Monday, December 20, 2010

Building a winning team

Preparing for the X-alps is making me realise that the emotional attraction of the race and the reality are not the same.  What I mean to say is that whilst the race is about one pilot/athlete against the mountains and the elements, in order to succeed there needs to be an effective functioning team behind me.  And that team goes further than my supporter (who I have no doubt will be the best supporter ever – no pressure Dad!).  

Of course, during the race the only support allowed is from the official supporter in line with the rules, but when I talk about the team, I’m talking about the team involved in the preparation.  Last week I wrote about equipment, and the companies supporting me with gear (especially Ozone) are certainly a key part of the team – the right equipment will make a big difference on the day.  Moreover their knowledge and expertise in the race will help with the preparations beyond just the supply of the equipment.

Seeing how well Maurer’s winning team were prepared in the last race in 2009 got me thinking that Paragliding has come a long way in the 20 years I have been flying.  Whilst still a minority sport, events like the X-Alps now appeal far beyond the audience of people involved in the sport.  So I started to think in terms of preparing for a major sporting event rather than for a paragliding race.  In trying to understand how other sports prepare for major events I talked to John Doerr, a sailing guru, and former America’s Cup coach.  Fundamentally, preparation for major events comes down to managing time and that is consistent whatever the sport.  In fact, the more we talked, the more opportunity we saw, so I now have great pleasure in announcing that John is going to help team GBR2 prepare for this race. 

So we officially have a team coach!

Monday, December 13, 2010

X-Alps Equipment Selection

After a week of travelling for work and only boring running training I thought I’d post my initial thoughts and progress on equipment selection for the X-Alps.

First, and most importantly, the paraglider.  Of course, as every pilot knows, Ozone have dominated the competition scene this year with the amazing R10.2.  For the first season in many years I was not competing, if I had, I’d be flying one!  Many pilots choose to fly light-weighted comp wings in the X-Alps too.  It has a lot of merit, as every ounce of performance you can squeeze out of your wing is distance that you don’t need to cover on foot, but it is not the route I’m taking.

My point of view, from talking to previous X-Alps competitors and studying the type of flying and conditions in which the flying was done last year, is firstly that one of the most critical things in the X-Alps is simply being able to launch and land in some of the most unlikely places.  Secondly, even if there are epic cross country flying days, the ability to get the most out of the day will depend as much on the mental and physical fatigue of the pilot than on the speed and glide performance of the wing.  My experience of flying long XC’s in the Alps is that 8 hours in the harness is incredibly exhausting, and being on comp wing will add to that exhaustion (over the last 15 years I’ve flown both comp wings and serial class wings at different times).  All my flights that have ended prematurely have done so because of making a bad decision aided by fatigue rather than lack of performance.  So finally the choice for me is a high performing serial wing which is beautiful to fly.  I have every confidence that the Mantra M4, currently being developed by Ozone will be every bit that wing, given the performance of the Delta (EN C) and R10.2 (Comp) it stands to reason that the M4 will be equally impressive in its class.  The fantastic team at Ozone have offered me a wing made from lightweight materials to compete on.  How cool is that!  The only requirement which I will still need to look at with them once the wing is ready is the ability to pack and unpack the wing in a very short time.  Some athletes flew as many as 9 separate flights in a day in 2009, if you waste 10 mins packing and then 10 mins unpacking that is 3hrs of the day gone!  It needs to be possible to throw the wing out, fly and then stuff it away equally quickly!

As for the harness, I’m still working on that one! 

For the rest of the equipment lightweight is obviously the predominant requirement.  The lightest helmet (and apparently the leading choice amongst X-Alps competitors) is the Petzl Meteor.  Not actually a flying helmet, rather a mountaineering helmet it is none the less one of the lightest available at an amazing 235gr.  This time it is the UK importers, Lyon Equipment who have offered to provide this for the competition.  Thanks guys!  I already have a lightweight reserve (although I need to see if they have made them any lighter in the intervening 2 years since I bought this one!) so really the last big bit of flying kit to sort is the harness. 

Once I have the flying stuff sorted I need to start thinking about equipping our team for the ground part of the race too.  More to come in a later blog.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Escalade video clip

Just to prove I really did run, here's a clip of me running when I finally managed to break free from the main crowd at the start of the 3rd lap.


In 1602 the city of Geneva successfully defended itself against an invasion from the Savoyarde army.  In order to celebrate the saving of the city thousands (in fact nearly 25,000) of runners take to the streets in the annual ‘escalade’ races.  This years event took place on Saturday.

