Usually getting the latest forecast before you head to the hills is the sensible option. It usually gives you the best possible chance of adapting your trip to make the most of a forecast, whether it has improved or (more commonly) degraded.

Vol-Biv, from the french ‘to fly’ and ‘to camp’ is a common term that describes the long distance adventures of intrepid paraglider pilots. They walk (or maybe even get driven) up to a suitable launch spot, then ride the thermals for the day covering huge distances (30-200km) before landing up high, at a suitable launching spot. Then they wake up and do it all again the next day..  It’s a demanding and committing type of flying; for experts only.

Richard and I are anything but flying experts; we’re just experienced enough to be starting to appreciate the huge amount that we just don’t know. So instead of planning a Vol-Biv mission, we’ve been doing Biv-Vol;  where we walk up during the afternoon to a summit, spend the night, then fly off in the morning, when conditions are calm, smooth and benign.

Back to the story at hand!  We’d planned a Biv-Vol trip into the East Matukituki, a good solid day’s slog up to a lesser known summit, with light winds and clear skies forecast for our early morning descent. Our huge packs were mostly taken up with our wings and harnesses, but the lightest possible camping and tramping gear was squished in every tiny available space.

Looks like a nice light pack from the front..

Even low-end Paragliding gear ain’t cheap, so our gear wasn’t the lightest, or most compact.  Also, each paraglider has an upper certified wieght limit for flight. No toothbrush, no spare socks, freeze dri, tiny (cold) sleeping bags, 22g micro cooker, 100g of fuel, 400ml titanium mug shared between two for heating the water…. You get the idea. Sometimes selecting your gear can be half the fun, but weighing our bags before departure made us grimace despite our careful scrimping and saving.

Profile shots show that the packs aren’t actually that small (or that light)

Just before turning to bed the night before our trip, Richard and I exchanged messages;

See ya in the morning.. your place at 8 right?

Sure… but have you seen the new forecast for Aspiring National Park?

And there it was. Our trip had ended before it’d started. Light rain was forecast from tomorrow night, all through to the next day. Not enough to stop any decent tramping trip, but plenty enough to stop Biv-Vol.  Paragliders can fly in rain, but the moisture effects the flying properties of the wing, making it more likely to collapse and harder to control. So being sensible, cautious Biv-Vol pilots, we came up with a plan B: A day trip to Ithsmus Peak on Lake Hawea.

It dawned calm and grey. Gee, I guess the weather is coming early.  Meeting Richard and our other mate Mark at Hawea, we nervously chatted about the stable layer of cloud which seemed to enshroud all the peaks of the Hawea basin.  At least it shows that the winds are light, but you can’t fly if you can’t see where you’re going. Apart from being illegal, it’s basically playing russian-roullette with the hill side.

Shouldering our huge packs, Richard and I spent a few moments pondering what it would have been like slogging up our plan A with even heavier packs

Thank goodness we didn’t go; walking up would’ve been tough, but walking back down again would have added insult to injury…

Upwards we slowly plodded.  As has been the growing trend around these parts for the last few years, the car park was full to overflowing with Jucy Vans, Wicked Campers, Wanderkriesen campers as well as rubbish and loo paper.  Some possible culprits wandered back down the track, with huge smile, jeans and tiny (or absent) packs.  It’s hard to begrudge people their interest in enjoying our mountains and it’s nearly impossible to single out the small proportion of visitors who behave poorly. So we smiled and waved to them, as we cringed a little on the inside.

And upwards still we plodded, while the cloud clung firmly below the ridge tops. Thankfully our visiting friends had remarked that it was clear on the tops, so we had enough motivation to continue all the way up and begin to play a familiar game; Para-waiting.  This was the 3rd time I’d planned to visit the summit of Ithsmus Peak, but both previous times I’d given up the slog due to cloud. This time I was going to the top (and so was my paraglider) even If I had to walk all the way down!

Dan wandering up to the summit

At the top, it wasn’t hard to see why this walk has surged in popularity;  Roy, Treble Cone, Alta, Aspiring, Castor, Pollux, Awful.. just the skyline of significant peaks to the west! The cloud hung around, making for a great moody feel, but not really being that conducive to our desired flights.  After enjoying the summit panorama, we wandered down to a suitable launching spot to have lunch and wait, optimistically, for enough of a clearance to safely launch.

A short video about Para-waiting: It ain’t a sport… 

(if only we had the rights to the Benny Hill theme music…)

Heuristic traps are relatively well known in group decision making in the outdoors.  We sat around, watching the clouds ebb and flow, willing a clearance to come.  When someone suggested “lets just get ready, so that when it does clear we can go straight away” I knew that we’d all agree, but I also made a mental note of the opening traps of ‘social proof’ and ‘scarcity’.

Getting ready for launch

Usually, when you forget to bring the raincoat, it rains, and when you get your paraglider set up, conditions worsen. But this time, murphy seemed to be benevolent and the clouds began to clear. We could see our landing zone, there was a significant gap in the clouds (like a kilometer wide) on our flight path, and there was no wind.

“Launching!” I called as I committed to my departure.

Holding the brake handles and risers in my hands, I took 3 powerful steps forward, felt the reassuring pull of the inflating wing on my shoulder straps, then ran as fast as I could. It always seems to take just that moment longer than you’d like to get airborne in calm conditions, but the familiar sensation of weightless feet came before I ran out of ‘runway’.  Made it! 

Dan launches from near the summit

I flew along the ridge of our ascent, peered into the forrested canyon below and gazed out to the peaks beyond, enjoying the momentary magic of flight. I’d expected to hear my companions on the radio, calling their successful launches to keep us all informed of the groups progress. But as I circled round to look back towards the summit, the cloud had closed in behind me.

3hrs up and 11 minutes down. On these days without thermals to lift you upwards, the flights always feel too short. But they always feel better than having to walk down. As I packed up my equipment, I watched the cloud bank’s progress, and wondered if my companions would get to fly or would be forced to walk.

“…Richard’s airborne…” crackled over the radio.

Richard’s view from his harness

I could just make out the tiny dot of his wing in the distance, circling round the ridge tops and enjoying his descent.

Richard coming in to land below Ithsmus Peak

A second wing, not far behind, turned out to be a pilot from a completely different group. Andrew’s team had planned thier own Biv-Vol to the next ridge south, but had missed the clear skies at dawn and had needed to wait till the same after-lunch gap to fly off.  Mark wasn’t too far behind, and soon we were sharing congratulations on another great day in the hills.

Sleeping in the next morning made sense, but the heat of the room woke me up early. I pulled the curtains back to reveal a perfect day. Just a few clouds, no sign of rain and light winds. Bugger. Turns out that sometimes forgetting to get an updated forecast would’ve been the best thing to forget!

Photo credits to Richard Sidey and Dan Clearwater.  Dan, Richard and Mark are all members of the FMC affiliated Southern Hang Gliding and Paragliding Club