Paragliding Korchon and Machapuchare. Clip: Paragliding01
The Annapurna range in Nepal had taunted Scottish paragliding instructor Zabdi Keen just once too often, capping her climbs towards it from the lower slopes with heavy inversions. Trekking towards a higher launch seemed the only option – one that needed proper preparation, not an overnight decision. Published in Cross Country magazine in 2004
A map of the Annapurna range was pinned to the café wall that night. The mountains were etched in my mind, shining, as we spoke of trekking to Korchon and the possible routes to climb onwards and upwards to the big mountains. The weather had been very stable with high pressure for the last few days and the snow had not yet come in the high peaks.
We needed to go sometime soon, I said. Like now – we need to go tomorrow. If no one else would come I planned to go on my own with only a porter. Then I heard that a French group were planning a trip, so I asked if I could join up with them.
Fortunately no tandems were booked, and my two friends, David and Harvey were keen to fly high, so we hatched a plan to leave that night. That afternoon we hurriedly put our things together. We raced around the shops, gathering supplies. Another Harvey joined us at the last minute, leaving him only half an hour to prepare.
David drove with the horn permanently on, more Nepalese than the Nepalese themselves. He even mounted the pavement and drove past a traffic jam of hay wagons and lorries.
We were stopped at the tourist checkpoint where they check your pass for entering the Annapurna circuit. David produced three different destinations for the guard, and I wove them together into a semi-plausible story of picking someone up first then going to Nuadanda to fly back to the lakeside. Our real plan took us outside the permit area, we showed him photographs of paragliding and let us past, but was pretty suspicious.
Racing along a dirt track we arrived at a ford and accelerated hard into it. It worked until we were halfway across, then we got stuck. We stripped off boots and socks and jumped in to push, unfortunately the jeep was grounded on a huge underwater boulder. David went to the village to get help but to no avail, we were getting nowhere and it was getting dark rapidly. Eventually more Nepalese joined us in the river, and with about twenty people helping, we managed with brute force and a lot of shouting to get the beast out of the river.
We went to the village to pay our helpers. Harvey and David’s boots had fallen in the water, their jeans were soaking but luckily the GPS had been saved, just in time. Our adventure had begun in real style!
After all that effort to get the jeep over the river we found we couldn’t drive it any further as it was now stuck in first gear. Trying to dry out a bit by the fire, I offered David a pair of stretch cycling trousers with braces because his jeans were wet. They fitted him nicely, but he looked very funny with his thin legs emerging from under his big backpack!
Not wanting to lose the momentum of the journey we started walking in the dark. Arriving in a small village, we were taken into a house and joined the children in their bedroom where they were trying to do their homework. We had a choice of sleeping on planks on the bed or planks on the floor. Harvey dreamed of a big storm catching us on the mountain, and it made me realise how ill-prepared we really were for an expedition into the Himalayas, but then again, you can only carry so much.
We awoke early, headed off to the village at the foot of the mountain, and arranged porters who knew the way up. The thought of what we had to eat for two days with a hard walk ahead, and realising that porters would be carrying it all up, made me decide to buy a cooking pot and more food. This simple decision left me feeling much more at ease.
David drove the pace through the jungle, stripped to the waist, it was like something out of a Tarzan movie. Having walked up the steep section to where the forest ended we made camp on the col, sending the porters back as we were to take over the loads the next day.
For our camp we stretched an Advance tandem paraglider over a few branches and half unrolled our Ozone gliders as our mattress. We lit a fire and cooked our noodles – at this point the boys agreed it had been a good idea to stock up!
In the morning we peered out at a threatening sky with a sheet of cirrus cloud moving fast and thicker cloud coming in behind. We hoped we’d be able to fly, but a cold wind blew and I was left praying Harvey’s dream wouldn’t come reality.
We started early and coming out of the forest the mountains roared in the silence, their snow a pallid green in the morning light. I used mind games to try and make the walk easier, thinking about light things, and walking like the old mountain men who never seem to tire. Trying to catch up with the others, though destroyed my rhythm.
We arrived at the top of Korchon with Machapuchare now looking a lot closer. My plans of soaring up the front face faded a little as I finally faced the immensity of the mountains here. Some birds were already soaring in the early morning thermals, and I wanted to launch before it was strong and in case the conditions got too rough later.
I took off with a fast run and a good breeze to help me. At that altitude the glider shot around the sky at high speed making turns that were far too steeply banked, and had me wondering how the guys on the tandem would feel. I left my thermal and went over to the other ridge so the guys could take a photo of me against Machapuchare. As a result, I nearly went straight down and only just managed to scrape back up.
The first Harvey took off, then the tandem with other Harvey and David took off last as they were doing some filming from launch. Harvey stayed up for a while, then dropped out of the thermal and headed down to the valley. The rest of us climbed up high onto the next range, but things were getting rougher. My head was spinning a bit and I felt sick and scared. The half of me that wanted to continue had dropped to a quarter, and the other part was looking longingly towards the open valleys and mountains below.
Then I got a big collapse, and decided I would have to return when my heart had grown braver. I radioed the others, who said they were going to try and get as high as possible.
I went away feeling like a relieved but cowardly. Cruising along, I looked back and couldn’t believe I was leaving my friends. As I moved onto a ridge on my right I realised that this was the route I’d planned to take up to Machapuchare, it looked like you could practically ridge soar all the way up.
“So, Zab, are you going towards the mountains or the valleys?” I said to myself. I decided that if I hit any lift at all, I was going to turn back to the mountains and try another route up on the back bowl. But I got no lift on the ridge and, quite gratefully, sunk down to the valley floor far below.
Swarms of children ran beneath me. I crossed a river as a deterent, but it didn’t stop them. I packed my glider and went to the tea shop to wait for a jeep to take me back to Pokhara. The man from the tourist checkpoint turned up and asked where I’d been. Not recognising him, I told him – then realised who he was.
“You are trying to cheat me! Where is your permit? I am going to arrest you and take you to the police station and charge you 4000 rupees!”
I didn’t react, as it didn’t seem that important after where I’d just been. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to land here.” I resurrected my story of having come from Naudanda and got him to explain the trekking permits to me.
I tried to explain that I didn’t actually want to land here, that I really did want to go to Lakeside and pointed to the birds in the thermals. I said how beautiful Machapuchare was from this angle as you could see the fishtail shape in the mountains. “Yes, that’s why you flyers should be paying, because you see the beautiful views of the mountains!” he said.
I asked if he could make a special flying permit that would allow multiple entries, as we wanted to keep on trying to fly to the same place but didn’t actually want to land. Though we might. He was calming down a bit, and in the end he wandered away, telling me to stay there. I jumped on the next available jeep Of course and continued my journey on the roof. I was sure that he’d let me get away as I was going to be more hassle than I was worth.
Harvey and David had gone higher, climbing up at the back of the Himal and looked into Annapurna basecamp. They got to 4900 metres before David had started to feel like me – a bit sick and scared.
By now their flight had turned to warfare in the 8m/s thermals. The green valleys down below started to look sweeter than the rock faces that make you feel so small. Harvey was still hot for more height, but they weren’t talking a lot up there. They decided to return another day and headed down to the Pokhara valley on a glide, landing near the lake.
Now back, we already long to return. I’ve left my sleeping bag stowed in the back of my harness and plan to fly with water and supplies in case I can fly there again one day soon. I hope to feel braver next time.
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