In search of the negative: Acro paragliding in Gerlitzen, Austria

Acro flying over Ossiacher Lake in Gerlitzen, Austria

Acro paragliding is an aerobatic discipline of canopy flight involving the accumulation and manipulation of energy in order to perform a wide variety of maneuvers.  Top pilots on modern gliders have progressed far beyond the basics of wingovers, spirals, loops, and full stalls, to gain mastery over increasingly complex techniques such as ‘helicopter-connections’ and the ‘infinite tumble’.  Acro flying is a unique obsession that draws a small but diverse crowd to congregate at a limited number of ideal training sights scattered around the globe.  The acro tribe.

Gerlitzen crew on launch

Having ‘grown my wings’ so to say at the Point of the Mountain in SLC, I was given an early exposure to acro, as the Point is one of the best sights to train in the States.  However, it was not until spending a winter training over the safety of Lake Fewa Tal in Nepal that I was able to break in to my full-stall and thus open the door to acro paragliding.  The seed of obsession was planted, and the underlying focus of my life has since been to learn to fly backwards on a big nylon sack (which is hard to explain to the establishment).  After hearing whispers of an ideal place to train in the Austrian Alps, we once again re-shuffled our obligations and priorities in order to line up 5 weeks in Gerlitzen, Austria this July.

I flew out early to first spend 3 weeks in China working on our new ski factory with BD.  Then I flew direct from Hong Kong to meet my girl Caroline at the airport in Munich.  Re-united once again, we spent a few days flying with good friends in the beautiful German

Thermaling over the castle in Fussen, Germany

town of Fussen.  Flights from the radical launch at Tegelberg offer thermal climbs over a medieval castle – an aesthetic experience that draws scores of tourists for tandem flights.  After catching our breath, we made our way through Tirol to Gerlitzen, Austria where our good Scottish friend Andy lined up an abandoned caravan for us to camp in for the summer.  We dragged in to Camp Candy late at night and passed out in our dilapidated new home for a night of restless sleep.

What awaited us in the light of the next day was both inspiring and humbling.  Surrounded by peaks and deep green forest we were introduced to some of the local crew, which included pilots from around the globe and some Tirolian standouts who are in the ranks of the worlds best.  On the gondola ride up to launch, we watched as the lake and landing shrank into the distance below.  From launch, we flew out along the ridge then over the lake with roughly 900 meters of height, then adjusted our position over the water for wind drift so that if you have a problem and throw your rescue you will land in the soft water.  From there we hucked – dropping out but taking care to avoid other gliders above and below as it can be quite busy in ‘the box.’  With roughly 150 meters of height remaining, we returned over the trees to the landing, packed up as quickly as possible, piled in where we fit in, and headed back to the gondola to do it again.  At a full pace, 6 or 7 laps in a day are possible, enough for physical and mental exhaustion.

Waiting for a hole in the cloud

When we first arrived, the whole scenario was pretty overwhelming.  My skills were rusty, the scene was new, and by the nature of showing up to a male-dominant sight with a beautiful girlfriend the dudes were sizing me up – and in the discipline at hand I was quite small.  Even more intimidating was watching from above on our first day as one of the Tirolian crew fell in to his canopy while infinite-tumbling.  Watching his POV footage at camp that night, he was shrink-wrapped in his canopy with one hand tangled in lines so that it was tied above his head, and he was only able to get a rescue out with the other hand and throw it clear at the last second.  Just the first day and I was ready to tuck my tail and run away.

Twisted in to an ugly mess over the lake

And it only got worse.  On the third day, while trying an acro glider of significantly higher performance than what I was used to and attempting helicopters which I had no mastery of, I took a bunch of twists that I didn’t know how to deal with and threw my rescue.  Being in the lake isn’t such a big deal, but you’re really not supposed to do it on someone else’s glider.  Floating in Ossiacher Lake, the borrowed glider jelly-fishing in the water around me and the inflated rescue parachute dragging me slowly along with the wind, I was broken down to the ultimate low – I did not belong, was not capable.  Again.

