El Cocuy, Colombia (20-25 December)

We’ve just returned to the nice little white and green painted town of El Cocuy from the mountains. El Cocuy National Park is a fantastic wilderness and its actually a bit of a shock to the system being back in this quiet little touristy town and planning the next part of our trip!

From the very first day going up, we were in paramo, which is a quite other worldly seeming high altitude tropical ecosystem. There are generally fewer flowers and its been generally dryer than the paramo we’ve been to in Parque Natural Iguaque or Finca San Pedro near Sogamoso, but it is more stunning because of the scale and remoteness.

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Paramo

Its worth noting that this is the dry season, which generally means dry and windy with hot days and cold nights. The park would be quite different in other times of year – which from accounts means wet and cloudy with less temperature variation.

On the first day we set up camp by the Pintada Cabana and walked though patches of frailejónes [fry-le-hones] (which are the weird and wonderful plants related to sunflowers that are common in this environment), passed several lakes to a mountain pass at the southern extent of the park as a relatively low altitude ease in. It was really great to be walking in such an environment but we were just a little too late to see any views of the other side as cloud had descended over us. There we met a nice French chap (sorry Ive forgotten your name!) who we would bump into a lot until we left the park.

This didn’t used to be the southernmost extent of the park but in the last year most of the paths on the western side of the main mountain range that forms the park are off-limits. The official story is that the indigenous people living there near the Venezuela border don’t want tourists walking there (or perhaps more likely that they want a just share of the tourism profits – my speculation!). But it seems that this is only part of the story and the other reason is that the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) – a communist organisation that opposes Colombian governance, are known to be present in this area and are believed to be a risk to tourists. The FARC do have a history of kidnapping for extortion though it seems that lately the risk is much lower than it used to be. This is all a great shame as there is a classic 7 day trek around the Cocuy range which is mostly on that side, which is where the most spectacular scenery is supposed to be. However aside from upsetting the locals and the potential terrorist threat, this walk appears quite technical in places and since it is officially closed, guides cannot be found. Therefore the east side would have to do for us, and we assure anyone who was put off by the restrictions that is is most definitely still worth it!

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Frailejones (they grow between 1-4cm per year)

The next day we walked up to the snow line below the Pulpito del Diablo at around 5000m – the last bit consisting of an easy walk up flat glacial rock sheets. We set off early (first brushing the ice off the tent!) to avoid the potential afternoon cloud but the air stayed crystal clear providing us we stunning views of this incredible glacial formed landscape all day. We were both feeling OK with the altitude – walking slowly and drinking lots of water seems to keep the symptoms to a light headache. Apart from some lizards and distant vultures, the only other evidence of life were lots of little round droppings at high altitude – perhaps from the furry rabbits, or marmots that are supposed to live here.

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Pass beneath Pulpito del Diablo

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Pan del Azucar

We then attempted to walk around from the pass that is below Diablo to Laguna Grande de la Sierra which lies at 4500m, just below 6 of the high Cocuy peaks. However, bad just doesn’t describe the official map that is provided and the path was not clear – there being multiple cairns (clearly built by other lost hikers) that would lead us in circles if followed! We ended up taking a very tortuous route over countless ridges in a large boulder field with the occasionally frailejón bog until we eventually reached a nice looking lake that people had obviously camped at before so very tired by now, we decided to stay there. We knew we must be close to Laguna Grande, but many more ridges of boulders and lots of streams dissuaded us from trying. Just as we had finished dinner we spotted the French guy. He’d managed to get nearly to the top of Pan del Azucar (the peak next to the Pulpito del Diablo) without any crampons or ice axe and then also had a very tricky time tying to find the Laguna Grande. He decided to camp near us as it was a stunning location – lakes glaciers and boulders all around – it felt like another planet.

The old official map which has the 7-day trek on it is much much better than the new one and it looks like it would enable safe navigation around the park. However, since the trek was off-limits the map is no longer readily available. The only place we know where this can be found is Esperanza Cabana as a copy was given to our French friend.

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Laguna Grande de la Sierra

It had been pretty cold camping at Pintada Cabana the night before, but this must have been at least -10 degrees. We awoke to strengthening winds (and our French friends tent was rather flatterned). Fortunately the wind seemed to keep the ice from forming on our tent, but as soon as we were out we were wearing everything we had to stay warm! Because of the wind we chose to pack up and walk down to Esperanza Cabana (towards the middle of the park) rather than to explore the glaciers around the lake more as wed planned. We had a nice walk down, but only once we’d finally found the path so it was another long day! XT was rewarded by an unexpected hot shower in the Cabana but sadly the power failed by the time I went in – they kindly heated up a bowl of water for me but it was not nice in an unheated room! A new experience to my pampered western upbringing but not new to XT! So although cold, at least I was clean.

