Paragliding the Himalayas: Lust For Life

Tuesday 22 February, 2000

Paragliding western Nepal… John Silvester’s film From Nowhere to the Middle of Nowhere

This is a brief extract from Bob Drury’s amazing story, which was published in the February/March 2000 edition of Cross Country

The old man in the woollen blankets eyed the jumble of equipment that lay strewn around the jungle clearing with excited awe. His eyes flashed from one item to the next till eventually they settled on a pair of trekking boots.

He picked them up and inspected them carefully, turning them lovingly in his hands before looking down at his own blackened bare feet, grizzled and hardened from a lifetime without shoes. Then something else caught his eye.

A 5 mm Allen key nut that we used to hold one of the cameras on. He picked it up and it too got the full inspection. Then he turned to us and stepped forward to inspect our young white faces. Who were we? What were we doing sitting in a clearing on the top of his jungle-covered hill in deepest darkest west Nepal?

BBC director, Steve Robinson had read of my previous expedition in Cross Country and had been sold on the idea of filming Rob Whittall and myself on our next expedition. It was just the logistical nightmare of it all that he had to consider.

How exactly could they film two lads flying floppy nylon bags across a remote, hostile mountain range that contains no roads, electricity or telephones? How could we even keep in touch? The expense could be enormous and the entire project wrecked by a change in the weather or a freak gust of wind.

BBC boffins around the UK studied pictures of paragliders, scratched their heads and wondered how the hell they were going to make the film equipment small and light enough for us. Meanwhile Rob and I thought of any possible way to shed weight from our usual kit.

During a big walk out, life is unbearable with 35 kg swinging off your back in a poorly shaped glider bag. The obvious source of excess weight is the huge harnesses we use nowadays and Rob Whittall had beavered away during the previous winter and produced a proper mountaineering rucsac that converted, at the click of four buckles, into a harness. Bingo! 5 kg saved in one fell swoop and bag that wouldn’t send mountaineers in to peels of laughter.

Motorola supplied us with state-of-the-art Iridium satellite phones. Only 500 gm and the size of a can of beer and they would enable us to get on the blower at the first sign of trouble and call in the cavalry.

It was around this time, whilst in the full flow of organising the expedition, that I heard that John Silvester was also going back to the Himalayas. This time he too was going to make a film and, ironically enough, he was also going to west Nepal.

John and I had flown together across India on our first vol bivouac expedition. We had had the most amazing adventure together which had ended on a sunny spring day in 1997 in a dusty village on the Indian – Nepalese border.

We had stared over a policeman’s shoulder at a little rope bridge that spanned the Kati River and ended at a simple dirt footpath that formed the international border. That ancient bridge had stuck in both our minds. It led in to the unexplored skies of western Nepal and spoke of untold adventures. Bureaucracy stopped us that time, but the rejection had done nothing to extinguish either of our desires to cross this amazing country.

The day before we were due to leave the UK the BBC finally unveiled the finished film kit. In a meeting in Birmingham we were presented with what appeared to be enough wires, boxes, batteries and cameras to film the World Cup final.

The chaotic mass of equipment in front of us we were told would allow us to seamlessly switch between two remote camera lenses mounted on our gliders. Feeding pictures back down miles of black cable to a pile of recording boxes sitting in our backpacks, the whole system was rigged to be activated at the push of a single button. Even our helmets and radios were wired to record both the ambient sound and radio dialog. Once live the system would record our every moment.

We would no longer be alone up there; grandmothers, aunts, friends and strangers would all arrive at the flick of a switch to watch us struggling away low in gullies or howling with laughter as we ripped towards cloudbase in a meaty thermal. The prospect of exposing myself during such intense and private moments was acutely alarming…

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