Starting at 10am, for the school children, the races go on all day, culminating in a fancy dress race in the evening.  I’d entered the race as a bit of fun and to keep my X-Alps training on track.  At only 7.2km it is not a terribly long race (in fact I’ve not run a race less than 18km before) but it winds its way through the cobbled old town of Geneva, climbing out of the Parc des Bastions, up into the old town itself before weaving through the narrow streets, down then up, then finally down to the Parc de Bastions again.  3 laps of this circuit make up the full race.

Saturday was extremely cold with snow and ice still on the ground.  It had been about -5 deg C in the morning and was still well below zero as I was preparing to run with a 17:00 start time.  I warmed up and only went up to the start around 5 minutes before the gun as I did not want to get too cold.  This turned out to be an error – I pushed my way into the middle of the pack but as the gun went off I realised I was too far back and hemmed in.  I had naively thought that after half a lap or so people would be spaced out but it wasn’t the case – with the huge number of runners and the narrow streets there simply wasn’t place to get past.  I spent the whole first lap trying to get past people and was only getting into my stride as I passed through the Parc Des Bastions for the first time.  Into the second lap I was still cruising past people but now there was a little more space and it felt easier.  Darkness had fallen and with icey patches of snow still lurking at the side of the course it was sometimes a little dicey squeezing past people but nevertheless I felt I ran a strong lap and as I came through the Parc Des Bastions and headed up the hill for the last time I had to push hard to keep the pace up.  Through the old town, past the drummers at the cannons and finally the last uphill – short and sharp - I used this to power past people who were now tiring and started striding out down the hill for the finish, still I had to slow due to people in the way again (it was either that or side step onto ice whilst hurtling down the hill at full speed!).  I sprinted the whole final straight, and crossed the line in a time of 29:54 for the 7.25km.  My net time was 29:21, given it had taken so long to even get across the start line!

I was genuinely surprised how well this race went.  At nearly 15kmph average on such a hilly and windy course I ran much faster than I usually would.  I guess the training is paying off!

-          Escalade site:
-          Results:

Thursday, December 2, 2010


I have been severely reprimanded by the owner of this blog for letting through yesterday’s post with a couple of errors in it. In my defence I would say that so eager was I to cast aside my blogging virginity that I did not read through the piece sufficiently well, that this should happen to me, the ultimate grammatical pedant........

But back to the plot, I read through (perhaps to annoy Jon I should have typed that as ‘ I red frew’) the Rules and Regulations of the Red Bull X-Alps race yesterday and whilst by and large the rules relating to the ‘physical’ side of the race seem straightforward there are quite a lot of technical things to take care of in the way of uploading of videos, online diaries, photos etc and keeping tracklog back-ups etc, I’ll have to shake off my natural Luddite tendencies. This should not be a problem because as Jon never fails to remind me I used to work in IT, trouble was this was in the dim and distant past when a computer the size of a small house possessed a total memory capacity of sometimes up to 16k.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Running in the snow

It has been dumping snow here in Geneva - about another 40cms today.  We've had snow since Saturday morning, but still it hasn't stopped the training - here is a photo of me heading out on a training run in the snow at the weekend!

A family affair

Well there are two of us in this blog now, never really thought that technology would creep up on me to the extent that I write blog entries for the whole world to see, but hey we'll give it ago.

I must admit to quite looking forward to the X-Alps, after competing in three ultra races myself over the last few years it will be nice to watch others suffering, sorry, that should read enjoying themselves. Still guess it's quite hard work now for both of us up to race start in July, just hope I do not disappoint

Monday, November 29, 2010

Yippee - team GBR2

Finally, a month after the initial announcement of athletes, I had a call from X-Alps organizer Hannes Arch last Thursday to inform me that they had decided to let me compete after all.  After the initial announcement I had been told I was a ‘reserve’ in case someone else dropped out.  It seems the organising committee had a change of heart and decided rather than keep the reserves guessing (and training!) they’d let us into the starting line-up. 

Whatever the rational, it has now just been announced on the X-Alps website (

So celebrations at making the start line now done with, the real fun and games starts – training and preparation!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Lausanne Marathon

Despite not getting a place in the starting line up for the X-Alps I seem to have become quite addicted to running.  Initially intended as part of my X-Alps training, but finally just for fun, I completed the Lausanne Marathon yesterday.  The picture is taken about a third of the way around (which is why I still look fresh!!!)

