Monday, April 25, 2011

An Easter 'Vol Visa'

Firstly a warning.  This article is far too long for a blog post.  But, I’m posting it anyway as I can’t think of any bits to leave out.  So be prepared, get youself a beer, and settle down.  If you like it leave me a comment, if you don’t, well, don’t.

‘Vol Visa’ is a tongue-in-cheek French expression referring to flying and hiking across a number of days.  The term is a play on Vol Bivouac – flying and sleeping out in the back country.  It’s called ‘Vol Visa’ because instead of bivouac kit you simply take a Visa card and stay in hotels and eat in restaurants.  Still, despite that, it is no less of an adventure.  Here is my story.

Friday 22nd April - Day 1: Domodossola to Roverdo
‘The Egg Sandwich day’

It had been a last minute plan.  I’d always planned to use the long Easter weekend to learn some of the X-Alps route but, like the event itself, the intention had been to do this with the support of my father.  A minor family emergency prevented his trip.  So I was on my own and it was only on Thursday night I finally hatched my plan – I’d take the early morning Milan train to Domodossola in Italy, and try to fly East – ‘backwards’ along the X-alps route.  Ok, so the plan was lacking in detail, but it made up for that shortcoming in its audacity.

The early train was indeed very early and I was up at 4.30am to catch it. Arriving in Domodossola at around 8.15am, I immediately set off north towards the hill I intended to hike up – the sun wasn’t even over the mountain yet as I walked along the main road buffeted by lorries.  I consoled myself that I only had about 1km of this before I came to the village of Masera from which I’d set off up the mountain on footpaths.

9.05am - Egg Sandwich time!

I suddenly realised I was very hungry, and I remembered in my rushing around last night that my wife had lovingly made me an egg sandwich.  As I left the main road and walked over a footbridge I came to the pretty church in Masera, where I sat and ate the sandwich.  It was good.  Re-energised I could now face the ascent.  After about an hour of walking uphill, I noted I still wasn’t very high above the valley.  A quick check of the map and I realised the valley floor of the Vigezzo valley – running E-W towards Locarno – was some 400m higher than Domodossola in the main valley that I’d left.  In other words, all my walking so far had simply been to get up to the valley and not above it!

There were already cumulus clouds forming everywhere – the day was clearly very unstable.  About half way up I came to some fields where it was possible to launch, still I was very low, on the shallow lower slopes only, and the breeze up the slope was very weak.  Sinking out at this time of day would be a disaster, so I pushed on up the hill (cursing Italian maps as I did so) in the hope that I’d find some more clearings.  A few hundred meters higher a bird circled up and I began to feel a proper upslope breeze now.  This would have been perfect, if it hadn’t been for the fact I was still in thick forest.  Argghh..  Up and up I went, the day was working very well now, I could actually feel the change in temperature as the hot air of the thermals blasted up the slope, but even though the trees had thinned, there was still no space to take off.  Finally I came to the first summit on the ridge, some 1500m above where I had started, and here, next to a cross, was the perfect launch spot.  I hurriedly threw my gear out – I had intended to eat something but there was no time for that (besides the egg sandwich seemed to be powering me along just fine!).  I looked up to judge the conditions to see two paragliders coming from the East.

I was soon in the air – conditions were good, I climbed up to cloudbase at around 2800m.  The only problem was a very strong southerly breeze.  I headed east jumping across to the ‘Piana di Vigezzo’ where there is a launch, and where, I assume, my two new friends had come from.  The wind was howling here close to the ridge and anything less than 3m/s wasn’t worth turning in as the height was quickly lost pushing back to the ridge.  I carried on along pushing into wind around the high ground to be rewarded by a good climb on the other side.  I was aware I was under the outer limits of Locarno airspace now, and because the development was quite big I keeping a good separation from the clouds.  If I carried on in this direction the flight would soon be over as the airspace stepped down towards Locarno.  The only way around was to the north.  That would mean flying over some quite demanding terrain.

