Pokhara, the town of lakes and aerial sports, played host last week to a sky-wide extravaganza. Forty-four pilots from 14 countries participated in the 6th Nepal Paragliding Championships, the colourful festival of gliders wheeling and soaring in the air currents above Phewa Lake.
Circling and climbing to 2,000 m in a thermal with 43 other pilots requires great skill and concentration. The idea is to ride rising currents of warm air called thermals until they stop and then glide out to the next rising current. These thermals are the secret to sustaining flight and paragliders need to be extremely adept at harnessing them.
Flying competition is often fast, furious and aggressive. Pilots race each other around a set course, the first to successfully complete it is the winner. According to topography and climate, Pokhara valley is ideal for such a competition. This year it played host to pilots of exceptional skill. The class of the field was world standard and this showed in the speed of the race each day.
Day one: Clear blue sky, cumulus clouds popping off the high mountains and an uninterrupted view of the peaks. An ambitious task of 40 km was set. Starting from Sarangkot, the competitors raced 10 km down the ridge to Naundada and then another 10 km back to Sarangkot before heading due north towards Annapurna IV and back south to Lakeside. The promising conditions deteriorated as clouds enveloped the mountains and created strong valley winds. These winds blew the thermals out and put a lot of the competitors on the ground early. In the turbulent conditions one pilot from France suffered a collapsed wing and had to throw his reserve parachute, landing safely. Only four pilots made the final turn point, with only Jamie Messenger completing the task. Jean Michael from France came second and Ajay Kumar of India, third.
Day two: Another good day with early cumulus development. The race committee decided to set a shorter race that would allow more competitors to finish. So a 20 km ridge run with four turnpoints was set. A congested start saw all the gliders struggling for the best lift, with cloudbase 1,000 m above the takeoff, we were able to spread out and fly with little interference. Although you race against other pilots in paragliding competitions, in reality you compete against yourself. If you fly at someone else's pace and worry about where they are going and why, it becomes hard to find your own rhythm, you lose focus and land early. With good conditions the race pilot's main priority is to decide when he should leave the thermal he is climbing in and move on to the next. Today's task was won and lost on just such a decision with me taking the low route and sneaking in five seconds ahead of Jamie Messenger, Debu Chaudhary of India came third.
Day three: Though it had rained the night before, the day dawned clear. A short task was called as we had the closing ceremony that afternoon. Apparently, state ministers don't like to be kept waiting! A 23 km race was set around Phewa lake. Gliders have a wide speed range from 27-65 km/h. By flying fast you lose height, the skill is in balancing speed and height. Jamie Messenger dominated the field. Debu Chaudhary arrived second and Rajesh Bomjan from Nepal finished third.
In the afternoon the pilots headed up for a second flight, this time for an acrobatic display over the lake. A variety of thrilling manoeuvres later, they had the option of landing on a raft situated 100m offshore or a spot landing with an egg in the middle. By the end of the day there were three very scrambled eggs and many wet pilots. The crowd that thronged the shores of Phewa lake cheered wildly as more and more pilots missed the raft landing and splashed into the lake. Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dr Prakash Sharan Mahat, handed out the prizes to (pictured, from right) Jamie Messenger (UK), who came in first, Debu Chaudhary (India), second and Ajay Kumar (India). There were only eight pilots from Nepal competing in the event. Sunrise Paragliders hopes to train more Nepalis for future events but in the meantime if you want to ride with the wind, just head for Pokhara.
Adam Hill is the Director of Sunrise Paragliding and a competitor in the event.