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:

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