The first valley crossing, keeping west of a village aptly named ‘Loco’ was unremarkable except that there was nowhere to land below me (In fact Ogisawa did land in this valley in the 2009 X-Alps, but he had to put the wing down on the road!).  After that I crossed the Maggia valley (which I noted did actually have landing options, yippeddy do dah!)  The day was humid and visibility was poor but I could see lake Maggiore now at the end of the valley.  Crossing the big reservoir in the next valley was interesting – it was only about a third full and the dam wall at the end of the valley looked massive, even from 2500m!  The flight had been challenging up to now with very strong southerly wind, particularly in the compression near the mountains.  However it was about to get really interesting, as each mountain range became higher and more committing.  I climbed in a wind broken 4m/s, but it was pulling me back too far, and I lost it anyhow, so I pushed forward onto the southern faces deep into the massif near a peak called ‘Madone’.  It was a bad idea.  The wind carried me in easily, but where I expected to find strong lift there was nothing, I turned to come back out but was pinned by the headwind and nearly landed up there.  Pushing forwards over a small lump I found a 2m/s climb, manageable because I was now below the tops so the drift wasn’t so extreme.  With that I tiptoed my way back out.  Finally I took a good climb to near to base, but still crossing this massif was not in the bag.  There were two options – either back the way I’d just been (but with a little more altitude) or further to the north, downwind, which basically meant over a 1000m deep gully to a knife edge ridge at around 2400m.  This was rather committing.  With 20+ kmph of wind the rotor would be huge and I would probably arrive at the knife edge ridge only just over ridge height – being blown over it didn’t bear thinking about.  Still it seemed the only way out.  Instead of going straight for it I crabbed across wind following the clouds before turning to the ridge, it worked as it gave me some more altitude to play with.  As I came downwind onto the ridge I could see the ground dropping away behind to the valley far, far below.  My gamble paid off, and I climbed here in a strong climb taking me back up to around 2800m and safely above the danger from the turbulence.  Pushing out into the lower Leventina valley, I felt elated once again. Or was it just relief! 

The pattern of the flight continued, another valley, another ridge.  I arrived at the next at about 2000m.  It was at this altitude that the wind seemed strongest.  As I arrived on the West facing ridge I faced south and watch my ground speed drop to only 5kmph.  Still, at least I was going forwards…!   I could only watch in envy as a sailplane came past me, continued about 2km along the ridge and gloatingly climbed out in a nice thermal.  Still my patience paid off, I was in lifting air and as I got higher the headwind eased so I was soon back up to base, and now with ‘only’ 15kph of southerly was able to easily fly along the clouds following the ridge to its very southerly tip.  No scary crossing this time, just an easy glide around the front.

Now the question was, should I continue or not.  The weather was likely to deteriorate over the weekend and if I crossed towards lake Como and the start of the Sondrio valley I’d be cut off from this area.  My grand plan (which was still taking shape) was to use the next day to explore the Leventina valley – another option for the X-Alps section between Piz Palu and Zermatt.  So with this in mind I climbed up again to just look at the col and the crossing to the East.  I was aware that I was once again under the outer limits of Locarno airspace (this time on the other side of course) and mistakenly thought I only had 2500m to play with (actually it is 2900m as I found out later).  So I left to fly into the col at 2300m, expecting a lifty line but was surprised to see my ground speed drop off and find a lot of sink as the wind was clearly dominating from the east side, pushing down over the col.  I could have flown back out and climbed higher and pushed through, but I decided enough for today, I was glad to have climbed up and checked it out, but I did not really want to be the other side so I wound off my height and landed outside the town of Roverdo, which looked big enough to have a hotel for the night.

I’d come a long way on just an egg sandwich!

Saturday 23rd April - Day 2: Roverdo to Bodio
‘The day of the dead snake’

Early morning view from my hotel room in Roverdo
The next day dawned bright enough, but muggy and humid with very poor visibility.  The forecast was for rain in the morning but brightening up in the afternoon.  My plan was to walk up the Pic de Molinera and fly north, heading towards the Nuefenen Pass.  I set off about 8.30am.  Not that early you may think, but there were practical reasons why I couldn’t leave earlier – the shop in Roverdo only opened at 8.15 and I needed some food for lunch , suncream (which I had forgotten) and ideally a map, as I only had a 1:100,000 which is not ideal for walking.  I succeeded on the first two but failed on the third count.

I set off up the mountain with a spring in my step, the day was looking brighter than I had expected and I was enjoying the walk, even with 16kg on my back (I still haven’t got my X-Alps gear!). After about an hour, I saw it, lying there on the path.  At first I thought it was alive but on closer inspection it was clearly quite dead, still it’s not everyday you see a snake on the path.  I decided that this was not an auspicious sign and what is more I was proved to be right.

cloud rolling through

Onwards and upwards, past the village of Giova (interestingly, landable, and potentially quite useful if gliding across from the mountains on the other side in the X-Alps – it could certainly save a 700m walk up).   As I came towards Prepianto there were some spots where it would have been possible to launch (just) but there was light rain by now and I was really too low still.  The day was supposed to get better and anyway the rain was the sort of pathetic drizzle that doesn’t even really get you wet, so I figured as soon as the sun came out things would improve.  Just like the day before, the upper sloes were entirely wooded so it wasn’t until I came out above the tree line at around 2100m that there was the first proper launchable spot since around 1300m altitude!  The only difficulty was that the rain had now increased and there were clouds forming on the slopes below me.  Above was complete cloud cover and the now incessant drizzle.

