Thursday, January 18, 2024

Colombia Paragliding, January 2024

I have just returned from a paragliding trip to Colombia – and what a special trip it was! 9 days of flying (flying every single day!) for a total of nearly 20 hours of airtime, setting several personal bests (longest flight both by time and distance; reaching the highest altitude to date) and acquiring new skills and experiences (flying to cloudbase, flying near/into the wispy parts of clouds, landing in random fields scouted from the air, and having the right setup for long flights).





My brother was already in Colombia, and my mom and I joined him there. I would fly solo, while my mom would fly tandem with him (except on one of the days where I flew tandem with Ariel instead, so that he could narrate his thought process through the sky).




We stayed in a beautiful villa in Santa Elena, a 20-minute ride from the landing zone, with another 20 minutes by Jeep from there to the launch. Most days looked as follows:

  1. Eat breakfast
  2. Take a taxi to the landing zone
  3. Take a jeep to the launch
  4. Take off, find a thermal, and climb up to cloud level.
  5. Determine where the next thermal might be, and glide to that. Keep going for an hour or two or three.
  6. Eventually land either at the landing zone, or in some random farm field, and figure out a way to get back.
  7. Swim at the pool (we had our own pool at the villa, and it was awesome!)
  8. Dinner
  9. Rinse and repeat




The Colombia clouds were wonderful, a land of puffy marshmallow-like animal shapes. I was initially fearful of the clouds, having heard of the dreaded "cloud suck"; but I gradually figured out central clouds are to cross-country flying, and how it's possible to avoid getting sucked up by maintaining the proper angle to the cloud. The clouds became a welcome altitude refill station, and also just really beautiful things to fly through on the edges. It was of course pivotal to be aware of any other pilots in the area and make sure you were the only one in the vicinity – and there were hundreds of pilots in the air – and to also have a compass and the techniques for getting down. But with those prerequisites fulfilled, the clouds were fantastic.





A fun element of flying in Colombia was landing anywhere – the countryside is full of fields, and there's always some mowed-down or recently-sowed field that can be used if needed – and then packing up, walking to the nearest road, and hitching a ride. The walks through the fields were always scenic, and added a dose of adventure.



Some of the days had more adventure to them than others. I always write a flight log after each of my flights; copying a few of the more interesting logs here:

January 12 (Day 5): 1 hour and 7 minutes:

For the second time in as many days, got soaking wet — this time, along with the wing. After waiting 2-3 hours on launch and with only a couple hours of daylight remaining, we finally saw what looked like a good (or at least, workable) window of opportunity. Took off, and was able to soar near launch, but wasn’t really making progress. NW wind was picking up to 10ish mph, blowing away thermals. Decided to ditch the hill and fly south to another one facing directly into NW, which Ariel and our mom were already on at cloudbase. Arrived a 1k feet AGL and immediately started rising, soaring up to near cloudbase. Noticed rain moving in from NE, and also some further in the valley to the West. Right around that time, started feeling mild drizzle, and decided to stop climbing up and instead go to an LZ field. The face kept wanting to soar me up, so did speedbar (but no big ears to have more forward momentum and since wing was starting to get wet). Once I got closer to a good field, and as rain started intensifying, did some quality spirals to about 500 AGL (figured would be good speed and wing loading, and that getting down and wing less soaked in the air was a priority). Had a choice between two fields, a soccer one and a farm field. All other things being equal, would have preferred the grass on the soccer field, but didn’t like that it was narrow into the wind, and surrounded by trees on both ends. Opted for the farm field instead, giving myself clearance in front and behind. Despite visible gusts on vegetation, landing was perfect, albeit completely vertical. Was preparing to get dragged by the wing while on the ground and need to immediately de-power it, but it dropped into a small 1-ft ditch behind the raised planted portion and lay happily there.

Meanwhile, the rain intensified further. I hid the harness into a black compactor bag, figuring to prioritize the harness and the reserved therein. I also hid my flight deck and the front-mount reserve contained therein, though it turned out that it had already got pretty wet during flight, so ultimately decided to repack the reserve back at our villa; a later story. Despite getting caught in the rain, I felt good about my wing-handling and decision-making once I was in the thick of it.

While it lay in the ditch, the wing immediately accumulated a few inches of water and got completely soaked; I imagined I’d soon start seeing fish swim in it. I drained it and moved it to a flat spot, then put into stuff sack with the still-wrapped-in-plastic harness. I walked into the road and towards where Ariel had landed near a church. I almost reached them half-a-mile later, when a car containing my mom and Ariel picked me up, and took us all back to the villa.

