flight from the Aguille de Midi
Preparing for a dawn flight from the Aguille de Midi

But we made the most of the weather window anyway – Sam certainly didn’t get much chance to rest from his 1,000km bike ride! We headed up to the Aguille de Midi with Dan, Shane and Irwyn, put Sam on a rope between the two of us and headed down the arête then across the ice to the Cosmiques refuge. That arête was my first walk in crampons two years ago – and despite the experiences I’ve had since, it still scares me! So I can imagine how Sam felt – legs still quivering from his time on the bike.

Looking from the hut at the route to the summit, I was glad not to be going. We could still see the scars of the serac fall which had killed 4 people less than two weeks earlier. I’d seen photos of ice walls on the route which were certainly beyond my level of technical climbing skills. The guys set off for the summit at 2am the following morning. We got up at 5am and headed out into the dawn glow. At the bottom of the Aguille de Midi arête, Sam had his final briefing for his first tandem flight. Climbing kit and ropes in the harness meant it wasn’t the most comfortable flight ever, but there really can’t be many people who can say their first ever flight on a paraglider was off the Aguille de Midi at dawn – the first wing above Chamonix that day.

Landing field beers
Cheers Dan – the first of our gang to launch from the summit

While I was flying down soon after, I saw the first gliders launch from the summit. On landing, we all headed back to base to pick up Jam, just arrived from the UK, then back to the landing field with cold beer to meet Dan, Shane and Irwyn as they landed.

Since then, we’ve been doing something every day – getting up as high as we can, hiking, flying, drilling the boys on basic mountaineering and paragliding. Now we’re waiting for another weather window. Last year, there was only one day where it was possible to fly from the summit. Dan and Shane, who were here then, missed that opportunity because they weren’t yet acclimatised. Jam and Sam have worked incredibly hard to get this far, so we’re hoping the same won’t happen this year. But really all we can do it wait and hope and keep ourselves as fit as possible in the hope that our turn comes next week!

Sam is posting updates of their adventure at http://mtblanc2013.blogspot.co.uk – they’ve got some great pictures and details about how you can sponsor them.

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!