truck dropped us at the side of the last and only road, and after giving
us time to climb down with our heavy cumbersome bags, the driver engaged
a gear and left. We gave the dust time to clear, and then looked around
us at the gathering of buildings that was called Khodbe... the beginning
It was nine in the morning, and after eighteen hours of travelling on buses and trucks, the single street border town didn't exactly feel like a holiday destination. Thirty or so buildings grimly faced each other from opposing sides of the dirt road, their backs wildly exposed to the 2000 foot drop behind them. Khodbe was on a col, the connecting East-West saddle-back between two big North South Ridges, like the central bar on a huge letter H.
For a while Al and I just stood there, standing at the side of the road next to our big, red, SupAir rucksacks, in a bus-weary sort of haze, not quite knowing what to do next. I knew from here on in there weren't going to be any more roads or buses or cars, no more phones or electricity or restaurants or hotels. Just us and our tandem paraglider, packed away in Al's rucksack. It suddenly felt foolish and insane. And then the moment was broken by the smell of wood smoke in the air, and our thoughts turned to immediate needs... food and lots of sweet Nepalese tea. We walked down the street with our heavy loads, until we found the open fronted building with a man brewing tea. He gave us breakfast, and then rented out his bed so we could catch up on yesterday's sleep. We were too tired to think about flying today.
One hour later, at 11 am, I awake from a troubled sleep, only to realise that the bad dream is real. A strong wind has picked up outside, and its howling over the col. I try to ignore it, pushing the ill-fitting wooden shutters across the glass-less window, but the noise of the wind still persists. I just lie there in the shopkeeper's bed, thinking about the impossibility of flying in such a place. Two years earlier, Bob and I landed just twenty kilometres away, over the border in India, on a perfect crystal day with shimmering mountains and a gentle valley wind. Now, at 11 in the morning, there is only two miles visibility, and a raging valley wind... all caused by the hottest summer this century, and 8 months without rain. And then I start going over last night 's bus journey; winding through the foothills, seeing mature trees burning like candles in the countless forest fires. We passed them all night long. And the more I think of it, the worse it all appears, like an El Nino inspired Indonesian disaster happening here in Nepal. Suddenly the strength of the wind outside sounds exceptional so I abandon the thought of sleep, and go out to prove to myself that I'm just imagining it. But outside it's worse, with periodic dusties setting up between the buildings... whilst the crows and undistinguished vultures cruising around at roof level, add the extra little touch missed by my own feverish brain. In an attempt to be positive, and having abandoned any thought of sleep, I decide to go out hunting a take-off. So I fill my ballast bag with questionable water, and head off to explore the col.
That evening, I couldn't hide from Al my misgivings, even though I had found a take-off, and spotted the vultures thermal pump one kilometre away into wind. Al listened nodding, adding "If we do fly, and don't get immediately mashed on take-off, then we should fly north, straight into the big mountains and away from the forest fires. At least we'll be able to see something... and maybe we shall even get some clouds." I didn't say anything, so he said. "I know it's not exactly on route, but it's where we really want to be, isn't it? That's why we've come to the Himalaya." It was a fine statement, considering we would be flying further away from civilisation, further into the shit should anything happen. And 'anything' didn't seem all that unlikely. We decided to go early.
DAY 1I waited for a lull, and pulled on the risers, but the eddies from the steep terraces caused the nose of the glider to roll over onto the ground. So I waited for a stronger gust, pulling hard on the risers, then letting off once the sail started to rise into the air, all the time hoping that the gust wouldn't develop into something altogether stronger. And then, just as things were all happening nicely, the right wing tip gets caught on some thorns, so I pull even harder just as the wind gusts stronger, and we're suddenly up, catapulted into the air. And almost immediately I know it's going to be all right - we might not be able to do lots of 360's, but with all this weight on board, we're going to be ok. It's just very turbulent, very, very turbulent.
For half an hour we ridge soar, getting tossed around in massively broken thermals, trying to beat into wind up to the vultures lift station, but each time it seems more futile, and we're constantly close enough to the ground to be in the danger zone. I've no idea what Al's thinking, but I'm aware that with each new collapse, he's half looking over his shoulder towards me. I know I have to get out of this place soon. And then we gain maybe 100m , and I'm looking over the ridge into the neighbouring valley, and I can see smoke blowing up it's slope, and down into ours. So now it's obvious, that not only are we flying in this valley wind, but we are in the lee of a stronger one from next door. On the next crappy climb I make a low crossing into the new valley, all the while praying that we don't get a collapse that could sink us into the trees. But nothing happens, and we're soon in a gentle 2m climb, playing with a vulture who's curious about his new flying friend.
The next 2 hours are spent working northwards into the mountains, away from the road. Most of the time we are low, gully gobbling along the ridges, helped by the valley wind and numerous forest fires. And I start to get used to our new glider, becoming aware of its increased wingspan, after clipping a tip on a tree. One climb takes us up to the inversion at 3400 m, and as we momentarily reach cooler air, the ground beneath actually disappears, leaving just a white dusty footpath, glinting like a river seen on a late night glide. We take our glide by compass, flying totally blind, and end up low, away from the main ridges, scratching around on a high-ish plateau. We soar from miserable hill to miserable hill, all the time inching northwards, towards a big blue ridge, silhouetted in the gloom. Eventually, close enough to risk a glide, we head off towards it, where the air becomes active again. But although the initial climbs seem good, I soon loose them in turbulence, and it isn't long before I'm landing in a tight little ravine on the valley floor. Al's immediately calling it a crash, and I'm about to argue the toss when he shows me his footage. He's caught the whole thing on film!
DAY 2This morning is just one big uphill walk, only to find the wind coming over the back, from a larger valley on the other side. It might explain yesterday's crash, but doesn't help with today, because this side that the wind's coming up, it's all trees. We end up walking down the far side, feeling hot, hungry, thirsty and tired. Moral is at a low, until we come round a bend in the footpath, and see a perfect take-off for tomorrow, with a place next door where we can stay today. We don't know its name, but call it Sud's place, after our host who's a real gentleman.