Monday, November 29, 2010

Paragliding Western Pakistan - Part Three

About another hour passed as I glided from thermal to thermal until I saw something interesting going on down below. It seemed like some kind of ramshackle military camp, with rows of huts surrounding an open space filled with men engaged in calisthenics, obstacle courses and other paramilitary shenanigans.

My path to the next thermal took me right over the camp, and I hoped I was high enough I sail by unnoticed. Unfortunately, my choice of a bright orange canopy didn’t help in that regard. Just as I was nearly directly overhead, there was a lot of commotion down there — a lot of pointing and shouting, and then gunshots. What the hell? What’s up with these people?

I was high enough that the shots just sounded like soft pops, like someone popping popcorn in the next room. But the bullets whizzing by, ripping through the canopy were plenty scary. In fact, it unnerved me enough that I veered off course a little.

The thermal I was aiming for looked very strong, so I just wanted to catch the edge of it so I could control by ascent. But my quite reasonable impulse to scoot away from the gunfire ASAP caused me to steer directly into the core of the thermal. Before I could get out, I was sucked straight up 20,000 feet into the cumulus — and right into the heart of every paraglider’s worst nightmare. A real SDE — probably more life-threatening than the bullets I just dodged.

Inside a cumulus, the air currents toss you around like a feather in the canister of an Electrolux. I shot up, then spun around, tangling lines and deflating my canopy, causing me to fall until it untangled and re-inflated, causing me to shoot up again — all in white-out conditions that obscured any visual input that could help me get my bearings. It was like a roller coaster ride in hell, on the hell roller coaster that not even Satan has the balls to ride. Now if you like roller coasters, that might sound fun, but let me assure you — it’s not.

After my detox/kidney stone weekend, I didn’t think I could possible throw up any more, and I was right. All the tossing and tumbling just triggered wave after wave of dry heaves — the perfect compliment to sheer terror. This ordeal felt like it lasted over an hour, but in reality probably only lasted about 45 minutes.

Finally, long after I started wishing for death to end this horror, I almost got my wish. My canopy was tangled enough to not re-inflate as I started falling, so I thankfully fell out of that evil cloud. As much as a relief as that was, it meant that the “sudden death” phase of this experience had begun. While I wasn’t fully in freefall — my canopy was slowing my descent slightly — my survival depended entirely on how I landed and what I landed on.

Continued next week: snakes.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Paragliding Western Pakistan - Part Two

I’m what doctors call a stone producer. I have four or five kidney stone attacks a year. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I continually put myself in situations where I experience near fatal dehydration. I usually get through them fine by forcing fluids, jumping rope and eating handfuls of Oxycotin until I hear that satisfying tink in the toilet bowl that lets me know I’ve passed the fucker.

But in this case, with an opium addiction to get over, painkillers were out of the question. So I just laid in bed screaming for three days. Apparently the noise bothered some of the other guests, prompting the uppity desk clerk to look in on me. He almost seemed genuinely concerned when he offered to call a doctor for me. Hell no. Everyone knows all the good Pakistani doctors are driving cabs in America, so I sent him on his way and went back to bed to chew my pillow.

That was one intense weekend. My withdrawal symptoms magnified the agony of the pain and cramping of the kidney stone and vice versa. Anyone passing by my room would have thought someone was being tortured in there. To make that pain stop, I would have told my tormenters anything they wanted to hear. Well, not anything. I wouldn’t lie or make things up. I’m not a liar.

Finally, the screaming and vomiting stopped and I heard the tink. I was finally ready to go paragliding.

I hired a driver to take me and my gear up on a ridge along Highway 25. Throughout the drive he kept asking me if I was CIA. I assured him I was just a tourist, but he wouldn’t be convinced. He kept asking spy questions: How many terrorists had I killed? Where else have I been on assignment? Was I a Jew? Did I know Sean Hannity? Some of the questions confused me, but I just kept firmly denying everything until he finally shut up. It felt a little weird denying my friendship with Sean, but I just didn’t want to get into a long conversation with this rag-head.

When I spotted a good launch site on a high ridge with a good steep cliff, I told the driver to stop. I paid him a fistful of alien cash that seemed to satisfy him, and then I started laying out my canopy and putting on my harness. He stood transfixed, watching my every move. It was pretty breezy up there, so I did the reverse launch technique; walking backward facing the wing as the wind inflated it and then turning at the last second to jump off the cliff. As I sailed away, my driver called out to me, “Good luck on your mission!” At least he’s supportive of our cause. One of the good guys.

First I glided along the ridge to get that updraft while I scouted out my first thermal. Then I spied a section of mountainside illuminated by the hot sun with a small cumulus cloud right above – sure signs of a strong thermal updraft. I steered over and found it, then circled the core to gain some nice altitude just below the clouds.

