The mountains are calling and I must go, and I will work on while I can, studying incessantly.

- John Muir



Nov 25, 2013

Paragliding 101



Murukesh Krishnan

Be a part of the flying community. The Outdoor Journal tells you how

Paragliding is an aerial adventure sport, where the pilot footlaunches and freeflies an inflatable fabric glider wing. The pilot is suspended below the wing, in a harness attached by suspension lines to the canopy. Air pressure into vents in front of the wing maintains the structure, and air flowing over it creates lift. Skilled pilots can soar using thermals, and fly long distances, or perform incredible aerobatic manoeuvres.

The Outdoor Journal and PG-Gurukul collaborated for a paragliding clinic from November 2 – 7 in Bir-Billing, Himachal Pradesh, northern India. With the sprawling Dhauladhar ranges (also known as The White Range for its limestone rock topography) in the backdrop and a mood of spirituality around, thanks to the Bir Tibetan Colony just 2kms away, the horde of foreign nationals flocking this small hill town around the year, isn’t surprising. What draws the paragliding community here is the elevation gain and favorable wind conditions that suit a para-flight. The location being chosen for the recently concluded Pre-World Cup Paragliding Championship shows the popularity of Bir as a free-flying hotspot.

Gurpreet Dhindsa, a BHPA (British Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association) certified instructor and founder of the paragliding school PG-Gurukul, was the expert guiding the newbies. He has represented India at the Paragliding World Championships and World Cups in Russia, Turkey, Korea, Australia and many other countries. In his prime, he was ranked 120 in the world.

At The Outdoor Journal Paragliding Clinic, the aspiring free-fliers were all set for their P1+P2 certification course. Here’s what you’d have been doing if you were there:

Day 1 – Day 3

TOJ Founder Apoorva Prasad ground-handling a glider, picking it up and off the ground to learn its behaviour, before actually launching off a hill.

The initial three days of the course were primarily on ground handling. The amateurs were told about the different components of the gliders, the linings, risers, breaks, harness and other attachments.

On day 1, you are told about the gliding equipment, it’s nomenclatures, design and other elements. Day 2 is all about inflating your canopy and stabilizing it with the wind flow and its directions. On day 3, if you’ve followed the instructions correctly and mastered the nitty-gritties of the trade, you get to do small hops on a tiny slope, giving you a few seconds in the air.

Getting into the details of it, you have to learn how to set up a canopy and the equipment, get yourself into position and then inflate the glider by pulling on the A-risers. As soon it inflates and is up, the pilot must drop the risers, stablize it sharply by damping the brakes and then running off the hill.

Paragliding student Lorenzo Fornari learning to mushroom or rosette his glider.

For ground handling, that’s pretty much what you have to master. You have to be very comfortable with the way your canopy behaves with you, as once you’re in air, you can’t be clueless about what’s happening with your equipment.

Day 4 – Day 6

Students setting up their glider before a flight.

After 3 days of intense training and technical know-how, you get your first solo flight on Day 4. You’re taken to a hillock at Dhelu, some 13kms from Bir. The flight takes you to a vertical elevation of 120 meters. During the shuttle, you’ll have two instructors – one at the take off and the other at the landing zone – giving you instructions on a walkie-talkie that’s strapped onto your harness. The idea of assisting you with a radio is to make sure you do as instructed. For instance – pick up the glider, make sure that’s it’s stable, etc.


GPS coordinates from the first flight taken by Apoorva using a Suunto Ambit 2S watch with the ‘paragliding app’ – from www.movescount.com. A Google map of the first flight off Dhelu, taken from the Suunto Ambit 2S watch, via www.movescount.com.

If everything goes by the plan, the instructor gives a green signal and you take off. If, by any chance, you fail to get a proper launch, he’ll order you to stop and abort the launch.

Picking up the glider is a difficult technique to learn initially.


