Thursday, March 31, 2011

Coming together

Competing in an event like the X-Alps for the first time is quite intimidating as regards not only the physical training and flying knowledge side of the operation but in collecting together all the best gear to hopefully ensure a successful completion of the race.

I’ve spent the last 25 years of my working life working in the Outdoor Equipment Industry in the UK so over that time have built up many contacts and friendships which I must admit are now showing dividends. We have already benefitted from the generosity of Lyon Equipment the UK Petzl distributors by their donation of a lightweight Meteor helmet and another firm who have come up trumps are the sports nutrition specialists High5.

I worked alongside High5 for many years and they have supported me in my daft adventures so far and are now supporting Jon and myself with a veritable pack of goodies to help with nutrition during the X-Alps So alongside the gastronomic offerings that I shall be serving from the van each morning and evening Jon will also have the benefit of the best tasting and most efficacious of the UK’s sports nutrition including Energy bars, Isotonic and Energy Source drinks and Protein Recovery fluids. I must admit if his experience is anything like mine has been on using the products on endurance events, he will most certainly feel the benefits. They are scientifically proven after all.

As regards my own training, I’m assuming most of my physical efforts will be in walking up to take offs to help where necessary so I’ve tailored my running to be more fell running than flat. It helps living in the Dales as I can run across the valley and up to the top of Coombe Scar (You can see the gable end of my ‘ouse from ere). Last year at the peak of my Jungle Marathon training I was reaching the top in 32 minutes, best time this year so far is 35 minutes, so a few minutes of winter still to shake off.

I will not steal the thunder of Jon’s next blog entry but other big news is that he has secured sponsorship from his employers of a Camper Van. I’m going to call it Hannibal, after all he successfully crossed the Alps didn’t he. Not sure where we will put the elephants though.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Back on the road

I've eased off on the training over the last two weeks, letting my leg recover from a minor strain.  Yesterday's flying gave some opportunity for training with a 30min walk up to take off (with full 22kg of XC kit) and just short of an hour walk up the road at the end of the flight to meet up with Tom coming to pick me up.  After all this my leg felt fine so I went for a 'proper' run today.  Although a little nervous at first, I soon relaxed into it and was pleased to not feel anything at all in my leg - seems the rest had done the trick.  I'd intended to go for a short run, an hour or so only, but I was enjoying myself so much I carried on for 20km!  So I'm back in business!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

It just gets better...

With a welcome day flying last weekend, albeit with a low base and weak climbs, it was good to see the good weather we've had during the week still hanging around for Saturday.  The soundings were good and there was an unstable airmass, so it was time to go and play. 

Together with the usual suspects we went to Col Des Aravis.  This in itself is quite unusual - normally in March there is far too much snow on the Aravis for the mountains to be properly flyable.  Not so this year - an appalling season for skiing means little or no snow below 2000m and even above that the south faces were bare, so the Aravis was open for business, almost a full month before it normally would be.

The only problem was, we were late on launch.  The clocks hadn't changed yet so although 10.30 felt early, the sun was too far round and before we could launch the wind started blowing through the col bringing nasty turbulence to our chosen launch.  I was in the air first and battling to keep my wing flying - after about 10mins I turned and ran to the north, finding some smoother air and thankfully climbed out nicely.  Only Damien De Baenst managed to get off safely after that, radioing back that conditions were now far too dangerous.  By the time Damien was at cloudbase at 3200m I was already heading north along the Aravis, in awe at the beauty of my surroundings.  After so many months of training on the ground and 'top to bottom' flights I realised as I approached Pte Percee that it is this that makes the X-Alps so special.  Although good flying days will probably not be the norm in the race, when they do arrive I need to make the best of them as this is what it is all about - soaring at 3000m over mountain ranges that would be nearly impossible to traverse on foot.

From Pte Percee I looked across to the Varan and the direction of Chamonix.  I big mass of grey cloud to the north west looked ominous - the top was pretty high with a distinct wave shape indicating wind at altitiude.  What is more the cumulus I was flying towards were only small active parts on the edge of a larger grey mass of cloud.  I climbed here, with other gliders from Plaine Joux, were we'd launched a week before, but I did not want to hang around so as soon as I reached base again I was on glide, with the speed bar on heading south to the hill above Les Houches.  Working my way slowly along the west face, I eventually connected with a reasonable climb to the south.  There was now a veil of high cloud too so the climbs were weaker than earlier.  As I pushed along to Mt Joli, looking at the brown and closed ski slopes of Megeve, I now noticed that the north end of the Aravis and the area I just come from was a big mass of congestus cloud, with base dropping and rain falling from it.  There was sun to the south so I wanted to keep moving.