 

Soon the rescue boat pulled up, and I climbed aboard in the first steps towards my slow reconstruction.  The buxom Austrian girl on the patrol boat, perhaps sensing my dejectedness, stripped down to a skimpy bikini and dove in to the water to gently manipulate the glider as we pulled it on board.  Back at the dock, my girlfriend was waiting along with a New Zealand couple that we had met the previous day.  It’s hard to express appropriate gratitude towards someone you just met that has helped you when you are down.  Help they did, and as we dried my kit and re-packed my rescue, Craig Taylor talked me through my mistakes and recommended a training strategy towards my Helico goal.

Soaring in San Simeone, Italy

So from a base of deeper humility, I set out once again in search of the negative.  I bought the glider; a black-on-black-on-black Thriller; and started from scratch learning how to fly the little hot-rod and working on the basics.  As we warmed up to the scene we found ourselves surrounded by a group of like-minded people – global vagrants who find deep purpose in dancing with the wind.  We bonded and got used to the lifestyle – up early, laps until the lift closed, swimming in the lake, dinner, and then evening shenanigans (heavily based around the ping-pong table) before retiring to do it again the next day.  When the weather went bad, we took road trips to Italy to fly San Semeoni, a huge soaring mountain at the Southern front of the Alps, accessed by a treacherous old war-time road and surrounded by vineyards below.  When the rain came – pouring down in sheets like nothing I have seen before – we simply hung around trying not to go mad!

Waiting out the rain in our caravan

For the last week of our trip, the conditions cleared and we were rewarded with some magnificent cloud flights launching and flying out above a sea of fog, then dropping out through a hole to the lake.

Flying out over clouds to drop out through the hole

For both my girlfriend and I, our focus on fundamentals paid off, so that by the time we left we were starting to accomplish our goals for the trip.  For my girlfriend, that meant big clean wingovers and more than a hundred full-stalls.  For me, it was finally gaining some sense and awareness within the helicopter, as well as big dynamic full-stalls and dynamic SATS bordering on Tumbling.  We said goodbye through some fun and ridiculous times with our new friends and a stealth night-flight under the full moon.  Finally, a bunch of the crew left for the World Cup comp nearby at Zell Am Sie and the place emptied out.  I flew up to the last second, narrowly avoiding the lake suck on my last flight, and then caught a night train to Munich to head back out in to the world.

Dynamic full-stall

Meet Pine Mountain

Kiting into the sunset, with Jefferson on the Horizon

After spending 5 weeks in Southern China working to set up BD’s new ski factory, I flew to SLC completely exhausted and drained.  The Rocky mountains welcomed me back in to her beautiful arms, and after so much time in the land of industry the first night under the stars at the cabin in the Wasatch was a deeply therapeutic experience.  I spent two days in SLC, boxing up my life at the cabin, paragliding at the ‘South Side’ in the mornings, and doing a big synch-up at the BD headquarters.  Then I loaded my car and headed west to meet up with my girl just as she was getting out of work in the field.  Having spent less than two months together in the last year, our time together is extremely valuable.  We were to have 8 days before she was off to new adventures, so I drove through the night so as to not waste an hour of our time.  All of this transition and travel left me completely fried.

Such a handsome, vicious beast

After arriving in Bend, OR, we spent a few days around town recuperating and working on media projects, as well as spending QT together with our little mongrel Odie. Then we loaded the boats and headed down to the North Umpqua River for a few days on the water with new friends.  The river was a perfect level of challenge for Caroline, enough to to flip her a few times but not so much as to overwhelm.  For me, the N. Umpqua offered some good surf and a chance to warm up and get my blades in the water.  The highlights, however, were the awesome hot springs, the excellent camping with the dog, and the awesome communal vibes from our welcoming new friends.

