In paragliding, you have to be ready for anything to happen.
Your flight planning begins the moment you land from the last flight. Repacking, not losing things, putting gadgets and tools back into the right pockets, and replenishing snacks in your harness.
Today was an unexpectedly epic, cross country (XC) day.
We launched from Meall nan Tarmachan at about 1300 into unpromising skies. A heavy high pressure system had been incumbent over the UK for the best part of a week, giving clear blue skies and gusty winds low down, but with very little for thermals to grow into.
The first 10 minutes were hairy, I launched and almost immediately put myself into a leeside (the garbled mess of air that tumbles around downwind of an obstruction), actions which were a product of the entirely foreseeable lack of piloting refinement that 3 months away from XC flying will give you.
Flying with Bob M, Stephen and a couple of visiting pilots, we pushed north-west in broken and scrappy climbs that soon saw our little posse diminish. Stephen got away early, and flying on his own, and had nobody to reference in the wide, blue yonder. Bob, Xiaoting, and I followed North shortly after in a very loose gaggle with about 500m (vertically and horizontally) between us.
Being low and leeside (again? ), I gamely followed on into the sinkhole that is Bridge of Balgie, managing to connect to another leeside thermal that actually got me up to a height that would be considered to be flying by many, and I was able to romp around with Bob and find lifty lines that helped us catch up with the ever-disappearing Xiaoting, and Stephen, who had persisted, pressing on alone up until this point. Bob flies the same wing as me, and is a much more experienced pilot. Seeing him take some hefty collapses on his Delta made me tense up under mine and get ready for a big Tango slap. I had a few chatty moments this day, but thankfully I was not tested too severely.
At the South end of Loch Rannoch, after about 1 hr 15 min of flying, we lost Stephen and Xiaoting to gravity's embrace. They set about the unenviable and sometimes rewarding task of hitching back on minor roads in the Highlands on a Sunday.
Bob and I could see a line of sea-breeze convergence clouds, steadily advancing (abreast) from the West. I managed to scrape up from a low save off an uninspiring hillock at 30m from the deck, and Bob suggested we be patient a bit and wait for the Sea Breeze to meet our position, chiselling off all the lazy, hot air hanging about near the ground before it.
We noodled about in grouchy, weak lift for the best part of 40 minutes, until Bob (on one of our shared forays out into the unknown) connected to a steady climb that had me scooting out to join in his success. None of these elevators seemed to go to the top floor (it felt like there had been an inversion at 1200m all day), and so we chopped and changed climbs a bit until we found a one that was strong enough to punch through and take us with it.
Finally above 1900m, and with an 18km/h wind behind us, it was time to change up a gear and boost on under some wild but lifty lines. Even Bob, known for his patience, was seen to fly in a straight line without deviation, hesitation, or repetition, for up to 3 minutes at a time.
Approaching Loch Laggan from Ben Alder, we'd slid unnoticed below the inversion again, and had to fight to cling on to a 500m ceiling above some unfavourable terrain. Shortly after, I left Bob for the want of a flapjack. Or an energy gel, or a bag-aged croissant, for that matter. After 3 hours of flying without eating, my head was minced, and I wasn't making decisions clearly. I would say that one of the root causes of the end of this gorgeous and exciting flight was that I was subconsciously grounding myself, as I knew there was something edible in the back of my harness. Half a sandwich was a mere 5cm from my skin but completely inaccessible from where I was, hanging 1000m over the Scottish Highlands from the contents of my rucksack.
As I jounced my way towards a graceful landing, unobserved in its technical ability or graceful execution by all but a minor congregation of enthusiastic horseflies, I could think back to an unexpected, challenging and ultimately fun day's flying. I learned another valuable lesson today:
(Possibly not for the first time)
When the sky turns on and winks at you, you go for it. All you have to do is to be as fully prepared that moment as you can be, always.