The Blind Leading The Blind (A Paragliding Tale)

It’s coming to the end of the season and we’ve been chasing the weather around the country all year. And to be honest, we’re a little tired of trying for those extra k’s to push us up the XC ladder to compete with our flying friends (or fo)!

It’s the September ‘old wives summer’ and we’ve flown every day since Wednesday, ‘milking it’ as the high pressure migrates across our land towards Siberia; knowing that these are our last chances; stealing family time; lying to bosses and generally shirking responsibilities and commitments to the max.

Its Saturday night, Snowdon could be on tomorrow. The B.P.Cup will be there and there’s a chance for an easterly start at Moel Berfedd with access to the horseshoe and the jewel, ‘Snowdons’ summit’. The forecast suggests it’ll be blown out at high level and so we ditch the idea thinking that we’ve had our fill for this week anyway.

I wake up at 8.20am on Sunday morning to a text from Milsey, “task on at Berfedd”… What?... I thought it was blown out. I jump up but it seems a bit late for travelling 160 miles. I check the weather anyway… nahhh, blown out! Then ponder for a while over a cup of tea. But what if they get some and we don’t. Could I live with that? Damn it! I text Nasher. ( He’d know if it was worth the drive). I Wait a while, but no reply. I’d been given the green light the night before from Angela and was determined not to waste a pass out. It’s beginning to do my head in! It’s getting later and later and we need to make our bloody minds up, so I ring Mark, “what do you reckon?”… “What do you reckon?” He replies, “dunno?”(It’s not the most scientific approach but seemed to work anyway). “right, lets GO!… my house as soon as poss”.

We leave around 10am with a 2 hour drive ahead of us, taking the back road in to Snowdonia (shaving a precious five minutes from our journey). “Looks good dunnit!” I said, looking over towards the small Cu’s forming above the hills. Driving through Capel Curig, we glimpse a promising sky. Getting excited we continue. The clouds were moving pretty fast, albeit they were still quite low. “Let’s hope it’s not blown out eh.” “Mmmmm.” We get around the corner from Capel and up the Nantygwyrd valley with Glyders on the right and see Moel Berfedd in the distance. It not good! “where’s the comp gone?” There are no gliders in sight at all. We get to the car parking area, where it looks like they’re building a new pay and display, and speak to some para-dude. “What’s going on” I ask, “ahh, they canned the task, it’s too strong, everyone’s going home or elsewhere”, “F**k, s**t and b****cks.”

They (the para-dudes) explained that a few pilots had flown down with big ears on but no one was flying anywhere now. We had seen a glider a few minutes earlier go over the high saddle behind the pump and drop into the valley over the back. I think it was Kirsti on her ‘Poison’. Dilemma sets in as we consider flying the coast or maybe Moel Eilio, but it not a very appealing second best. We dither and contemplate the consequences of misjudging the conditions, but end up reassuring ourselves that at least we’re flying heavy on our bombproof ‘Niviuk Artic’ gliders. After all, what do a hundred comp pilots know anyway? I suppose it’s a very typical British comp outcome but they might have got it wrong.

We park up opposite to the pub to get a closer look when a familiar face appears. It’s Milsey “What do you reckon man?” “Well it’s strong but may be doable” he says with a smile. I’m not sure whether he’s trying to help me or kill me but I give him the benefit of doubt, at least for today anyway.
Two minutes later we’re off; out of the van and up the hill. We get ¼ of the way up and it’s already strong enough to launch, but first I have to run back down to get the jumper and jacket I left behind, …always a good omen for an epic day!

After much dry mouthed deliberation about how we can escape in the event of any wild miscalculation, we launch and soar the face of Berfedd. It’s good, pretty damn good, and we’re actually penetrating, although being thrown about the sky. With all the doubt and previous forecasts we feel we need to acclimatise to the scenery a little. (We normally only fly our little grassy hills in Lancashire, but this one’s a ‘dobber’ and has big rocks and stuff all over it). Further more, there’s some even bigger ‘dobbers’ to contend with on our chosen route up. After some soaring, and climbing weak, broken lift that the strong wind had sliced up, we get enough height to cross to the infamous ‘pump’ below Cwm Dyli. Mark calls on the radio, “I think I’m committed.” “don’t worry mate, I’m right behind you”. That’s both of us in it together! It’s always more of a comfort when there are both of you standing in front of the headmaster, bent over double, waiting for the torture to commence.

We scrap around on the Pump for twenty minutes, before getting enough height to start working it back. It’s a ‘wild mouse ticket’, as the turbulent lift low down gives us the wobblers and we both wonder whether we should have canned it already. The thermals are poor but the strong wind aids our route to climb up the shoulder. I had managed a few consecutive turns and noticed the wind speed on my computer was now telling the truth about the wind. 21kph ENE, the upper north easterly had been turned by the landscape to more of an easterly at this altitude. We climbed the Spur at its centre which splits the easterly flow and either side of this became an ‘into wind struggle’, leaving not much room for us both, and as the air was not that buoyant we soared up, close range, making things a little bit more juicy. It was round two of the dry mouth scenario! Every step up and back gets us giddier and a bit more scared! We’re not used to the mountains and we’re pretty far from our comfort zone. After scratching around for another ten minutes we get above the summit of Gallt y Wenallt. Thank god for that! Some open air. We start to chill a bit. A couple of wing-overs and a piece of chocolate helps me to forget that we were soaring the start of the horseshoe trail in not the best of conditions.

