Bir is a village set on a plateau above the Kangra valley in the state of Himachal Pradesh in north India. It's a friendly place full of rural Indians, Tibetan refugees and a surprisingly large number of paraglider pilots from all corners of the globe. The reason for its popularity is the Dhauladhar mountain range, part of the southern Himalayan chain. Many spurs run down from this range and on one of these the Tibetan government-in-exile is headquartered in McLeod Ganj above Dharamsala. The main paraglider launch site of Billing sits on another spur and from which classic flying in spectacular surroundings can be made, either on the front ridge, or over the back in the more serious mountains. It's been on my paragliding wish list for some time and so I finally went on a trip in October, and what a trip it was! It started off with a 10 day guided tour with Jim Mallinson, Eddie Colfox and John Silvester aka the Himalayan Sky Safari boys but I ended up staying on my own for an extended month long flying adventure.
Spur after spur after spur ...
I'll start with an account of the guided trip and then describe some of the classic flights in the area that I managed to do (sometimes several times) with lots of pictures and a few track logs. No doubt it will be a long post but it should give you a flavour of the place and hopefully persuade one or two pilots who haven't been there yet to go and taste it for themselves.
The Himalayan Sky Safari Guided Trip.
First off I think I should start with answering a question I've recently been asked several times by fellow pilots - "Why take a guided trip if you are an experienced pilot already, can't you just go on your own to Bir?" Of course you can! But remember this is India with all its quirks and consequences. If you can afford it then it makes some sense to take a guided trip on your first outing there. You hit the ground running; acommodation, food and local travel are all taken care of. Being relieved from any organisational burdens gives you more time to actually enjoy your hard earned holiday. More importantly you have at hand the people with a wealth of local knowledge and experience of the area you'll be flying in. If you are a cautious pilot (which is no bad thing) being guided will likely give you better flying experiences, as on your own you'll likely be too conservative for the conditions on the day. Finally, the safety advantages are obvious, especially as Himachel Pradesh doesn't have rescue facilites to haul you off the mountain like you have back home in Europe or the US. Having an accident in the mountains of India can have big consequences as some unfortunate Russians have recently found out.
The motley crew. Darwin, Eddie, me, Jim and John (Bruce absent).
Back to business then, what did I do with those guided days?
102km Flat Triangle with Jim Mallinson
I must have been doing OK on the evaluation day as Jim took me 'over the back' on the first real flying day. What a great day it turned out to be as we ended up flying a 102km flat triangle in 4 hours 45 minutes at heights close to 5000m. Thanks Jim!
Me from Jim's perspective
See here for the track log. The route took us initially over the back of the front ridge in to the bigger mountains and then towards Dharamsala the 'high way'. From there we went back to Bir along the front ridge jumping from spur to spur.
Another of me from Jim's perspective
It was a very strange day for me, as I was being 'guided' I basically just followed Jim around the sky. My instructions were to stay near the leader and not go off and do my own thing ... I obeyed my leader and made sure I'd do a couple more turns in the strong climbs, this put me just behind and quite a bit above Jim most of the time. I can climb and control the glider pretty much automatically so being deprived of any decision making meant that my brain wasn't really doing much except to look at the views and take some pictures; a very pleasant experience. After landing back at Bir I didn't feel tired one bit after almost 5 hours of flying but I did feel a tiny bit guilty that I hadn't really earned my first 100km triangle ...
Jim from my perspective, can you see him?
60km Mandi flight
This was a nice day with all of us - that's Darwin, Bruce, John, Eddie, Jim and myself all flying together as a group. I'll explain this route in detail in a following section as it's a classic and probably one of my favourite flights in the area (in fact I did it a couple more times on my own).
Mandi town, photo courtesy Nishant Sharma
Mandi is quite a large town 50km east along the ridge from Billing. On this particular day we first top landed on a spot on the ridge for lunch, the place is nicknamed Camp360 for its panoramic views. We probably spent too long chin wagging and eating as we relaunched a little late and couldn't find that last crucial climb that would have given us a stress free final glide into Mandi. Instead I had a slightly nail biting end to the flight worrying about the myriad of electrical wires spanning the river. Most of us landed on a rocky sand bank on the outskirts of the town but Jim, who was heroically leading out, landed a little short ...
Two days bivving out - Hobbiton and Camp360
I had prepared for the expected (and any unexpected) nights out by obtaining light weight bivouac gear: specifically a sleeping mat, bag, bivvy sack and even a very light weight wood burning stove(!) that all neatly fitted inside my harness. Needless to say I was keen to try it all out.
