Dosti (“Friendship”)


The 2008 autumn season in Bir was the best yet. Cloudbase was high most days, allowing plenty of new routes to be forged, and more people took the high road to Manali than ever before. However for me it won't be the great height gains, beautiful bivouacs or previously unflown lines through the snowy wastes that stand out in my memory, fantastic though they were, but one particular incident which managed to remind me how flying paragliders can still inflict on me bizarre and intense emotions, and how, in return for taking over my life, it has given me a very special bunch of friends.

November 4th 2008

Feeling virtuous, Eddie and I decide to walk up to Billing for a change. To our surprise, the thousand metre climb is not too tough. The path runs past ploughed fields dotted with mounds of as yet unspread compost before heading straight up through a shady rhododendron forest. The tiny wooden shack that is the temple of the goddess Satyavadini, “She who tells the truth”, provides a welcome excuse for a rest before the final push along the spine, now exposed to the morning sun. By half past ten we are at take off, the first pilots of the day to sip Chachuji's chai. Soon vanloads of Russians turn up, followed by a handful of Bir regulars. The conditions are looking good, nearly as good as yesterday when Mani and Paulo made it to Manali. I'm going back to England soon and have only one or two flying days left. A last visit to the big mountains beckons. I want to get over the snows and up close with the rocky wastes atop the Thamsar massif. Not all the way to Manali, though. I flew there last week and anyway I have to be in Bir tomorrow and don't fancy jumping straight on a bus for the six hour road trip back. I'll go some of the way there, to Danesar lake, an imposing icy pool hemmed in by fearsome swords of rock just beneath the 4200m col which is the gateway to the Kullu valley. I'll top land on the huge grassy meadow sloping away beneath it so I can enjoy a few moments of physical contact with the high Himalaya, then relaunch and fly south towards our regular campsite at Phuladhar (known to pilots as “360” for its stunning panoramic view), where I can reconnect with the front ridge and have an easy ride home to Bir.


Danesar Lake


There's plenty more ambition buzzing around take off. Lots of pilots want to join Mani and Paolo for a soak at the Vasisht hot springs near Manali. The first gliders launch and climb well. Before long a gaggle made up of Debu and Flo on their tandem, Bruce, “Hairy” Dave, Mike, Peter and Robinson is disappearing over the back. But there's still no sign of our gliders. We'd left them to be put on a taxi so we could enjoy the walk unencumbered. An anxious telephone call elicits bad news. The gliders are in Bir. They will be coming “soon”. There's been a mix-up and I'm fuming, but there's no one to blame but myself. It's nearly midday.


Eddie heading over the back



The gliders don't arrive until quarter to two, too late for us to do the big flight. I try to put my frustration behind me and concentrate on making the most of the couple of hours left in the day. Eddie and I rush to launch and are soon climbing above the peak at the top of the spur that runs up from Billing. Eddie glides over the back and I follow, a little hesitant after landing out a few days earlier and only just making it off the mountain before nightfall. Eddie gets up quickly and I have to work a little harder but before long we make it up to a 4000m cloudbase next to the snowline. The bitter cold and lowering sun cut short a full traverse of the Thamsar massif and we glide back to the front ridge, about 10km north west of Billing. Once we've thawed out, we climb to just below the 3700m Waldo peak, relaxed now that we are within an easy glide of Bir. I head towards the valley, anticipating an easy cruise home as I follow the line of the spur that runs down from Waldo and surf the air coming up from both sides. I feel a strange turbulence, look up at the glider and then, as I look down, a falling yellow shape catches my eye. It's my first aid kit. For a few seconds I watch with amused surprise as it plunges like some fluorescent falcon into the forest below. Then a growing panic grips me. How could it have fallen out of my harness? I let go of the brakes and reach behind me with both hands. The main pocket of my harness is empty. Shit. In the rush to take off, I can't have zipped it up properly. Shit! What was in it? The first aid kit and....the glider bag. In that? Oh shit! My bum bag, in which are my passport, satellite phone, credit card and cash, too much cash, all my cash. Shit, shit, shit!

I grab the radio, which has been crackling intermittently and indistinctly, and yell to Eddie but I can't make out his reply beyond the fact that he knows something is up. He starts soaring an area of forest a little further up from where the first aid kit has fallen, at one end of which is a small clearing. Once I've pulled myself together and stopped clenching my fists and shouting curses, I make a couple of passes of the clearing. Perched at 3000m, it is steep and rocky, tricky to top land and even trickier to launch from. There's not much left in the day and we've got no food or sleeping kit. We glide back to Bir. I sit slumped like a sulky teenager in my harness, head spinning with possible scenarios but always returning to one: I've lost the bag for good, I'll have to pay a visit to the local constabulary and coax them into giving me a police report, after which I'll have to borrow some money to get to Delhi and then do my best to get a new passport before my flight home, where I shall then jump through all the hoops in the vain hope of getting something out of my insurance company.... But there is still a miniscule hope of finding the bag. I have to try.

