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.

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