We start to have a giggle with the usual radio banter that we regularly partake in,( and sometimes offend others with), but hey, we are the only ones here, no one to get in our faces about it, we can say whatever we want, and proceed with our x-rated abuse and exchanges.

I notice two other ‘para-dudes’ launching from Berfedd. They quickly climb and jump over to the Pump pretty low, (must be locals we think). We skip around Wenallt and talk about climbing up the Lliwedd face. I’m not so sure though. Its all a bit mind blowing, but Mark dives over and gives it a go, reassuring us both, that we can ‘bite off’ a bit at a time. Like a sheep, I follow and let him lead the way. (After all, he’s been flying loads longer than me)! We work our way over. Up and back, halfway into Lliwedd and by this time our new ‘para-dudes’ are with us. They continue and we’re a little more cautious, but these dudes are hard core local pilots, they can lead the way. So, all four of us start to dive into the dark depths of the sinister looking Northeast face of Lliwedd.

I’ve spent 17 years as a climber and never done any routes up this one, as it has an eerie feel to it. It’s always in the shade, dark, damp, cold and uninviting. But now with our new found confidence in our local ‘ace pilots’ we continue boldly, in and up. We had been told an hour and a half before to leave Lliwedd and the Snowdon summit alone on strong days but our guides were leading out and they were fine. My instruments were now showing a NE wind at around 20km/h. From time to time our speed was down to 3-4km/h close in to the face. We had spent enough time around and in front of Lliwedd to get a pretty good feel for the conditions. All we had to do was stay out of the compression. It became more of a mind game, judging how close in to fly for the lift we gained in return. The few clouds about told the same tale about how strong it was, and we knew it was borderline, as the next climb up the sharp edge to the summit placed us in the lee of Crib Goch. This would get more acute the deeper in we got, but was doable from this angle as long as we climbed above any rotor bit by bit… (again, nibbling away at the pie). The pie was good though! It was the forbidden pie that the books say you shouldn’t eat. It looked good and tasted even better.

The four of us tick tacked up the rib. It got a little rough but we had survived worse that day already! It was feeling a bit more ‘edgey’ because of the scenery!… Wow.. the scenery… spectacular!.. unbelievable in fact!… I have wanted to do this since I started flying, three and a half years ago. My earlier visits have been winter climbing routes on the trinity face with Derreck, and the dry summer rocks routes of the pass. But never like this! Not by air! We whooped for joy as we buzzed our audience of summer walkers who had assembled on the trig point. We waved, and they waved back. This was a truly a ‘banging’ moment of our lives. After working our arses off and expecting very little from the day, here we where, Kings of the air; gods circling above the lesser mortals on foot. This has to be the way to travel in the mountains. I thanked our guides telepathically, who seemed equally thrilled to be here. It was a quintessential moment for all. Check us dudes out! We are banging! We are the coolest para-dudes on the planet. No one can take this feeling away.

So, we had reached our goal and filled our boots. We left the summit after some more wingovers; a little aerial display for our fans on foot, and headed back down the way we came, feeling extremely pleased with ourselves. Hundreds of pilots have done this route before us, I’m sure, but this was us dipping our toe into the unknown, the stakes felt high but the rewards were enormous. We were proper mountain chaps now. No longer virgins to the big dobber lumps of rock in Wales. We had only one thing left to do.. land.

We chose the camp site by the lake as it is quite a sensitive farming area, and knew this was an ok spot for not upsetting the locals. It was now 25 km/hr and probably stronger down in the valley bottom. One of our guides had disappeared but the other was over the campsite pinned by the wind. So we set ourselves a kilometre upwind, for a spectacular drop all the way to the landing spot squeezing the last of our adrenalin with sats, wingovers and spirals all the way to an easy landing inside the campsite.

As we patted each other on the back, shook hands and exchanged the usual buzzin mannerisms after an epic day out, our guide came over to greet us, “Hi, what a day!” he said, laughing, “Yes, that was amazing man,” I said, nearly shaking his hand off, “Barney and Mark by the way.”, I added, “Oh, yeah, it’s Glynn, yeah, really great day” grinning wildly. He told us how glad he was to see us flying, they had thought it was way too strong, and had only taken off because we were flying. “No way!” I exclaimed, “we thought you were the local sky gods and flown over to show us the way.”,“ Naah” he said.. “Ive never flown it before!” ……OOPS!!

A case of the blind leading the blind into the unknown, but what a day of days…. twas truly banging man!

Respect to Glynn and his mate, our placebo guides, and respect to my glider, but most of all.. respect to the mountain and how she looked out for us that day! We got lucky.

Barney and Mark
alias The Pimple Queens

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