Monday, October 18, 2010

Final results from the Jungle

So, after 222km of running through jungles, swamps and wading rivers, my father has finally finished his jungle marathon.  Check it out at   In his own words, "Dont think I did too bad for an old fart, 9th overall and 1st vet, Was in line for 1st Brit until the last day but got pipped at the post by a couple of commandos half my age, bloody cheek.!"

I'm beginning to wonder if we do get into the X-Alps if I should change my strategy and just teach my father to fly cross-country and switch roles - it might be easier! Only joking!

On my side the running pales into insignificance againt the jungle exploits of my father, but still, ran 26.5km yesterday with Tom 'X-Alps 2009' Payne (he is still quite fast!) and then ran into the office this morning (another 10km).  So I'm beginning to ratchet up the km's.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

More news from the Jungle

Both day 2 and 3 results are in - my Dad managed to move up to 9th overall after two stages and is now at 6th overall after the 3rd stage (35km in searing heat including swamps!).  Wow.  Results are here:   and the video clips are here:

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Jungle man

Whilst I'm running around the Geneva countryside in the cool autumn weather, my Dad's busy running through the Brasilian rainforest.  Check it out on  They have now posted a videoclip of stage one and it features Dad...slipping down a slope!  Tee Hee.  Still he is in 17 after one day, not bad for an old man.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The deed is done!

I have just put my entry into the X-Alps in online.  As I mentioned in an earlier post my father has agreed to be my supporter.  I can't think of a better, or more qualified, supporter, espaecially as he is about to run a 200km jungle ultra marathon in Brazil next month!  Still, I had to laugh because when it came to enter his date of birth on line the selection list did not go back far enough!  It seems the X-alps team think he is too old for this!

Lets see if I get selected now...!

Sunday, September 5, 2010

More running than flying....

I decided to run to take off again, but this time by the path that comes up the West face.  To get there I had a 25 minute run round to Moniez, the village in front of take off, before I could set off up the mountain.  About 5 minutes up the mountain I passed a sign saying 1h 30mins to the summit.  The path was a bit steaper than the one on the south face, which suited me fine, but was also a bit more exposed with strong sun beating down.  30mins after passing the sign I popped out at the take off, chuffed at my speed and having thoroughly enjoyed the romp up the mountain.

Today's flying was to prove interesting - it was windy and the task had been set carefully with that in mind.  Personally I struggled a little, getting low and scratching back up in strong winds which were blowing thermals apart low down, but the conditions did not concern me greatly, even with a number of lenticular clouds around indicating storng winds high up too.  After a 5m/s climb out with Ruud Van de Heijden and around the middle fo the field I suddenly realised everyone was heading down to land.  My radio was down but the task had obviously been cancelled.  I continued in the direction of St Andre with the intent of flying back, whcih was certainly possible, but the route was not particularly friendly and I decided after a while that I'd land in the big field with the other 100 gliders at Thorame Haute.  Not far out from St Andre, I bundled my wing onto the back of the first bus and set off running back.  The run was pleasant enough (although slightly longer than I'd thought!) and was punctuated with firnedly beeps and waves from the mini bus drivers shuttling back and forth.  Despite the 16km I ran, I think I still made it back before the last bus!

So that ends three good days in St Andre.  X-Alps training is going well, I'm loving the running and walking up mountains as much as the flying.  Now I just need to get selected!

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Another day in St Andre

Another Day and another walk up to take off.  This time Chris Miles joined me and we walked and ran up.  I enjoyed the company and learnt a thing or two about mountain marathon running at the same time.  Thanks Chris!

The plan for today had been the same as the day before - take off as wind dummy (surely there is a better term for this) and fly the course.  I decided I'd take the start with the gaggle today, feeling emboldened by newly regained pleasure for flying in competition gaggles.  It didn't work out well.  Boating around high and pretty on the edge of the start cylinder, just keeping my nose out of the rather low cloud, I felt confident of my plan.  I was at the aerials and it seemed the place to be.  However after 30mins of waiting around at base I suddenly found myself in a sinky cycle and ended up low in fornt of the aerials.  Desperate attempts to get back up ended in vain and the start merrily opened whilst I was grovelling around near the valley floor.  Doh!  Many others had ended up in the same predicament - with perhaps a dozen being too impatient and ending up on the deck.  I was now in bottom gear - 'survival mode' and found a weak 0.2m/s climb that I spent an age in drifting north in the valley wind but all the time gradually, gradually climbing.  I finally dribbled onto the mountain the British call, 'the cheese' and was back up and running. 