First the gliders didn't turn up, then I dropped the bag. These things come in threes, they say, so I land with extra care before slipping out of my harness and running over to Eddie. He saw the glider bag fall. When he heard from me on the radio what was in it, he went to mark the area where he thought it had landed. I'd been flying slightly to the north of the spur and three hundred or so metres above it, over an area of forest about one kilometer long, between two gullies. We'll sort out our bivi kit, fly over there tomorrow, search from the air for a while, then top land as near as we can and go and find the bag. Eddie's optimism and pragmatic approach to the task in hand are infectious and my anxiety eases. It's bad, but not so bad - no one has been hurt and everything that's been lost is replaceable. “Worse things happen at sea” as my father, a sailor, would have said. It occurs to us that we are going to need all the help we can get. As if on cue, Antoine appears overhead, throws down some acro shapes and then wingovers into the landing field. He's a paragliding genius, one of the best pilots I know, and we need him on board. I tell him what's happened and what we're going to do. Before I can hint at wanting him to join us he growls with his usual Gallic sangfroid, “OK, so I come too. I take ze tandem and bring Lynn.” Perfect. Lynn, Antoine's Scottish girlfriend (vive the auld alliance!), is the epitome of positivity. The two of them are fresh from making the first tandem flight to Manali (“onsight” as they say in the climbing world - Antoine hadn't even flown there solo) and ten days earlier Antoine had pulled off the daring evacuation by tandem of a pilot who had broken both his legs top landing at 2600 metres in the middle of nowhere.

We pack our gliders and walk up to Vimla's chaishop in the Tibetan colony. After the morning's exertion and the trials of the day we are famished and wolf down heaps of rice and dal. Word of my predicament has already got out and Chicco and Jess appear at the chaishop, concern written across their faces. As soon as Chicco has verified the rumour he joins the team and says he'll bring Jessica on the tandem. Fantastic, two more pairs of eyes and a whole load more optimism. Jess, in true Californian style, is driving home to me the importance of staying positive: “You will find the bag!” Most of the Bir regulars, many of whom would no doubt have been up for the mission, made it to Manali and aren't coming back till tomorrow, so the talent pool is small, but we are doing well. Jitka, a petite Czech long resident in Scotland and renowned there for having “balls the size of haggises” (a judgement confirmed by the new routes she “onsighted” every day of this, her first trip to the area) and Dominic, a solid, honey-voiced Scot whose low airtime belies his prodigious flying talent, overhear our conversation and sign up without hesitation. They have been planning a vol bivouac and the prospect of combining it with a mission is just what they are looking for. I'm delighted but worried. The top landings near where I dropped the bag looked difficult, to say the least. All these friends flying there for my sake, four of them on tandems - I hope no one crashes. I voice my concern but they are all level-headed pilots and no one is going to compromise safety. I need this day to end, so Eddie and I return home where, after I top up my pocket money yet again with a few games of backgammon, we get an early night, anticipating a big day tomorrow.

November 5th 2008

Before heading up to Billing (by taxi this time) Eddie and I go to the Tibetan colony to get provisions for a night or two on the mountain. We're going to give it our best shot, even if it takes a few days. Jitka and Dominic are also prepared to stay out but the others need to be back in Bir by the evening. While stocking up on Maggi noodles, porridge and chocolate we hear on the television news that Barrack Obama has won the American election. A good omen if ever there was one. Thirty metres of rope completes our kit - the bag could well be dangling from the branches of a tree.

We break up the taxi ride with another visit to the goddess Satyavadini, this time taking some sweet-smelling incense sticks as a propitiatory offering. We need all the help we can get. At Chachuji's chaishop we tell him what's happened and what we are planning. He knows every inch of the mountains for miles around Billing. After a pensive scratch of his head he tells us that there won't be any shepherds where we are going as winter is approaching and they will have already moved down. The only people likely to be around (and who might already be enjoying the bag's contents) are hunters. Hunters? What are they hunting? Bear and musk deer. With guns? No, with traps. Shit, that spices things up a bit. Not only are we going to try to fly up to 3000m, top land and then search a large and precipitous area of Himalayan forest for a black glider bag (needles and haystacks don't even come close) but the area is likely to be dotted with rusty iron beartraps. The second chai tastes particularly good and the mission seems correspondingly more daunting. Eddie and I wait for the tandem crews to arrive while the ever keen Jitka and Dominic launch as soon as the first decent thermals bring the resident Himalayan griffin vultures above take off. The conditions aren't as good as the last two days - the weather is still clear, but it's more stable and the climbs are weaker and broken. No hope of anyone going over the back today, but we should be able to make it to our goal.



