We at Ozone are sad to report that our friend John Silvester, master vol-biv pilot and pioneer of Himalayan paragliding, has left us following a heart attack on Sunday. Good friend to Ozone founders Mike Cavanagh and Rob Whittall, John was a one-of-a-kind airborne adventurer who spread an incredible amount of love and positivity through our sport since his arrival by way of the climbing world in the 1990s. John’s passion for big mountain flying, and sharing it with others, was undiminished, and his company Himalayan Sky Safaris lives on through his partners Jim Mallinson and Eddie Colfox. In their words:
John was a pioneer of not only paragliding vol bivoauc but also of many climbing routes in Wales, the Alps and Pakistan’s Karakorum. He was a loving father to Dru and Molly and partner to their mother, Nicky. And he was a wonderful friend, treasured by all of us lucky enough to know him.
I first met John at the 1994 British PG Nationals. I was a mere rookie pilot who’d managed a discretionary place at the comp. He was cool, friendly and informative. I didn’t do too badly. He won. He’d already broken the European distance record and been a key member of many successful British PG teams, and he was a factory pilot for Gin when he ran Edel.
We kept in touch, hooking up for the odd day flying in Snowdonia and seeing each other at the Nationals. Then in 2000 we went to Hunza together for the first time. He introduced me to proper big mountain flying. And so the Himalayas became my winter place for next 20 years. John was my flying companion and teacher, I his student; he the master always managing to find the better lines, go further, do it more professionally. We had a lot of fun and he always won, even the fucking backgammon. But I could walk a bit faster than him. He’d moan a little bit about his ankles that looked destroyed from his climbing exploits. He once said he’d only taken to climbing because it was a way to keep intimate with the mountains without having to walk on them.
Not long after I learnt to fly my mind was blown when I read of John and Bob Drury’s 500km vol-biv trip through the Himalayas in 1997. I had no idea you could do anything like that on a paraglider, and they had done it across my favourite place in the world. I sought them both out and quickly became close friends with Bob, but John was more elusive. He’d pulled out of the comp scene just as I got into it. We crossed paths a few times and I remained in awe of him. That never really changed, but I got to know him a lot better when, to my surprise and delight, he accepted Eddie’s invitation to join us running guided vol-biv tours from Bir. Those trips were some of the best times of my life. It was hard to explain to our clients how privileged they were to be flying with John. We’d make sure to leave enough time between guiding trips to go on our own adventures and thanks to John I did things I’d never dreamed of.
John, Eddie and I would stay together in my little cottage in Bir. Well, John didn’t stay in it, he camped under a mosquito net on the verandah, where we would spend long evenings playing backgammon, planning, chatting and laughing. Oh, the squeaky voice and laugh! I can’t believe I’ll never hear them again.
Despite always winning, John was modest. Working with him at Himalayan Sky Safaris he was generously complimentary about me and my skills. We had to steer him towards the best clients as he was intimidating to most. Every moment was lived to the full and every day was a comp task — great for the likes of Gavin Mcclurg but for others maybe a little scary.
Even in Asia John was often recognised. Not just at flying sites. It could be a random bus stop or walking down the street. He’d be asked about his films and offered napkins to sign. He always gave people time.
John was an artist, in that his life was a work of art. He struggled to do it all perfectly and his way. He grew tired of the numbers game of paragliding and took it back to the purity of climbing, looking for new lines, unsupported lines, multi-day lines, and developing para-alpinism. He shared these adventures with the world through the movies he and Alun Hughes made, Nowhere to the Middle of Nowhere and Birdman of the Karakorum. He was an artist at his home too, with the constant building and improvements he made from materials he found to hand that fitted together perfectly. Here he didn’t seem to be competitive as timing didn’t seem to be important just the the form and function
John was a genius pilot. The best that I’ve ever flown with in mountains. His ability to “milk it”, as he called it, surfing ridges close to the trees for miles and miles without turning never ceased to amaze and infuriate me as I tried in vain to match him. “Helium legs”, Eddie called him. His understanding of what was possible, and his ability to do it, were second to none. He had a way of looking at things that made you see them in a completely new light. And that didn’t apply only to flying. John was a contrarian, never ready to accept the received wisdom. Time with him made you rethink things, turn them upside down, shake them around and rearrange them into something new. He was a quiet but unstoppable force. I never knew the reality of his chronic health problems and now that I know more I’m so impressed by his stoicism. John was a truly unique human being who could not have made more of what he was given in his too short time.
Although many articles were published about him and films were made, he was not a great self-publicist, turning down many possibilities to spend time with his family and the community of Llanberis in Wales’s Snowdonia, his adopted home. Once when discussing medical preexisting issues — maybe because I’d noted his declining use of malt whisky, which he adored — it came out that not only were his ankles fucked, his kidneys were too. One functioned at about fifty per cent while the other hardly at all.
When I heard earlier this month that John hadn’t seen a mate because he was a little ill, I got in touch. It took a couple of days. John told me he’d had a heart attack and not to worry, he was doing ok, he was well made for a lazy life and his heart had been weak from birth, an important bit of information he’d rather typically withheld from his long-term adventure flying partner.
A hugely sad loss but it was a privilege to know such a gentle but inspirational guy, with a spiritual heart so much stronger than his physical one.
IN THE IMAGE: Sharing one of many fires somewhere in the Himalayas. (L to R) Jim Mallison, John Silvester, Eddie Colfox and Dean Crosby.