That brings be back to where I started this tale, gliding over the Mars-like barren landscape of Balochistan. After taking in the breathtaking, awesome, eerie beauty of the mountain range below me, I started to get a little bored.

As an ultra-extreme-sport enthusiast who cheats death nearly every day, it’s hard for me to get amped over anything that doesn’t offer the possibility of a serious injury, at least. Paragliding is about as safe a so-called adventure sport can be. You start out under a fully deployed chute – so you don’t have to worry about falling. About the worst that could happen is that you might float down and land somewhere you didn’t intend, like the alligator pen at Gator World, and what are the chances I’ll ever do that again?

But just as I was considering turning back and cutting my flight short, something happened to break up the monotony. A huge Lammergeier, also known as a Bearded Vulture, sailed up beside me to catch the same thermal I was riding. It was monster, about four feet long with a wingspan of at least nine feet. Its white head feathers made it look like the ugly stepbrother of our own national symbol. This was one badass bird.

He sailed up right beside me and looked me right in the eye, and I swear he nodded at me. I couldn’t help but think it was a nod of recognition, as if he was acknowledging our kinship as fellow masters of the sky. Suddenly he went swooping down to the ground, and in less than a minute he returned with something amazing.

Clutched in his claw was a Black Cobra. I’ve heard that Lammergeiers sometimes pick up turtles and then drop them from high altitudes to break open their shells, so maybe he made a mistake in picking up the cobra. Or maybe he was just showing off for me. But things didn’t go as planned for my new friend. He tried to drop the cobra, but it had wrapped its tail-end around his left leg. Once his head-end was free, it started striking the bird in the crotch while he franticly tried to kick it away. The vulture went into a quick descent, possibly already feeling the effects of the cobra’s lethal venom. Assuming they made it down to the ground without crashing, I’d score this round to the cobra. It was awesome – a midair battle to the death. It almost could be seen as an allegory for something. For what, I don’t know.

Continued next week: danger!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Paragliding Western Pakistan - Part One

Gliding peacefully over the barren, unearthly Sulaiman Mountains is just the sort of relaxing afternoon I needed after a heart-stopping adventure skydiving onto and then hang gliding down from K2. Of course, in any extreme sport, a sudden death event (SDE) can pop up out of nowhere, even when you’re not actively seeking one. Before the next few weeks would pass, I’d find myself in a half dozen SDEs, and a chance to be an international hero. Such is the life I lead.

Since I was in the area after my historic triumph in the Himalayas, I decided to spend some time paragliding XC (cross country) in one of the best areas in the world for this sport. Paragliding is like hang gliding, except you use a parachute-like parafoil rather than a fixed wing. The canopy has cells that are open in the front to trap air as you move forward, creating an airfoil shape. By gliding from updraft to updraft, XC paragliders like me can cover hundreds of miles in a day.

The Sulaiman Mountains in the Balochistan province of Pakistan are ideal for XC since they have ample amounts of both kinds of rising air: ridge lifts and thermals. There’s a steady wind up from the Indian Ocean that bounces off the mountains for reliable ridge lifts, and the barren sun-baked landscape provides plenty of hot air thermals. I could glide all the way to China if I felt like it.

Surprisingly, in spite of such ideal conditions, paragliding hasn’t caught on with the local population. I’m guessing the fact that there’s not a single paraglider supplier in the whole city of Quetta has something to do with that. Since I wasn’t traveling with my own gear, I had to use an Internet cafĂ© to buy a rig over Ebay, and then wait five days for the delivery — which meant finding a way to kill five days in Quetta.

I had settled into a room in a modest PTDC (Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation) motel on the road out by the airport. I had planned on staying at the Hotel Serena, supposedly the nicest place in town, but at nearly $200 a night it was out of my league. The PTDC was clean, and that’s really all that counts in a hotel room.

To be honest, in spite of the best efforts of the PTDC, Quetta doesn’t have a lot to offer in the way of tourist attractions. It sure is crowded, though. Apparently, Afghani refugees have tripled the population in the past few years. Everywhere I look I see small groups of men hanging out, sitting on their haunches in the dirt. That can’t be comfortable. I made a mental note that I could make a lot of money here importing those canvas folding camper chairs that you can get at Wal-Mart for about seven bucks – the kind that come with a matching carrying bag. These Pakistani or Afghani guys could walk around with their chairs slung over their shoulders and then whenever they felt like it, they could unfold their chairs and sit down like civilized men. Most of these chairs even have a cup-holder. I’m going to make a fortune.

