Saturday, February 12, 2011

As I walked out one mid-winters day…

Today was another glorious day – it seems like high pressure has dominated the Alps since Christmas, more or less.  Today I decided to take a true X-Alps approach to my training.  Out of the 32 competitors in the X-Alps this year I think only 12 of us are ‘rookies’.  This is really a ‘one of its kind’ race so there is a lot to learn about tactics and how to approach the race.

Today I certainly learnt a lot.  Let me tell you the story, and then I will explain what I learnt!

I left my house around 9am with my glider on my back.  Now, I don’t yet have my X-Alps gear (as followers of this blog will know) so my total equipment weighed in at around 16kg.  I set of in the direction of the mountain I can see from my house – the Voiron – it is around 12km to the bottom of it and then a 1200m walk up to the summit.  I’d never been up the Voiron before but had checked out the mountain on Google Earth and although mostly tree covered there looked like a clear patch on the summit ridge with a steep W facing slope that would be launchable.  The forecast for today was for light W wind, blue sky at the start of the day with veils of high cloud coming over later – certainly that turned out to be pretty much spot on although the cloud came in a bit earlier than expected.

Challenging Launch!

I had a good walk to the bottom of the hill – despite the 16kg I felt fine.  As I started ascending the lack of knowledge of the paths (coupled with lack of a map!) meant I am not sure if I took the most efficient route up through the trees to the summit.  Still, it was an enjoyable walk up.  At the top, there was no obvious place to launch – I walked south along the ridge and found a clearing on a steep slope but it had too many small trees and with virtually no wind this was not an option.  Besides it was not the spot I had spied on Google Earth.  Turning back and walking N along the ridge I found the place I was looking for.   The problem was that what looked like a clearing on the computer was actually full of approx 2m high pine trees!  By now the wind was cycling through with 5-10kmph straight up the slope.  After a lot of dithering I decided there were two possible launch spots – both tight.  The first was a steep slope, grassy but very narrow and dropping off extremely suddenly – easy enough to get off but committing and there was a dead tree just in front  - which would need to be flown around, just after getting in the air.  I decided this was too dangerous.  The second was a patch at the top of the slope full of 2m pine trees.  There was a narrow gap in between the trees could give me just the space I needed but it meant that the wing was on the path, virtually out of the little wind that there was and either side of me were trees and bushes.  This was insanely difficult, but not dangerous – I was only really risking getting tangled with some small trees, if it went wrong.
Looking back at take off from the air - spot the launch site!

It turned out to be just as difficult as I expected – the first time the glider came up slightly to the right – I corrected, momentarily forgetting I only had a narrow gap to aim for and I was now out of it - launch aborted.  There followed about 10mins of picking my glider out of trees!  To cut a long story short it took many attempts, and between picking the glider out of bushes and small trees and waiting for the few up slope breezes, it took me nearly 2 hours to finally get off!

I had planned to fly north and walk up another hill to a second launch before gliding back in the direction of my house and walking home, but as I had wasted so much time on take off I decided to just glide back in the direction of the house, and walk the last part.

In total I walked 27km, climbed 1200m and flew around 8km.  A little frustrating at times, but still, I learnt a lot from today.  The key lessons were:

Landing - take off was on the mountain in the background!
1)      Just when you think you’ve got blisters fixed they come back and bite you.  I was wearing the same shoes and socks as I have been training with for the last few months but still after 10km I had a blister forming on my heal.  The difference?  I was walking with a pack and not running!
2)      Food and drink is very important.  I thought I had taken plenty on my trip (indeed the 1.5kg of isotonic drink added considerable weight to the pack) but it was only just enough and I did less than I was intending.  Having my supporter carrying this for me where possible and making sure I always have enough without having to carry much will be extremely important.
3)      Just because somewhere looks like a take off on google earth doesn’t mean it really is.  I think I’ll need to be more certain – so more research into possible launches on route is required and in case I need to rely on google earth then I should have a plan B in case the launch turns out to be rubbish!
4)      Carry spare line.  As pilots we are spoilt today.  Most alpine launches are either carpeted or nice grass.  If you pick a launch site at random then there is a chance there are brambles and roots which catch on lines and you can easily break a line.  I broke an upper C line today, just trying to pull the wing up.  This reminds me of the flying I was doing back in the early 90’s when this happened regularly as we didn’t have the manicured launches of today – in those days I carried some micro-line and a needle in my wallet to replace lines if needed.
5)      A positive lesson – even with the 2 hours wasted launching - I still reckon it was better to fly than to walk down as it would have probably taken me longer to descend the mountain on foot.

So there you go – we live and learn.  I plan to do more hike/fly days along the route as spring comes along, both to get used to the terrain but also to learn these kinds of lessons – planning the day properly and knowing what to look for when trying to find a launch site.


  1. Fantastic write-up Jon - this really shows that the X-Alps is in reality much harder than it looks on Google Earth!

    For people who want to check it out, the coordinates of Jon's launch are approximately 46.2286 N 6.3544 E.

  2. Nice, I like reading your posts
    Good luck