A quick chat with Lorenzo Fornari, one of the students, after his first solo flight:

# How was your first flight? Does it fall in the ‘perfect first flight’ category?

Lorenzo: It wasn’t perfect technically but it met my expectations for the excitement and possible complexity as one would expect from a first time launch down a hill face littered with boulders and other obstacles that can lead to a very untimely trip to the local hospital. As for the flight itself, the launch was perfect, the thrill of flying was incredible, controlling the glider was as expected, the landing was a little rougher than expected. I sprained an ankle as I grazed a boulder upon touchdown. At least I didn’t hit any of the goats. Then again it would’ve possibly made the landing more comfortable. For me at least! So in the end it wasn’t perfect by far, but it was a hell of an experience.

# Was it tricky?

Lorenzo: Yes. There are lots of factors to keep in mind when learning to fly. Gravity, especially, is rather unforgiving and until further notice, unhealthy from a certain height. Gurpreet was a great and very patient instructor and after 3 days of quick launches, exercises and a tandem flight from the top of the mountain (scary as hell to be honest but then after made me even more determined to do the course) felt confident enough to do a first solo flight.

First flight off Dhelu, the only beginner’s hill in Himachal for paragliding pilots training to fly off the bigger stuff.

# What went through your mind before/during your flight?
Lorenzo: Running and at the edge of the hill telling myself “Fly, you fool!!!”. Followed by “Oh my, I’m flying!!!!”. And in the end, “Good lord, how do I land this thing?!”

Image © Murukesh Krishnan | The Outdoor Journal



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Feb 20, 2019

The Death Zone

World champion free-diver Pierre Frolla sinks without air to depths unreachable by most scuba divers. One day he nearly didn't make it back to the surface.



Pierre Frolla

This story originally featured in print, in the fall 2015 issue of The Outdoor Journal

Deep down under the sea, so far away from where you live, I have been through the last seconds of my life.

In 2005 or 2006 (oddly I don’t remember), I had the worst accident of my freediving career. After being world champion in variable weight apnea with a dive at 123 metres, where I used a weighted sled for descent and returned to the surface by pulling myself along a line and using my fins, I was training to go deeper.

“No matter what happens to you, you’re stuck underwater. There’s nowhere else to go.”

In my sport, risks are quite important. Imagine you’re running a 400-m race. You start way too fast, and after a few hundred meters you’re out of breath and you just can’t go anymore. What do you do? You just stop, walk a bit and slowly catch your breath again. When you’re free diving, no matter what happens to you, you’re stuck underwater. There’s nowhere else to go.

The basis of my sport is quite simple. Going beyond 100 meters is mythic. Only a few hardcore specialists, including the “no limit” guys can go beyond that. Athletes use a weighted sled to dive down and an inflatable bag to return to the surface. This means that the free diver reduces his energy loss to the max, and that’s exactly why he is able to go so deep. The world record is held by Austrian Herbert Nitsch: 249.5 metres on June 6, 2012, in Santorini, Greece. The problem is that at those depths, water pressure is unbelievable! At 100 m, for example, the pressure is about 11 kg per square centimeter of your skin. Consequently, the volume of air inside the human body is pressured and reduced too. Take an empty but sealed plastic bottle: If you get to this kind of depth, it’ll greatly deform. That plastic bottle is a metaphor for your body. This also means that if water manages to seep somewhere inside you through your mouth or nose, it will do so with such force that it’ll destroy everything in its path. Drowning is inevitable, and no Apneist can be saved in such case, even if experienced help quickly intervenes.

At great depths, nitrogen becomes narcotic and leads to what is called nitrogen narcosis. This kind of intoxication from staying in great depths for too long is the same as when you drink too much. In other words, you lose total control of your body and mind, and you become unaware of potential dangers. Acting like that underwater can kill you, as the slightest mistake will have incredible consequences. In my personal training, I mix apnea in variable weight and other constant weight dives, where I dive only with the force of my arms and legs.