I short cut the first turn point (I wasn't in this race after all), joined the main lead gaggle and stayed with them for the next 10km.  The performance of the R10's was showing and I was being left behind - the gaggle was established on the Cote Longue as I came late and low, in danger of being dropped from this group.  Still, a small cliff looked like a obvious trigger and I went for it with another glider (Mark 'Wagga' Watts) - we screamed out from there and were above the gaggle before they could dive in below us.  I wasn't going to let my good fortune go to waste so I led out across towards the next turnpoint, only to be overtaken by an army of R10's who left after me, overtook me and were now arriving before me and above me.  Competing on a serial wing is defiantely not what it was a couple of years ago when I could stay in touch with most comp wings.  Now I don't stand a chance!

A great run back across in front of the take off ridge under convergence took me to the last turnpoint and easily into goal.  The instinct to race was back again and I was pushing my wing as fast as it could go.  Suprisingly on the last part of the glide into goal an Ozone Delta pulled along side me.  I did a double take - this short lined fat wing was flying at the same speed as my Niviuk Peak, still one of the best EN D gliders on the market and I had three-quarters speed bar on!  What is more he was solid as a rock and I was having to work to keep my wing steady at this speed in the thermic air.  I needed no more evidence today of the great leap in glider performance that has taken place this year!

Friday, September 3, 2010

Britsh Championships in St Andre

I arrived in St Andre late last night, after driving down after work.  The competition had been running since Sunday - I was keen to catch up with old friends and fly for the next few days.

As part of my continuing fitness drive I decided to start the day by walking up to the launch.  I dumped my glider onto one of the competition vehicles (I'd offered my services as 'wind dummy') before heading off up the hill.  I took a few wrong turnings, without a map it seems suprisingly easy to go the worng way, but finally after about an hour I popped out at take off, just in time to see the task set for the day.

I sorted my stuff out and launched before window open, reporting back the conditions.  I took the first turnpoint before the start had opened - I'd fly the course but try to get ahead a little as the leaders would surely catch me up quickly.  Looking back at the mighty bee-like swarm of gliders circling together as one waiting for the start to open I smiled happy that I could fly out on my own in clear air, happy not actually competing for the first time in the last 4 years.  I crossed the start gaggle as they were gliding into the first turnpoint - the insanity of what I was doing hit me only when it was too late - I was going one way and about 130 gliders were coming in the opposite direction at the same height...  Arrrgghhhh!  Still, it all passed quite sedately and my plan of staying in front was soon foiled by getting stuck.  After 10 mins the gaggle was back and with the help of about 100 other gliders we quickly found the strong climb whcih had been elusive to me on my own!. 

Now I was in the thick of the lead gaggle and in total contrast to what had been going through my head 20mins earlier, I slipped effortlessly back in to racing mode.  Climbs weakening, quick, push the bar - who has the best line?  I was loving being back in the thick of the gaggle and racing again.  Still I soon realised that my 3 year old serial wing was absolutely no match for the speed of the Ozone R10's.  Wow, they are fast.

So, I got left behind, but reminding myself I was not actually ion this race I tried some different routes, and found out why we never go that way!  I ended up extremely low (lining up to land if the truth be told) before scrapping out again with my mate Martin.  I rolled in to goal, slow and happy not to have this one scored!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Photo shoot on the Saleve

X-Alps preparation continues, as I borrowed the services of a work colleague, James Whetton, who is a rather good photographer to take some portrait photos.  To thank him for his services I took him up for a tandem flight.  Here is the result, and some pretty pictures of evening flying above Geneva.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Running with my Dad

My father, who in a moment of insanity has agreed to be my supporter in the X-Alps (if I do actually get in) was over for the weekend so we went for a run together up the Saleve (1200m hill next to Geneva).  We took the path up the Grand gorge from Coin then did a loop on the top following part of the ‘grand tour’ before descending via the path through the cave.  It took us 50mins to the summit (versus the 2hr 20min on the sign!) and in total was a very enjoyable 2hrs running.  My Dad did complain a bit which made me feel good about my own training.  That may sound strange given he is in his 60’s but as he is about to take part in a 200km jungle ultra-marathon in Brazil in October and is close to the peak of his own training, I was quite chuffed!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Racing trains

