Tag : paralpanism

post image

Speed Flying Through The Storm

The end of winter 2017-18 presented the perfect opportunity to fly some incredibly marginal and storm conditions with the 11m speed wing. On the world’s highest mountains, the conditions for flying are rarely perfect, so in training for the Riding Giants expedition we took to the stormy skies via the path rarely travelled. I say rarely travelled as I doubt anyone has ascended Watson’s Dodd in quite the same way. Gearing up in moderate snow conditions, we started the Lake District run up to Stybarrow Dodd via Sticks Pass, however the weather was quickly deteriorating. With only thin slivers of sunshine, the snow really started coming down, and turned into a full whiteout by the time we reached the sheepfold. Dressed in thin running clothes, shorts and compression socks was possibly not the most appropriate choice of clothing, but running up the steep hill in shelter from the wind with a speed wing and harness on the back still pained the lungs and we were well warm by the time the weather truly descended.

We quickly realised the weather wouldn’t hold out for long, if at all, so we took a detour straight for Watson’s Dodd. We crossed Stanah Gill just above the sheepfold and started plodding up the increasingly deep snow pack. Out of the wind shadow of Stybarrow’s western flank, the breeze picked up until at around 700m, onward progress became futile. The higher we went, the windier it became, and with every step upwards the visibility reduced a few hundred metres. So there we stood, at 700m, standing in shin deep snow, in running shoes, compression socks and shorts. One sweaty base layer, an ultra thin running jacket and my winter saviour, a Rab Generator jacket. I was cosy on the top, but becoming positively chilly on the legs, particularly the exposed knee caps which were receiving the full brunt of the wind when trying to peer through the horizontal snow towards Thirlmere. Every so often I could see Thirlmere through the gloom and swirling snow as the wind periodically dropped, but after no more than a minute, it was back to storm conditions. Flying would be relatively treacherous, but we’d been standing on the hill for over 10 minutes, and the thought of descending by foot was becoming decidedly less appetising. So the head calculations commence; can I fly away safely? Can I see the landing zone? What is the cloud base? Is it too turbulent?

It took long enough to come to the realisation that I could probably fly, so long as I was prepared for a bumpy ride. The main difficulty would probably be the launch, which is always tough in strong winds, particularly on the more gentle slopes. I took out the wing, anchored it with snow, but almost immediately, a squall came through. The wing was almost blown away, but I quickly dived on the trailing edge and regretted undoing my neatly folded wing which I had packed only an hour before. Another 10 minutes was spent agonising over the decision to fly, but the squall soon blew out, and we were back to light snow, and a (very hazy) view all the way down to Thirlmere and the landing zone.

It was on.

I clipped in, checked the lines, brought the wing up, turned, and started running as fast through the snowy heather as I could. The take-off was fast, I must have launched in a lull, but then all of a sudden I was rising on a pillow of air, soaring, which is always unnerving under 11m of cloth and a few strands of Dyneema. As soon as that gust had come, it was racing up the hill behind me, and I quickly sank back into the channel leading to a particularly spiky barbed wire fence. With the feet brushing along the top of the snow, I just scraped over the edge and into the river gully. This is where the flight got truly rough and active piloting was required all the way to stop the fast surging and easing the fast collisions with the intense gusts. As I descended though, the visibility improved and the landing was clear. I just had to get above the road to St John’s in the Vale, then I could put in some turns and get down to the landing field.

With the feet skimming the grass, I was truly happy to be down. I love the flying, but turbulence, particularly with a speed wing is rarely a pleasant experience. In the UK we rarely get the type of thermals which halt late afternoon Alpine flying, but we sure make up for it with days of endless gusts. No laminar breeze, no smooth airflow from the sea, just pure tempestuous gusts formed over the wild North Atlantic and raging Irish Sea. It was a horrible flight, particularly in the latter stages where this unstable air mass throws the wing up and down like an overzealous puppet master, the pilot continuously fighting to remain in control. But flights like this, whilst not good for the stomach, are good experience, they help you to understand the limits of the wing, or at least of the pilot, and to fine tune the active inputs needed for good flying.

With summer finally poking its head round the corner, I’m now more ready than ever for some smooth flying under blue skies and over green fields with the occasional flock of sheep or marmot..

post image

Flying Bannerdale Crags

Waking up early on a crisp April morning, we headed to Mungrisdale. The weather was calm, the wind was good. There were 4 Wainwrights to tick off and a flight of Bannerdale Crags’ easterly ridge, awaiting us through the unusual calm of a crisp spring morning. But would the weather hold for the 4 hour trip? The Lake District is notorious, both for its poor, generally non-flyable weather, and for it’s changeable conditions. You might wake up to glorious sunshine, but by the time you’ve packed your bags and spent an hour walking up the hill, the conditions change and you spend an impatient late morning sitting on the summit cairn in cloud waiting for the arrival of some blue sky and a hazy view of the landing zone. This is Lake District flying to me, countless days of carrying the wing to the top of the mountain only to carry it right back down again; too few days of airtime. Thank god for Swing’s light speed wings, and viva la Chamonix!

