Vol Biv in Bir Billing, India - Paragliding Adventure
Discover the heights of adventure with Phil's three-part Vol Biv journal, shared with current and ex-students in our WhatsApp group after his recent trip to Bir, India. Paragliding adventures are diverse, but flying and camping in the Himalayas is unparalleled. Dive in and experience the pinnacle of aerial exploration. Enjoy.
- Part 1 -
19/10/2023 Nice day out yesterday at Bir.
Hiked 20min up above the main (very crowded) launch to a small quiet launch. Just a narrow slot in the trees but definitely more enjoyable than dealing with the hundreds on the main launch.
Mountains were clear at first, but clouds fairly quickly developed which both limited our view of the bigger mountains and capped the climbs at 3400m (no airspace here).
Every now and then you could get a view of the bigger peaks to the north through gaps in the cumulus clouds it was tempting to fly in over the foothills to the big mountains which had just been dusted white by the previous day's storms. But the clouds on the 5000m + peaks quickly began to envelop even the biggest peaks and before long had begun to coat them with another layer of fresh snow.
So, keeping my distance proved for be a wise decision.
Cloud base was above the snow line so temp at base was going to be cold. I dressed appropriately with a thermal inner shirt, 2 puffy jackets and a speed shirt which proved to be just right. But I’d thought my supper gloves with thermal inner gloves would be sufficient… wrong. Within 30min my fingers were in quite a bit of cold induced pain.
But I had packed a pair of big thick snow mittens which I’d as yet not tested in flight.
I changed over, but the bulk and the loss of dexterity with the mittens (and ability to hold my risers while flying) meant I had to learn a new way of flying.
And with the punchy thermals and dodging midair (both with the plethora of other pilots, and multiple HGV’s), it was pretty important to learn quick.
Got off and headed towards Dharmsala 30km to the west, enjoying the first real Bir flight this trip.
Got to just short of the city before turning back and making a run back along the front range, over launch and continued E towards Mandi.
I met up with Grey on that leg and we flew together down the ridge flying about 10k past our planned VolBiv camp site called “360” before turning back and making a super smooth landing on the ridge top.
There’s something very special about landing out back on a ridge top landing and then enjoying the solitude which is so rare in India and watching the sun is bathing the massive mountains of Himalayan (now clear of cloud) in an orange sunset glow.
- Part 2 -
Follow on from the last message where we’d flown to a place called 360 for a VolBiv.
We set up camp on one of the many smooth level grassy terraces that cover the lower Himalayan hills.
These ubiquitous terraces, along with the incredibly rough and rocky 4WD tracks leading to the many stone walled/slate roofed huts dotting the mountains,define the human footprint of the Indian Himalayas.
All these terraces, huts, and many of the tracks are the product of dreams, toil and sweat with basically no machinery involved in their construction.
As the sun sank towards the west and the wind tapered off, handful of goats meandered past my nibbling the bushes while their herder walked slowly behind talking occasionally in to them in Hindi. This along with the occasional prod with a long thin stick seemed to get the get the animals to do as he wished.
As darkness fell, the goat herder moved his animals back to the security of one of the small huts, and the sky became blazoned with a brilliant celestial show that you only get in India with benefit of altitude, and distance from cities.
Next morning broke brilliantly clear with snow covered mountains to the NW blindingly reflecting the early morning sun.
The day looked good with much higher cloudbase and a good chance to fly “over the back” to the bigger mountains for another VolBiv at Prashar Lake 50km away.
The launch at 360 faces SW so it usually doesn’t start working until late morning.
Bombing out at 360 is not something you want to do as the spiderweb of powerlines that cover the valley floor below launch makes h bottom landing very stressful. And the take taken to get back to launch would put paid to a second flight.
So we relaxed and waited for the first thermal to be marked by some of the many soaring birds climbing in front of the hill.
By 11:30 it looked good enough to take to the air, bur even with the help of birds and other pilots, climbing much above launch proved difficult.
It wasn’t until we scratched along the ridge a couple of km to a higher Sth facing peak that we finally got enough height to dive over the back.