I’ve just come back from a week long family holiday in Leukerbad and Gruyeres. Plenty of hiking in the mountains and evening runs to keep me in training.  No flying though – for once the paraglider stayed at home.  On one of the days my wife and I walked with our two children from Gruyere village to the village of Moleson. Not that far in the grand scheme of things but still a 2 hr hike with 400m height gain, which my youngest daughter, Lucy who is only 5yrs old, took in her stride! Afterwards the plan was to go up to Moleson summit.  Ali and the girls went to get tickets for the funicular mountain railway, whilst I set off at speed on foot.  Fortunately for them there was a train just about to depart.  Fortunately for me, they missed it!  The run up was easier than I expected and soon the top was in site.  The train was in the station and just about to depart but the family were nowhere to be seen! I was there with a comfortable 10mins to spare waiting for the next train to arrive!  Most of my running experience (Course de Duc, Geneva half marathon) has all been on the flat but I think I have been bitten by the ‘running up mountains’ bug.  The more I think about it the more excited I am about the X-Alps.  I just hope they let me in!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

X-Alps Wannabe

Applications for the 2011 X-Alps are open.  After following this race avidly for the last few years and looked on longingly, I’ve finally decided it is time to have a go.
Lots of things to think about and work on before I actually put in my application but I have plenty of time as the application deadline is the end of September.  On the fitness side, I’m already running and cycling a lot so this blog may begin to turn into more of a training blog rather than just a blog about flying. 

Sunday, June 27, 2010

To fly or to swim?

Yesterday was my birthday, but the weather was good and so of course I went flying!

'Good' is not epic, in other words it was flyable but nothing to get excited about.  Annecy suited my mood and I was to meet up with Quentin and Damien to fly from Plan Fait above Tailoires.  Ali and the girls came too, unusual these days, and after lunch together in the cafe by the landing field we went our separate ways, I took the Navette to take off whilst the girls went to Tailoires beach to swim.

The day was slow and stable.  I took off without any grand plans but thought a jaunt down to Margeriaz and back might be fun.  After one of the longest and lowest climbs out (45mins) I finally made it to base above the Dents de Lanfon.  However, I was one of less than a handful of gliders that had made it up - we were either luckier or more patient than the 30-40 wings still milling about down at take off height.

I decided to glide across the lake and fly down the Roc des Boeuf.  Back low I had to grovel again, and it took me an age to get back high at the south end.  It seemed that whilst there were climbs high up, there was precious little working low down, not a great XC day.  Checking in with the others (who had flown to La Tournette) on the radio it seems that they too were getting mildly frustarted with the conditions.  That was it, I figured I did not need to be up here battling with this so I set off back to Tailoires, I was heading into wind and with precious little lift around it was going to be a tight glide.  As I crossed over the beach I tried to spot my wife and kids but with no luck, maybe I wasn't as low as I thought!

Once I was back above the landing field I radioed back to Quentine and Damien that I had decided to land to go for a swim.  It was testament to the day that both of them decided that the day was indeed better to suited to swimming and made the same call.  We all met up at the beach a little while later to cool off in the water.  I spent the rest of the afternoon having fun with the family before finishing the day witha beautiful meal overlooking the lake.  What a pefect birthday!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Above the clouds

I was flying with Annecy based Belgian pilot with Damien De Baenst yesterday from Montgirod.  We had a plan.  It was optimistic. It was a 200km FAI triangle.
At launch it was clear the conditions were not as good as we’d expected, base was low and climbs were slow.  I was first to base at around 2600m, which doesn’t sound that low, but in the big mountains this felt pretty low!  Damien soon joined me and we were not even sure we’d make it out of the valley given the col we had to cross to the north.  We worked our way cautiously through, climbing in a weak climb behind the col before crossing the valley behind.
Things really didn’t look good from there on, the base was only around 2400m and significantly below the summits.  Our route north would be made doubly difficult by the lack of height because as well as the short range from each climb we’d now have to fly around all the mountains rather than over the tops!  As we approached the next ridge Damien was climbing up from lower down as I flew over him to join a stronger climb over the spine, it quickly turned into a surprisingly good 3m/s climb (it was still very early).  What’s more it did not stop or create a cloud.  As an XC pilot I am always trying to understand the aerology, modeling it my head and modifying the model when I experience something I don’t expect.  This didn’t fit in with anything that seemed to make sense, I looked around for clues but I could not see why we were continuing to climb, now well above base.  It must have been some kind of convergence, but I still don’t understand why there was no cloud.  Finally we ‘topped out’ (at least the climb slowed and finally stopped) at about 3000m.  The route suddenly now looked amazing, flying over the first peak and over the top of some small cumulus far below the scene was breathtaking.  Still, in front lay a much larger cumulus, perhaps 3km E to W and 1 km N to S and several hundred meters in altitude, with base around 2400m.  I was a bit nervous approaching this mighty cumulus but realised I did have the height to clear the top of it, just.  Damien was level with me now but about 1km to my right, he skimmed through the E side of the cloud whilst I went right over the top nearer the W side.  We were giggling like school children over the radio – this was breathtaking stuff!
Unfortunately the fun was soon over as I approached the next cloud at base before topping up underneath and crossing to Mt Bisane.  The flight went downhill from there as now we were out of the big mountains the conditions became much weaker.  We both became stuck in multiple places.  We ended up modifying our plans and shortening the course to nearer to 100km than the 200km planned.  We pushed round but base was much lower in the pre-Alps and finally flying back into the big mountains was not possible. The base came down even further at the end of the day to only about 2000m with quite a bit of wind around, making any attempt to get back to Aime both unsafe and unlikely to be successful.  So finally we both landed out near Albertville. A long and hard day flying for only approx 100km of distance, but the moments flying over the clouds made everything worthwhile. What an experience!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Two good days in May