Today, my team and I decide to put the weight to 118 m. I know I can go down 115 m, but we want to push a little, as it’s part of training. Once down, I’ll have no choice but to go back on my own. I also know there will be a small parachute and an oxygen tank hooked to the sled, but neither will be for me. The bottle empties very slowly and inflates the balloon. Both serve only to return equipment back to the surface. It’s easier for us to work like that rather than starting a counterweight system.

If I want to live, I have only four seconds to start my ascent. But I am stunned and unable to move. I think about my team: What will they do when they go down to find me, lifeless and filled with water?

I feel my legs sinking knee-deep in a soft, thick and viscous material.

I begin my descent. I pass my midterm diver. Very soon, it gets dark. I do not have glasses because they would serve me for nothing in this environment. So I stand, with my eyes closed. I’m relaxed and sinking slowly in the water like I’m used to. I feel the pressure now, but I also suddenly feel the sledge slowing. Then it stops, softly. Usually it stops dead. When I realize that something is wrong, I feel my legs sinking knee-deep in a soft, thick and viscous material. It is almost as if moving sands are closing in on me at 112 meters below the surface. It is actually a mixture of clay and silt, a mound a few meters higher than the sonar onboard the boat. It wasn’t identified even though it stood in the stack axis of the descent of my sledge. It’s nobody’s fault; sonar is not so precise.

In no time, I understand what’s happening to me. I’m stuck. I cannot get my feet outside the box, and I know there’s no exit door. I simply do not have enough oxygen to both work my way out of this with strength and go up as I have expected, swimming, with my hands and fins. If I want to live, I have only four seconds to start my ascent. But I am stopped, stunned and unable to move. I think about my team: What will they do when they go down to find me, lifeless and filled with water? I’m dying; that’s it. Today is the day. In 15 seconds, I will have consumed all the remaining air I was keeping for my ascent. I am also a few seconds away from being caught by nitrogen narcosis. I will go crazy right before dying.

“Did I become a vegetable?”

Suddenly, I have an idea. The parachute. Yes! I trigger the opening of the small air valve, which then rushes into the parachute. It’s working but it’s slow and long. So I wait, very still, with my eyes closed. I have no other choice. I try to relax. Everything at 112 m is multiplied by 10. One consumed oxygen molecule at the surface is equal to 10 or 12 molecules consumed at that kind of depth. One second is equivalent to 10 seconds. Time and life are both very cruel at the bottom of an ocean. I am now barely conscious. Finally, I remember feeling the chute tearing me away from my trap like a champagne cork. The ascent back to the surface, back to life, is way too long. When I reach the surface, I have strangely not entirely lost consciousness, but my body no longer responds to my brain. Did I become a vegetable? My team, frightened, retrieves and saves me. If I had not been so well-trained, I would not have survived this scary adventure. Instead of the planned 2 minutes and 40 seconds that I went down under water for, I stayed 3 minutes and 50 seconds. In the boat, I gradually recover and quickly regain all my abilities.

Pierre Frolla reascending to the surface, following the guideline with the sled and parachute attached to it.

A few years later, I’m on a movie set doing 60-m free diving over and over all day long, and an air bubble is created in my brain on one of these repetitive dives. But instead of being redirected into my lungs, it remains stuck in my head. When ascending, inevitably, this tiny compressed air bubble suddenly decompresses and its size gets multiplied by six. I immediately lose consciousness. Later, I wake up in a hyperbaric chamber. I stay there for eight and a half hours. But when I wake up in that box, I cannot feel my body. I’m unable to move. For hours, I do not know if I will stay quadriplegic or not. This awakening in the box is one of my worst-ever memories of free diving. I do not understand what is happening to me. It takes me 30 minutes to remember that I was free diving and to deduce that I certainly had a bad accident.

Apnea is an extreme sport. I’ll remember it always. Yesterday I dived to 113 meters. I’ll do it again tomorrow.

Photos by Franck Seguin

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