Coming Home by Jon Chambers
Ian Henderson - 16/05/2019
A super flight by Jon Chambers
I live in Geneva, Switzerland. Mieussy, the birthplace of paragliding, is 40mins drive away. Chamonix, Annecy, St Hilaire, Verbier and Interlaken are all a short distance away. So it is perhaps odd that I was looking forward to bringing my paraglider with me on a trip back to see my parents in Cumbria for Easter. Odd that I was excited to fly in a damp and windy part of the world.
But this is where I learnt to fly, between the Dales and the Lakes, way back 28 years ago at the age of 16. And for this reason I was hugely looking forward to flying over the Easter weekend. Of course, I come back regularly, but rarely with my wing and rarely with time to fly it.
My parents house sits in Dentdale, a short glide off the north end of Barkin Fell. Eons ago when Skywings ran a profile of me I described Barkin as the best site in the UK. And it is. I recall pouring over maps with Pat McVey – the downwind track from Barkin takes you right across the centre of the lakes – this has to be the very best flying line over the most fantastic part of the British Isles. But whilst, back in the day, I’d done many flights from here, including a flight due north to Penrith, I’d never managed to fly that classic line. My head was filled with visions of perfect flying days in the UK.
Of course, it doesn’t really work like that. And to tell you the truth I never was really any good at weather forecasting – I just go flying and make the most of the conditions I find. Easter weekend was sunny, but hazy. Hot, blue and uninspiring. Easter Sunday was a southerly, even some west in it. The wind was blowing straight along the hill. But if the X-Alps taught me anything it was not to let a small matter like that get in the way. I took off on the very south end near Barbon, where the hill turns 90 degrees, straight into a nice thermal which I patiently worked all the way along the length of the ridge, climbing to 4500ft (It seemed only right to start thinking in feet again!) before diving across wind to the Howgill fells. Which in hindsight was a mistake, I should have gone downwind to Wild Boar Fell and headed NE! After crabbing my way across wind trying not to get blown over the Howgill fells searching for the elusive next climb, I finally succumbed north of Tebay for a fun but ultimately disappointing flight.
Monday was forecast to be even windier. Far too windy to fly. But it was forecast SE. Bang on Barking Fell. Maybe, just maybe...
But at breakfast things looked bad. It was very windy in the valley and with a touch of irony I found myself sat on the roof of my father’s garage trying to mend his anemometer for his weather station. Boy was it windy. I told my family flying was definitely off for the day. But later in the morning there seemed to be a bit of a lull, ‘perhaps I’ll just drive up and look’ I said, ‘I’ll be back for lunch’. So I arrived at the gate and stood facing the wind. It was windy, but less than I expected. So I walked up. Just above the copse I stood there contemplating the wind. For sure it was on the limit, but I was game to give it a go. I took off, went straight up and spent the next few minutes parked pushing the bar to keep out of the compression. The lift band was wide but it was difficult to feel the thermals in the strong wind. I wasn’t used to this kind of flying. A couple of times I managed 1, even 2, 360’s before getting into the compression and having to stand on the bar to come back forwards. This was no fun at all. I knew as soon as I started circling I’d be committed so I was cautious. But I was now quite a long way clear of the top and as a stronger bit of lift came through I circled back. It felt good, so I kept going. At the point of no return it stuck out its proverbial tongue at me and I was left in nothing over the fell top in a howling wind. Exactly where I did not want to be. I turned and ran downwind. The sink was predictably brutal and my ground speed somewhere between impressive and downright alarming. I saw in front of me the Middleton Head, a pub just before the Lune valley. Plenty of space to land safely I thought but I was not sure I would even get that far. I did and in fact as the sink eased up I was spat over the top and out into the Lune valley like a bit of flotsam in a raging river.
At times like this I often think being in the air is safer than trying to land, so now in the relative peace of the Lune valley I started circling in weak lift coming from a small knoll in the centre of the valley. To my surprise I gained about 100m (ok, not fully back into this ‘feet’ thing). The drift was still strong and trees were thrashing around but it drifted me on to Kendal Fell. This was OK, I figured, I could still land near the main road and a short hitch would see me back home for lunch. I was now essentially parked into wind on the low ridge of Kendal Fell and I had to smile to myself as I looked back at the mighty Barkin Fell and here was me stuck parked into wind in ridge lift on a tiny rise only a few hundred feet off of the deck.
I found what I thought was a weak bubble and climbed back across the high ground towards Killington Resevoir. But again my hopes were dashed as the bubble was ripped apart by the wind. I found myself gliding downwind again, over Lilymere, low to the ground and no clear plan. In front of me was the M6 and a small ridge behind it. You could not even call it a ridge, more a sloping field, but again I found myself parked into wind just above the motorway and below the top. I considered landing but it was really windy here so I crabbed cross wind with the idea of dropping off the south end to a more sheltered area to land behind. To my surprise I found one of those small bubbles again, two turns and I was over the top and back to being blown downwind low to the ground. This was starting to get silly – I was not sure if I would clear the high tension power lines downwind and I did not want to have to try to land upwind of them and risk being blown back into them. But another small knoll and another bubble and I was over the lines and back to scraping along in scraps of lift. Staying airborne. Just. This really was not how I had imagined my glorious flight across the Lake District.
