Stories of the Indian Himalaya

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Here are some stories and articles which hopefully will give you some idea of what flying in the Indian Himalaya is actually like...

The Great Electric God

Kullu Valley, Late September 1996

A year after I first started flying I returned to the Kullu Valley, this time better prepared for what lay in store. I now had 30 hours airtime logged and knew most of the pilots in the valley, as well as having flown lots of the sites around Manali. Again I linked up with Bruce Mills and John McKeever and we started exploring other sites we hadn't flown the previous year.

One place we all wanted to fly was Bijli Mahadev. In Hindi Bijli means lightning or electricity and Mahadev is 'great God'. Bijli Mahadev is a rounded mountain facing south down the Kullu valley. On the peak is an ancient Hindu temple in the middle of a beautiful grassy meadow. The temple is surmounted by a large lightning conductor, which can be seen from all around. According to legend the temple is destroyed by lightning once a year, then magically rebuilt overnight.

We took a taxi from Kullu to the roadhead, and proceeded to walk the gentle three-kilometre path through the forests to the temple. When we arrived we were amazed at the size of the meadow on the top of the mountain - it really is huge, being roughly 200m wide and over 500m long. The meadow slopes gently on three sides providing stunning views over both the Kullu and Parvati valleys. We were further surprised when we went to visit the temple.

Instead of the virtually deserted place we expected there were maybe 100 local villagers all dressed up in their finest traditional clothing and jewellery. A local temple band with huge silver horns, trumpets and drums accompanied them. I made enquiries in my basic Hindi and was informed that there was a mela (Hindi for 'fair' or 'religious celebration') because today the devta of the temple was leaving to visit other villages in the area before the great Dusshera mela. The devta is a metal icon, which represents the local God or Goddess. Kullu is famous for the Dusshera mela, when all the devtas of the valley are taken out of their temples and visit other local villages before assembling on the Maidan in Kullu. ('Maidan' refers to the flat area of ground situated in the middle of many mountain towns, where fairs, etc. take place. They also make excellent landing areas!)

Although conditions looked excellent for flying, we couldn't miss the spectacle provided for us and stayed to watch the ceremonies. We ended up being blessed by the priests, given prassad (holy food) and even saw a ram being ritually slaughtered! Not the usual pre-flight activities! Once the ceremonies were over we went to the front of the hill and prepared ourselves for flying. Not only did the villagers come to watch us, but also the temple band paraded round the take-off while the priests blessed our canopies!

By the time all the excitement was over and we took off it was getting late in the day. There were still quite a few thermals coming up the face of the mountain and plenty of lift while flying. Unfortunately we had taken so long that conditions had changed and a large cloud was building fast on the opposite side of the valley. We all decided to land soon in case it really blew up. This turned out to be a wise decision as within 20 minutes of landing a gust front came through and we saw lightning arcing from one side of the valley to the other. We weren't sure whether this was the Great Electric God showing His displeasure at us for flying from His sacred precincts, or if it was a display put on to express His appreciation for our own display! Either way, it was a magical end to another unforgettable day of Himalayan flying and Bijli Mahadev certainly lived up to its name!

Billing Days

Billing - The name is almost legendary amongst international pilots, yet except for one round of the PWC in 1992, few pilots have flown there and very little information is available. People tend to assume that Himalayan flying requires pilots to be mountain-flying skygods of the first order. In fact, Billing is a remarkably benign site and has been flown safely many times by pilots of all levels, from students to top competition pilots.

Although I first flew in the Himalaya immediately after passing my CP in 1995, it was not until the following year that I flew at Billing. By then I had 30 hours airtime logged, but was still a relative novice. Here is a brief summary of my experiences flying at Billing, just to show that a complete punter can enjoy superb flying and to try and give some idea of the 'flavour' of the site.

Autumn 1996

8/10/96

With about 30 hours flying logged I go to Billing for first time! None of our party had flown there before, so no idea where house thermals, etc are. All blundered about with varying degrees of success before landing by Tibetan Colony

26/10/96

Return to Billing with bunch of 4 other Himalayan pilots. Given a full site briefing by experienced regular. Find house thermal and start to learn just how fast my school glider can go up!

27/10/96 - 4/11/96

Stay in guesthouse in Chaugan, which rapidly takes on atmosphere of paragliding ashram. Fly for at least one hour every day, gaining more experience and confidence. Get used to the sight of the earth revolving away from me! Learn to deal with collapses and how to get in and out of powerful thermals. Venture away from Billing a few times and make around 10km each time. Begin feeling comfortable thermalling with several large birds (2.5m+ wingspans!) in close formation. It becomes normal to only bother with thermals that have a few birds in - if there aren't any birds, it's probably not worth bothering about as there's better lift elsewhere!

