February 10, 2012

Paraglding, La Palma

Puerto Naos
La Palma is another Canary Island where paragliding is taking off in a big way (pun intended).  Like Tenerife, flying is mostly done on the opposite side of the island from the dominant wind direction, known as flying in the Lee.   Unlike Tenerife, weather on La Palma can be a little unpredictable, so safe flying here requires a keen eye for the current conditions.
As in all new locations where I paraglide, I like to get a good brief from a local pilot or guide.  In La Palma, this meant flying with guide Roger at PalmaClub, located on the beach boardwalk in Puerto Naos.  He started the day with a thorough weather brief, held in fluent German, English, and Spanish.  By the end I almost felt like I could understand all his detailed temperature/elevation/pressure graphs!   Wishful thinking, perhaps, but it was clear that Roger had a good grasp on weather conditions, and that meant we could fly with confidence. 

La Palma is a small oblong island, with a high ridge running from north to south, at times reaching as high as 8,000 ft.  The dominant NE wind usually hits the ridge and clouds form along its length.  These clouds block the wind and make it safe to paraglide in lee conditions.  In the middle of the high ridge the elevation dips a little.  It is this slight dip that causes potential paragliding problems. When the cloud layer stays higher than the ridge, wind gusts could squeeze through the dip and cause problems.  Paragliding is still possible on clear days, but for safety reasons, a spotter must drive up into the valley below the ridge.  This spotter will feel wind gusts in advance of their arrival at lauch and could radio to all pilots to get down and land immediately.

Thankfully, on the two days I flew in La Palma, the clouds cooperated and it was safe flying for all involved. In fact, paragliding is possible about 330 days a year, so it's a pretty consistent place to fly.  Above Puerto Naos is a small ridge about 600 feet high.  It is possible to launch from there and thermal up, but the best views come from a higher launch. On the slopes of the main ridge above Jedey, is another takeoff, at about 2500 feet.   First it meant a hairy drive up a narrow, bumpy volcanic path.  Once we arrived safely at a tiny parking area (the drive up is always the most dangerous part of paragliding in my opinion), it was short hike up to launch.  The take-off was a steep slope of loose volcanic scree, with trees on both sides and a few small ones encroaching into our launch space.  Clearly this was not a place to mess around, top land, or otherwise screw up. 

Tandem pilot Danny provided the launch brief while Roger stayed on the LZ to keep and eye on weather conditions and man the radio.   It was possibly the most complicated and thorough launch brief I've ever had.  I'd already noticed that there were a lot of flags and streamers around, both at launch and scattered around the volcanic cones on our drive up.  Danny explained that there were 5 streamers which would help determine a good time to launch.  Three in front of me should all be blowing my way, the flag near the picnic table should be sideways to show there were no crosswinds, and the streamer high up above me would prove that there was no dominent wind blowing down the mountain. 

Lava fields and banana plantations, but no LZ except at the beach.
Part of the brief was an emphasis that there was NO LZ short of the beach.   Except in an emergency, of course, but all options would involve some form of damage to myself or my wing, not to mention hours picking my lines out of rocks.  Lets see, there were new lava flows (sharp) old lava flows (cactus), tall, tall trees (uh, tall), banana plantations (with sharp sticks holding up each tree), and banana plantations covered with netting (very expensive, as well as sharp).  I resolved not to land short of the beach. 

All of this sounded a little scary, but Danny reassured me the good news was that the slope down to the beach was steeper than the glide ratio of my wing, meaning that I would have no trouble staying safe.  The bad news was that from the air, the slope looked deceptively flat. So sometimes it took new pilots a few flights before they felt confident flying low to the terrain, yet with room to spare once turning to fly out toward the sea. 

My launch went smoothly, and I immediately knew the terror of feeling very close to the ground, with all of its unlandable beauty.   But soon enough I had found a thermal to take me higher, with time to appreciate the views of volcanos, lava, pine forests, ocean, and valleys.  Oh, and the bananas.  I was fascinated with the volcano cones and lava flows, and endlessly enchanted with the green forests. 

The soft thermals were just enough to stay afloat without working too hard, and cross country flights were possible quite a ways south along the ridge.  With Roger on the radio calling out frequent LZ wind reports, I flew for about 2 hours until my freezing fingers drove me down to land.   I had packed lightly for my holiday, and sorely missed my flight suit and heavier gloves. 

The LZ
The LZ was a big parking lot behind the beach, with more streamers to guide me into a safe landing.  In a pinch the beach is also a huge spot to land, as long as the tide is out!  After feeling the cold it was nice to get warm again on the black sand beach.  What more could you ask for?!?!

Two days later I had another 2 hour flight, this time a bit warmer with more sunshine, yet still with the safety of clouds covering the ridge.  I could have flown more, both those days and the other days that we were on the island, but of course there were hiking trails to discover too!  

Happy flying!

This short video shows a bit more of the awesome landscape!



2 comments:

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