We decided to have a “rest day” the next day – catching the milk truck “el lechero” to the Ritacuba stop and walking to Cabana Kanwara in the north of the park. The milk truck was late (as expected – it is Colombia after all) but great fun; the passengers basically stand or prop-themselves or sit on a milk tub in the back of a medium size open-slatted truck surrounded by tubs of milk and some other produce like potatoes and cheese. We bounced around for over 1.5 hrs thought lovely alpine countryside to the junction, collecting well over 1000ltrs of milk at very frequent stops and distributing a lot of beer for Christmas! We bought one of their cheeses at a great price as a treat before setting off up hill to Cabana Kanwara. This cabana is very luxurious and situated below some impressive glaciers of the northern mountains. Though a rest day, after setting up camp we walked up the road above and discovered the most impressive panorama of the park we had seen – we could see most of the mountains in the park. On our way down we saw the French chap walking up to the road! He had climbed over the pass from the Laguna and down to Laguna de la Plaza, which is supposed to be the most beautiful laguna in the park, and then down most of the way, but too tired to reach the cabana, camped.

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Path above Cabana Kanwara

The winds had been consistently strong from when we left Laguna Grande but the next morning we were encouraged by a very light breeze to try to camp beneath Ritacuba Blanco and Negro at about 4600m for a special Xmas eve. However, as we got part of the way up the wind started blowing pretty strongly, and by the time we got to the exposed and not very inviting camp site on rocky ground it was gale force! We decided instead to dump our camping gear and walk up further to get to a view point as we had done for Pulpito del Diablo. It was the highest we’d been and very hard work walking, but we were rewarded near the snow line of amazing views of the glaciers and some amazingly folded rocks to the north.

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Ritacuba del Negro glacier

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Folded rocks in the north of the park

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Cushion plants

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Glacial terrain

After a long walk down and in lieu of camping high, we decided to treat ourselves to a room in Cabana Kanwara. We wanted to see the sunset from the viewpoint we went to the day before, but when we got up there the cloud was descending rapidly so we thought we’d be disappointed when XT spotted a bird flying towards us, it was a condor! It flew so close to us, about 10 meters I think, and then circled up on a thermal triggered by the hill we were sitting on. It was number 85 from its tag – they are reintroducing them to the area but there are very few around. Seeing this made up for the lack of a sunset by a long way! Not a bad end to Xmas eve and the Cabana which was more like a suite as we had a small building to ourselves and even got a wood fire going! We were still cooking our trekking rice and peas though as the cabana meal didn’t sound great, but two whole bars of chocolate were a nice treat!

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Condor

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The Cocuy range from above Cabana Kanwara

We’d done all the day hikes we realistically could, and were not so keen to hire equipment and a guide to climb to some of the tops or walk some of the illegal paths so it was sadly time to leave the park the following day. We caught the milk truck again and bounced down to the town of Guican only to find that everyone said that there were no busses or taxis to El Cocuy where our luggage was being held – everyone was hungover or still drunk from the Xmas celebrations! Eventually we found a random street where other people wanting to get to El Cocuy were waiting and trying to flag down cars and after a while a bus that wasn’t supposed to exist turned up – phew!

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Guican Xmas day

Next stop is San Gil to hopefully fly or perhaps just look at Chincamocha canyon. The downside is that from El Cocuy its a one stop (first going in the wrong direction to Tunja!) 14 plus hr night buses. Our bus leaves at 8 pm and this I am not looking forward to after the last, but its the least worst option!

Medellín Mid-air, Colombia (31 December)

2015 NYE was my most memorable ever, but for all the wrong reasons.

XT and I were having our second day flying with Juan (our host) from San Felix, Medellin. The conditions were perfect, the wind was not too strong and their were strong thermals, so everyone was talking about doing an XC over the back into the next valley.

The three of us were climbing out and just beneath cloudbase when a young girl we were thermalling with flew into XT!!! It was horrific to watch, I was right there but I couldn’t do anything. I was shouting as loud as I could for XT to throw her reserve as her wing was wrapped around the girl, but of course she couldn’t hear and the girl was so wrapped up she couldn’t do anything. The only luck in our favour was that the girls wing was still flying and we were still high.