My kit being used. Notice the whisky, essential bivvy gear ...
So we all took off and flew 30km west towards a ridge nicknamed Hobbiton by Jim and Eddie, this was due to a collection of small shepherds huts suitable apparently for Hobbits. The ridge, a perfect thermal trigger, was pumping as usual and top landing was pretty tricky. It took me quite a few attempts before I finally got the glider down safely. Eventually all of us landed but Bruce had a slightly harder landing than most ... Several shepherds saw us arrive and joined us for a cup of tea made on my new wood burning stove I might add! Then our fluent Hindi speaker Jim had a conversation with the Shepherds who asked to use our satellite phone to order new provisions, lucky them!
Our shepherd meeting. Bruce looks a little uncomfortable ...
We collected wood and spring water and set about making a fire and putting on the dinner, oh and multiple brews as the English do. Whisky was supplied by Bruce and John Silvester showed off his camp fire culinary skills. A great night out, enjoyed unanimously by everyone. The next morning we launched and flew almost 50km east to Camp360 and did it all again. But this time in luxury as the camp was prepared by the Colonel and his staff providing us with a great evening meal and comfortable tents to sleep in. Quite a few other pilots flew in for the party as well. The next morning we flew back to Bir for a well earned shower at the Colonel's place.
The morning launch
That was pretty much the end of the guided trip. A fantastic effort was put in by John, Jim and Eddie to make it a very enjoyable holiday. The following section just details several what I like to call classic flights that I managed during the couple of weeks following the tour.
The 90km Dharamsala Out & Return
This is a classic flight that can be completed almost any day during the flying season. It's not easy however, you have to fly fast as the autumn day starts around midday and is essentially over by 4pm. I managed to do this flight a couple of times on my own and both times I only just made it back ... One of these flights can be seen here. There really isn't anything special you do on this flight, you just jump from spur to spur obviously using the eastern faces more on the way out and the western faces more on the way back. You save time by climbing as fast as you can and only climbing enough to get to the next spur and the next climb. The recognised turn point seems to be just past the slate quarries on a ridge above McLeod Ganj called Triund.
You can see the spurs running right to left off the main ridge.
The 50km Mandi Run
I've already hinted at this before but I really enjoyed the original flight to Mandi we did on the tour so much that I flew it a couple more times on my own. The ridge gently drops over 1km in altitude over its length and gets noticeably flatter towards Mandi. What makes this flight so special is you really don't have to thermal that much and you spend most of the flight just skimming along the top of a ridge waving at the people working in the fields or shouting Namaste to kids playing in their back yards. You really are connected to the ground on this flight, really special.
Unusually high above the ridge to Mandi - it's much better lower.
The final 15km is a little more stressful as the landing options are few and far between and don't forget about the wires, they're everywhere. So you need to keep a keen lookout if you're unlucky enough to be getting low. One of my track logs can be found here.
Flying over Victoria bridge to land on a beach near the burning ghats and temple.
The big one: A 60km high flight to Manali
I've known about and heard about this flight for some time, it's a committing flight through the big mountains 'over the back' northwards to the buzzing town of Manali. I managed to do it this year with Tom and Scott, a couple of Scottish pilots staying at the Colonel's.
Heading towards Danesar and onwards to Manali.
I talked over the route with John Silvester before I attempted it and what became obvious is that you just pick your own route through the mountains to connect with the Kullu valley as late as possible - the exact route depends on the height of the cloudbase and what mountain cols you can get over. As it turns out we had 'only' a 4800m base and had to skirt around Danesar and its lake. Near there Scott and I got separated (he missed a climb I took) and Tom was 30 minutes or so behind us so I was on my own. I just took a couple of climbs and glides and another col and flew out into the Kullu valley at Manali. Then I managed a simple glide to the Solang landing area in the north of the town. Scott joined me 10 minutes later and finally Tom arrived in orbit above us 30 minutes after that. We had a quick bite to eat and then endured the 6 hour jeep ride back to Bir.
Scott on glide towards the big stuff.
What a great flight it was with spectacular views. But it also felt a very committing flight as going down early meant a very long walk out and a long bus ride back. I'd certainly always carry the bivvy kit just in case ... The track log of the flight can be seen here.
So that was my month flying in Bir. A great way to end the 2009 flying season.