Looking up at Pine from the parking lot

Returning to Bend, the weather finally cleared so we headed out to fly Pine with Portland buddy Matt Henzi.  We were a bit late to catch the best XC potential of the day, so Matt brought his tandem wing so that he could take Caroline for a flight in the rowdy desert air.  Our flights were not long nor very successful, but it is always good to put the wing in the air especially at a new sight.  After landing and retrieving, we drove around to the lower launch to wait for the evening glass off.  As the energy from a hot day dissipates, the flowing air mass tends to unify and turn in to a clean, laminar flow of air – glass off.  Pine faces perfectly to the North-West, the prominent direction of flow, so that the glass-off forms a beautiful standing wave of air up the face of the mountain.  The Desert Air Riders – the eclectic local fly crew that ranges from radical acro and xc pilots, to long-timers who have survived more years of free-flight than I have years on earth – were out in force.  Together they form a tight-knit community, and they have taken Caroline under their collective wing to help her grow strong in the air.  The warmth of the welcome that I received there was outstanding. We had a great evening flight and then watched as the sunset sky danced with color over the distant Cascade peaks.

Sunset over the Cascades

As quickly as it had started, the time with my girl drew to an end.  I dropped her off at the airport to send her off on her next adventure sailing in the Bahamas.  Then I headed back to Pine to kick it with her crew.  We had another good evening glass-off for some more soaring and acro sessions.

Getting some G’s at Pine Mountain

The next day, the weather was lining up just right to offer good XC potential.  Again Matt drove down from Portland, and together with Desert Air Riders Tim and John, we headed back up to the top launch at Pine for another go at an XC flight.

Whereas soaring glass-off as I described above involves ‘surfing’ a big standing wave in a ‘river’ of laminar flowing air, XC (cross country) or ‘thermal’ flying involves circling in rising bubbles of air (thermals) created by the heat from the sun so as to climb or gain altitude.  Once high, the intention is to head down wind on ‘glide’ to search for another thermal in which to climb again.  The pilot typically flies with an electronic instrument known as a vario, which helps the pilot to locate and center in on the lift of a rising thermal using a tonal spectrum of beeps (higher faster beeps for stronger lift, lower beeps for sink).

wait here, beast, while we fly

At the upper Pine launch, I tied little mongrel Odie up in the shade with his sleeping bag.  We launched early as the thermal cycles were just beginning to come through.  Tim quickly found a climb and disappeared.  John and Matt stayed high over launch, waiting for me to scratch around and find some lift.  Eventually I found a decent climb, and joined those two roughly a thousand feet over launch.  After a short and unsuccessful glide I sank to only a couple hundred feet off the ground, so that I was primarily focused on my immediate landing options.  Suddenly a cycle came through, so I sunk a wingtip in and started climbing.  I hung on and the cycle stayed strong, and eventually I climbed back out to nearly 2000 feet off the dirt!  Heading down wind to the east I could just see Matt as a tiny speck in the distance, dancing with a big cumulus cloud.

After a few more cycles of gliding downwind to find lift and then climbing until it was topped, I eventually sank out and smashed in to the sagebrush about 17 miles to the east of launch – meager by many standards but my longest flight yet in the United States.  Matt, however, continued to head east and eventually North in to tiger country, to achieve his personal best flight of ~85 miles.  We followed him in Tim’s truck, using occasional sightings and GPS updates to track him through the relative no-mans land north of highway 20.  When he finally ran out of options and was forced to land, we were waiting in the meadow below goading him on the radio to throw down some acro moves on his Icepeak 6 racing glider to speed up the descent.  For the record, the Icepeak 6 can SAT..

The return trip to our cars at Pine degraded in to a pseudo-epic as we followed forgotten back-roads over the mountains, but Tim’s military driving skills pulled us through in quick time.  Soon enough I was back on launch watching mongrel Odie throw down a huge pair of party-pants as I released him from a 7-hour tether.  Somehow, the poor beast forgets every time that I was the one who tied him up in the first place, and simply appreciates his release and my return..

Soaring with Himalayan Vultures above the Tagong grasslands

The Tagong Nunnery

Eyes ablaze in Kangding City after returning from my first paraglide exploration in the hills outside of town, I tried to describe to my girl Caroline what I had found.  The proprietor of our sanctuary at the Zhilam Hostel suggested the nearby town of Tagong as another area worthy of investigation, so we decided to head up and check it out.