The majority of pilot flying Bir don’t go over the back because of the limited landing options and a very long retrieve if you do land out (usually a minim of 5hrs in an Indian public bus or taxi).
The thermal strength is usually much stronger on the big mountains, and if you have problems (crash) over the back, you’re pretty much on your own, so many pilots stick to the security of the front range.
But the attraction of big air, big mountain flying is enough to lure a small number of pilots into this relatively extreme flying playground.
For those pilots who haven’t been over the back, there’s no real standard route, and so once you leave the “known” security of the front range, you’re pretty much in new and uncharted ground.
I’d been there a few times over the years, but the time of the day/year, and your chosen destination plays a big part as to which way head.
But the biggest influence as to where you head first (as with most big transitions/crossings) is the gaggle you leave with.
I left the front ridge with a gaggle of about 5 pilots and even though I thought the mountain they were heading for wasn’t the one I’d go for, I reminded myself that in an area like this, it’s better to stick with a good gaggle, than go to what you think is the right place by yourself. It’s much easier to find a climb with multiple pilots in the area, than finding an elusive climb by yourself.
And that proved correct as after some scratching one pilot found a good climb and we all moved in to share the relief of the first save.
Once in the big mountains, the air becomes much clearer compared to the hazy conditions on the front range, and that combined with higher cloudbase made for much more spectacular flying. Sadly, the developing clouds had engulfed the peaks of the higher mountains so the view was still somewhat limited.
As the day roled on and we made our way south east towards our goal, the amount of cloud began to diminish, but the climbs coming from the sun baked rugged rocky south west facing ridges were still strong.
All the ridges in this area gradually tail away as they run SE from the high Himalayan range towards the low lands of narrow deep, steep sided valleys with minimal landing options other than narrow terraces. Staying up in these areas is definitively better for your peace of mind. The ridge we were following eventually ended with our goal on the other side of a wide but deep valley.
Looking at the growth pattern of the trees on slopes of this particular valley, it was evident that the wind regularly blew quite strongly up into the big mountains to the north.
Crossing the valley proved quite a challenge and we arrived on the opposite side lower than ridge height and had to use the valley wind to soar along a spur ridge taking a few turns in the occasional weak wind blown climb in order to slowly make distance.
Finally, one last climb gave me just enough height for a tight final glide for a landing on a beautiful smooth grassy patch next to a dirt track on the side of the mountain, about 300m from the lake.
Making goal is always rewarding, even more so knowing the alternative of landing out would have resulted in a 5hr ride in a crowded Indian public bus.
And as I packed my glider, a small procession of Tibetan monks walking and playing drums and horns made their way slowly along the dusty dirt track, which just reinforced in my mind that this I was really in India…
- Part 3 -
In the last instalment, we had flown from VolBiv at camp “360” and just landed at the VolBiv site at Prashar Lake.
Prashar lake to Manali.
After landing close to Prashar Lake, we packed up and walked 200m along a track to the National Park gate.
The small lake (1ha in size) sits at an altitude is 2600m AMSL but lies at the bottom of a 40m deep grassy “sink hole” crater which has no outlet. One of the unique features of this small lake, is that it’s depth has never been determined. It also has a small grassy “floating” island (about 50m dia) that moves within the lake depending on the wind direction.
And as with most geographically unique places in India, Prashar Lake has religious significance and there’s a beautiful timber Hindu temple dating back to the 14th century on lake edge.
Prashar Lake is also accessible by road which, while making it not as secluded as a VolBiv site, does mean it has a number of small “restaurants” (more like a camp kitchens). You can buy food and save your dried VolBiv food another day.
Camp that night was on smooth grassy shelf, which ended up being pretty exposed to the fairly fresh cold a wind which started at sunset, and didn’t abate till well after sunrise. However the view of the distant snow covered peaks reflecting the sunrise made up for the cold.
Despite the wind, the day looked promising and by the time we’d eaten the standard breakfast of aloo parantha and bread omelette, and hiked the 100m vert to launch, the wind had backed off to be to be perfectly launchable.