After the great flyiong at the end of April the flying in May has been dismal this year.  So, to remind me (and you) how great flying can be in May here is an article I wrote on flying in May after two epic days in May 2008 (the article was published in the British Paragliding Magazine 'Skywings')

The emails started arriving on Tuesday. Friday was going to be good, very good. After a disappointing April everyone was anxious for a good XC day and this one was looking great – high base, light wind and a great air mass. Plans had to be made, work rearranged and, by Thursday night Tom and I were holed up in a cheap hotel 10 minutes drive from the now famous St Marcel launch.

St Marcel is a very small site, just a clearing in the trees really, with just enough space to lay out and launch one glider from the rather precarious steep tree covered slope. Neither is it high – at only 890m it is only about 500m from the valley floor. It sits at the northern end of the main easterly ridge of the Chartreuse and as such works early and provides 30km of ridge that can be flown very early in the day. On this particular day the whole world was here – we were early to launch (9.45am) in order to set up and get a place in the queue, but by no means were we the first. Another slightly higher take-off is very sensitive but once in the air I could see that this too was packed – probably in total about 50 gliders were ready to go.

Tom and I launched around 10.45, the day wasn’t looking as epic as we’d expected but the ridge was starting to work and after flying a few kms to the north (to ensure we could ‘link’ the flight at the end of the day) we headed south towards St Hilaire. The start of the day was slow – there was a thin veil of high cloud and this meant the first 30kms were hard work. By the time we passed St Hilaire we hadn’t even been more than 100m above take off height. Still the kilometers were ticking away, albeit too slowly, and by the time we were at Fort St Eynard things seemed to be working a little better. Pushing out to a southern turnpoint just outside of Grenoble Airspace was a little touch and go as we scraped back in very low below the fort and had to scratch back up the southern face (Tom, rather uncharacteristically, even gave a ‘phew’ over the radio).

Heading north now was easier going and as we neared Dent de Crolles we climbed in our first ‘real’ thermal of the day – 40kms into the flight. Onto Dent de Crolles and conditions were looking better, much better. It was now past 12:30 and the clouds were looking amazing and very high, as we pulled level with the ridge there was no point in climbing to base here – we needed to push back up to the northern end of the ridge, still some 20kms or so away. Flying in straight line we climbed almost all the way – at one point getting up to 2600m (still some way short of the clouds). By the northern end we needed height for the first time in order to make the huge valley crossing into the Bauges. Tom pushed on to the north end of the Granier, but as there was no cloud there I climbed at the southern end to 2800m and set off across.

Refreshed after some food and drink on the glide we arrived more or less together on the Savoyarde. This was my first time making this crossing and I’m told that normally the best you can hope for is a weak climb and then a flop over the back to the mountain behind in order to get high. Not today. A 3m/s climb propelled me up to 2400m where the short transition took us to a stronger 5m/s climb behind. Now conditions were looking absolutely stunning and for the first time, more than half way into the flight, we took this climb up to cloudbase at 3000m. The southern face of Colombier was topped with a classic cumulus – we were giggling like school children over the radio – this was breath-taking stuff.

The route through the Bauges was straight forward – just linking the dots. After Roc de Boeuf Tom pulled ahead and was already climbing out at the Dents De Lanfon as I was gliding in from Lake Annecy – arriving just above the Plain Fait launch. Soon Tom was on transition to Parmelan, however thick high cloud coming in from the north had put the whole of Parmelan in shade. I was nearing 2000m over the Dents de Lanfon as Tom radioed back to say there was strong sink on the glide over and very little working on the other side – it looked pretty grim and I decided discretion was the better part of valour and decided to turn here at the Dents de Lanfon. I hoped Tom would get out of the sink hole he’d flown into but I wasn’t that convinced – still I never write him off.