Finally, after what felt like a lifetime of grovelling to stay airborne my broken bubble met a small rise and a whole flock of birds took to the sky – this had to be what I was waiting for... and indeed it was the lift strengthen to 2m/s and then 3m/s and finally, after 15km, I was out of there in my first proper thermal of the flight. Except now I was thinking, it is clearly too windy and I started to question if heading into the Lake District fells was really wise. I concluded it wasn’t but I was going to do it anyway. I stayed in the climb for what seemed like forever. I’m a mountain pilot so my instinct is to climb in the strongest lift and move on but I forced myself to stay circling and drifting, circling and drifting until eventually I topped out at 5500 feet. With more than just a little trepidation I headed downwind with the majesty of the southern lakes laid out through the haze before me, beckoning me, tempting me, daring me!
My strategy was simple. Stay high and don’t put myself in any tight valleys that I would potentially regret! I took a couple of top up climbs through Kentmere as I approached the Kirkstone pass, before finally gliding across to Stony Cove Pike (had to look that one up!) where I expected to climb easily. I was still some way above the ground here but the climb I thought I had was really just turbulence. I was fighting my wing and not flying it. It really was too windy!
I gave up and glided into Patterdale with the intent of landing near Ullswater. I knew it would be rough but I was confident I’d find a sheltered spot. As I came across Brotherswater I connected with a weak climb. Still, it was smooth and consolidated so I figured I had the luxury of climbing and drifting with it. It worked well to start with but the climb was weak and there was more drifting than climbing. Finally it deserted me but I was now a short but very sinky glide from a ridge that should be facing into wind. I was remarkably low now, and this ridge was Striding Edge, leading up to the east side of Helvellyn, way above. (What had I promised myself about not getting low in tight valleys?)
I approached the fellside nervously, but the wind was not strong here and as I flew towards Helvellyn there was good lift before I hit a headwind – the wind was blowing down from the main ridge so I turned and explored the other way, flying back through the lifty part I found nothing on the other side. Back to the lift I pushed forward into what now seemed like a good consolidated climb (but with hindsight was convergence). Stupidly I hooked the glider in tight turning on a wing tip and screwing up skywards in this strong lift. Until I cleared the ridge that is. Then I hit the horizontal wind. Still with the glider on its tip I circled back over a plethora of walkers heading up or down the path. Normally I’d wave but not today - I was not going to let go of the controls for anything! Of course the lift stopped and I only realised too late when I was already committed to getting blown over the ridge. It was still too windy, damn it!
I was now in a large bowl but below the main ridge – if I headed downwind I would be approaching the main Helvellyn ridge below the top with a real risk of being blown over low into the lee. The consequences didn’t bear thinking about. The landing options didn’t look good either. Just as I was starting to fill up with real fear, I found lift. I was cautious as I did not want to make the same mistake but this time I was in a bowl and not on a ridge so exploring it was a bit easier and indeed it was a more consolidated climb. Soon I was above the main range and still a good kilometre up wind from where I was going to be blown over it. This now seemed inevitable but at least I could do it safely. Indeed it turned into a really great climb taking me back to 5500ft.
Decision time again. I was now facing Keswick, with lots of space to find a safe landing. Having just survived being blown over the Helvellyn range I wondered if taking on Skiddaw as well was wise. But something was driving me today as I pointed the wing at the mountains one more time and made a promise to myself to keep high and away from close proximity to the terrain. This time it worked. Lots of bubbles in the transition allowed me to maintain my height and a good climb in front of the hill took me well above it. I drifted along the Skiddaw ridge, every time finding a stronger climb just downwind of the one I’d lost, until Skiddaw looked like a mere mole hill below me. I looked at my instruments and I was at 6000ft – another climb in the lee took me to 6500ft. I was in orbit and leaving the mountains behind for the flatlands! I’d done it – I’d flown right across the lake district!
But what to do next? In crossing to Skiddaw I’d brought my track to a more northerly direction from the initial north west route I’d been on. Now as I could see the Solway Firth in front of me this seemed to be a good strategy – continue pushing cross wind to stay as East as possible and avoid heading out to sea! To be fair the sea was still a long way away but I was trying to plan ahead. I vaguely remembered years ago Hugh Miller crossing the Solway into Scotland here so I pondered my options. High up the wind was more from the south, so I had a northerly track but lower down it was clearly more easterly. Due north ahead of me was a narrow part of the Solway but it seemed too far away and I was worried that if I got low near the coast I might get blown out there. I really wanted to get into Scotland so I chose to point North East, across wind and push towards Carlisle. I was in orbit after all so I was bound to connect with something and then see which way the drift was. I didn’t. From 6500ft to the deck. The last part I was almost parked into a wind that was coming from the East. I landed uneventfully but vertically about 6 miles due west of Carlisle. Fortunately there was a bus stop next to my landing field and fortunately a bus came along just after I had packed up. Unfortunately I did not have any British money on me, my Swiss contactless card did not work on his system and he wouldn’t take Swiss Francs or Euros (ok, that was a stretch but I had a to try).
A short hitch to the station, a mainline train back to Oxenholme and a pick up from my Dad and I was back in Dentdale. Any flight you need to get a main line train back from is a good one! My Mum asked if I saw any other paragliders in the lakes, ‘No’ I told her, ‘it was too windy’.
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