The south facing launch site at Prashar Lake is about 1000m above a very deep narrow valley with minimal safe landing options, so launch timing is everything. Birds circling skywards are the best indicator of a ticket out, but they can turn and climb in much smaller/lighter thermals than us.
So we waited another hour or so until the day looked well and truly on. But still, finding the ticket up and away proved more difficult than expected due to a mid level inversion, or was it the increased pressure of “I definitely don’t want to bomb out down there ” making me more tense and less able to core the illusive lift.
Our small group planned to fly as a gaggle to Manali in the bigger Himalayan mountains, about 55km to the north.
Brad, Shane and I climbed to what was a relatively low cloud base altitude and waited for the other 3 to catch up.
Two of the other 3 had launched and were slowly finding climbs and working their way up. But the last pilot on the launch was taking quite some time to get airborne. From my position 500m above I noticed that pilots bright green wing laying spread out, not on launch, but slightly down the steep slope below the launch area.
My small lightweight VolBiv radio setup was difficult to use, so I ended up not using it much unless really needed.
But in this case I called the pilot to find out he had failed his launch and tumbled 10m down the hill.
“Are you ok?” I asked.
“Not great” he replied.
“Do you need help?”
“No, you go ahead, I’ll catch up” came the unperturbed reply.
It turned out that he had suffered a fairly deep gash just below his right knee that ended up requiring 4 stitches, which he had inserted at the Manali hospital later that day.
Another group of pilots had Biv’d at the lake that night and a few of them were also in the air but not on our radio channel ,
So there was about 5 gliders flying around and through the whisky forming cloud directly over launch, trying maintain visual contact with each other, while trying to get as much height as possible to make the transition to the next climb, and deciding when to leave.
There were about 5 other pilots flying over the hill not in our group, but our groups intended track was north towards Manali. I was at base flying on the south side of the cloud over launch and as I rounded the cloud and looked north I could see two gliders had already headed off. I wasn’t sure who they were, but they were quite a way across the first wide valley crossing. Both had headed roughly north but in slightly different directions. Ok, time for me to leave.
Both were heading towards possible thermal sources but I chose to follow one heading to the most likely trigger point, a grassy ridge baking in the morning sun even though that hill was further away.
With the weight of all my VolBiv gear on board, I’m more than 5kg overloaded on my glider so my flying speed is quite fast. Chasing the other glider I was surprised that we both arrived at the next hill at the same time and more surprisingly, at the same altitude. I hit a climb and began circling above a small stone hut with a shepherd tending a flock of sheep.
The climb was strong and so I was still surprised that the other pilot kept flying along the ridge despite my quick altitude gain.
That pilot was not in our group, and obviously had other plans/destination, so with no other pilots in the area, my flight from here to Manali was now in solo mode.
Climbs became stronger and rougher as both the day heated up and I headed further into the bigger mountains.
One strong climb in front of a huge silver cliff of shale schist (a very common rock in this area) which seemed to drag me closer to the massive reflective face with each climbing turn.
Once above that mountain top, a made a few more circles until I had just enough height to leave that wild climb and make crossing of the next deep valley.
Beyond the next ridge lay the Kullu valley with my goal, Manali at the far end.
Flying the Himalayas, you learn to never let your guard down (active flying wise). Getting randomly spanked is pretty standard here, but the area is also well known for the amazing contrast between rough climbs on the mountains, and silky smooth valley transitions.
Flying in hope that the air will always deliver those smooth transitions can lead to complacency. But it’s hard not to relax to some degree once you leave a rough climb over a huge black rocky snow capped peak, and start the cloudless glide to your next thermal source.
So it was, I was gliding on half bar in velvet smooth air, arms tucked in, lying back as much as possible to better my glide and concentrating on ensuring I made the best line to the next spur, when I got the wake up call of a sudden fast backwards pitch followed instantly by what feels like the glider being hit from behind by a cricket bat.
Catching the pitch is vital to keep the wing flying and not as a tangled mess in front of you. Reactions have to be as fast as the whack… no hitting the snooze button here.