The run back through the Bauges was straight forward – I had feared that the high cloud would cause difficulties here but it wasn’t the case. Tom made it out of his sink hole (of course) and was chasing my tail but in the end we took different routes back. Nearing the southern end of the Bauges I was back at 3000m and thermalling lazily – I had a long glide to go but I was in, easily, and just enjoying relaxing in the late afternoon climb. When I did leave on final glide I arrived with nearly 1000m to spare – I used the height to ensure the flight was properly linked by pushing south towards the take off – I still had enough height to land up on the plateau where my car was parked and was planning to do so but found out by radio just in time that someone had already brought my car down for me. Perfect – a bottom landing by the car.

The next day, May 3rd, was also planned to be good but with more high cloud. 10am found me trudging up the snow covered slopes above Les Saisies to the Bisanne launch at 1900m. Although the forecast was good the start of the day did not look great. The previous day a local pilot had taken off here at 10.10am to start his XC but today at 11am there was still nothing.

At 11.30 I was getting impatient – a few gliders were in the air, having launched from the lower take-off and they were maintaining, just. I alpine launched in nil wind, not easy in deep snow and a cocoon harness, and was rewarded with a bit of weak lift (0.2m/s but it pays to be patient early!). Soon Tom was in the air as well and the wind sock was showing the thermal breeze had finally switched on. Although the day was mostly devoid of forecast high cloud, one thick patch was obscuring the sun and probably accountable for the late and slow start.

We were the first two gliders to cross to the southern end of the Aravis which found us grovelling and slowly loosing height. We were both getting impatient and it showed as we were outclimbed by a couple of other gliders who had followed us over from Bisanne – it seemed an age before we eventually climbed out, but when it came it was a great climb.

Onto Sulens, in retrospect probably not necessary, but it gave us a good climb and an easy transition onto the back of La Tournette. Tom had again got a climb in front of me and reported back a 5m/s climb out. “How am I going to catch you if you keep taking climbs like that?” I asked over the radio. We fly a lot together, as we are similar in speed but never wait for each other (as the skiers say, there are no friends on powder days). Still, I smiled to myself as I flew straight into a 6m/s climb as Tom was gliding round the front of La Tournette. An easy transition to the Dents De Lanfon and Tom and I found ourselves leaving together for Parmelan. Incredible conditions on Parmelan (the opposite to Tom’s experience the day before) meant I surfed the cliff all the way round to the Tete de Parmelan – the planned turnpoint. As I was flying round the cliff Tom paused to climb in the middle and was urgently reminding me of the cables at the Northern end. Hopeful that the lift would continue all the way round I cleared the top, still flying in a straight line, just a 100m or so before the cable. As I looked down on the refuge not far below I was startled by a large shadow on the ground coming at me with speed – looking ahead I saw the sailplane, just below and in front of me. I was only 50m or so above the top and he passed about 10m below me with a friendly wave.

Taking the turnpoint I pushed back round not realising that Tom had climbed in order to push further North to extend his flight. I stuck with my plan and headed south through the Bauges. The next 30kms is now almost a milk run for us and it passed as expected. With very few cumulus clouds in the sky the heating from the sun, and therefore the climbs, were consistent and reliable. Most seemed to slow around 2600m and few went above 2800m, those that did gave cumulus at around 3000m but needless to say climbing to base did not make sense as we could fly faster staying in the 2000-2500m zone. After Tom’s extended turnpoint at Parmelan I was a thermal and glide in front and took a decent amount of height above Dent D’Arclusaz to make the monster crossing to the north end of the Chaine de Belledonne. Now I was in unknown terrain for me and wishing the two of us were still together – it would be easier to do this as a pair. The climbs were really slow on the other side and I took my time, changing down several gears – it seemed to take an age before I was properly established on the Belledonne. Tom was not so lucky – having left with a bit less height he had to work even harder to get back up.

Having made the Belledone my southern turnpoint I decided to take an easterly route back through the high ground and crossed onto the snow covered Lauziere ridge. I was now heading north. The Lauziere was stunning – at over 2800m the terrain was never far away, but the climbs were reliable and strong. I marvelled at the awesome sight – looking east there were only snow covered peaks extending as far as the eye could see. A minor avalanche tumbled down a gulley below me. I felt honoured to be in such majestic surroundings. Even so, I was on my own in remote and epic terrain I did not know and I was not even sure of the best route back. I felt a little trepidation but a strong climb took me high enough to see Pointe de la Grand Journee, the mountain in front of Les Saisies, and suddenly my path home was revealed to me – two high cols and a deep valley separated me from the valley system I needed to be in.

