Monday, 30 June 2008

Pakistan May/June 2008

From an early age I had always been fascinated with the big mountain ranges of Northern Pakistan with those exotic names like the Pamirs, Karakoram and Hindu Kush. I loved to read about the various climbing expeditions visiting these high and remote regions and I’d imagine scaling their 8000m peaks like K2 and Nanga Parbat. In the last few years I began to hear about the exploits of pioneering paragliding pilots in this region and again dreamed to go and experience it for myself, albeit this time at the slightly older age of 40.

But those stories of extreme bivouac trips, flying at hypoxic altitudes in some of the strongest conditions and remote places on the planet were a little intimidating to say the least. But then an American pilot called Brad Sander came to my attention, he had been doing some great flying in the area last year and I began to see that perhaps mere mortals like me could also visit. So with a sense of adventure and more than a little trepidation off I went for a month long flying trip to Northern Pakistan!

In less than 12 hours of travelling I was in a jeep with Brad bouncing along the famous Karakorum highway looking up at the glistening ice covered mountain of Rakaposhi (25,550ft) on my right. I recalled gasping when I first saw this video of John Silvester’s incredible flight over this monster mountain a few years back. We arrived in Karimabad nestled amongst the stunning scenery of the Hunza Valley. In our hotel I met up with John Silvester, Eddie Colfox and Alun Hughes coincidently there to do a bivouac trip along the fabled silk route and also a Canadian mountain man and pilot called Josh. I was in great company and I had the feeling that this was going to be a special trip.

And so it was, I flew higher than I had ever flown before getting height gains of over 3000m (~10,000ft) above take off. With launch altitudes sometimes above 3600m (~12,000ft) it meant that occasionally we were still climbing at over 6700m (~22,000ft)! Brad and I had organised oxygen but I found it a little cumbersome to use and often flew without it. Needless to say I felt a little hypoxic at times and absolutely exhausted after only a few hours of flying. Generally the conditions were strong and sometimes quite turbulent, but it was manageable with a good dose of active flying. I also experienced my strongest climbs with an average of over 8 m/s (~1500 ft/min) and peaks of well over 10m/s (~2000 ft/min); if I wasn’t too close to the terrain then it didn’t bother me too much. That said, getting the first good thermals of the day still needed a fair amount of scratching and sometimes, more often than I’d like to admit, I’d lose it and land after only 10 minutes of flying. As it can be a long jeep ride or even a multiple hour uphill slog back to launch it is not something you want to do too often.

There is an incredible amount of relatively safe cross country potential here for an experienced mountain pilot. Virtually all of it is virgin territory as there are only a handful of local pilots and very few visiting ones. There really doesn’t have to be any flying over really dangerous terrain, places where you cannot glide to get a good landing. You can pick conservative routes that follow ridges and valleys close to roads and rivers. There are plenty of villages that you can glide to if you bomb out and all the people are incredibly friendly, they will often offer you tea and food and welcome you into their homes. If you want inspiration then last week Brad just completed a fantastic and relatively safe flight of 249km from Booni to Hunza, a 9 hour epic to heights over 25,000ft. So it looks like he broke a lot of records with that flight and I'd be happy with something much more modest.

On one memorable cross country I flew into a valley and was flushed to the ground in big sink, so I chose a beach next to the river to land on that was close to a small village. Unfortunately I got hit with a bit of rotor and landed ungracefully in a small prickly bush. I just lay there on the sand for a while, exhausted, hot from multiple layers of clothes and other paraphernalia. Suddenly a man, still covered in shaving foam, came running down to help me and checked me over for injuries. With the help of other villagers he organised everybody and got my glider out of its prickly predicament, packed it and carried it up to where Brad had expertly landed. After watching both of us land, one of the villagers, with a wry smile asked if I was untrained! Humour is universal as they say.

This trip for me was an exploratory one, testing out gear for high altitude flying, getting to know the area and its potential. This is a place that I will visit often, not only for the flying but also to visit the friendly people and to seek out its breathtaking scenery.

Thanks to Brad for his help during this trip (and for providing the photos of me flying on this page).