Here’s another million-dollar idea for this region. After just a few hours in the region I realized that the people here are crazy about their religion. They stop everything and pray, like five times a day. I’m not exaggerating. But I also notice that, unlike in the U.S., there aren’t any good religious children’s books in the bookstores, like the Jesus comic books they gave us in Sunday school. So when I get back to the States, I’m going to hire a translator and illustrator to do a whole series of illustrated books showing the adventures of the prophet Mohammed for all those Islamic kids. How could that not succeed? It’s a no-brainer.

But for the time being, I needed something do until my paragliding gear arrived. In addition to extreme sports gear, the escort market is woefully under-served in Pakistan. I took the Quetta Yellow Pages up to the desk clerk so he could help me decipher the ads and find a reputable agency to meet my needs. He claimed there wasn’t a single listing for an escort agency, without even looking. He even gave me a little attitude about it, saying that no precious, beautiful flower of Pakistani womanhood would ever engage in that kind of commerce, and if she did she would be stoned for it, so if I wanted that kind of filthy trash I should go back to America for it. Jeez. Hardly the level of customer service I would expect from a quality organization – not to mention his presumption that my intent was anything other than obtaining a pleasant sightseeing companion. I took his name and I intend to send a stern letter to the PTDC about the way I was treated.

Reconciled to being on my own here, I did find a fun activity that helped me pass the time quite enjoyably: smoking opium. It’s cheap, readily available on the street, and boy does it make the time fly. I even stayed in my room smoking the stuff a few days after my paragliding gear arrived. I’m not sure how many days exactly – I kind of lost track of time. That whole week went by in a haze. A sweet, warm, shimmering haze of perfect bliss.

Unfortunately, when my stash ran out I realized I had built up a little opium addiction to kick. Normally, kicking a narcotic jones cold-turkey isn’t a problem for me – just some uncontrollable shivers and unrelenting nausea for a few days. But this time, my detox was complicated by an ill-timed kidney stone attack.

Continued next week: soaring away.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Conquering K2 - Part Three

Now the nylon fabric is sewed on, stretched tight across the frame, and I’m ready to take flight. Ideally, I would hook my harness onto the frame before pushing off, but in these winds, just lifting the wing slightly off the ground would send it sailing out of my hand, leaving me stranded to die.

To take off with the glider, I’m going to have to dive under the cloth, grab the crossbar and leap to my feet, all in one smooth, continuous movement. As soon as I dive under the cloth, it’s likely that enough wind will get under it to send it sailing, so there’s no room for error and no second chances. But isn’t that part of the fun?

As I crouch behind the wing, I take a few deep breaths and pre-visualize my every move. After about twenty minutes, I go for it.

I’m flying! It worked, just as I planned. The force of the take-off nearly dislocated both of my shoulders, so I’ll be a bit sore tomorrow. But my grip is secure and the kite is soaring beautifully. I even swing around and catch an updraft near the face to prolong the flight a little.

Suddenly I notice the right side wing seam coming loose, and in a flash I’m spinning in a death spiral. Apparently, I should have gone ahead and sewn the double stitch after all.

I’m spinning like a cowboy lariat and falling fast, but I remain calm. I quickly deduce that the only way to pull out of this spin is to shift all of my weight to the left side. And the fastest way to do that is to just let go with my right hand. It’s my only option — other than death.

Like most actions one is forced to take in a CDE, timing is everything. Once I come out of this spin, I’ll be holding on with only one hand and I’ll have absolutely no control of the glider. If I come out of the spin sailing toward the mountain, or any of the surrounding peaks, my life is over. Yet spinning at this speed, there’s no way to consciously time this move. I just have to trust my gut. Years of putting myself in positions like this have honed my intuition and given me the confidence needed to make those split-second decisions necessary to survive — so far.

I jerk my right hand away from the crossbar, and the glider immediately rolls out of its spin into a nice straight glide — directly toward the Skardu K2 Motel where a fetching young Mongolian pleasure-worker is warming my bed.

Some would say I was very lucky to come out of that spin so easily. Well I don’t believe in luck. And I don’t believe in god. I believe I control the universe with my mind.

As I sail down through the fading light of this amazing day, with the taste of blood in my mouth, my throat raw from screaming, my icy tears frozen on my face and warm urine running down my leg, I can’t remember being happier. This is what I live for. It is in that moment — and in that moment alone — when through the sheer force of my will I make the Reaper eat my dust — that I truly live.

A death wish? No way. I have a life wish.

Next week: paragliding in Pakistan.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Conquering K2 - Part Two

So here I am, about ready to land, gliding in toward a spot about 30 feet below the peak. I’ve calculated the crosswinds just right, and just as I expected, at the last second, the updraft kicks me up about 20 feet where I slam hard into the face of K2.