At the villa, we got cracking on drying gear. I lay my wing out on the covered wraparound patio. I stuck a bunch of plastic patio chairs under the wing to allow for airflow, and appropriated two of the rooms’ fans to billow the wing. It worked like a charm, and was totally dry by the following morning.

We also had my two reserves to deal with. The harness one was pretty dry, so we let it be. But the front-mount had taken the brunt of the rain’s beating, and was visibly wet. We decided we’d repack it — but only it — the following morning. That way it wouldn’t take all day, and I’d have the “insurance policy” of one professionally-packed-but-maybe-slightly damp reserve, vs one that we packed ourselves but that was guaranteed dry.

The villa — we came to think of it as the “room of requirements” — was ideal for the whole process the following morning. From drying the reserve by draping it over the table and blowing a fan at it; to having a long living/dining/kitchen room for the actual repack; to having a heavy kitchen table for tying into on one end and a convenient cabinet (plus a fork for holding it shut) on the other; to even wine bottles that we used as weights. The repack took about 2 hours total, though I think if we did it again it would have taken half that. Once it was done, we reloaded into the front-mount reserve container and viola, good as new!

That’s the end of that saga, right? Stay tuned for the next installment.


January 13 (Day 6, the next day): 1 hour and 50 minutes:
With my front-mount repacked that morning, we headed to fly, arriving around 3pm and with ambitions to fly for a couple hours before things shut down around 5:30pm. It was the neighboring launch (Jorge’s launch). Ariel took off first, I followed 10 minutes later. Literally three seconds into my flight and some 20-30 ft in the air — as I wiggled to get more comfortable in my harness — the newly-packed white-as-snow reserve flopped out of its container and into my lap. Yikes!
I instinctively grabbed it and tried to find a place to stuff it. I first put it against my chest, but — if I wasn’t holding it with at least one hand — it was precarious there, and it falling out and opening would have been really unfortunate news. I next moved it between my legs, squeezing tight. This worked, freed my hands, and would be sustainable for the 7 minutes it would take to get to the landing zone. I radioed Ariel that I have an emergency, and — all thought of flying for a couple hours forgotten — made a straight-line dash to the landing field. 
I should mention that the day looked PERFECT, and the air was lifty. It seemed a shame to land, figure out what’s wrong with the reserve, take a truck back up, and maybe have a 15-minute extended sledride in the very last of the daylight, if that. I also realized that if the reserve were to stay between my legs, I would almost certainly drop it right before landing, undoing the hour+ of packing it, and possibly getting dragged in the process. Sobered by this thought, I undid the top (non-weight-bearing) chest strap of the harness, exposing a void into which I could stuff the reserve, bound by my lap on the bottom, the empty reserve container in the front, my stomach in the back, and webbing on either side. The only side missing was the top; and in due time I figured out that re-clasping the chest strap would solve that problem for me too. Unorthodox, sure, but no longer an emergency.
During all that time of fiddling with the setup, I was hightailing it to the landing zone. The topography descends fairly steeply there, whereas the air was buoyant and I had lost hardly any height. This was important, because I only dared let go of the brake lines and fiddle with my gear because I knew that I had many many hundreds of feet of clearance beneath me. Now that my reserve no longer risked flipping out — and with still my primary harness reserve attached (most pilots only fly with one), and this one also huckable by undoing just one strap, it occurred to me that maybe I don’t need to land after all. I turned around and came back to the hill and to Ariel. 
The middle portion of the flight was fun but not especially memorable. The Pacifico west wind had picked up, blowing away thermals in the valley, and forcing us to remain near the mountains and their ridge lift. I stayed at launch height for a significant time, but eventually started climbing up and was able to reach cloudbase. Ariel and another glider — and some birds — hung out there for a bit, going in and out of the wispy bits of the cloud. Then, as the day started shutting down, Ariel suggested that we try to glide to Santa Elena (the town where we were staying), or as close as we could to it. Ariel did in fact make it on his higher-performance glider, albeit just barely, to the Santa Elena Siga La Vaca LZ. I did not, but I if found a good field and landed there. I could have landed right next to the road, but I was filled with a desire to indeed make it as far as possible, so opted for a 15-minute walk back to the road (admittedly, at the time I didn’t realize it would be 15 minutes: I it turns out that aerial observations sometimes don’t match on-the-ground reality, and there was an overgrown 10-foot-deep creek ravine I would need to cross in order to take a shortcut; I opted for the long way instead). 
Once on the road, I was picked up by a couple motorcyclists who were towing a somewhat rickety trailer. Still, beggars couldn’t be choosers, and I figured that the odds of both my reserve AND a trailer malfunctioning on the same day were pretty slim. We also weren’t going that fast per se; but next time I’ll be sure to have my helmet handy to don on if I’m walking on a road. (Narrator’s commentary: the lesson didn’t immediately sink in, given that I ended up in the exact same predicament a couple days later. But the day after that, I did keep my helmet, and put it on when being picked up by a motorcyclist). 
After getting home, we figured out what was wrong with how we put in the reserve into the container. I won’t repeat that mistake again. A more general lesson is to shake the bajeezus out of the container after packing a reserve into it, esp if it’s a front-mount, which are a little more fiddly.