Climbing at Mt Joli was slow, but I needed the height to get over the Col de Joli and into the Beaufortin.  Once there the situation looking west was grim - very black.  I was also flying into a 10km/h headwind from the south (the wind had been from the NW earlier).  Damien, a few km's behind me was reporting stronger southerly winds - clearly coudsuck - and soon afterwards he sensibly landed up near Haute Luce.  With the sunshine ahead of me and clear of the worst of it I pushed on and was soon over Les Saisies under a good cumulus cloud and climbing nicely again.  I intended to fly to the Dent de Cons, but misjudged my line and got stuck in a sink hole.  My options were not great - the two realistic options to keep going (double back to Mt Bisane or dive for the South end of the Aravis and the Charvin) both took me back towards the big black scary cloud.  Deciding I had definately had the best of the day and not wanting to push my luck I chose instead to land safely in the Beafort landing field.  Thanks to Tom who played retrieve driver!

Details of the flight are here:

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Out flying again

This week has been a bit of an up and down week.  After my fantastic long run last weekend I managed to strain my calf muscle slightly on tuesday morning running into work.  No big deal, but some enforced rest has been in order while it heals.  As cycling did not seem to aggregate it my training was reined back to cycling 20km a day. 

So with training out, it was fortunate that the weather allowed us to fly.  With an interesting forecast (read: difficult to interpret) Tom Payne and I decided to go to Plaine Joux just outside of the Chamonix valley.  This was due to it being one of the few sites in this area of the Alps that is sheltered from the forecasted Northerly wind.  The only trouble was, when we arrived around 11.30am, the take off was in cloud and the whole valley was clouded in.  We decided to continue up to Chamonix to see what it was like there, and indeed it was sunny and the base was higher (around 2000m) but the Northerly wind was already in evidence and the tandems were not out flying.  It seemed, mometarily, that our attempts to fly may be thwarted.  We tried retail therapy in Chamonix, but frankly failed at that too, so set off back to Plaine Joux landing, where we picked up Pascal Maillard and set off up to take off, which was now thankfully clear of cloud.  Things were definately looking up as gliders were starting to launch and there was blue sky and sunshine in the middle fo the valley.  By the time we pulled into the car park behind launch the first glider popped up above launch.  Game on.

We took off hastily, fearing the northly may bring the wind from behind.  Once in the air the conditions were interesting, in some case the thermals were actually visible as columns of rising wispy cloud.  Still with the base at 1500m there was not much height to play with so it was delicate flying as we picked our way west to the lower slopes of the Varan.  Conditions were improving and the flight back was staright lining in lift.  I top landed back on the take off (useful practise to bring the glider into a tight spot like this), while the other two lead off across the valley and down towards Les Contamines.  Soon back in the air (with warmer hands and a lighter bladder) I set off following.  Again the flying was a little delicate with only a few hundred metres to play with and the added fun of a high tension power line traversing the hillside just below the cloud (best not to end up on the wrong side of that).  Climbing lazily by the ski pistes of Les Houches, we watched the avid skiers pick their way around the brown patches in the slushy snow.  Finally, back across the valley and up to take off, I top landed again, and again, and again (well practise makes perfect...).  In between there was time for a little photo session courtesy of Tom, also now back on launch.  Here I share with you my pick of his photos. Enjoy.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Out & about

This weekend’s weather forecast was unappealing, a warm front was going to bring murky weather, rain and we'd also have strong winds to boot.  Apparently.  The reality was different.  Certainly the claggy weather arrived with very poor visibility - given the forecast I decided to go walking and running on Saturday (which was forecast to be the dry day).  I ran from my house to the Voiron, walked up to the summit, ran the length of the ridge down to Bonne and then crossed the valley via Reignier. From there I went up the back of the Saleve before running back down the front back into Geneva.  A very enjoyable day out, all told, but there was very little wind so with hindsight I wish I'd had my glider with me - that way I'd have been able to do more ascent, using the glider for fast descents (I'm not a great fan of running down hills!).   