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Click to see the Mid-air Video

All sorts of things were going through my mind (all bad) – I can’t loose my wife. I fought to control my breathing as I found myself getting tingly and dizzy from hyperventilating. It seemed an age, but XT threw her reserve perfectly and when it came out it finally pulled XTs wing from the girl and she started descending under the reserve, though alarmingly fast. The girl entered a fast spiral as her lines were twisted but she recovered ok and landed safely.

I was at least not panicking anymore, but extremely worried about where the reserve would take XT – the terrain being rough, with concrete buildings roads and nightmarish power lines. But I watched as she landed in a high tree and it was reassuring to see a local running towards where she was. I made a tricky landing in a nearby paddock and rushed to help.

The tree was massive and on a very steep and overgrown slope – very poor choice of landing! XT was OK – hanging upside down and mostly unhurt – just her ankle was sprained. And I knew she was ok when she was cursing the girl! 😉 The locals were great getting help from the local canyoning school. I was rushing around showing the police where to go, trying to locate Juan and Lina (his wife) to help assist when the branch she was on broke – people who’d come to help or watch were screaming. I rushed back but thankfully XT was hanging safely by her reserve which was still in the top of the tree.

After what seemed an age the climbers lowered her down safely – I’ve never been so relieved in my life. Many many thanks to all those who helped with the rescue, the locals and especially the two climbers who were calm and efficient and got XT down very efficiently indeed.

Later we watched my GoPro video; by luck I was close and got it all on film – you can clearly see the girl trying to turn inside everyone when she tightened her turn in front of XT. An inexperienced pilot flying in an unpredictable manner – we wish we’d been watching more carefully. By luck and by the good reactions of XT, both their lives were saved.

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Xiaotings Account

Conditions were looking good and a group of us were thinking about doing the big cross country flight into the next valley for the last day of 2014!

I caught a weak gentle thermal and was slowly climbing when I saw Juan and another pilot climbing faster near by so I put on full speed bar to join their thermal. I hit the edge first, a bit rough, then adjusted the turn to be inside more with others.

We are all doing big flat turns in thermal formation. When I saw one girl we met on launch doing erratic tight turns inside the formation. I watched her for a bit to see where she was going: she was just a little higher than me and flying in front of me. After another of her tight turns, she seemed to be flying directly away and few wing spans away from me. I thought that I was at safe distance, so I turned my attention to other gliders including my husband to check if I am still in sync with everyone. The next thing I know when I turned my attention back to the girl, she was flying directly at me on a downwind dash!!!! I was shocked and tried to turn away but it was too late! She flew directly into my lines!!!

After that, everything went in slow motion: She was wrapped around in my wing screaming! I immediately checked our height; we were high and as her wing was still flying and we were not dropping that fast. I tried to pull my wing away from her as she kept on screaming but she was wrapped around by the wing so tight that it was impossible. What the fuck!!! What do I do now??!! All my SIV classes were flashing through my mind and it seemed that there is no other option than throwing my reserve. So I waited until I felt both of us were stabilised under her wing, pulled my reserve and threw it as far as I could away from us. It seemed forever until the reserve finally opened!!! But the girl was still wrapped around my wing and both her wing and my reserve were flying! OMG, she could die or we both could die if we go like this into the ground!!! I started pulling my wing away from the girl as hard as I could and finally I heard a pop sound and the girl was freed (later when I was on the ground, I found that one of my A-lines of my wing was caught in the zip in her harness and the line was shredded with all the friction). As I pulled in the rest of my wing as quickly as I could, I saw the girl spiral down, regain her control and fly away – that was a moment of relief! Then I started to focus on the impossible situation I was in: hanging helplessly under my reserve with no directional control, and my sink alarm on my vario screaming on the top of its voice adding the unwanted dramatic effect. I was at the wind’s mercy: there were concrete houses, countless power lines, green pastures, barbe-wire fences, small pockets of forests in the direction where I was heading. I kept on practicing in my head the parachute landing (PLF) if I hit a flat surface and hoping hard that I won’t end up swaying into concrete walls or power lines. It was a bit turbulent down low and I could feel my parachute wobbling. Eventually a small patch of trees were looming large and the impact happened so fast I did not remember much, but I felt my right foot impacting on a branch and the next thing I knew, I was hanging upside down in my harness, my wing under me and me Iooking up at the blue sky and other pilots thermalling past.

