Today I realised a dream that is on the Bucket List for most paraglider pilots; I landed back at my house. The Ochils traverse looks easy, but it comes on only once or twice a year. Today I launched from the East of Dumyat, battled to Dollar and back again, then scraped over the power lines to land in the field next to the farm. It was some really challenging flying, stuff that I would have stayed away from but for my declared goal. Climbs were punchy and broken, and the sink between them was heavy. At one moment of weightlessness, I looked up at my wing to see it in the shape of a question mark above me, as if to say "I dunno, what do you wanna do? "
Paragliding is a form of gambling; we throw time, resources, emotional strength, sanity and relationships against the unpredictability of the weather, the fickle twists of the wind around rocky faces and our own ability to thrive in that environment, and most of us are strung-out bums - scraping together enough for one last throw of the dice. But when it goes well, and you're in the high rollers' suite, that pure surge of adrenaline and fulfilment makes all the bad days seem insignificant, and all the effort worth it.
Mooching about on Telegram last night, discussing various forecasts and trying to work out where in Scotland offered the best driving to flying ratio (hours), it looked like a big, drive-y day. There was a favourable met forecast of the Ochils though, which are a series of 6 hills, running West to East along the North side of the Forth Valley flood plain. They are flyable in a South wind, but due to the small flat area in front of them, and the Forth and the Clyde estuaries so close by, getting a good South wind is pretty hard. If it's strong enough to stay up on the 6 faces, then the venturis running up the tight valleys between them are equally sucky.
Today was markedly stronger than forecast, 18km/h winds on launch, but very hot, and after a while, we could see cumulus clouds forming out in front, meaning that some thermal energy was breaking though. Al Launchad first and found rough, cyclic air. Xiaoting, Bob, Fred, Kevin and I launched in the next cycle, and found we had the dregs of something that wasn't too special to begin with. Those who launched quicker were able to transition onto the next face which was offering a climb. Kevin and I hung about, counting zeroes and trying to avoid getting chucked into the rocks by the roiling air.
Eventually, I was able to scrape together enough height to go and trim the grass on the next hill, waiting for a new cycle of thermic air to come through and eventually give me enough height to do something with.
The weather was not favouring the south faces that day, as a front of cumulus clouds were rolling on from the South-East, they (and their associated thermals) were breaking diagonally against the sawtooth profile of the Ochils' South faces, giving ragged and broken lift, with lots of rolling around and collapses low down.
After a few climbs, Bob and Xiaoting spotted a nice cloud street running South to North, so abandoned the disjointed air we were in and made a very sensible and rewarding decision, going XC to beyond Crieff. I had declared my objective, to fly the length of the ridge and back again, landing back at my new place, last night. I knew how infrequently this task is actually doable, so I was willing to stick out the sometimes questionable air out front with Al, who was boldly pushing on. Being held back at the takeoff ridge at the start had put me behind, and the instinct to chase and catch the lead group is a strong one. I was leaving climbs early, as soon as they showed signs of weakening, and using my speedbar to accelerate the glider and cut through the cruddy air better. As a result of this, I caught up fairly quickly, and inadvertently learned a lesson about the airmass today.
There are many sources of ecstasy in this crazy, mixed-up world, but one of them for me is flying through an imaginary line in the air, then turning immediately to race off after the next one. Watching the distance count down from kilometres into metres, racing towards it as soon as you think you have enough height. Burning precious height for speed as you flatten the wing down. Counting the last tens of metres until you come off the speedbar, roll the wing over by throwing your weight onto one side, hauling on the rear risers to get it round and then slamming the speedbar back on as you 180 round and dive back on your original course.
Yeehaw, Jester's dead.
The way back was tougher than the way out. Not only were the clouds starting to get bigger, shading out the sources of heat on the ground, but I could now see my objective. The Wallace Monument, standing just South East of Dumyat hill and North of Stirling, marked my end goal. Every climb, I would see it dropping in my field of view, only to rise back up again as I hit wicked sink on the glides between climbs. Shade-out was an issue, as it meant that only dynamic lift from the faces would be possible and that the sea breeze was coming in already.
I almost decked at Tillicoultry. Luckily, someone was burning rubbish and I could see the smoke being sucked into the air above the school playing field. I abandoned my fruitless scraping of the hill above the town (I was so low, I was in danger of getting ticks), and booted into the space above the field. Soon enough, I could smell the fire (pork, although I thought they were burning carpets - weird… )
That was a definite nod to Colombia, and the skills there I learned under Chris White. Being able to look at the whole garbled mess of landscape, clouds, past heat and texture, and to just spot the one odd thing out. And to rationalise the commitment to just going for it. Having a landing option, telling yourself that you're going to leave the second you drop below a certain height, it all helps.
The low save worked like a charm, I was able to lock into it comfortably and actually use the radio and drink while I was climbing. The rest of the route back to Dumyat was a pastiche of rockety little cores and massive sink. Having set myself a goal definitely helped with the persistence factor here. Often, when I get a collapse, it freaks me out a bit. I end up questioning whether I need this climb or not… Could I just have more fun flying somewhere else, or maybe just going to land? Today was different. The inner dialogue was a lot more forgiving:
"OK, so we've had 2 collapses in the last minute, but as long as the next one isn't any worse than the previous ones… And if we can hold this climb for another minute, there will be enough height to… "
I like to think of myself as naturally cautious (within the realm of people who think throwing themselves off perfectly good mountains is a fine idea), and so to let Tyler speak every once in a while isn't such a bad thing.
Today, it paid off, and I landed back at the farm in front of my landlady, who has now asked for the remaining year's rent to be paid in advance.
And like a true gambler, I'll only tell you about the good times.
You got to know when to hold them…