Up to Dizzying Heights: Paragliding - a great new flight to soar amongst the highlands

Adventure Issue 87 Jul, 2010
Text by Lim Wei Yang

During the ‘space race’ between the Soviet Union and United States in the 1960s, an Ameri
can aeronautical engineer crafted a parachute to aid the landing of returning spacecraft. With a stroke of ingenuity, and excited by the possibilities of this parachute’s usage for civilian purposes, he tweaked the prototype design. In September 1965, at New York’s Belleayre Ski Resort, David Barish became the ‘Father of Paragliding’ as he took into the skies with his new contraption.

Soaring through the air and careening through the fluffy cloud layers, like a carefree bird, paragliding is probably Man’s closest chance to experience the sensation of free flight. It is flying in a pure form, very much like how birds enlist the help of winds and thermals, due to changing air pressure, to keep them aloft. The joy of paragliding is having that feeling of being way up high without the aid of any engines, in a natural way, with all control to you. Aircrafts employ engines and need runways, while paragliding, depending on your expertise, can land in almost any clearing.

Paragliding is a fairly recent addition to the increasing number of adventure sport choices in Nepal. The first commercial establishment was by Sunrise Paragliding in 1996. With the revival of tourism in Nepal, the activity has picked up its pace, especially in Pokhara. On sunny days, looking northwest-wards from Lakeside, brightly colored specks can be seen floating about in the pristine sky.

You can experience unparalleled scenic grandeur as you share airspace with Himalayan griffin vultures, eagles and kites, while floating over villages, monasteries, temples, lakes and jungles, all with a fantastic view of the majestic Himalayas.

To the untrained eye and viewed from afar, a paraglider’s canopy looks suspiciously like that of a parachute, as used in sky diving. Yet their purposes differ greatly. A paraglider’s design dynamics are more like that of the wings of an aircraft rather than rounded shape of a parachute. When the glider’s wing is inflated with air, it forms a teardrop aerofoil shape, just like an aircraft wing. The main purpose of a parachute is to slow down descent, while a paraglider launches its flier higher into the air and enables further and longer travel.

Some have drawn parallels between paragliding and hang-gliding. Both glide in the air, harnessing the upthrust of thermals and winds. But the major difference is its structural design. Hang-gliders have a sturdy metallic frame forming a spearhead shape, whereas paragliders have no hard interior frame. Due to design differences, paragliders have lower flying speeds, but afford more control even in less favorable wind conditions.

One problem of paragliding is cost, as the equipment is highly specialized and constructed of costly but quality material. A basic set costs about US $3500. Flying lessons are also quite costly, but that has not stopped Nepal’s adventure sports enthusiast, Chandra Ale, from hitting the skies. “One taste of flying showed me how much fun it was and from that first flight, I knew I had to learn it.”

Spending about US $400 for the beginner’s course, which provided the equipment, Chandra was under the tutelage of Rajesh Bomjon, one of the early Nepalese pioneers of paragliding. For beginners, the focus is to teach the learner how to go solo rather than be a passenger in a tandem flight. The main idea is learning to read the thermals, understanding the wind conditions and negotiating the weight of the glider. During the course, for the first two days, the student practices techniques on flat land first, refining and familiarizing the skills of handling the glider as well as practicing how to do a running forward launch. The final days focus on progressive practice, with students hitting sloped terrain and finally up to 3000 feet on top of the hill.

Paragliding requires a running start to take off; one cannot simply jump off a cliff as this is not parachuting. Observing the wind direction, an experienced pilot will walk into a gusty breeze to aid lifting the canopy. When one runs, the glider catches wind and chambers in the canopy fill up with air. This running start is done in a downhill direction. If one runs uphill, it is very tough for the glider to run fast and far enough for the chambers to fill with air. Once a strong wind is caught, the canopy fills and lifts, the pilot (and his passenger if in tandem flight) who is still running will feel being lifted off the ground. With hands on the guiding strings, the pilot can steer the direction, twisting, tugging and turning his or her body in the required direction.

“I wanted very much to move up another notch in paragliding as the solo training course was not difficult, but becoming a tandem pilot requires more time,” expressed a regretful Chandra. The next phase after clearing the beginner’s course is to become a tandem pilot, but that requires clocking a minimum of 400 hours of solo gliding. Moving beyond being a solo and tandem pilot, the higher achievement is to engage in a competitive manner or move towards acrobatic flying. Spirals and spin, careening up and down, flipping and diving – such tricks require loads of experience as well as a strong stomach.

A common complaint by first-time fliers is that paragliding can be quite a nauseating adventure. This problem arises in certain situations. One is when the glider starts to spiral or spin when the canopy is caught in forceful thermals and winds. This fortunately does not happen regularly for first-timers flying tandem with commercial operators, as the experienced pilots choose familiar and safe ‘air-routes’ to fly. It is usually towards the end, as the pilot carefully maneuvers the glider for landing that a giddy feeling sets in. The pilot has to fly in a tightening circular path as its path spirals to that exact landing point.

In Nepal, there are also varied versions of paragliding to inject renewed interest to enthusiasts. There is paratrekking in which fliers will soar cross-country, for about one week, stopping in villages along the way to rest. The next morning paratrekkers will head towards a higher position and catch the thermals to soar once again. There are such routes flying from Tansem in Palpa District, ending in Pokhara. There is also parahawking where experienced pilots will work together with trained falcons to catch the best thermals and soar like the birds of prey.

The hot spot for paragliding is the Pokhara valley. At 800 meters above sea level, the mild climate makes it an ideal area for flying, far more stable than the Kathmandu valley. There are several launching sites around the tourist area of Lakeside. The popular one is Sarangkot which has a road leading to the top. There is a dedicated takeoff area especially cleared for paragliding. Almost all paragliding companies and commercial pilots are based in Pokhara for the flying season from October to March, with the best months being November and December. As flying is dependant on thermals and ridge winds, this activity is highly dependant on the weather. The best times to glide during the day is between 9 and 11 o’clock in the morning. The best thermals form when the ground is just starting to heat the air.

A flight takes about ½ to ¾ hour, depending on the thermals, when taking off from Sarangkot. Commercial trips, which can be booked from Lakeside, include a ride from Lakeside to the summit of Sarangkot. After the flight, the vehicle will send you back into town from the landing site at the far western edge of the lake. Do bring along a windproof jacket and wear shoes for the flight. Its quite rude to send slippers or sandals falling down from the sky. Flying in the skies is quite safe and even acrophobics can consider the activity – just keep your eyes on the picturesque scenery of the Annapurna massifs towering high over the northern skyline.

Though it does seem little terrifying to run off a slope and tread onto nothing but thin air, the uplifting pull of the paraglider and that rush of adrenaline can more than make up for that fear. Drifting in the air, it’s like a hot-air balloon trip but seated down with a clear view of everything around and below. With the ability to rise higher, paragliders can also rise above the hills to get an unobstructed view of the Annapurna range and a bird’s eye view of the grandiose scenery below. With a little more time, fliers can discover new sights on a paraglider, floating high above the temples, farms, villages and greenery, hanging in the air together with majestic birds of prey. Paragliding brings you higher and further yet, in a way, closer to the sights of Nepal. It may not be plain sailing, but it sure is a refreshing way to fly and well worth the fun.