Again blasting Tibetan pop music in a minibus hurtling over the pass the next morning, Caroline was quick to learn the words to the chorus and the accompanying dance.  Together with the driver they performed in unison as we screeched around corners towards the desolate emptiness of the mountains.  We did a mini-bus transfer in Xinduqiau, and spent a bit of time haggling out another ride onwards to our destination.  Arriving in the village of Tagong, we found a room in a magnificent old Tibetan house where we were welcomed in with tea and fresh apples.  Dirty and disheveled as the place was, it was overpowered by the vibrant murals on the walls, the splendid form of its ancient structure, and a deep homely atmosphere.

Posing with my poles along the hike

I dropped my bag in the room, grabbed my wing and Z-poles, and headed out in search of flight.  Based on the wind direction and flow, I chose the prominent flag-covered hill at the head of town.  In a race against the remaining light of day, I pounded out the steep hike in the high thin air.  On the summit the wind was very strong but not quite overwhelming, so I quickly kitted up, clipped in, and layed out.  When I inflated my wing and pulled it overhead, I was immediately plucked in to the strong, hallow air.  Sliding backwards and quickly up, it took full acceleration to get penetration into the wind and away from the hillside.  Every moment produced more lift so that I found myself hopelessly climbing out while the light was equally quickly draining from the day.  I had a decent ‘over the back’ option where I could turn and run if the flow was too strong, but it would put me miles down a desolate unknown valley in the dark, so I hung on to my position and set up to dive.

It eventually took 4 rounds of aggressive spiral diving, separated by full-acceleration flight in to the headwind to gain clearance from the hill, before I finally dug down below the layer of strong lift.  I made my way out in to the fields in search of a landing, terrified of the various wires that I had identified in earlier light but that were now playing tricks of hide-and-seek in the dusk.  Using every ounce of mind-vision-control, I chose a clean spot to bring her down next to the river.

Diving to get down in a race against the light

Upon landing, several terrified teens that had been watching my struggle came rushing forth to attack the horrible orange beast that had plucked me off the ground and held me captive in the air.  I reassured them (in tones) that the beast was actually my friend, and demonstrated by pulling my glider back up to kite it in the wind.   They screamed in terror and grabbed at my risers to save me!  Again I reassured them in tones, directed them to stand back and watch at a distance, and pulled up my glider to kite – hopping, moon walking, and ground-winging – so that they were eventually convinced that the Orange Beast and I truly were in union.  In the last drops of light from the day, they came and hung on to the risers while I kited so that they could feel the texture of the wind through the canopy and into their hands.

Flying over the grasslands

The next morning the wind direction was similar but the flow was more mellow.  I climbed the hill again, and launched in a much more manageable wind than what I had experienced the night before.  After soaring for a while, I was joined on the ridge by an enormous Himalayan Vulture with a wingspan of 2 meters or more!  Soon thereafter, more of the same joined up so that I was soaring this small, prayer flag-covered hillside with 8 Himalayan Vultures.  I was completely blown away to be having this experience in a distant foreign land, and it is an image that will be burned in my mind for the rest of my days.  After briefly flying a tight pattern together investigating each other’s strange appearance and tendencies, the vultures made the crossing to a nearby hillside, and then disappeared into the hills beyond.

The vultures can be made out as tiny specks – slightly larger than the speck of my body under the wing, flying together above the top of the hill

I was later to learn of the significance of Himalayan Vultures within Tibetan Buddhist society.  They are considered to be extremely sacred, as they perform one of the only available means of body disposal after the spirit has departed for other realms.  In the high, frozen plateaus of Tibet, there is very little available wood with which to cremate bodies.  The ground is frozen for the majority of the year so burial has not historically been an option.  Sky Burial is therefore one of the most common options, wherein the bones are crushed and the body cut to small pieces by a ceremonial leader while a flock of vultures gathers overhead.  Chunks of flesh are then tossed in the air to be consumed by the vultures and carried in to the heavens or returned to the cycle of life.

Accordingly I received a very interesting reception after landing from this flight on the prominent decorated hill at the head of town where many of the villagers came out to watch.  The reception I received was a mix of admiration, adulation, fear, anger, and overall confusion.  Who was this strange orange vulture man?  But after a few awkward minutes we were sharing a big smile, touching the orange fabric of my canopy, and trying to wrap our collective mind around this new experience.

