The Himalayas were high on our list for a while: Thomas de Dorlodot

Red Bull Higher Ground Paragliding in the Himalayas 5Thomas de Dorlodotand Horacio Llorens visited India in October 2019 for a great adventure across the Himalayan mountains. The European paragliders made several unassisted flights through Himachal Pradesh, starting with Bir-Billing and ending with multiple flight loops over Spiti Valley. En route they stopped at Manali, flew over the Rohtang Pass, and took a break at Keylong. The route between Keylong and Spiti had to be covered by car because the weather was too harsh to paraglide.

On this journey of about 350 kilometres, they travelled across some of the least visited destinations in their sport, camped on mountain tops, became the first paragliders to fly over Rohtang Pass, and battled rough weather to do the first-ever 6,200-metre flight over Spiti Valley. Since the flying was done without oxygen cylinders, the paragliders also made sure not to fly too high and took all the necessary safety precautions. Thomas de Dorlodotabout SPOKE ABOUT HIS experienceS during his weeks in Himalayan mountains. Excerpts:

What do you love most about your sport?

Simplicity. It’s incredible to think that you can carry an aircraft in your backpack, open itand fly above a mountain range with it. I also like the fact that there is still a lot to be done. We feel like explorers when we fly in places where no one has been flying before.

What had you heard of the Indian paragliding scene and what have you seen from personal experience?

I went to India on a motorcycle trip some years back. I had a glider with me and could make a few nice flights. I directly saw the potential of those mighty mountains. Some parts are still unexplored and that’s what interests me most.

How did you decide to travel across the Himalayas?

Horacio and I created the SEARCH Projects years ago. Our idea is to travel, to explore and fly in new places and to push the boundaries of our sport. We crossed Africa from north to south, flew in the Andes and in the Alps. India and the Himalayas were high on our list for a while. We were searching for big flights and for a rich cultural experience. We were served.

What was the route you took for this adventure?

We started in Bir-Billing as it’s a classic in India, and the perfect place to fine tune the gear and prepare. From there we flew to Manali and waited for good weather so we could cross the RohtangPass to Keylong. We travelled by car to Spiti as the wind was extremely strong and that would have been too dangerous. Then we explored Spiti in all directions with our paragliders.

What was the total distance you travelled on this adventure?

Not as big as some other adventures we went on. But a big part of it was in unexplored areas. We flew around 300-350 kms.

Was there an original plan for the trip and did you have to deviate from your plans?

Our plan was to explore the Himalayas without a fixed itinerary in mind. We pilots always adapt to the weather and the possibilities the conditions offer us. In this case we had to play it safe in the narrow valleys going to Spiti. Flying there would have been a suicide mission. The wind was just too strong.

What were the unexpected challenges that you had to face on this trip and how did you overcome them?

The main challenge was the weather. We encountered difficult flying conditions. The monsoon ended later this year. It was mostly turbulent and very windy. On good days, we were going above 6,000 meters without oxygen. We did not have time to do a proper acclimatization so we had to be extra careful up there. We slept 4,000 meters above sea level for many nights. At this altitude it’s hard to recover, especially when hit by a storm in the middle of the night. We were quite exhausted at the end.

Could you describe the landscapes you saw from up in the air while flying over the Himalayas?

The first part of the mountain range looks a lot like the Alps, without its habitants. It’s very greenwith beautiful rivers and dense forests. It was quite amazing to see the changes happening while travelling north. On the first days we landed in green pastures but very soon the snow took over on the high passes, and in Spitieverything was dry and it looked a bit like a desert.

What did you see when you climbed to 6,200 meters in Spiti? How different was it from other flights you’ve done around the world?

It was mind blowing. Once above 6,000 meters you see very far away. It feels like you could go anywhere with your glider, but at the same time you feel so small and vulnerable. Every flight is different and this time the reward for flying in turbulent conditions was worth the effort. I won’t forget that feeling anytime soon. We were flying with massive vultures. We reached a cloud base with them. While flying with the birds, Horacio and I started screaming “somospajaros” (Spanish for “we are birds”). It’s something we say only on exceptional flights.

What did you think of your overall time in India and the culture? Which places did you visit apart from the Himalayas?

India has one of the richest cultures in the world and so many contrasts. Locals were always very welcoming and we made good friends on the way. Every time we landed somewhere, we were invited for tea. I will always remember a dinner we shared with a shepherd and his family, high up in the mountains, just next to a bonfire.

After spending weeks in the north, we also visited Jodhpur. I loved it. We could get a few flights there with support. That area also has great potential for paragliding.

What on-ground support did you have from locals? Did you work with any Indian paragliders?

We had our production team: Benoit Delfosse, our movie director; ImbaudVeraeghen, our cameraman and drone pilot; and John Stapels, our photographer. We were also with a local guide and liaison specialist, Pinto[PrithvirajPrabhakar], and a few local drivers. We were always in contact with my long time friend Debu[Choudhury], who is a flying legend in the Indian paragliding community.

Apart from the thrilling sporting aspect of your trip, was there any other reason you decided to paraglide across the Himalayas?

Flying in the Himalayas is a dream any pilot has. You find the best concentration of high mountains here and some areas are still unexplored. You experience flying like in no other place. I particularly like to fly in very remote areas. When I’m flying in the Himalayas, I feel grateful to be amongst the few people who can see such view. It is one of those experiences money cannot buy.

In your research, did anything show if a paragliding athlete – Indian or international – had done a similar route across the Himalayas before?

Yes, John Silvesterhad flown to Keylong from Bir-Billing; I think on another route. I think we were the first to do it crossing RothangPass. Some of the flights in Spiti had never been done before. But no wonder why, the flying conditions are a bit crazy up there. At the end it doesn’t really matter. Every flight is unique and we are not competing against anyone here. We just want to push the boundaries and live a great adventure.