I will never forget this flight. It will always be present in my mind, during every glide and under every cloud…
The cumulus looked similar to others of the day. So did its shadow and its size. I was climbing with a soft 3m/s under the centre of it, where I always found the best lift that day, if not at the windward side. I left the thermal at 3300m, expecting that I would climb a bit more while gliding, as I had under previous clouds.
But this time the lift got stronger and stronger. I looked around. The shortest escape was the direction I was going, downwind. Cloudbase was around 3700m. I could see I would enter it a bit. Don’t worry, I told myself, the downwind edge was not more than 100m ahead.
It was not a fluffy cloudbase, gradually getting thicker: it was a sharp line. As soon as I entered the grey mist, the arrow of my compass turned crazy. At first, I couldn’t understand it. My vario was screaming with 7-8m/s and drawing my track as if in a tight thermal. I felt no lift, no centrifugal force, no change of direction. I had to accept that that my instrument was working because it was my only reference.
It was impossible to stop my rotation, as it was not just the glider spinning on its own, but the mass of air itself. This I only understood days later… I was confused, nothing made sense. What I thought, what I felt, the way the glider was behaving, what my instrument was telling me… didn’t match at all.
Then I realised that, together with the cloud, I had burst through the inversion. Until what altitude would I continue climbing?
There was some drizzle, then it started to rain. I got completely soaked and had difficulties seeing the instrument. Then everything froze.
I thought I should speak on the radio, telling the guys “I’m in the cloud, I can’t get out, I’m scared…” But then what? Which cloud? And anyway, no-one could help me.
I felt really alone and very small.
At this moment, an instinct, maybe the ancient instinct, was activated. It was no use to get into a panic; let me do (the little) I can do, which was to keep the glider open. I checked my growing altitude. 4800m. I knew, I must do something, soon I would suffer a lack of oxygen. The cold was secondary, I was more worried about the equipment. How does a glider behave when soaked… and frozen? And what if the batteries went flat in my instruments?
An eternity passed when finally the vario calmed down a bit and I could force the glider out of the lift and keep the arrow still. After the 100m, I broke free. I left the wall. I had always been near the edge.
At this moment I was reborn. What I felt was not of this world. I cannot put it into words.
It was the most beautiful aerial landscape I have ever seen. I was exhausted and a bit sleepy. I forced myself to focus on breathing, taking big deep breaths. I started to move my body, my arms, to get the circulation back.
Everything was covered with 2mm of transparent ice. Me too. I was higher than all the clouds, except the one at my back. I looked back once, and saw my cloud was still growing, 500-1000m above me, I couldn’t really tell. The air was still, above the inversion. My vario was quiet.
The cloud died off with the day, without becoming a storm.
The ice melted off me only at 2800m and I started to shake. I had a long, peaceful glide. I didn’t feel like thermaling again, but I decided to continue with my flight. To watch the lengthening shadows on the landscape. To drift away from danger.
After 2 hours more, at sunset, I landed in the blessed warmth.
I made several mistakes. Climbing too high. Not doing descent manoeuvres before going into the haze. Not anticipating the strength of the lift.
I was already a bit dehydrated and less focused when this episode happened. If there are many clouds, it’s not so obvious to see the real character of a given cloud. Even if 99% of the sky is full of friendly fluffy ones, does not mean that there cannot be an odd one out. Even despite beliefs and forecasts. If a cloud shadow is slightly bigger and maybe darker, it can be reason enough to think twice. Even if the lift is gentle and it looks peaceful.
I didn’t expect that the cloud would not let me escape. It didn’t even cross my mind that I would lose control over the situation. I didn’t consider that how much (little) I know, was far from enough.
However, at the same time, I also discovered an unknown part, within myself. Once I understood the situation, I could maintain the focus, stay calm, follow my intuition… and trust.
There are still many questions and dilemmas that might never get answered. There is too much unknown in a situation like this, which makes it scary and demands respect. And humility. It was entirely my fault getting into it, and I’m grateful that I could get out of it without getting hurt.
I hope this story helps you to stay a little safer under the clouds. Be prepared! Even when it’s just another little cloud.