Luckily, some local kid saw me land and a whole village gathered around me very quickly. They tried to rescue me but the tree was more than 10 meters tall and on a steep slope with thorny vegetation below. My husband landed near by and it was really reassuring to hear his voice. The branch that was holding me eventually broke but luckily my parachute was still caught firmly in the canopy. A group of local mountain climbers rescued me swiftly. I was on the ground with a twisted ankle, a broken line and a reserve to reassemble.

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After the branch broke :/

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Rescue!

Track log

Many thanks must go to the climbers who lowered me to safety, please check out their website for some alternative activities to flying in Medellin:.

Some afterthoughts from XT after the video spread wider than we anticipated: Thanks for every one who took time to analyse the video and gave your candid advice. I have learnt  my lessons in many hard ways. As many of you suggested, better look out and keep bigger distance is very important ! Hope this video can keep a healthy debate on how to thermal going and many can learn from it as I did from the incidence.

Utah, Chapter 2: Other SLC Sites

I’m lying under a small juniper tree staving off imminent heat stroke just below the big white “G” some way up the side of G mountain just E of Utah Lake listening to the strong thermals gust through the branches. It was v rough flying from Inspo yesterday and it was nowhere near this strong making me a bit apprehensive about flying here. It’s so hot here and the 500ft walk up from the car was not at all shady. The launch looks nice however, so I’m hoping the conditions will calm down enough and I’ll cool down enough to fly in a bit! Perhaps Ill even get to thermal up over G mountain. Were up here with Hal a local instructor who generously invited us on this adventure, CS Ling and Greg with his son. Greg is going to be wind dummy for us on his Carrera – we shall see…

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View from G Mountain takeoff

Well, a few flew, but it was cross-wind, strong and unpleasant looking, which of course didn’t put XT off who had a hairy takeoff narrowly avoiding being dragged over rough terrain while flying sideways with half a wing, however she recovered really well from this unconventional takeoff and had a rough but uneventful flight. For me the potential enjoyment/risk ratio was just not large enough, so I walked down. Greg commented it was fun – “really?”, “well, it was the kind of thing thats only fun afterwards!” Anyway, we all got down safe in our own ways! 🙂

Jim and his wife Terry’s (our great hosts) kindly gave us a lift to V mountain which is N of the centre of SLC and where pilots can fly big XCs not infrequently going S to the N Point and beyond. So I (at least) arrived with rather unrealistic dreams. It was slightly unnerving to find a clay-pigeon shoot going on just behind takeoff and again there was no shade on launch. Our expectations dropped further as there was only a very light breeze and it was rather off to the North – oh dear. I had a frustrating “sledder” (top to bottom) after first getting a bit battered about in a tempting little rotary thermal over a gully which was completely not worth the stress! XT however, managed to make it stick and had a good 1.5hr, 9kft 15k XC ft flight which was very good achievement for the conditions and better than anyone else – I’m only a little envious! }:( We picked her up from a nice big school field on the way home. Jim had a similar flight to me, but had Terry taken some cracking photos of us, see below which made it seem as though we all had a cracking day!

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XT and Jim over the V

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XT and Al being broiled alive on V launch while waiting for an elusive thermal!

One afternoon XT and I found ourselves in a rather hot school car park in Farmington with an excited gaggle of pilots all with the aim of a rare chance of flying off Frances Peak. This is a high mountain for which the takeoff is up a very long drive up a dirt road and requires some organisation for collecting cars on landing. The weather however doesn’t care of the effort and enthusiasm of 50+ pilots and no sane flying was going to happen as when we got up there we could see a massive cold front encroaching. In USA the weather is a bit bigger than in the UK – we had a panoramic view of a whole line of cunims, each massive with regular lightening flashes and a gust front very visibly kicking up dust and water from the salt lake coming in at 50mph according to weather stations. Was no flying was going to occur, we had a bit of time to look around this beautiful mountain before the gust front hit. The flowers up there were spectacular growing thick amongst the holders – it was like a rock garden. When it hit us, it was truly on of those moments to be thankful we were all on the ground – time to leave. Thanks Hal for the heads up again and thanks Adam for lift up in the jeep, and the exciting tour around the mountain top! A non-flying adventure, but an adventure all the same!

Gust front over SLC from Frances Peak launch

Gust front over SLC from Frances Peak launch