Local kids playing with my wing

Stupas with mount Yala in the background

The next day, we took the opportunity to explore the valleys surrounding Tagong on a small rented motorbike.  We fueled up at the ‘gas station’ – a lady on the corner with a basket of old plastic bottles full of petrol – and headed out.  Our explorations that day provided some of the best visual and spiritual stimulation of the trip.  We stumbled across a small nunnery community, which was surrounded by a prayer-flag-covered-hillside that dwarfed any we had yet seen.  With a mind only recently tuned in to wind currents through learning to fly, watching the invisible thermic breezes bubble up the slope through the prayer flags provided a brilliant illustration of the elusive movements of thermic wind.

Thermic bubbles rippling up the prayer-flag covered hill

The Buddhess, freshly brazed

Up the road was a nunnery temple that was in the process of re-construction.  Stepping over ladders and boards on our way inside, we found half-complete carvings of tremendous intricacy, craftsmen painting scriptures on the temple pillars, and a beautiful bronze Buddhess (that’s right, she had tits!) just recently brazed together.  Set against the backdrop of the sacred mount Yala, this temple secured our Tagong grassland experience as an absolute stand-out from nine months of profound travel experiences.

Xinduqiau: In search of new flying terrain

In search of new potential

Seemingly lost in the abyss of western China, a decent internet connection opens the link back to endless intellectual resource.  From the connection at the Zhilam hostel in Kangding City, Sichuan Province, Western China, I set out to research the possibility of paraglide flight in the valleys outside of town.  Cross-referencing google earth and some free-flight weather resources, I picked out a few locations that looked promising and readied my kit to head out and attempt to fly.

The following morning at the crack of dawn I went down to the ‘minibus street’ of Kangding, searching for a ride back to Xinduqiao.  The haggling process for the minibus drivers is a game of friendly competition, and I was bounced between several different vans before enough passengers had been consolidated to form a sufficient van-load.  And then we were off.  Blasting up and over the pass, past ‘The Lovesong of Kangding’ hillside, and in to the epic valleys beyond.  The driver was pumping energetic Tibetan music and we were all feeling the freedom of acceleration on the open road.  Real life.  I was dropped off at a promising location in the Xinduqiau valley, and began to hike in to the hills to find a decent launch into a hopeful looking thermal.  Again, being only 2 seasons in to my flying career I really had no idea what I was doing, and my primary target as always was to launch and land safely.

Searching out a clean launch


I found a beautiful SouthWest facing launch with prayer flags for wind indicators on the summit and smooth grass all around to lay-out.

Looking to the SE, with Gongga Shan in the background

Ploof

My intention was to work the lift on the sunny SW faces and run down-wind to the NE, following the highway back towards Kangding.  However I waited until too late in the day for the cycles to ease up, then picked a weak thermal to launch in to, so that all I really did accomplish was the primary goal of safe launch and land.

Trying on the glider

I sank out like a rock.  Some might call it a ‘ploof’.  But it was experience in the bank, and as I landed on the hillside a local Tibetan man came running up to investigate. Together we packed my glider, and he showed me down the hill to a small temple.  We had a brief look around and spent a moment or two expanded in to the time vortices that often surround spiritually enhanced places.

A small Buddhist temple in the hills

Then he showed me the way down to the road to catch a ride back to Kangding and my girl Caroline.

Cross country potential

Regardless of my poor performance, the XC potential of this place is insane!  Paraglide pilots looking for new adventure, it is extremely easy to get to this area on your own and explore.  Don’t bother finding a guide, don’t even worry about a truck.  Take a bus to the hills out of Kangding city and fly!

Cross culture, common ground in the wind of Dali

Clearing sticks from launch in Dali

Moving west in Yunnan Province, you leave the lowlands far behind and eventually climb into the mountains.  With the change in topography comes a change in the culture and the pace of life.  Dali is the first stop on a classic and well-traveled tourist circuit through a series of old villages.  Quaint and beautiful in it’s natural surroundings, Dali is a western-friendly destination popular with Western and Chinese travelers alike.

