Thermal

No Sensation to Compare With This

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The sublime thrill of paragliding in Bir-Billing

It was the start of a whirlwind romance like no other. I felt it all—the butterflies of anticipation, the headiness of new discoveries, and the excitement of being, quite literally, swept off my feet.

One Tuesday afternoon, during a year-long sabbatical punctuated by many moments of self-doubt and the fear of what lay ahead, I signed up on a whim for a paragliding course.

An adventure-sport enthusiast from the time I experienced the thrill of whitewater rafting in Nepal at the age of 10, I have been on a mission of sorts ever since. Deep-sea diving, bungee jumping, skydiving, snorkelling and jet skiing have all been checked off the list. Heck, this tryst with adrenaline-pumping feats—‘complete madness’ as some family members prefer to call it—has even included jumping off the tallest building in Auckland, suspended by a cable around my waist.

But nothing prepared me for the experience of my first solo paragliding flight from the training hills of Kamshet, around 50 km south of Pune. After a couple of days of ground handling and hops—where you practise taking off for just a few seconds—I was cleared to fly from a height of about 350 feet.

The sun was resting on a temple-shaped mountain in the distance, daylight bouncing off the Pavana lake below, a gentle breeze rustling the leaves of the lone tree on the take-off hill, and a rainbow of wings gliding in a cloudless sky. It was a perfect summer day.

I took it all in while I spread my wing and ran a quick safety check. Heart pounding as I sprinted to the edge of the hill, moments later I was surveying the skyline, the lake and the zigzag pattern of trees below with a complete sense of freedom and empowerment.

The flight ended in two minutes. But the adventure of flying on my own—with instruction, of course—had me hooked. I went back the next weekend, and the one after, and then again till I became a certified paragliding pilot.

Paragliding courses in India offer you the chance to pursue training in stages—P1, P2, certification and so on—or embark on a comprehensive 10-day course that takes you from a complete novice to a certified pilot in one go. While a tandem flight is exciting and gives you a taste of what it feels like to be up in the air, it doesn’t quite compare to flying independently—the crucial difference between being co-passenger and taking charge.

As I surrendered to this process of learning a new sport, I discovered so much about myself. Being ambitious, competitive, self-critical and goal-driven throughout my working life meant I subconsciously adopted a similar approach to paragliding—only to realise that the more you try to control this process, the more you stumble. There is no room here for harsh judgements and comparing yourself with others; this is not a race, not even with yourself.

While the first level teaches you basic manoeuvres for take off, landing and controlling your glider in the air, level two is where you learn how to soar. A glider in flight is constantly descending. To achieve an extended flight, the pilot has to find air currents that rise faster than the sink rate of the glider. Learning to select the sources of rising air currents is a skill that has to be mastered if you want to be in the air for a long time (known as soaring) or fly long distances—cross-country flying.

My first soaring flight is a memory that will stay with me forever. I took off from the training hill in Kamshet and carefully followed my instructions over the radio. Our plan that day was to attempt ridge soaring—using the wind around a ridge or cliff to gain height—as I was yet to learn the intricacies of thermalling, where your understanding of land features means you pick out pockets of air that help you achieve altitude.

I flew 72 minutes that day, drawing figures of eight with my glider over the ridge. The light changed from bright white to warm yellow as the sun slowly dipped in the sky and inched closer to the rim of the lake. I could see my shadow fly as the trees became bright green dots on reddish earth. The birds kept me company discreetly, the wind whispered gently and my engineless wing floated around silently.

I had never known such an extended period of being thought-free yet mindful—the sacred silence of what meditation masters call ‘being in the zone’ and what Pink Floyd describes in Learning to Fly as ‘suspended animation, a state of bliss’. There really is no sensation to compare with this.

A few months later, I travelled to the twin towns of Bir and Billing in Himachal Pradesh (a four-hour drive from Dharamshala). And I was surprised by how little we seem to know about our own country. Bir-Billing features among the list of the world’s top ten paragliding destinations alongside Pokhara (Nepal), Lake Como (Italy) and Interlaken (Switzerland) and attracts paragliding pilots from all over the world during season (usually September-November). And yet, few people in India have heard of these tiny dots on the Himachal map.

While Kamshet—with four-five paragliding schools—is the best place in India to learn the sport, Bir-Billing is the place to be if you are an advanced pilot; the landscape here is ideal for cross country flying. On a good day, it is possible to fly from Bir-Billing to Dharamshala—81 km away—and return, as you hop from ridge to ridge in the mighty and beauteous Dhauladhar range at a height of 11,500 feet.

Experienced pilots bring their own gliders to Bir-Billing and fly solo, but beginners can take tandem flights, in which a skilled instructor takes you up in a two-seated glider. This allows the beginner to have the experience with minimal risk. It is important to remember that paragliding is not without its dangers, especially if you’re flying independently.

When I visited Bir-Billing, I was still a novice and not skilled enough to set off on a cross-country excursion. But I had the chance to fly top to bottom. From the training hill of Kamshet at 350 feet to the take-off point in Billing at 8,500 feet, it was a mighty leap. I was nervous yet excited. My flight lasted about 35 minutes. With plenty of guidance from my instructors, I managed to locate thermals; it was like being in an elevator in the sky as I ascended rapidly through columns of air. As the thermal climbs, bigger soaring birds—like the Himalayan golden eagle—indicate the thermal; you simply follow them. It makes for a gorgeous sight—this assembly of brightly coloured gliders all circling a thermal in search of lift.

Wild horses, pagodas, tea gardens, snow-capped peaks—my eyes surveyed the landscape and my heart responded with a feeling of overwhelming gratitude. Floating over the Himalayas is a memorable way to experience the beauty of the most awe-inspiring mountain range in the world. But my memories of that day are not as much about the view but how it made me feel: alive, awakened, peaceful, content, happy and thankful. Full of life. And on top of the world.

I was here in early October, two weeks before the annual Paragliding International Championship and Himalayan National Paragliding Championship, and I met pilots from as far as England, the Netherlands, Italy, Russia, Japan and Morocco. Flying is different things to different people. For some, it has been a life-changing experience that rescued them from the depths of depression; for others, who consider themselves ‘earth-bound misfits’, it’s a feeling of peace they can never find on land; for yet others, it’s about bonding with friends and discovering new places. For me, it is about finding freedom.

Paragliding gave me the opportunity to meet many people and make new friends; to reflect on life and take full responsibility for my actions; to share the deeply spiritual experience of flying with my fellow pilots; and to rediscover my love for the great outdoors.

Perhaps, paragliding was my attempt at embracing the fear of the unknown. And letting go of the idea that I must always have a plan. Whatever it was, it felt like coming home. Leonardo da Vinci wrote, ‘Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.’

Many experienced pilots talk about this sense of restlessness they feel when not flying. “I am often caught smiling to myself like a teenager thinking of his first love,” says Vistasp Kharas, a friend and fellow pilot, who makes the two-hour trip from Mumbai to Kamshet every weekend. “And love it is, to soar a few kilometres above the earth knowing that I have the power to harness the least understood of elements and fly with the birds.”

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