Suddenly, a decade or so after I escaped the clutches of theoretical education that had ironically dulled my brain for years, I’d become a student again. Temporarily, with no paper involved, my thirty one year-old self was learning actively, and boy did it feel good.
I’d pondered whether to do this. Can I afford it? Not really. Would I enjoy it? Perhaps, although the spikes of fear (read: unknown) were a very real deterrent. And then I asked myself some questions; what will I do if I don’t go to Nepal and learn to paraglide? What will that money do if it remains unspent? How will I feel? The answers tumbled forth: I’m not sure (I had no better alternative on offer). It will remain in an account, drawing negative interest thanks to an economy in free fall. I’ll probably feel content, but at some point I’m going to go through the whole process again if I don’t take this opportunity, because Paragliding is on my list and I have to learn sometime.
The streets of Nepal remind me of Uganda. Same, dusty sprawl. Fruit on carts. Temperature sitting moderately between 20c and 30c. Traffic etiquette: questionable. People look different, of course, and the shops here are almost all committed to selling well-known brands of mountain and outdoor wear, without official permission, naturally. Everyone’s wearing North Fake (North Face, but naughty) gear, even the locals. Five hours of power a day, here. A young lad tells me that Nepal is self-sustainable when it comes to power, all I know is they’re very good at saving it.
Kathmandu kept me busy for an evening but I wasn’t here for the city tour. Lesson one is to sit on the right of the 20-capacity propeller-powered tin can when flying west in order to take in the Himalayan panorama. Return leg: sit on the left. Lesson two is to remember you’re not a midget, my head throbbed after a clumsy ascent onto the aircraft bus, hoards of Chines tourists making up the other seats, each one of them chuckling at the photo opportunity of the rugged European swearing to himself. After me they got bored and started taking pictures of each other, endless Nikon stand-offs at three paces.
Pokhara is a calmer, more serene version of the capital. The western suburb of Lakeside where the footloose trekking and paragliding community lay their rucksacks doesn’t hint at a 1.5 million population hiding in nearby valleys. Crime is low, people are friendly, a kind, laid-back developing world nature of business peppers every stroll. I can’t walk down the road without being offered a trim, ‘Good hair cut? You need it Sir.’ Does wonders for your confidence. A shoe-shine boy cross-legged behind his rag of polishes and cloths eyes up my flip-flops before spreading a gleaming smile, ‘I do a good job on them, Sir!’ Pokhara’s tranquil air is complemented by the bright blue Phewa Lake, the presence of which I’m grateful for as the time approaches for my first soaring leap into the abyss.
I’m here to learn how to fly. Four months earlier Alex Ledger, MD of Skychool, teacher of Paragliding and Paramotoring, he emails me out of the blue. ‘Al Humphreys told me what you’re up to, I’ve always wanted to take on a paragliding expedition. Let’s work something out…’ Alex and his Skyschool cohorts, Kester and Ganz, have been here for a month already, part of the furniture. ‘You see some close calls around here, every day,’ Ganz tells me, a strapping Geordie with an accent as thick as his shoulders. He’s referring to the manic drive up the mountain to Sarankot, where the people jump off into mid air. That’ll be me, soon.
In the first two days I’m blasted with an endless stream of input. Three tandem flights give me a feeling for being in the air, take-off, landing, responsiveness of the controls. In between these Alex has me one-on-one, running through what at first is a bewildering cat’s cradle of lines that join Paraglider to pilot. I need to be able to operate my wing on the ground before taking it upwards, so six hours of ground handling becomes my homework. I become acquainted with my harness, how to clip in, safety checks, the nuances of forward and reverse launches. I fluff up my wing, building a wall, which allows the leading edge to bulge happily with air. And then I learn how to fly an enormous kite that will soon be the only thing preventing me from an adrenaline rush with an unhappy ending. Alex has chosen an enormous field full of scrawny buffalo and cattle as the site for my training It’s not exactly level, and I’m sure he cackled when, with my wing dragging me all over the place backwards, a well-placed hillock left me flat on my back. Despite this, towards the end of my ground handling Alex seems happy, extends a congratulatory hand and declares, ‘I’m a happy teacher, you’re not a retard!’
This isn’t your average session of schooling. I’m mixing with pilots from all over the world, watching those on SIV courses (Simulation of Incident in Flight) deploy their reserve parachutes, thundering into the lake. I see poor landings and poor take-offs, and the undercurrent of politics that bubble between the various paragliding companies that have made Pokhara their home. The Russians seem to be the black sheep around here, the corner cutters, the unofficial schools, hoards of soon-to-have-their-legs-broken crowds strap themselves to a wing and jump with barely as much as a whisper of instruction. Three limbs snapped in the week before I turn up, all belonging to Russians. There’s so much going on and I’m sponging it up, painting a picture of this whole scene, every bit important – it’s not just about the flying, it’s the preparation.
I go solo on my third day in Pokhara and feel fine with the pace. Nerves tingle, but they should, over-confidence is asking for trouble. Kester and Ganz join in the fun, ribbing me in the taxi, but we all know this could be the beginning of something very cool indeed, because at some point in the coming years, when I’m ready, a paragliding expedition over the Himalayas awaits. This is where is starts.
1000 miles by Paraglider isn’t going to be easy. I’ll need to be able to land on a sixpence, in choppy conditions, on mountainsides. You land at the bottom of a valley and you’ve got a two day climb to the next launch, through jungle, maybe snow, so landing high when possible is a must. An ability to read the conditions, the clouds, the direction of sunlight and other, irrevocable signs like circling vultures that lead to a mantra which will make an expedition like this a success: Height is our Friend.
After the first, glorious solo, I go again and again and again. Soon I’m thermalling, catching the hot air that drips off the hillsides from late morning onwards, encouraged by the sunlight’s effect on the land and prevailing winds and the contours below me, my Paragliding and I climbing, swooping, falling, but learning all the time. I find myself in a gaggle of Paragliders – that may not be correct terminology – all circling in the same direction (unless they’re Russian) as the rulebook dictates, up and up and up. At one point, 1600ft above launch point (some 6200ft above sea level) my stomach cramps up at everything below me. This is all so new, so terrifying, so brilliant: this is how I’ve wanted my life to be, a speck in the sky, a little bit higher than I used to be with a decreasing faintness of what I’m doing here. And, with a ‘bloody hell!’ and a swift rush of air in an unfamiliar direction I deal with the first collapse of my Paraglider, something I’m told is perfectly natural and basically involves my wing losing pressure and deciding to wilt like an ice cream on a summer’s day. As many of life’s lessons have told me, sometimes you’ve just got to put your hands up and let stuff right itself. I did, my Paraglider regained its pressure, and 30 minutes later I drifted out of my thermal and made a gentle landing beside the lake.
Now heading home, several baby steps closer to what I realise is one of the most technical, potentially dangerous expeditions on my list. The others: two ocean crossings by rowboat and pedalo, a ski to the south pole, all of the road-bound treks – they all offer their hazards, but this one up in the mountains and then a little bit higher, it’s going to be one hell of a challenge. I know though, after this initial fortnight, that my preparation is in good hands.
Visit www.davecornthwaite.com for full details on my adventures
If you like the sound of paragliding, Skyschool offer classes in the UK, Europe and Nepal. See www.skyschooluk.com for more details. Maybe I’ll see you there!