January 15 (Day 8): my longest flight ever, 4 hours and 22 minutes!

This was the flight where I really started piecing things together — and also my longest (both by time and distance) and highest-altitude one to date. My mom took a break from flying that day, so this time it was Ariel and me each on our solo wings. I once again set up a pee tube, and it worked without mishap. I also got two Gu energy gel packets from Andy — a game changer! — who cleverly attaches them to his flight deck with Velcro. In my coat pockets were two tiny water bottles. I was preparing for a long haul, and the day delivered!
Ariel launched first while I fiddled with my gear. Once I joined him, we essentially team-flew (mas-minus) the entire day. Ariel was on a higher-performance wing, so would often need to circle back to me, spiral down to me, wingover to me, etc. Still, we flew together, thermalling up to cloudbase and then gliding to the next thermal, over and over again. We used birds, other gliders, and — when all else failed — topographic intuition to find the triggers. We traveled north past the town of Costa Rica, past the land north of it, and probably another mile or two beyond that, before turning around and heading back. Once I got fairly low, but was able to find something workable and get back up to a comfortable altitude. A couple hours in, I sampled the Gu (scrumptious), drank a bit of water, and used the pee tube (though it’s apparently not quite so easy to relax the necessary muscles while flying!). Ariel, not equipped with the latter, top-landed and re-joined me twice over the course of the flight. 
Once back over launch, we were able to get really high, eventually to 9k on the mountain above the launch. There were neat views of the taller mountain ranges beyond the mountains that we were at. We could have stayed longer, but I felt like I’d already gotten a great experience, and I was getting a little tired. We cruised to the mountain north of launch, topped up, and headed due west to Santa Elena. We had plenty of height available, flying directly over our villa, and then circling over to the field northeast of it. I blew off some altitude by doing a few spirals. What a flight!
After packing up, we walked onto the road, where we were picked up by a motorcyclist hauling a triangular-shaped trailer (like one for carrying plywood, windows, etc). Ariel and I hung on either side, laughing uproariously, and were delivered safely to the town square (though I once again re-determined to make sure to have my helmet out when getting onto the road!)


January 16 (Day 9): 2 hours and 42 minutes

A magical flight, and — though it wasn’t the longest — it was in some sense the capstone of the trip and of my progression here. 

We started late, partially because the day looked like it would turn on late anyway, and partially to start packing. We also had a leisurely breakfast at the “Montifiori” cafe (our own name for it), and swam in the pool. Suddenly it was very much time to go, so away we sped.

On launch, there were somewhat thick clouds that were just starting to break apart. Ariel and my mom launched, and I followed right behind. Cloudbase was high and there was an inversion layer, but eventually we made it to the clouds and soared blissfully amidst them for a few minutes. I also munched on another Gu energy gel, drank some water, relaxed sufficiently to use the pee tube (talk about an outhouse with a view!), and generally felt very accomplished. As Ariel correctly pointed out, this trip — among other things — taught me the proper setup for being able to do longer flights elsewhere too. 

As the day started shutting down, with western wind blowing away thermals, I moved from the valley closer to the mountains. I spent the next hour ridge-soaring above launch, porpoising, doing teeny-tiny wingovers, and just enjoying the feel of being in the air. I decided not to try to make it to Santa Elena, but rather to land at the Piedechinche LZ: this would maximize my air time, and also offer me a quick ride back to town. I put on some music (Phantom of the Opera soundtrack in Russian) and had a grand old time in the air. I was the second-to-last wing to land, with the other pilot landing just 15 seconds after me. 

At the LZ, a motorcyclist offered to take be to the Siga La Vaca hotel/restaurant in Santa Elena, where Ariel and my mom were waiting. I’ve never ridden on a motorcycle before — and generally haven’t been a fan — but this was REALLY fun! I had my helmet handy this time (see, all the learnings from the trip were coming together by the end!), and enjoyed the 15-minute ride as a final way of parting with Colombia. 



1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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