Eddie on his way

Jitka and Dominic are well on their way by the time the tandem crews arrive. Eddie and I leave them in the chaishop, nervous excitement preventing us from putting off our mission any longer. Eddie takes off and muscles his way through the chaotic crowds before climbing along the spur above Billing. I, brave Sir Jimmy, run away immediately after launching and scuttle off low to the next spur, unable to focus simultaneously on collision avoidance and the task in hand. Having extricated myself from the swarm of Slavs, I relax and let myself enjoy the flight. I slowly climb to nearly 3000m, fighting close in to the terrain to break through multiple inversions, and then continue on my way. After a couple of glides and climbs I find myself just above a grassy spur leading up from Tatopani, a hot spring deep in the valley below where the bag fell. I'm relatively high, 2600m or so, but in these huge Himalayan valleys perspective is misleading and it feels as though if I don't climb soon I'm going to have to land in there. Then a massive thermal releases and I corkscrew up vertically, leaving the land behind and stopping only once I'm level with the ridge where the bag fell. Eddie has sensibly taken the high route and glides across the valley above me. When we reach the clearing nearest the area to be searched we see that Jitka has already landed there. Haggises indeed. It's harder to stay above the ridge than it was yesterday and after struggling to get over the search area, which at this time of day is in shade and giving no lift, we give up on the aerial recce. I make a pass of where Jitka has landed. Close in I can see that the flat areas are strewn with boulders and there's just a small steep grassy area where I might be able to slope land. Each time I go in I'm either hoisted back above the ridge or flung down into the wooded bowl below. After a few attempts Eddie and I look for somewhere easier further along the spur. The prudent choice is right at the end, a beautiful bald promontory commanding a panoramic view of the Kangra valley and the plains beyond. The only problem is that it's a good two kilometres from the area to be searched. Laziness and lack of time demand somewhere closer. Dom has landed there and is already walking along the ridge but Eddie and I keep milling about indecisively. Then the tandems arrive. Antoine is a master of top landing - I've seen him get into slots smaller than his glider - but this time he's hampered by flying a tandem and I reckon that I should at least be able to land my solo wherever he can get himself and Lynn down. There's a lovely grassy glade about halfway between Jitka and Dominic's landings, but it's hemmed in on all sides by evergreen oaks and pines, and there are thermals constantly pumping up all around. I've already overflown it once and given up on it as it's a one chance only sort of place - miss it and you're in the trees. But Antoine blithely sneaks in there when I'm not looking and then talks in the rest of us. To avoid being lifted up too high we have to glide in below it, through the V made by two chilgoza pines, after which the gentle upslope of the clearing is easily, if unceremoniously, embraced.


Chicco and Jess landing

So that's the most dangerous part of the mission over: we have all landed safely. Thinking that it will be an easy stroll between here and the search area, we bunch up our gliders and take only the kit we think we might need - rope, radios and torches. Dominic is waiting for us and we set off along the spur. It's already half past two. We soon learn a lesson: in the Himalaya, what looks from a paraglider like a level kilometre on the ground is nothing of the sort. The path through the forest is good - frequent fireplaces encircled by carpets of sheep and goat shit show that it's not long since the shepherds passed this way - but there are plenty of ups and downs and it takes us the best part of an hour to get to where Jitka landed. We call for her but our shouts are unanswered. She responds to the radio and is already some way away, searching for the bag. Dominic heads off along the shepherds' path to help her.


Jim and Eddie

The remaining six of us walk to the north side of the ridge and peer down into our objective. It is very steep...and very wide. It must be a kilometre, a Himalayan kilometre, along the ridge to the far gully, the limit of the area to be searched as reckoned by Eddie. Eddie also estimated that I might have been as much as fifty metres to the north of the ridge when the bag fell. It doesn't take trigonometry to work out that fifty metres wide of the top of such a precipitous slope means a long way down. Eddie, practical as ever despite the mounting odds, gets us to fan out. He and Antoine sideslip their way down the grassy mountainside until they disappear from view. Lynn, Jess, Chicco and I take the higher contours and so start two of the most beautifully surreal hours of my life.