6/11/96

Fly tandem for the first time. A regular Himalayan-pilot, Bruce, takes the back seat, but I take controls for most of the flight except when taking photos. It's great to be able to discuss conditions, etc. with another pilot while in the air, and I learn a lot from the experience as well as getting the opportunity to take in some fantastic views.

8/11/96 - 15/11/96

We all move off to Diyar, another excellent site in Kullu Valley. Start making big climbs in strong thermals without getting spat out. Gain 1,000m ato for first time. Learn about valley breezes the hard way - there aren't any at Billing! Enjoy some fantastic flights - photographing birds at close quarters, flying 10km to top-land at Bijli Mahadev for tea before flying off again. Going XC becomes a way of life!

4/12/96 - 11/12/96

Back to Billing. Late in season, so much less activity. Take advantage of stable air and height over landing field to practice B-Lines and Spirals as now doing the kind of flying where they may be vital skills. Over 50 hours logged now and feel I'm a bit less of a beginner.

15/12/96- 18/1/97

Go to Goa for first time. Freak out at the difference. Smoothest, most laminar air I have flown in. Manage to fly for over 1 hour without touching my brakes once! Over 70 hours logged in total.

Autumn 1997

18/10/97

Return to Billing. Start of season so manage to get room with hot water at Pal-Din's house - ah, luxury! Meet up with all the other pilots and catch up on news. Now have 90 hours airtime, new intermediate glider and an SIV/XC Masterclass under my belt. Spend next week waiting for crappy weather to improve.

26/10/97 - 30/10/97

Weather still a bit dodgy so use poor conditions to get back in practice. Spend most of the time on take-off watching aerobatics ace Greg Blondeaux pulling the most amazing stunts.

31/10/97

Weather now much improved so head off XC. Debu and I head off towards Mandi over 40km away, but high cirrus obscures sun and we sink out 4km short. Still, at 39km, it's my personal best.

2/11/97

Debu and I off on another trip to Mandi, but still sink out - this time only 2km short! Another personal best for both of us.

3/11/97 - 12/11/97

Weather continues to be variable, although flyable every day. Some short XC's, but usually we all end up swapping gliders for fun and sat on 'the beach' (sunbathing area at back of take-off!) watching Greg. Everyone flies in cloud at some stage - take it in turns to venture into cloud above house thermal and see how long you can endure 'the white room' without freaking out!

24/11/97

Return after a week trekking in Garhwal to find most pilots have left and Bruce is laid up in sick bed! Go up to take-off all by myself and have one of the most memorable flights of my life - see 'Gaggle Flying on Your Own'

30/11/97

Now have more flights at Billing than anywhere else and it's become my 'home site'! Worst autumn weather I've experienced in 8 years in the Himalaya, yet we've still had about 30 flyable days in 6 weeks, I've managed to do 2 'personal best' flights and had the most amazing flight with vultures yet. If this is what crap weather is like, I can't wait for a 'good' season!

5/12/97

Leave Billing and migrate south to Goa for winter.

Autumn 1998

25/10/98 - 17/11/98

Back again! This time find all rooms in village are full and I have to spend a few days dossing on floor before finding a bed. Pilots everywhere - we even have 6 tents pitched on the roof of the guesthouse at one stage! Lovely weather and we fly every day, although I am finding it difficult. A layoff of over 5 months during the year, followed by other pilots scaring me silly in Piedrahita has seriously damaged my confidence and it's slow to recover. (One of the downsides of Billing being your home site is that you get used to flying empty skies and thermalling alone. Flying in Europe with large numbers of inexperienced pilots charging towards you, thermalling in the opposite direction, etc. is even more nerve-racking when you haven't done it before.) Spend large periods of time 'on the beach' and helping coach less experienced pilots.

24/11/98 - 1/12/98

Finalise arrangements for renting house and move in - home is where the heart is! Less flying as I'm busy cleaning, painting, purchasing furniture, etc, but still manage a few fun flights.

7/12/98

Shut down house for season and head to Goa. Confidence is back up and have 170+ hours flying. Established a long-term base at Billing and feeling good!

Spring 1999

11/3/99 - 23/3/99

Back home after a great season Down South. My first flight at Billing in spring - hmm, this is a bit different, it'll take a while to get used to it! It's very like spring flying in Europe, just on a bigger scale. Lack of familiarity with the conditions means that we spend a lot of time down in the valley playing 'better safe than sorry'. Clouds seem to develop and go CuNb in seconds! Get three or four reasonable flights in, but it's a lot more nerve racking than in autumn! Think I'll wait 'til next year, by which time there will be more wind-dummies to experiment with!

Autumn 1999

20/09/99 - 10/10/99

Prepare house for onslaught of visiting friends. Last year 50 pilots passed through, this year there may well be over 100. Looking forward to more flying with vultures and skygods and hopefully going 'over the back' from Billing. To my knowledge, no-one has done this (not since 1992 anyway!) I'm going to make it all the way to Dharamsala and Mandi this year too!