BBQ and open mic

In Dali we stayed in an awesome artist hostel with a thriving international community.  Twice a week they hosted a barbeque and open-mic, which was an excellent opportunity to mingle with the various travellers and the local expat-artist-entrepreneurs who ran the place.  Taking every opportunity to soak up perspective on the happenings of Western China.  Buried somewhere underneath were subtle whispers of what could be found if one pushed far enough up in to the hills.

Once again I contacted a local pilot, who was psyched to take me out to fly his site at the north end of the lake.  His two helpers came along (a common theme in China), and together the four of us rambled his 2-wheel drive sedan up steep muddy roads through a military staging/training ground en route to the launch.  Being reminded of the perpetual war-games often pushes this atomic-city-tripper to the edge, which is ultimately the reason that I have found such respite in various forms of elemental sport throughout my life.  In this particular scenario, the task of pushing a car up steep hills in the mud was sufficient to keep my attention off the painted faces and machine guns tucked in the woods all around.

Eventually we arrived at launch – a high grassy ridgeline crested with a string of wind turbines.  As the wind grew strong enough to fly, the turbine blades were achieving sufficient torque to rotate, so that an eerie moan was emanating from the quixotic giants.

Windmills along the top of the fly sight

This set the tone for a nervous launch, which my partner offered up to me first as the visitor..  I picked up my glider in the gusty winds and did a few passes in front of the groaning windmills, but could find no comfort (nor lift) with the scenario and quickly ran out front.  Soon enough my feet were back on the ground, kilometers from nowhere and by my self in Western China.  Not exactly the flight I was looking for, but definitely the adventure that I was seeking!  Eventually I hiked to a ridge to re-launch so I could glide over a big canyon, then put it down in a horse pasture in the hills, packed up, and started hiking back to the road.

Arranging a retrieve with my friend and his helpers proved extremely difficult with my lacking Mandarin vocabulary in an unknown place.  But eventually they found me and we headed out for a meal.  We finished with a swim at the local hot springs before heading back in to Dali to meet up with my girl.

Waiting to paraglide in the hills of Kunming City

Para-waiting on Launch, Kunming City

Traveling via public transport in China is a challenge for the western psyche.  There are vastly different definitions of personal space, as well as social mannerisms and hygiene.  Sometimes it’s a struggle to remember that we are just visitors and not hold a scenario up against our homeland expectations.

We took a bus North out of Yangshuo to Guilin, then boarded an overnight train heading west to Kunming City in Yunnan province.  The train was modern, fairly clean, and in good repair.  But many of the passengers were smoking cigarettes in the cars, and there was terrible ventilation.  For us this resulted in a miserable experience, and after 16 hours of second-hand smoke we struggled with respiratory issues for days.  It was a welcome release to step off the train in Kunming City, the capital and largest city of Yunnan province in the Southwest of China.

Yunnan province is mountain and river country, and is home to the majority of China’s ethnic diversity.  Our initial reason for coming to Kunming City was that there are numerous internet postings for paragliding sites in the region.  A Canadian pilot named Mike has blogged about the excellent flying possibilities.  I contacted him and told him we were coming through, and also dug around on the web to find contact info for the local flying club.  It turned out Mike was not interested in flying together, but was willing to sell me a seat in his truck for a fancy price.  So I punked him and told him to piss off.  The local pilot who runs the Kunming paraglide club, on the other hand, was thrilled to have some foreign pilots coming to town.  In broken communication over a bad cell-connection, we established a plan to join up the next day.

fly Jeeps around the world are all the same..

Our new friend came by to pick us up in the morning, and we hit the road in his ragged fly Jeep.  It turned out that my Mandarin was our stronger link, so the majority of our communication was in Chinese supplemented with hand-signals and some paragliding names and terms thrown in.  We drove for miles up back roads to arrive at launch on top of a big hill overlooking some sort of industrial sight.  Once again the wind conditions were not ideal, this time too strong, so that I was barely able to kite my glider on the ground and was tossed around for a few good rides.  Chalk it up as more good experience in the bank – this was a foreign land and I was feeling her winds.

blown-out kiting conditions outside Kunming