Actually, relatively speaking, K2 slams hard into my face. A piece of icy rock or rocky ice or whatever kicks me in the mouth like a Ninja wearing stripper shoes, causing me to gag on my two top-front incisors. It smarts, but it’s no great loss, since I’m already on my third set of implants for most of my front teeth. Thank god for my sponsorships.

My dentist is Dr. Michael Unti, DDS, of Palatine Complete Dentistry. He uses all the latest pain-free techniques and his office is centrally located along Northwest Highway, with plenty of parking in the rear. Ask about his convenient payment plans.

I just gulp down the teeth because more pressing matters are at hand. The updraft is still pulling my open chute up and I’m about to be dragged up and over the summit. As I reach the peak, I spin myself around quickly and I wrestle with the lines, frantically twisting them to collapse the canopy. Normally a skydiver in this situation would just pull his cut-line to release the canopy, but I’m going to need this silk later for my hang glider.

Teetering on the opposite edge of the summit, I finally get the chute under control and bundle it up tightly with the lines so it can’t blow away. Then I take a deep breath and assess my situation. Mostly I just relish the feeling of accomplishment — knowing that I’ve just done something no other man, living or dead, have ever even dared to attempt. I have to tell you, it feels fucking great. And I have to tell you because you’ll certainly never have an experience like this.

The view is fantastic, but I’m disappointed to find that I won’t be capturing it on film. The hard impact on landing shattered my helmet-cam. Actually, it’s kind of a relief. It was a custom-fabricated 42-pound IMAX 70mm film camera I was using to create a big-screen documentary of this adventure, and wearing it felt like walking around balancing two cases of Lienenkugel on my head. Good riddance. I decide to keep the additional twenty rolls of film in my fanny-pack and try to return them when I get back to the States — if I can find the receipt. (I did, but the supplier refused to give me a refund on unused film. Jerks.)

The loss of the film camera was only financial, and I shrugged it off. I won’t miss the money. And what do I care if some balding suburban loser can’t bring his pudgy spawn to some damned amusement park theater to vicariously experience my life so they can be momentarily distracted from their own pathetic existence? Fuck ‘em.

I’m standing on the peak of K2, a wind-swept chunk of packed snow about the size of a queen duvet laid out flat. This is all the space I’ll have to assemble my hang-glider, and thankfully it’s just enough.

First I loosen the Velcro straps holding the framework sections to my legs. Assembling the frame of the glider is very much like assembling a LAXVIK shelving unit from IKEA. There are about eighteen metal rods that fit into each other and then are secured with hex screws that you tighten with the supplied Allen wrench. I unfold the instruction sheet, but the wind catches it almost immediately and I watch it sail away. No sweat — it doesn’t look too tough to figure out.

As I set to work, I felt the day’s first twinge of fear. Sure, the high-altitude skydive and the brutal landing were both a little harrowing, but nothing compared to the fear of fumbling my grip on one of these tiny screws. My fingers are shaking in the freezing cold, and dropping just one could mean hours of digging through the snow to find it, and I don’t have hours. Without the proper gear, I couldn’t survive a night on this peak. So to live, I must sail off this rock by sunset. Why don’t they give you a few extra screws in these kits so that dropping one isn’t a CDE? Cheap bastards. I guess they assume most people will be assembling their glider in a parking lot or in a garage — not on top of a 28,000 ft. summit.

The work is slow going, because after each screw is secured I have to take a break to warm my hands in my pockets. Frostbite is a very real possibility up here. I’m not as worried about my hands as I am my nose, which could turn black and fall off if I spend too much time up here. I’d like to avoid that.

Finally I’ve assembled the glider frame and step back to check it out. Then I notice something that nearly stops my heart. One side is noticeably longer than the other. I have apparently connected two long poles on the left side and two short poles on the right, when I should have put one each on each side. At this point I immediately regret impulsively throwing the Allen wrench off to the side after tightening the last screw.

With the Allen wrench probably buried in a snowdrift a thousand feet down, I’ll have to come up with some other way of unscrewing and re-screwing those hex screws. I stay calm and search my pockets. Coincidently, the ignition key to my Saturn Ion works perfectly. Dodging yet another CDE, I chuckle as I quickly reconfigure the wing frame to the proper symmetry.

Now it’s time to sew the parachute cloth onto the frame. You might think that threading a needle in shivering cold, 30 mile-per-hour winds would be hard, but in fact it’s surprisingly easy. When you wet the thread with your spit, it freezes instantly and that makes it like threading a needle with a needle, which isn’t hard at all.

In other circumstances, I would recommend using a double stitch when sewing fabric to the wing of any sort of aeronautic craft — but I opt for just a single stitch. I’m not planning on using this glider more than once, and having to reconfigure the frame has cost me valuable time. I’m sure a good single stitch ought to hold for the ten minute flight down.

Continued next week: taking flight.