Going up

For a long time now i’ve been fascinated by paragliding. The idea of gliding effortlessly above the mountains has always been appealing. For me, flying with equipment so minimalist that it more closely resembles a tent than an aircraft, somehow makes it even more alluring.

For the last six years I have been skydiving and flying speedwings in the mountains. These small gliders are extremely fast and sink rapidly, practically teleporting you from a summit of your choice to the valley below in a matter of minutes. As you can imagine this is great fun and opens up a world of possibilities for adventurous mountain descents, either on foot or with skis.

But like pretty much everything that operates at the extreme end of the performance spectrum there are tradeoffs. Small wings offer big advantages in high winds or turbulent air, where the pilot might need to make a quick escape from bad conditions. But the tradeoff is that they lack the ability to truly fly in three dimensions. The slower speed, better glide and significantly lower sink rate mean that with a paraglider you can make use of rising air to gain altitude and climb high into the sky.

To fly high and cover long distances you need to utilise thermals, columns of warm air rising from the surface, to gain altitude. The theory is quite simple, fly into a thermal and turn in circles which keep your wing inside the rising air. If the air is rising faster than your glider sinks through it, you go up. Once up at cloud base, you glide off in your direction of choice or just drift downwind like a hot air balloon, all the while searching for the next thermal.

While it’s easy to appreciate the huge potential that such a capability could offer, in practice actually achieving a prolonged flight with a paraglider can be a somewhat complicated undertaking. But nonetheless curiosity got the better of me, so I ordered a glider and started the long learning process.

As the national lockdown in Scotland was slowly lifted my wing arrived. With previous experience flying skydiving canopies and speedwings, adapting to flying the wing was pretty straightforward. With every flight I was learning new things really enjoying the process. For a long time I had wondered if the comparatively slow speeds of paragliding would be boring compared with speedflying, but in some ways it’s quite the opposite. Slower speeds give you more time to think and to fly a paraglider well, there’s a lot of thinking to do.

When ‘air bridge’ arrangements with Europe were first announced I immediately booked flights to Spain. It seemed likely that such delicate agreements would not last forever, so better to take the chance now. I first traveled to Madrid to stay with Carlos and climb some incredible granite in the sun. After leaving Madrid I continued on to Bourg St-Maurice in the French Alps to avoid a quarantine if I had immediately returned to Scotland. With more flexibility, easier access and more suitable conditions, fourteen days in the Alps seemed like the ideal opportunity to learn how to thermal my new glider and fly up.

In the end it was a challenging process but a deeply rewarding one. After a week of bombing out on nearly 20 flights the pieces all started to come together, but it had been a struggle. To find a thermal and climb in it ultimately takes a mix of wing control and mind control. For me the wing control side was pretty straight forward given my past flying experience, but the mental side was surprisingly harder.

The mental discipline required for paragliding is tough because it can be so rational but equally so emotional. On one hand, you need to think rationally about things like flying conditions, controlling your glider and finding lift. But in reality staying up in the air for a long flight does not depend on these elements alone. It requires a strong specific emotional will to do so. If you lack the desire to keep trying to stay up in the air, you simply land and end your flight. As soon as you lose the strong desire to keep flying, it’s over.

This may sound obvious but in practice it can be a significant barrier to overcome. On several of my initial flights in thermic conditions I found I was quite intimated by the turbulence as I hit the edge of a thermal. My past experience on speedwings has probably conditioned my reaction to be, ‘avoid this potentially hazardous air’ and bail to the landing field. While this is probably sound advice on a small high performance speedwing, avoiding the lift on a paraglider is unfortunately not a way to successfully gain any altitude!

But eventually this clicked and I started to be more aware of my emotions in flight. When you can recognise that you are afraid, you can intervene before doubt creeps in. You can flip a switch in your mind and remind yourself this is what you came for. You wanted to be here, high above the mountains, suspended from a delicate piece of nylon in strong thermic air. You wanted to go up, so get in the thermal and do it.

With that change in mindset, I did. After an evening launch from L’Aiguille Grive I soon found myself circling over four hundred meters above my takeoff and still climbing. It was a truly unique feeling to be hoisted high above the mountains by the forces of nature alone. I looked down at my instruments and saw I had climbed to over 3000m. I was overcome with joy as I had finally achieved my goal for the trip as well as a long held ambition, I had learned to go up.

Climbing over 3000m in the Alps – view the GPS track here

When I returned to Scotland I was very motivated to continue my paragliding progression and soon felt that my goal to learn to climb on a paraglider, was only partially complete. I had learned to thermal, but I had done it in the Alps where good conditions are very reliable. After a few bomb outs despite excellent forecasts it soon occurred to me that repeating my performance with a good thermic flight in Scotland would be much more challenging. Equally though, flying above my home mountains would probably be uniquely rewarding with mind blowing view, so I was up for the challenge.

Just as it had in the Alps the pieces started to slowly come together. Finally I went to Tinto hill in the Scottish borders on a less than perfect forecast. The south wind allowed me to soar the length of the hill staying in the air. Despite the overcast skies thermals were cycling through and once again I found myself circling high above the hill and the limits of the ridge lift. The following week a better forecast lead to me Bridge of Orchy where again passing thermals allowed me to climb all the way up to cloud base. It was a fantastic feeling and this time I really felt like I had achieved what I set out to do.

All I can say now is that it’s been an incredible learning process so far and i’m really looking forward to the next steps in my paragliding progression. I excited to see what is possible with this new capability and how it can be combined with other mountain sports 😉

Thermaling above Tinto hill
Flying from Beinn an Dothaidh on a spectacular day in the west highlands

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