Flying with condors


Rob held his hand up with five fingers extended. As Dave made each check he lowered one finger.

“Helmet. Harness. Risers. Wind. Traffic.”

With all the checks completed Rob signalled that Dave could take off. He watched carefully ready to shout if the paragliding wing looked unstable. The conditions were perfect, so Dave shouldn’t have any problem, but taking off from a mountain in the Andes was very different than a green slope on the side of the Yorkshire Dales.

“Good work. Now head under the condors and see if you can catch the thermal.”

Rob readied his own paragliding and quickly took off to follow Dave. Once again he was thrilled by that magic moment where his feet lifted and he was no longer tied to the ground.

He looked across to Dave and was surprised to see him spiralling upwards, already having gained at least a thousand feet.

“Way to go.”

Dave’s reply was a very articulate screech of pleasure.

Many students never made the transition from ground-thinking. Flying in England you always flew with the ground in mind. Occasionally you’d get high enough to go from thermal to thermal but even then you were always conscious of what was below your dangling feet. Here it was different. You could forget the ground and spend hours soaring if you rode the currents. That’s what students found hard to do. Most of them looked down at the contours rather than relying on the feel of wind in their wing.

Rob tried to explain it by talking about floating down a river. The wind was like the flow. You had to forget that constant movement and look out for eddies and whirlpools. All the time you’d be moving downstream but the banks of the river were not important, only the water and the currents.

Rob felt the tug of rising air on his right and spiralled in towards it. You couldn’t see the air column moving upwards but if you were in touch with your paragliding wing you could sense it. Within one loop he was fully in the thermal. Now he just had to tweak his turns to keep himself there. His variometer beeped a regular rhythm as he gained height meter by meter.

Rob looked up to check on Dave but couldn’t see him. He widened his arc to get better control and swung out from under his wing. He looked up and saw three, no four, condors circling high above him.

“Dave. Check in. How’s it going?”

The radio crackled and Rob heard some grunts and the unmistakable sound of the wind on condors’ wings. It was a sound that could carry for over half a mile.

“Where are you buddy?”

“Up with the condors,” came the reply.

“Watch you don’t get too close. They’re pretty relaxed but with a ten foot wingspan you need to give them space.”

Rob continued rising on the thermal and looking up to check on Dave, but all he saw were the four condors. As he got closer he realised his mistake. One was actually Dave sharing airspace with the three birds.

“Dave. Lose some height.”

There was no reply. In horror Rob watched as Dave turned sharply, mere meters from the tail of one of the massive condors. The bird swivelled and flapped once to get above the paraglider. Dave followed the move, swinging his sail around and seemingly catching a thermal pop that lifted him to the same height as the condor.

“Dave. Dave.”

The radio was silent. All Rob could do was watch and hope. Condor’s claws were not particularly sharp but if Dave tangled with one there was only going to be one winner.

He couldn’t quite believe what he was seeing. Dave was swinging the paraglider around like a professional.  At one point he rose higher than the birds and tucked into such a tight spiral that he was whirling around horizontally. Another time he pulled hard on the brake cable until he entered the fastest spin Rob had ever witnessed. Recovering spins required the exact opposite manoeuvre to a spiral. Dave executed it perfectly, even though Rob had never taught him how to do it.

Rob began to think he’d been duped.  Dave had claimed to be a complete beginner when he came to Rob’s paragliding school. He’d progressed well enough but there was nothing remarkable about his flying. Not until today.

Rob was still worried about how close Dave was to the condors but he stopped trying to give any instructions. Instead he watched Dave fly and learnt from it. There were things that Dave did with a paraglider that shouldn’t have been possible. Rob could only assume some trick of the light made it look like the wing actually flapped.

Rob hadn’t realised how long they’d been flying until he noticed the sun dipping below the mountain. He checked his satnav and discovered they’d totally overshot the planned landing site. It was going to be a long drive for Chavez to pick them up.

Rob finally got Dave to respond on the radio. They left the condors and circled looking for a relatively flat field near enough to habitation to get a mobile signal. Once safely packed up Rob challenged Dave.

“What the hell was going on up there?”

“I was flying, man.”

“There’s no way that’s the first time you’ve done that.”

“What do you mean?”

“Come on. The way you flew. No one can do that after three months. You must have done it before.”

“I’ve not done nothing except with you.”

Rob shook his head.

“Honest. It’s just felt right. It was the condors. I was flying with them.”

“It was like you were one of them.”

“That’s right. I was a condor.”

“Well that explains it,” said Rob. “If you were a condor of course you knew how to fly.”

“Yes. Yes. Exactly. I really was one.”

Rob smiled. He knew what Dave meant. As a boy he remembered seeing seagulls playing in the wind on the North Yorkshire coastline. The first time he’d managed to get a paraglider to go up rather than down he’d felt like one of those seagulls.

“Come on. Let’s walk down. We’re going to have a long wait for Chavez. Let’s hope there’s a bar open in that village.”

It was dark by the time Chavez collected them and would be hours before they reached their hotel. Rob was dozing when Chavez suddenly slammed on the brakes, skidded and hit something in the road.

Rob jumped out. They’d struck a small deer. Chavez pulled it out of the road and came back to inspect the car. Fortunately there wasn’t much damage.

Suddenly Chavez shouted in Spanish. Rob didn’t understand the words but felt the horror and fear in Chavez’s tone. He turned and saw a massive bird crouched by the deer carcass ripping flesh with its hooked beak.

Chavez spoke again and pointed.

Rob looked back and this time there was no bird. It was Dave bent over the bloody deer pulling bare flesh off with his teeth.

“Dave,” said Rob.

Dave turned towards Rob, grunted and then flapped arms that blurred as they transformed. With swift powerful strokes the condor lifted into the night sky. Chavez crossed himself and muttered a prayer. Rob checked the car and searched the surroundings but Dave was gone.