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Paragliding over Pokhara

You’re Nice and all, but Thermals Are the Wind beneath My Wings

Six clients from four countries, six pilots, and one driver in a jeep at 9 this morning, courtesy of Sunrise Paragliding (well, 70 euros-worth of courtesy). Four of the pilots were French I think. It can be hard to tell sometimes. There was the creepy leather man with straggly California surfer hair and a tattering Che t-shirt (oh, please), a friendly balding Frenchman who looked like a physical trainer Christophe, another long blonde-haired man but cleaner and not creepy, and two Nepalis. One was super young with a t-shirt that just read “Killa.” The other probably in his late 20’s and seeming experienced with and adoring of all this Western adventure shit.

After a half hour switchbacking drive to Sarangkot, we pulled over to the launch point—a field at about a 30-degree angle, maybe 30 meters wide and 20 long. A 20-meter runway, minus half of that for the parachute paraglide whatever the sailing thing itself is called.

We kicked back for about 15 minutes to wait for some better wind, then slowly each passenger was one-by-one strapped into a harness, given some brief instructions, and then they took a run off the side of the ledge into the air to join the flocks from companies like Frontiers Paragliding, Blue Sky Paragliding, and Dead Seagull Paragliding (no, not really that last one and I feel odd that I should say so).

My pilot was Christophe, an incredibly nice guy who either meshed well with my personality or just reads people well. He clipped me half a dozen times into what felt like a giant’s sloppy, loose backpack and gave me a helmet a drop too small at its largest. I was told that when we took off, I was to just start running. “Run and jump off the edge?” I asked. “No, just run right off the end and the wings will take us.”

Christophe latched himself to me like a co-dependent girlfriend, told me to start running as fast as I could off the brief grass runway-ish space. But a few feet before the edge, I was jerked back a bit. Not from an internal alarm telling me not to run off a cliff (it concerns me a little that I felt no such hesitation) but just that the chute had caught air and it felt like someone was trying to stop us, like a child on a leash who has reached the limits of his tether unexpectedly.

I paused for a step and then kept trying to run, looking like Marcel Marceau, but only a half step or so later, we were in the air. Before I even had the opportunity to step off the last bit of solid ground.

And, suddenly, we were flying. It felt much like flying in a dream. We had control but at the mercy of the currents. We soared past the slope and I sat back in the shallow chair hammock. There was no sense of nausea or anxiety about the height or the corkscrewing. It all seemed perfectly natural. We cruised in calm circles, swirling upward with the hawks and vultures who best identified the thermal currents that could carry us higher.

my feet
My danglin', Keen-clad feets

I quickly had my camera out, and soon enough had my flip cam out. But for most of it, I just enjoyed the silent cruising.

We spent a total of about a half hour in the air. We talked a little about some other guys nearby who are Russians, about his wife working for the UN and he’s been doing this since 1987, and how it has changed with better technology and less-qualified pilots because of it.

He gave me the reins for as long as I wanted them (about 5 minutes before I deferred to his expertise). They’re really just two small loop handholds to pull us as a kite left or right, and to release higher to speed up. I spun us about and over Phewa Tal lake above Pokhara, cutting around to get another good view of Macchapucchre, Dhalgiri, and the Annapurna massif.

After hovering about the same area in soft, open loops for a while, we headed down over the lake and coasted toward the landing area. He asked if I wanted to feel the G-forces and how can one say no to that? He cut us hard in a corkscrew, spinning us like a bug in a draining toilet, and driving pressure hard against face and chest as you feel the effects of advanced gravity. At the end of the spinout, as we caught ourselves was the only point that my stomach gave any signs of argument, and only briefly.

me and christophe in helmets
I think he's giving the peace sign, but it could be misplaced rabbit ears

He shouted a ‘namaste’ or two at shepherds and farmers as we clipped above their terraces and lifted long and slow to the brief runway area. Coming in very flat, I let my legs do a cartoonish dance, before allowing the butt of the chair thingy to thumb the ground, and Christophe pulled the reverse marionette strings perfectly to settle us upright at that point.

Quickly half a dozen young boys came to collect the paraglide cleanly before it got caught up in itself and its cables. They helped unclip me as well, anxiously as though I were an astronaut just returned from orbit. They make a few rupees here and there from the pilots and as one of the other clients noted, it’s unfortunately probably a more convincing use of the day than going to school.

Brief jeep ride back to town and that was that. About two hours of my day.

It’s amazing how natural it felt to be flying. It wasn’t the feeling of being a passenger but of directly being dependent on the sky and comfortable moving amid the wind and thermal currents. It was no more strange to be using this form of locomotion than swimming. Pulling each side of the paraglide gently and shifting your body as you relax and coast through open sky.

I highly recommend it if you haven’t tried it already. If that’s not obvious.

More paragliding photos (and hopefully a video to come)

8 Comments

  1. Ann Murphy

    wow – this is an absolutely gorgeous photo – the colors are unbelievable. looks like an unforgettable experience

  2. You better be submitting that photo to the National Geographic contest. Breathtaking. I’m amazed that you did that, let alone brought along the fancy camera for the ride. Thanks for letting us tag along. Wow.

  3. How do you top that? I’m green with envy.

  4. Hans

    A friend tells the story of a tandem pilot in Switzerland, who was explaining to an Indian businessman that he would need to run during the launch of the paraglider. Bad things can happen if the passenger slouches, so the pilot tried to make sure that the businessman really understood that he had to keep running.

    Apparently the businessman replied: “No! You don’t understand! I pay — you run.”

  5. Adriane

    I’m rethinking how I spent my sabbatical and wishing I had waited a bit longer to do this….sounds like the trip is off to a great start. Can’t wait for my calendar! Haha. Happy travels!! Shenandoah misses you and your accident prone self!

  6. Caitlin

    In my one brief experience with paragliding, I was surprised by the lack of adrenaline. I was just playing with the kite up above Tbilisi Sea on a gentle slope with a tiny bit of wind. There was so little wind that the only exercise to do was to practice the running takeoff. I would charge forward, pumping my legs harder than seemed possible for my slow speed, and when Hans yelled “BRAKE!” I would brake, and then set up the gear to do it again. On the 5th time, Hans instead yelled “Keeeeep runnnnn-iiiing!” which I was surprised about but I did it anyway, and suddenly my feet were no longer touching and I was floating down into the valley below. I wasn’t sure what to do up there and tried to recall some kind of instruction, and in the back of my head I heard Hans’ voice say “if you go up, just don’t touch anything” so that’s basically what I did. Five minutes later, I landed. That was it.

  7. AJ

    Lovely, lovely – you’ve always got me convinced – I cna be a real pansy when it comes to heights 🙂

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