Staying high I managed to cross the first col, between the Lauziere and Le Grand Arc with plenty of height and dived across the valley to climb on the lower slopes of Pointe de Comborsier, as I pushed back into the high ground around Le Grand Mont I felt that trepidation again, everything below me was snow covered and again even though I was high the terrain was awfully close. I headed for a cliff which faced the early evening sun and as everything around it was white it had to be sure bet, but it was still my only chance to cross through the Col de la Bathie before the day died. Sure enough a 4m/s climb propelled me back to 2800 and finally the glide felt easy. Deep in the Beaufortin and now safely home I crossed the village of Beaufort to push East in order to get the third and final turnpoint. I pushed out under some dying cumulus and was rewarded with a buoyant final glide in restitution back to take off to link the flight. Again my car was on top and I could have landed there but a landing in snow with ski lift cables all around didn’t seem all that attractive especially as Tom and his car were already waiting in the landing field – having not connected with the Belledonne he had come back via the main Albertville valley.

In two days Tom and I had each flown more than 300kms and each completed two closed circuits (out and return’s on the first day and FAI triangles on the second). Having spent more than 14 hours in the air in the two days we were exhausted, but happy. Steak and chips in Les Saisies was well earnt.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

A day flying with Tom Payne.

We were flying together today from the Grand Montets glacier in Chamonix, attempting a British Record Triangle distance.  Here is the story...

I launched after Tom and was a glide behind, which would have been close enough to still work together, but I made a mistake early in the flight by taking the high ground on the Aravis from Pt Percee heading south. I underestimated the southerly wind and found myself stuck in a snow filled hanging valley, I had no option but to turn and run back the way I'd come, getting flushed back down to the Quatre Tete. After climbing here again I was now quite a way behind Tom and set off down the Aravis. Whilst Tom was reporting back difficult broken lift and battling along low, I connected with a better cycle and found myself soaring along the cliffs, straight-lining through 2-3m/s thermals. By Dent de Cons I was back to only a glide behind Tom, and despite having good conditions all the way down to the southerly turnpoint I flew a little cautiously for the next 20km or so, not wanting to get low and be stuck by the valley wind adding to the meteo wind.

The tables turned as we flew through the Bauges, with Tom having classic conditions, whilst I had to work hard for a mediocre climb at the Dent D'Arclusaz. The clouds that look epic in Tom's picture above were spreading out by the time I arrived, so again it was slow-ish, but I had a pretty similar experience to Tom across Lake Annecy and past Parmelan. At the second turn point I ended up having to glide out to it low, and came back to Sur Cou below the summit. This works well normally but I scratched around for 10mins before being pinged out in a 4.5m/s climb right over the summit.

It was here, 110km into the flight, cranked over in this thermal, still close to the terrain that my left brake line snapped. Luckily I was turning right at the time and crazy as it sounds to write it, I figured it was safer to stay in the middle of this mighty thermal than to try to roll out of it with no brake line. I topped out at the cloud at 2600m and announced to Tom that I was going to glide out into the still air over the Bonneville valley and land. I have no idea why I changed my mind and turned towards Chamonix, but I found with the outer line coming off the B riser (which is basically th C tip line on the Peak) I could turn the glider gently to the left if needed.

The next part was slow for me and with the whole valley at Grand bornand in shade under spreadout cloud. There was no way I could get up to Pte Percee as Tom had done, so I glided N along the Aravis and took a climb much further along back to cloudbase before crossing the Sallanches valley. The west face of the Varan was working but I was giving the terrain a wide birth with the lack of control of the wing and the turbulence from the valley wind, still, I got back to 2200m, enough to glide over to the peak Tom had climbed on before he nipped over into the Chamonix valley at 1900. I managed to find a climb to 2200m here, but importantly there was none of the restitution lift behind that had taken Tom back to 3000m. I crossed onto the West facing end of the Brevent ridge, the sun was bang on it and 4 sailplanes were circling nicely under a cloud above, but I was too low and only managed a few hundred metres in a weak climb whilst being blown along the valley. I crossed onto the sunny side but it was too late, nothing was working and even the valley wind was dying. I couldn't go further either as I was going to run out of landing options and I was still aware I needed a biggish field to put my wing down in given I only had one brake line!

So I was back in Chamonix, but no final turnpoint, nevertheless still a very enjoyable 165km triangle in an embarrasingly slow 8hr 30mins flying.