Bannerdale Crags OS Maps RoutwBannerdale Crags Flight Map Pan

So having used Ordnance Survey’s handy mapping programme (where you can virtually agonise over your route before actually agonising over it), we set off for our first Wainwright, Souther Fell, swiftly followed by Mungrisdale Common, then an even shorter hop across to Bannerdale Crags. I spied the easterly ridge which I was aiming to cruise down with the speed wing, but then we saw Bowscale fell on the horizon, another one to tick off the seemingly endless list. 139 down, 75 to go, we grumbled.

Bannderdale Crags East Ridge

The weather was set to be good all day, but I always remain sceptical until I’m running down the hill with my wing overhead, surrounded by blue skies. But amazingly, the weather had held. As those local to the Lake District know, this simply doesn’t happen. There must always be a period in Cumbria during each 24 hours where precipitation must be seen to fall, where the waters must be topped up, but not this day it seemed. Today was one of those rare days where the weather just got better, the wind got lighter, and on standing at the top of Bannerdale Crags in the early afternoon having essentially summited it twice within the hour, I was left with only the descent.

It’s quite hard to sum up what it feels like, having spent hours wandering round the fells, getting higher and higher until you’re finally in a position to fly. When you eventually get to the launch site, a small sense of euphoria comes over you, the sense that you made it to the good part, that it’s now time to say goodbye to the mountain tops and speed down with the long grass brushing against your legs as you hurdle past knolls and rocky intersections at well over 50mph.

So the flight itself? Well it wasn’t fully mind blowing, just a do-or-die launch, a rapid descent to cruise the ridge, followed by some carving turns down the face. The Lake District isn’t big, but when it delivers, you can’t fail to land amongst the sheep and heather with a big smile and a heart of adrenaline.

Video permalink: Ridge Speed Flying Line


post image

Scotland is Windy

Over the past few months, I have been busy working on a project which is essentially the follow up to my Everest expedition back in 2012. I’ve been making progress in a number of areas, but I wanted to share a story of one area (the leading concept of my project) which has suffered a minor setback. For a number of months, I have been doing a regular paragliding flights, building airtime and gaining some necessary skills which will allow me to eventually take my love of flight into a wild place. However on Monday 12th July 2015, my paragliding career momentarily crashed into the dirt, then into some patchy grass, followed by a very conclusive coming together of pilot and sharp Cairngorm rock. I now want to go into detail of just how that happened. *The following details may affect those of a nervous disposition; keep reading to cure this affliction.

So I started my day at the Cairngorm mountain car park. I recently bought a van which I’ve been converting into a camping type utility vehicle, complete with wine rack and Napoleonic era sword. This has the added benefit of allowing me to stay close to the venue of choice which is perfect for climbing and flying, and nowhere is this more apparent than at Cairngorm where you can park halfway up the mountain. Over night, the conditions were extreme as always. It is the height of summer, but that didn’t stop the rain lashing down and the occasional gust buffeting the van (known as Daisy) sideways.

By morning however, the conditions were calmer, and a steady wind of 8-12mph was present; not light, but equally not too strong. I had driven over from Aberdeen in order to get some more flying hours in, so I quickly made breakfast and then kitted up for a brisk walk-in to find a suitable launch spot. It should be noted that the Cairngorms, and in fact most of Scotland, are known for high wind levels, along with arctic level summer temperatures and the occasional wild haggis. So a wind of 12mph was survivable and could be considered a ‘light wind’ day by Scottish standards. Indeed, this very winter, I was blown over an uncountable number of  times during one particularly windy day climbing in Coire an t-Sneachda. The gusts on that day were around 90mph, so on this particular Sunday, the winds were light; you get the idea.

I got to the launch site half way up a ridge (Fiacaill a Choire Chais) leading to the Coire an t-Sneachda plateau in about 45 minutes and waited for some walkers to leave so I could have the ridge to myself and save any embarrassment if the first launch didn’t go to plan. The wind was gusty, but never varying more than 5mph in 5 seconds, which is a good rule go by. I had a struggle laying the wing out as the angle of the slope was shallow enough for the wind to fill the cells of the glider, so I weighted down the trailing edge with a stone or two, protecting the thin silk fabric with some moss.

Eventually, the wind died just enough for me to front launch – running forwards for about 5 meters before being hurled skywards for what I hoped would be an exhilarating ride. It turned out to be just that.

