Whenever the weather forecast is promising, many of us will be looking for trip ideas that involve being up high. Although slugging it out with wind, cloud or precipitation is part of the mountain life, there’s nothing quite like the privilege of being up high on a good weather day. Though for a paraglider pilot, the acceptable range of conditions is quite narrow. Very light winds both about the tops and in the valleys (less than 15km/h) are essential for most weekend warrior para-pilots. Much more than this and the turbulence becomes too much for the nerves and enjoyment of the flight. And when you consider a paraglider’s speed range of about 38-50km/h then it doesn’t take that much wind before forward progress to a safe landing zone can be severely compromised.
Having taken up Paragliding a few years ago, I’m finding its a brilliant fusion of my love of tramping up high, with a previous career of flying helicopters for the Air Force. A lot of Paragliding uses powered transport (such as gondola’s and cars) to reach high take off points on Ski fields. Sure you’ll spend a higher proportion of time flying than waiting to fly, but for me it kinda feels like cheating to drive up to launch. Also going to the same few flying sites doesn’t really satisfy a thirst for variety and new experiences.
Stored in a 40-80L bag, a full set of paragliding equipment can weigh anywhere between 5-12kg, depending on whether its a tiny “speed wing” or a full sized paraglider with a reserve parachute and full harness. So even with a ‘heavy’ set of gear, plus the equipment for a day tramp, its a similar weight and size as a multi-day pack.
“Hike and Fly” is the common term used for pairing a day tramp with (hopefully) a rewarding flight. Like most multi-discipline activities, individuals choose how much emphasis to put on each phase of the activity. You could consider the paraglider simply as a fun descent tool used to complete a long trip up a peak. Or your mission could be simply to access a new launch on a day with lots of thermals (rising air currents) and try to fly cross country for as far as conditions and your skills allow.
Our mission today was more of the former. Anyone who has driven the Haast Pass highway will be familiar with the striking view of Corner peak as you cross over ‘the neck’ between Lakes Wanaka and Hawea. With steep, loose craggy flanks on the north and west, and a long sinous ridge line down to the south, it appears a formidable tramping objective. However, the route is quite straight forward for most trampers, with only a few places that are a little exposed to heights.
It was a crisp autumn day when our team assembled on the shores of Lake Hawea. There were 4 pilots, plus 3 trampers in our group, the trampers with nice light day packs for the long out and return trip, the pilots hoping for half the walking based on the weather forecast. Certainly as we began up the steep flanks of the south ridge, it was calm, clear and surprisingly mild for the season.
Cresting the main ridge, we gained our first great views of the day. Lake Hawea provided a stunning backdrop to mountains in all directions. The mountain guides in our posse quickly identified the some of prominent peaks on the skyline: Double Cone, Tititea, Castor, Pollux… It felt like we could see forever.
The forecast had called for light winds at all levels, but as we climbed a little higher, the winds picked up considerably. Soon, it was well above safe flying speed, but we continued upward toward the summit, hoping for the winds to die off and looking for the reward of a summit view. The section of ridge which looks so intimidating from the highway is easily bypassed with a sidle on the eastern side, and in the lee of the wind we had lunch and admired Dingle Peak and mused on the section of Te Araroa which we could see high above the Timaru river valley.
Just beneath the summit is a huge, gently sloping tussock face, which was our intended launching spot. But as we came out of the shelter of the ridge we were blasted by the wind. Sure as heck it didn’t count as light. You could see the smug looks on the trampers faces and the dispair on the pilots. With never ending optimism we all carried our gliders to the summit, to relish in the spectacular views, this time including Mt Brewster and the Hunter Valley. This was the first decent look I’d had at the valley which has been the forefront of so much media and advocacy attention. Indeed from this perspective, it looked an enticing place to visit.
Grant pulled out his anemometer (wind meter) to put a number on the strength of the un-flyable wind. “30, gusting 45 km/h” Certainly well above the conditions for a safe flight. The tramp had been a really enjoyable one, but now the focus was on aviation. Why was the wind so strong when the forecast was for light winds? Was there an inversion, and would it be light winds if we could get below it? How strong was the wind out over the lake? At our landing spot? So much of paragliding is observation and interpretation of the weather. It ads another intriguing layer to trying to understand how the mountain environment works, and is especially relevant when small errors in judgement can have very large consequences for safety.
The trampers had already begun their long descent when the pilots agreed on a plan. We’d try to get lower on the peak’s face to see if the wind dropped in a position where we could launch. If it wasn’t promising, we’d regain the approach route before descending too far and walk back, looking for launch options on the way home. As we feared, soon we were re-tracing our steps with heavy hearts and heavy packs.
We ducked into the lee of the ridge again, glad to be out of the wind. But when we regained the ridge about half an hour later, the wind was no longer there. Excitedly, we moved quicker to a launch spot we’d noted on the way up, analysing the conditions as we went. Was this a trap? Was it just a brief lul? Are we just sheltered from the wind? Are we about to launch and fly into severe turbulence, or have a glorious safe flight? Paragliders usually carry a two way radio for air to air communication, and we’d given a spare one to the trampers. Calling them up, they confirmed the light winds where they were, adding to the weight of evidence to make an informed decision. Quickly, we layered up with warm clothes, set up our wings, harnesses, radios and helmets then one by one made the transition from walking to flying.
Launching is usually a stressful time. You’ve got a lot of equipment to check and there aren’t many second chances once airborne. You’re confident in your conditions assessment, but you’ll only find out if you’re correct once you’re up there. If you’re wrong, landing quickly isn’t usually an option. And finally the act launching itself is not always simple, especially in the alpine environment, when you’re perhaps a little tired from the walking. But once you’re successfully airborne and everything is working out as you’d hoped, the feeling of relief, freedom and exhilaration is incredible. Before, the outcome for the day was quite certain; we’d walk down the route and back to our cars. Now, suspended under a glorified tentfly, depending on skill and conditions, I could fly for dozens (or even hundreds) of kilometer in that same time period. The feeling of carving a turn through the sky, of catching a little bit of lift, having the wind in your face and nothing but space below your feet. Highly, highly addictive.
Though today, in our little chunk of sky, the conditions were as predicted: Light winds, without any lift. Over about 40 minutes, I flew back to the start of our journey, loving the view and relishing the fact that we’d avoided the knee crunching walk down. Half way along, I was joined by a Kahu; its quite something to see such a creature from the airborne perspective. I picked a suitable spot next to the road and made my landing. Its quite a rude shock, the transition back to reality after flying. Packing the wing up and stuffing all the warm gear back into the bag, I reverted again to a tramper and enjoyed the solo plod back to the car to rejoin with my mates.
Dan is a member of the FMC affiliated Southern Hang gliding and Paragliding Club.