Sunday, June 21, 2015

Learning to Climb

In a paraglider that is, not as in rock climbing.

launching from Baldy, another glider already climbing

We recently spent three days paragliding near Vernon, BC. It's been a while since our course in Santa Barbara and we've had limited air time so we figured it would be good to get a little more instruction. We went out with Glenn Derouin of Paraglide Canada.

We got in eight flights over the three days. Mostly from a site called Baldy, with one flight (our longest) from Coopers.

Despite having practiced our ground handling at home, launches were still inconsistent. One launch took me five tries to get off. By that point you're getting so frustrated you're ready to quit. Other launches were smoothly off and away first try, which makes the failures even more annoying! On the positive side our launch failures were pretty harmless, except for one that gave Shelley a few more scrapes and bruises to show off. (The rip in her favourite pants was probably a bigger annoyance!)

One of the main things we wanted to learn was thermalling - finding rising hot air and circling in it to gain altitude. The one mountain flight that the wind had allowed in Santa Barbara didn't have any thermals so we had no experience in this critical skill. Thermals are the key to longer flights and to going cross country.

The first flights of the morning off Baldy didn't have much for thermals. It was usually a 10 to 15 minute glide, with a little lift off the ridge if you were lucky. But the second flights, later in the morning were better, and we managed to stay up 20 or 25 minutes. Late afternoon was often good and I managed a 50 min flight one day. (And probably could have stayed up longer but I started feeling queasy from the 360's)

It takes a little getting used to the turbulence. We probably haven't encountered anything significant, but even small stuff is disconcerting, a bit like some giant puppeteer yanking on your lines, bouncing you and your wing around. But in a way it becomes a positive thing because it often means a thermal is close by.

On our longest flight from Coopers there were half a dozen other paragliders in the air with us and some hang gliders as well. The normal strategy is to watch the other gliders and if any of them find a thermal to head over to join them. But it still makes me a little nervous flying too close to others. So I preferred to go looking for my own lift. But when I found the strongest thermal of the flight they all came to join me! Luckily I had a head start and managed to find the core of strongest lift and out climb them. Our launch was just over 1000m (3300 ft) and in that thermal I rapidly (for me) climbed up to 2100m (almost 7000ft). It's misleading because you only feel the acceleration when you enter the thermal. Once you're rising steadily, and the air is rising with you, you don't really feel like you're moving. But the rapidly changing numbers on your altimeter tell a different story.

We had great views from up high - the Silver Star ski resort, snowy mountains in the distance, farms and the town of Lumby below us.

After climbing in my first thermal I headed down the ridge to the south looking for another. I didn't find any more lift so I headed back. As I sank lower I was afraid I was going to be out of it. I arrived back at the start just about level with launch. Luckily (and with some direction from Glenn) I found a thermal and climbed back up. This time I headed north but again didn't find another thermal and headed back, being careful to keep a little more altitude. The last thermal was the best of the flight. I managed to find the core and turn tight (for me) 360's to stay in it. The conditions hadn't looked that good when we started so we weren't expecting long flights and I didn't bother putting on a jacket since it was hot at launch. But at 2100m it was definitely chilly and I shivered a bit until I eventually dropped lower where it was warmer.

With lots of altitude to play with Glenn suggested I head out across the valley to the mountain on the far side and fly a triangle course to get back to launch. My triangle was more oval than triangular but I wasn't too worried. I was just happy to have flown around the valley - almost 40km in total. I probably could have found another thermal and stayed up even longer but Shelley was already down and I was getting stiff from sitting in the harness for 80 minutes so I headed down. I had a brief moment of concern at one point when I couldn't spot the landing field. From high up one field looks much like another! But thankfully I located it again. I did a few gentle loops over the field to lose height.

Annoyingly, I undershot slightly and landed 10 feet into a farmers crop instead of on the grassy landing area. The farmer came by to chew me out for landing in his field but when I apologized profusely and explained I was a beginner he warmed up and chatted with us about paragliding.

You can see the track and stats of this flight (and the others)

coming in to land from Coopers

All in all it was a great three days. As I said on Facebook, it's hard to beat floating around with the birds and the clouds! We still only have about four hours of flying time, and our launches could be more consistent, but at least we have a little better idea of how to find and use thermals, and what it's like to stay up for a while.

* thanks to Shelley for the photos

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