Paragliders in Nepal chase the winds of luck

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      Pavel, a broody Bulgarian with all the look, cheer, and warmth of a depressed vulture, stared sullenly at the long yellow grasses on the steep slopes of the gorge, then down at the muddy green surface of the lake far below, then back at a tattered piece of red cloth tied to a branchless sapling as a windsock. All were perfectly still.

      We were standing high up on a hillside in central Nepal, about to go paragliding—riding the hot winds that rush up from the floor of the Pokhara Valley like dragon’s breath. Well, on most days they do, but on this morning, as Pavel, my tandem pilot, considered our takeoff, not so much as a prayer flag flapped in the dead, dry air.

      An hour earlier, half a dozen pilots and passengers had piled into a jeep and headed out through the streets of Pokhara, Nepal’s second-largest city, a bustling centre of tourism with a horizon that boasts some of the world’s tallest peaks.

      It was Tihar, the five-day Hindu festival of light and life, and the roads were a holy mess. Gangs of chanting children armed with collection trays marauded through the streets, accosting vehicles and demanding money. Heavy drifts of incense hung like dirty clouds everywhere, over shopkeepers dousing the pavement to keep dust from their stores, and over women hawking flip-flops, balloons, and jewellery under rainbow parasols. We passed a lone buffalo chewing lazily on the seat of a parked moped, turned a corner, and began climbing out of town.

      “Where will we be jumping from?” someone asked.

      “We not jump,” said Pavel, his permanent frown deepening to a pained grimace. “We take off. Do not jump!”

      “Keep running!” said another pilot.

      “Like you late for work, need bus,” said another. “Keep running, keep running, keep running. Don’t sit, don’t jump, just run!”

      Right, then. Run. Off the hillside. Got it.

      Days later, I’d hear of a German tourist whose better instincts had kicked in a moment too late. He and his pilot had insufficient lift for takeoff but enough momentum to carry them both at high speed for several hundred metres down the steep, rocky hillside. Almost every bone in their legs was broken. Tandem paragliding, like marriage and arm-wrestling, requires the initial and total commitment of both parties. This is especially true if the wind is weak, and right now, there seemed to be no wind at all.

      But I didn’t know all of this and was enduring more boredom than fear. There’s very little to do when you’re waiting for the wind on a cliff side in the middle of Nepal. I watched a few eagles circling idly above and read a sign outlining safety rules, air regulations, and directions to the nearest hospital.

      Then an odd routine began. Pilot after pilot would lay out his wing, harness his passenger, wait a few minutes for a wind that never came, then disassemble the entire rig. For half an hour, they rotated like this. Gear up, look sternly down the valley, decide the time wasn’t right after all, and pack the whole thing up. This made me a bit nervous. What put me over the edge, so to speak, was hearing Pavel shout at me, “Fuck this! I’ve got three more fucking flights today. Let’s go!”

      Well, I told myself, he’s done this before, and surely he doesn’t want to die, and I must look like a really good runner. Minutes later, I was harnessed up, staring out over the canyon with Pavel strapped in behind me.

      “Run!” he yelled.

      And run I did. But we didn’t go anywhere. It was like trying to run in a bad dream, legs going full tilt, boots scraping at the turf like the hooves of an angry bull, but no forward movement at all. The wing was just inches off the ground behind us, holding us in place.

      “Run!” shouted Pavel.

      “I am fucking running!” I shouted back.

      Then, suddenly, a brief gust snapped the wing aloft, lifting us instantly, and leaving my legs to spin freely like they belonged in a cartoon.

      There was an intense blast of wind in the ears, followed shortly by a weightless peace as we drifted over to join the fray of a dozen or so other gliders playing on a thermal, having taken off from another—apparently windier—location.

      We flew like bright, psychedelic birds against the massive white mountains of the Annapurna range, casting fast shadows over a patchwork of rice paddies and rusty metal roofs far below, and corkscrewing occasionally toward the ground like falling sycamore seeds. The only sounds were of air rushing over wings, the occasional beep of Pavel’s altimeter, and the triumphant hollers of the other airborne.

      Thermals can be ridden for as long as they rise—all day, really—but I’d only paid for 30 minutes, and Pavel had three more fucking flights today, so after not a second over half an hour, we touched down in a grassy field beside the lake, where dozens of colourful wooden canoes sat motionless on the grimy green surface. A group of boys sat smoking a hookah around a picnic table while a man tended to the hooves of an enormous camel.

      I lay back on the grass, smiling. Pavel, sadly, still wasn’t.

      Access: Paragliding is a popular activity in Pokhara, and you won’t have to go far before you come across an operator’s office. The Trekking Partners website has a helpful blog that lists established companies, prices, and logistics.