The sun is already low, casting a delicious warm orange light onto the forested slope but blinding us when we look to the left. I start traversing a grassy gully, following inch-wide animal trails (deer, I hope) towards the trees and realise that the animals have got it right: four limbs are needed here. Progress is made by clinging on to whatever I can and I stop thankfully every few metres to scan the forest. Chilgoza pines reach up above me, those to my right glowing majestically in the dappled sunlight, those to my left brooding sillhouettes. My black and red Ozone glider bag will be perfectly camouflaged here, whichever way I look.


The search area

Before long I am in the trees and alone. Our attempt at an orderly search is made futile by the topography. Where we are searching is a uniform mountain face when viewed from a distance, but close up it has its own micro-geography. Cliffs, gullies, bowls and ledges separate us. We shout intermittently to keep the others aware of where we are. The radios, as ever, are unreliable and messages are relayed in a confusing game of Chinese Whispers. Soon they and we fall quiet. I take stock of what I am doing: standing alone perched on a vertiginous slope in a Himalayan forest at 3000m with nothing to do but look. Somewhere I would never normally have reason to go, somewhere astonishing in its pristine perfection. The mad futility of our mission only adds to the surreality and I enter a heightened state of awareness. My hands grasp at clumps of grass or cling on to tumbling dreadlock trellises of gnarled roots, my feet pick their way from foothold to foothold, uncannily finding hard stones embedded in banks of crumbling earth. I am covered head to toe in grass and pine needles, my hands are caked in a rich humus. Now the only sound piercing the silence is the occasional accusatory, derisory caw of a crow. “Haaaa! Haaaa! You think you can come here and find your bag! Haaaa! Haaaa!” Crows in India are said to divine the future; holy men can interpret their calls. I, in my unholiness, am not encouraged.


Jim

A rhythm develops: I scramble a few yards, taking whatever route is offered to me by the terrain, then stop to scan the trees and mountainside. Sometimes I feel like an intrepid adventurer exploring hitherto untrod realms, sometimes a gormless, gawping fool. The latter sentiment starts to win out when the light begins to fade, and it is compounded by the responsibility I feel towards the others. They are all here on my account. It will be dark by the time we have climbed up and reached the path, let alone by the time we find somewhere to camp. Half of us are completely unprepared for a night out. We have little food and less water. OK, time to stop searching and start looking after our basic needs. I reach a buttress criss-crossed with tree roots, a ladder on which to climb back up to the path. I hear Eddie and Antoine talking below me and call out to them but an acoustic quirk means they cannot hear me. Their edgy chatter tells me that they are having difficulties negotiating the terrain. I wonder whether to wait for them but opt against it. It's getting dark and they may take a different route. Before too long I am on top of the ridge, in the twilight. I head along the shepherds' path towards where Jitka landed and meet up with Lynn, Jess and Chicco. Spirits are still good. We are paraglider pilots after all, accustomed to absurdly high hopes coming to nothing. We'll return the next morning for a more thorough search. The chances of finding the bag are slimmer than a microline, but, hey, we're having fun.


Antoine

We await the others in the gloom. The radios, fickle as ever, get no response. Then Dominic's mellifluous brogue, all bass tones and rolling r's, interrupts our idle chit-chat: “Can you confirm that you have found the bag?”

We look at each other and frown. I reply into my radio, “Er, no, Dom, we haven't found the bag.”

A moment later Antoine's voice, mild hysteria modulating its usually gruff tones, puts paid to our befuddlement: “We 'ave ze bag!”

Eyes and mouths owl-wide with incredulity, we scream and jump and hug one another. “Nooooo!” hoots Lynn, “I doooon't believe it!”


Jim, Chicco and Lynn

Ten minutes later Antoine and Eddie come striding along the path, the beam of Eddie's headtorch heralding their approach. Once the high-fives and hugs are over, I ask them how they had found it, still not quite believing that they have, even though there it is on Antoine's back. They had to climb up a cliff-face to get up from where they were searching, which must have been when I heard them. Hauling and pushing each other up the more difficult sections, they reached a small plateau at the cliff's top. Antoine, in front, looked back to make sure Eddie was OK and there behind Eddie on a ledge was the glider bag. The bum bag was still inside it - luckily I'd done a better job of zipping up the glider bag than I had my harness.

Dominic and Jitka appear and join in the celebrations. Elated, we turn to our next task, sorting ourselves out for the night. Normally that would have been somewhat daunting, but now we feel as if we can do anything, Antoine perhaps more so than the rest of us - he is keen to fly himself and Lynn off the mountain. In the dark. With no known landings in gliding range. And no take off nearby, for that matter.

