Let the magic begin…
Once you have introduced a respectful paraglider-pilot-and-paraglider-wing relationship to a column of rising air, you can sit back and watch the fairytale unfold.
You may already have met some of the characters I’ve hitched a ride up to cloud base with – but if not, I can assure you most of them are worth getting to know, and they are all very special in their own unique, weird and wonderful way.
You’ll definitely know the ‘staat-maaker’ or house thermal. She lives very close to launch and can usually be relied on without fail. She’s that friend you always go to in your time of need, but you are quick to question her fickleness if she dares to take a me-day, and you find yourself in the turkey patch.
The empty-promises thermal is the one that is just not worth sticking around for. He will give you a bit of hope…beep beep beep… then lets you down horribly with no warning whatsoever. You may go back for a little more once or twice if you are really desperate, but eventually you’ll tire of being led down the garden path, and go searching for lift elsewhere.
The one-man / one-woman thermal does not always have space for two. If you really make an effort to understand it, then perhaps its spiky, narrow, temperamental column of lift will reward you, but then again perhaps it won’t… Generally pilots do not like to share these thermals with other pilots as they require undivided attention, no distractions…unless a feathered friend is prepared to demonstrate exactly how this one is mastered.
Much like my favourite fiction hero, Jack Reacher, the drifter thermal is quiet, inconspicuous, and maintains a low profile until riled. You may chance across one of these when lining up for landing on a dirt road in the Karoo… It’s lazy, it’s low, it’s slow… yet somehow, before you know it, you will have drifted downwind for ten kilometres in its company, even climbing a little on the meander. But be aware…when this one hits a trigger it can metamorphose into a fighting machine, just like good ol’ Jack. One should never underestimate the drifter.
If I stumble into a lamaze thermal before finding my air-legs, my initial reaction is to retract deep into my pod, in the hope that it won’t see me and pass by… No no no, I’m not ready for you yet… However, this thermal means business and it’s better just to surrender and play ball, pull your shoulders back and stand tall. This one takes no prisoners and is offering you exactly what you want – a fast ride up to base. Just don’t fall out its side… I find the “I’m-about-to-have-a-baby” breathing works well as an aid to cope with your glider’s contractions, just don’t accidentally press your PTT while doing so – your mates will never let you forget that you did. I love these thermals, A LOT, for the rewards they deliver, but too many in one flight? Well, that would just be greedy…
The fire thermal (a distant cousin to the friendlier smokey tendril) has you looking up at your glider as often as is humanly possible while trying to avoid whiplash. Firstly, you’ll find yourself double-checking that you actually did get the right bag out the garage this morning, and didn’t accidentally pack the Boom 3 you bought, under the influence, at some fundraising auction years back. Secondly, you’ll need to keep making sure that your wing hasn’t spontaneously combusted and is still above you… or at least in the near vicinity. The fire thermal will see your glider behaving in an unusually boisterous manner, and is only to be used in desperate, indeed only in very desperate times. Or of course if you’re Superman.
The confetti thermal is an absolute dream. My encounters have been rare, but the few I have danced with have required my full and unconditional commitment. Once you’ve connected, you literally shoot up into the stratosphere leaving the other gliders wobbling clumsily in the air below, just like little pieces of confetti in the breeze. It’s all fireworks and symphonies and pure magic, and leaves you feeling amazingly accomplished!
The smooth operator is a massive sky-pond filled with luxurious and delicious lift. It squats above a few inversions and you need to work hard to earn passage there. Entrance is mostly granted through the fire -, confetti- or lamaze-breather thermal. Though the smooth operator is aloof it will welcome you and embrace you warmly. And once immersed you are transformed into a weightless, floating, levitating angel… a feeling totally juxtaposed by the hysterical, off-the-charts screams emitted by your vario.
It’s not always high drama up there though, and it wouldn’t be fair to forget the girl-next-door thermal. She’s more than likely every sane pilots’ favourite, however doesn’t always make a good post-war story, so misses out on the mentions. She’s reliable, she’s smooth, she’s kind, she’s generous and she’ll get you to cloud base without you breaking a sweat.
Sweating or not, topping out is the sweet-sweet reward of an encounter with whichever thermal you’ve hitched a ride up on. String enough heights together and you’ll eventually arrive back on terra firma sporting a big smile and with a good story to tell.
If you’ve just started dipping your toes into racking up the airmiles, and haven’t formed any decent one-on-one connections with rising air just yet, hang in there, these encounters are definitely worth the wait.1