I soared up and down the ridge a couple of times, then decided to venture to the top of the plateau before heading back to the van. As I got higher, the wind grew stronger, funneled on the opposite Fiacaill Ridge by a hollowed out feature which seemed to accelerate the wind up over the plateau. By the time I was 3/4 of the way up to the top of the plateau, it was essentially too late. I didn’t have a speed bar (a device which allows you to penetrate through strong winds) and so I gradually moved closer and closer to the top of the ridge before being “blown-back” over the top of the ridge onto the plateau.


My wing has an airspeed of roughly 18-20mph, and so as I was caught in a gust above that figure, I was being helplessly pushed backwards and veering dangerously close to the rotor, a turbulent patch of air behind a ridge. This didn’t matter so much as I was now only about 1 meter above the ground, and so if the glider stalled, I wouldn’t fall far, but I was still drifting backwards at quite a pace. This is quite a strange situation, as when attached to the harness, it is difficult to see directly behind you, and so moving backwards is essentially blinding. I considered turning the wing and going with the wind, but after a quick sum, I figured this would be a bad idea. If the wind was going at 20mph, and my wing has an airspeed of 20mph, that would mean as soon as I turned, I would accelerate over the ground and reach 40mph whilst descending rapidly. I didn’t have the height for this maneuver, and even if I did, an impact at 40mph could easily break both legs and possibly more.

So I opted for the slower but more unknown option of drifting backwards, now at about 10-15mph a meter or so above the ground. The next few steps happened so quickly, there was zero time to react to the fuckery which was now unfolding around me.

As soon as my feet touched the floor, I lost balance, simultaneously heel kicking a boulder and falling backwards onto the floor which was littered with granite and schist rocks and boulders. Before I could even think about stopping, the wing inflated and started hurling me like a rag doll  across the floor. The rocks on the plateau are particularly sharp, and each one pierced my legs like a razor. I was utterly out of control, being dragged at around 20mph across the surface from hell with no real way of stopping. The only way out of this situation was to grab the lines and pull them in till the glider itself is within reach. Whilst flying across the floor however, this was simply not going to happen. One minute I was sliding on my chest, the next, I was flipped over onto my back, headfirst along the plateau. I could see rocks and boulders approaching, and then screamed in agony as I subsequently hit said boulder and tore another piece of flesh from my legs, completely at the mercy of the wind, unable to stop. By some miracle, I avoided hitting my head on any rocks (I felt no need to field test my helmet).

Onwards I was carried, for what was in reality around 30 seconds, but what felt like hours, over this boulder field a couple of hundred meters in length. A thought crossed my mind that something bad might be about to happen, most likely hitting my head hard and losing consciousness, but somehow, I span round and now being pulled feet first, managed to grab a handful of lines and pull them in as fast as my battered body would allow.

Mercifully I came to a sudden stop and writhed in pain. My legs were in agony, my trekking trousers covered in blood; and my hands which had been protected by thick French leather gloves were shaking and feeling that kind of pain where you have fallen on a hard surface. I looked at my gloves which used to be made of around 3mm leather. They were completely shredded where I had tried to stop myself in desperation. I lay in pain and shock for some time, hoping no one had seen my mistake, so that I could be left to come round at my own pace. I did seem to quickly come round to my senses however as I hauled myself upright and took out a pain au chocolat from my bag. I looked back at my unconventional route across the rocks, shuddering at the thought of what just happened. I unzipped my trousers and looked at the state of my legs. They were completely shredded and my right knee had already swollen which was making standing up extremely uncomfortable.

It took me a while to gather myself, and then somehow stuff the wing and all the kit back into my kit bag. The walk down took 2 hours, every step was adding to the pain produced from each slice of the rocks on my legs. My trousers were cut up badly and blood stained, and at one point, a family of 4 turned round after seeing me coming down, clearly making the decision that where I had come from was not the place for them.

As I write this, I’m sitting in bed, as I have done in various positions for the past 24 hours, knees thoroughly bandaged after a quick stint in A&E. I have been lucky not to have broken my patella (knee cap) which is still swollen and throbbing, although this hasn’t yet been confirmed by x-ray (it turns out not all hospitals in Scotland have the same technical equipment most of the western world, and indeed much of the eastern world, is used to).

In thinking what could have been, I had made the best of a bad situation. The initial impact was only slightly harder than a normal landing, but it was the scraping which subsequently did all the damage. A sobering thought however is that had I lost consciousness by hitting a rock, the wing would have kept flying, or at least trying to fly whilst dragging me along underneath. There was the potential to end up in a small pond just below the plateau, but more worryingly, the wing was pulling me into Coire Raibert which leads to Loch Avon, a huge loch in what is essentially an uninhabited valley.

As I cried out in agony each time a new jagged rock ripped open another hole in my leg, I didn’t appreciate what fun my paraglider was having. In hindsight, it was having a great time flying low across the ground, in its element taking me for a walk. Fortunately, play was suspended for the day shortly afterwards, and Matthew learnt a valuable lesson from quite a powerful master.