Buoyed up by our success we float back along the path to where we have left our gliders. My subconscious had already given up on finding my stuff and I'm still coming to terms with the realisation that I don't have to go to the police station, I don't have to borrow lots of money, I don't have to leave early for Delhi and I can just enjoy my last few days in the Himalaya. Despite our elation, in the dark the walk back is difficult and tiring. Only half of us have torches and the path is not always clear. I'm very glad that we don't have to come back this way in the morning - our mood would be very different.

There was a clearing with some deserted shepherds' huts not far from where we landed. The bunched up gliders are drenched with dew so Antoine and I decide not to pack them but carry them open to the clearing. Now that it is almost pitch dark - the new moon has already set - Antoine has said that he won't fly down, but with his glider still open I'm not convinced that he's given up. He, Lynn and I go ahead, leaving the others to sort out their kit. After half an hour the fabled huts have failed to materialise and we are a little concerned. We press on, hoping to find somewhere else, but the occasional shepherd campsite by the path isn't very appealing: the tandem-wallahs, having no bedding, are keen to find shelter. Suddenly Lynn, a little ahead of Antoine and me, who are struggling with our bunched up gliders, screams and runs back towards us. “A bear! There was a bear right there in front of me!” She's shaking with fear. Antoine and I try to reassure her - and ourselves - that the bear will be scared off by us and our gliders. She walks between us and I light the way from the rear, the beam from my headtorch now feeling rather puny. At the next clearing we pack our gliders - the walking has shaken off the water - and wait for the others. Eddie appears first and joins us for a welcome rest. Silent and still again, I notice a shape move high up in a pine tree just in front of us. “Hey,” I whisper to the others, “it might be a flying squirrel.” Eddie trains his torch on it and like two laser pinpoints glowing red its eyes shine back. We stare into the darkness for a minute or two then suddenly the shape launches out of the tree and plunges into the valley. Its glide angle is barely 1:1, no better than a wing suit, and it disappears below our field of vision before we can see it level out.

The other four join us. With just one torch between them, they have been making slow progress and it's time for a decision. The only decent campsite we can be sure of reaching is at the end of the spur, where Dom landed. The shepherds' path leads there and it is the perfect place from which to take off in the morning. We're tired and it's another half kilometre of ups and downs but the path is now narrow and we don't have much of an alternative. We set off and learn a second lesson about the Himalaya: what looks like an easy path by day is nothing of the sort by night. We lose our way twice but by a stroke of luck Dom kept his GPS on after he landed and we are able to play join the dots to follow his track back to the campsite. Once there we spring into action. Antoine creates a tent by stringing the rope between the branches of a tree and hanging one of the tandems off it. The other tandem does the job of bedding. It doesn't look very warm and I offer my sleeping bag but it's turned down. I promise to keep the fire going all night. And what a fire. It's the fifth of November, remember, bonfire night, Britain's anarchist anniversary, so we have a good excuse to burn up all the wood we can find. We scatter in all directions and build a huge pile of logs. Once the fire is blazing we pool food resources. Between us we have eight packets of Maggi noodles, three potatoes, two carrots, nearly a kilo of porridge oats and Eddie's impressive stash of chocolate. Sorted.



While dinner is being cooked I check my bum bag. All present and correct. I nervously try switching on the expensive, rented, uninsured satphone. It gets a signal straight away. I call Debu back down in Bir to tell him the good news.



There is now a circle of very happy faces around a roaring fire. We did it. It's late already, after ten by the time we've each taken our turn to eat out of the cooking pot, but the laughter and stories go on into the night. I just about keep my promise to keep the fire blazing, although I do remember seeing Dominic, who was so cold he was sleeping in his boots, stoke it once or twice. The tandem wallahs sleep soundly.

November 6th 2008

Breakfast follows a high altitude yoga class from Lynn. Once the porridge is cooked we're almost out of water and there's not much left to do but fly. We take off early, before the thermals have got going, and for a while we struggle to stay up. Then everyone heads off on their way. Jitka and Dominic turn west towards Dharamsala (and that was the last time I saw them), Jess and Chicco head out to Baijnath and Antoine, Lynn, Eddie and I fly east, back to Billing. At Chachuji's we gulp down chai after chai. The only lunch on offer is Maggi noodles. They tasted pretty special last night but real food is calling. We fly down to Bir and hurry to Vimla's. There, after another mound of rice and dal, I call Claudia, my wife, back in England. I hadn't dared tell her the bad news the day I lost the bag for fear of the ticking off I deserved. Now it doesn't seem so bad. I get my ticking off and then she tells me how lucky I am to have such good friends. Too true. Thank you, my magnificent seven:

Eddie Colfox
Antoine Laurens
Lynn Jones
Chicco Patuzzi
Jessica Love
Jitka Polechova
Dominic Job