Anyway, inset is a picture of me looking somewhat rough at the top of the Voiron, only a couple of hours into my epic day out.  All told I ran or walked 55km and climbed over 2100m.  Here is the link to the move on movescount - although note that the data didn't download properly for some reason. My feet were hurting a little and I was expecting a few blisters but thankfully they seemed to weather the onslaught pretty well and my legs feel ok today too - I expected to be suffering somewhat.  Bodes well, I guess!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Up North.

So, training flights around Chamonix and fun days out in the Valais eh, afraid the training for the junior partner in this blog has been much more mundane but training nevertheless. Let’s see, I’ve done lots of shopping and cooking, driven to the Alps and back (from Cumbria) and started on the physical fitness side of things by digging the bike out of the garage as a means of transport (nothing to do with the price of diesel I assure you but does anybody know how to adjust a front derailleur).

I also walked up my local hill (in the Yorkshire Dales) yesterday, twice in fact as on gaining the summit I realised that the wind was just right for flying off the hill, however my paraglider was safely resting at home so walked down the hill, grabbed the glider and walked back up only to find that the wind was now almost non-existent, spent some time waiting for the slightest breeze but none arrived so for the first time for ages (especially in Cumbria) had to perform an Alpine launch for a pleasant glide back down to the house.

As for todays training, think I’ll watch some cookery shows.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Fiesch Flying Fun

What is the best way to train for a paragliding and hiking race?  I figured going paragliding and then hiking must be a fairly good approach, and with that in mind set off at the crack of dawn to catch the early train from my home in Geneva to Fiesch (well, strictly speaking that isn’t true as dawn was still some way away when I set off).

Fiesch is in the upper Valais, in an area that, depending on the route I end up taking, I’ll likely have to pass through in the X-Alps.  My trip had multiple purposes, to get familiar with the area, to brush off the winter cobwebs and get some decent flying in, and to do some hiking with the glider on my back (despite not having lightweight gear yet).

Brig & Materhorn in the distance (photo T.Payne)
The flying was fantastic, I thought spring would be gradually waking up and we’d have the first few soporific thermals stirring after the depths of winter, in fact spring had jumped out of bed and was running around like an exuberant child – thermals were regularly over 3m/s and I had over 4m/s on the averager at one point!  I flew down past Brig and Visp and contemplating trying to cross into and explore up the Zermatt valley, given the Materhorn is an X-Alps turnpoint, but decided against it for today.  Still I ended up meeting up with Tom Payne in the air who took some great photos.  X-Alps teams FRA2 and FRA3 were also out exploring Fiesch.  After splitting with Tom I carried on down the Valley but I did not have an airspace map and I knew there was a tight area close to Leuk where I had to squeeze past a corner of Sion CTR, and wasn’t confident to do this without the map, so I turned to fly back to Fiesch.  On the way back there was a strong Easterly wind at altitude, so, about 10km short of Fiesch, I turned once again and flew back finally landing safely before the airspace to the east of Leuk.  Not a long XC flight but a good exploration of the area and frankly I could not continue as I was bitterly cold, despite being well dressed, or so I had thought.

Now for the walking part.  I packed up and set off down the valley.  It was carnival and every village I passed through seemed to have something going on.  At first I thought I was hallucinating, perhaps as a result of the cold and altitude, as I saw 4 guys walking along dressed as what looked like giant chickens with huge bells strapped to their bottoms.  As they walked the bells banged up and down making an enormous racket.

It just seemed to get more bizarre as even the name of next place seemed to be giving me some sort of advice about my preparation…   A couple of hours later came a huge lorry with a 4m high penguin and people sitting around in deckchairs (sorry no photo of that one – I didn’t get the camera out in time!) Anyway, to cut along story short I walked for about 37km (see arriving in Sion around 9pm to jump on a train home to Geneva, finally crawling into bed well after midnight.

Overall it was a fantastic day, the only slight niggle was some problems with blisters, but it is exactly these kinds of days that replicate the reality of the X-Alps that should help me to eliminate these issues.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Martin Muller talk

I travelled up to Lausanne last night for a talk by Martin Muller.  It was great to finally meet one of the great figures of the X-Alps, particularly given we live in the same town!