I was surprised to find this thermal right in the middle of the valley and so grabbing the opportunity to arrive at the next ridge higher I cranked my glider into a tight turn I this thermal that was just as rough as any on the mountains.
As usual while climbing, I’m always scanning the area for signs of better lift. Two HGV’s about 150m away, a little lower than me, were climbing at a better rate than I was.
I moved across to join their climb and was rewarded with a smooth strong climb that easily gave me the height to make the top of the next ridge.
It definitely pays to be observant, and to always expect the unexpected.
One of the good points about paragliding in the immediate Bir area is the relative absence of valley winds. Valley winds are created when the slopes and mountains surrounding valleys produce a lot of thermic activity. All that thermic air goes up which draws air in from the start of the valley to replace it. The bigger the mountains and the longer the valley, the more air will be drawn into the valley with the wind reaching its peak velocity in the mid afternoon. These winds can reach velocities that are dangerous for paragliders.
Short valleys tend to produce less wind, and most of the valleys in the Bir area are relatively short meaning there is less sucking effect, and less wind.
Long valleys on the other hand have more mountains/sunny slopes to produce more thermals and more suck/wind.
The shape of the valley will also have a bearing on the amount/strength of valley wind. Convoluted/winding/twisting valleys tend to slow the velocity of any valley wind, while long straight valleys offer little impedance to the wind.
Valley winds are usually low level winds meaning they are confined to the lower 200m of the valley floor. The wind isn’t usually present on the higher slopes of the hills. But most pilots want to land close to town and not have to walk 200m down the side of the hill to the town after landing.
And finally, for a particular valley, winds aren’t always present. Some days, the wind can be strong, other days they can be light.
So an understanding of what creates the wind, will give you the best chance to avoid negative outcomes.
The Kulu valley running to Manali is long and relatively straight and renowned for its valley wind, which can often flow dangerously fast at the upper Manali end.
As this was my first landing at Manali, and my landing was at the peak time of the day, I was acutely aware of the possibility of wind. But predicting it as I glided towards Manali 1500m above the valley floor was difficult.
Up till recently, most of the landings in Manilla have been done in a large sandy grassy area in the river bed close to town. But a major monsoon flood in July this year has transformed the entire river bed into a maze of massive boulders and convoluted braided rivulets that make landing treacherous at best and potentially leg snapping. The locals have levelled a tiny 40m x 20m landing area along side the main road (with its multitude of powerlines), but given that undershooting, or overshooting will have you in the boulder strewn river bed, skill and nerve is required to safely land.
Convenience over safety?… maybe, but there’s few other safe options close to town.
Given this, I chose a nice small rolling field about 10km before Manali which turned out to be a private golf resort. On landing I was politely told by the caretaker to avoid landing there in future, while being offered a glass of water and a chair to sit on in the shade while I packed my gear.
After packing up my glider and starting my walk towards Manali, I received a call from our pilot who had blown his launch earlier that day, had crashed again, but this time 1000m above the valley floor on the very steep grassy ridge side.
He’d suffered a large asymmetric collapse while flying close to terrain.
The slope was so steep that his vertical impact was more a glancing blow than a direct impact, which probably saved his back. But the slope was so steep that he immediately started to tumble down the slope. And being enclosed in his pod harness, and with mittens on, he was unable to arrest his snowball downward trajectory. Extremely lucky that after tumbling about 30m down the hill, the canopy lines managed to snag some bushes breaking quite a few lines, but arrested his fall. Surveying the scene, the pilot realised his only injury was a badly dislocated right hand index finger. But he also realised that his phone was no longer with him. So now stranded in fading light,1000m above the valley floor, with no contact other than his UHF radio, things looked grim.
Finding his phone would take a miracle. But luckily, his phone was tied to his Vario and so as he climbed back up the steep slope through the long grass, he heard his Flymaster Vario making its usual annoying stationary squawking, which in this case definitely wasn’t annoying. Now he had phone contact, and despite offers of help from members our crew, he chose to make his own way down the hill and to the local hospital where he had his finger relocated, and his knee stitched.