Damp, cold and dejected!
I still wasn’t deterred – it was just after 12 and I’d ascended about 1800m.  I’d sit and eat lunch and then the sun would come out so I could fly north.  It was optimistic.  What actually happened was that I sat there for 2 hours getting cold, damp and miserable while the cloud steadily thickened.  I started weighing up my options.  I could sit and wait, hoping for improvement in the weather, or I could walk up along the ridge, or back down the way I had come.  None were attractive options.  Up seemed stupid – the path went along a spine in thick cloud and in any case I would only be going further into the cloud.  Waiting likewise seemed pointless, if the weather didn’t improve I’d need to consider spending the night up here!  So it seemed down was the only option, as frustrating as it was.  I descended back to the Martum refuge at 1850m and then took a path that contoured round to the west side.  If I was going to descend this mountain it was damn well going to be on the other side than the one I’d walked up on.  I was still hoping to get below the cloud and find somewhere to launch from, but there seemed little hope of that on these wooded slopes.  There was still snow on the path in places – in one of the larger patches I managed to fall through up to my waist.  This added to the challenge somewhat and ensured my damp feet were now soaking wet.  The dead snake had definitely not been a good omen!

After a while I noticed the rain had stopped – there was still complete cloud cover and I was in and out of the sort of damp cloud that clings to the hillsides on days like this.  Then I saw it – like a vision – the clouds cleared momentarily and though a gap in the trees I could see a spur sticking out into the light southerly breeze, devoid of trees, maybe 500m further on.  The cloud rolled in and the view lost once again but nevertheless I picked up the pace, sure that this was my ticket to a glide off the mountain and a night in a hotel.  I arrived and dropped my glider on the grassy slope.  As I looked down I could see the valley floor for the first time in hours.  The cloud rolled in again and the view was lost but moments later it came back again.  There were a few guys fixing up one of the buildings here and one came over to talk to me – we quickly realised that we did not have any languages in common – but he seemed to be somewhat surprised that I was going to fly and imploring me to be careful (really?).

The field
Elation, as I was finally in the air again.  Following the mountain side I had a buoyant glide to the town of Biasca with its spectacular waterfall. I arrived with 200m to spare and I intended to land on the football pitch there but every time I came over it I was picked up by weak convergence lift, presumably caused by a confluence in the valley junction. I climbed here, painstakingly slowly, finally making it back up to around 800m – not a huge amount but enough to glide to the next town of Bodio.  I quickly realised the valley become very narrow here, with a main train line, a motorway and several major power lines running through it landing options were very limited.  I went for two small fields together on the edge of the town.  They were really very, very small.  As I came over them I realised the first had wires across the middle and there were additional cables running along the track between the two.  I was committed now.  This would be tight.  The field I was left with had a 3 storey barn on the downwind side, a large pine tree between that and the electrified railway line which ran along the adjacent side (which was also on an embankment).  The upwind side had a cable strung across it and the remaining side a road with lampposts.  After a couple of circles over the town I came in between the tree and the barn level with tree top, wingovered towards the railway line, flicked it round the other way, now facing straight at the barn, as I swung through I use the energy to come back into wind and avoid the barn, but I was still too high so I had to do another tight turn right and left and then ‘mush’ the glider in, landing comfortable 10m before the cable on the upwind side.  Phew.

It was only 5pm but I was aware it was Easter weekend and finding a room would not necessarily be easy.  I’d see if there was something here and if not walk to the next town.  As luck would have it the first place (literally 100m from my landing field) had a cheap room for the night.   The food was also good and the portions were huge, just perfect!  Oh, and the sun never did come out.  I blame the snake.

Sunday 24th April - Day 3: Bedretto to Luek
The day of the Postbus

I had intended to finish the second day much further north than I was.  If I’d thought ahead a little more then I’d have travelled up the valley the evening before.  The problem was the forecast was for nice weather in the morning, but then getting worse with heavy rain due by 2pm.  Basically there was a small chance of a flyable window between about 10am and 12noon.  The only hope to fly was to get up on the southeast facing slopes.

I was also realising there was a major flaw in my back-up plan – I needed to get back over into the Goms Valais by tomorrow to get back home, but if I couldn’t fly over it then I’d be stuck as the Nuefenen Pass went to nearly 2500m and was still closed.  There was no way I’d be able to pass on foot without at least snow shoes.  My only hope was to walk up to the pass (I hoped that as the road ascended on the south side it would be reasonably clear) and then launch and fly over.

The problem to all this was I was too far away still to make this all work.  So I cheated.  Well, it wasn’t really cheating; I could have walked most of this the evening before if I had not been so concerned with finding somewhere to stay.  I took that brilliant Swiss invention, the Postbus, up the valley to the village of Bedretto, which was as far as he went before turning around.  There was some high level cloud around, about 50% cover, but there was also some sun in places.  It was looking touch and go if it would be flyable.  I decided not to make the mistakes of yesterday and just walk up to the pass.  Still in my heart I knew it was a fool’s task as it would not be passable and I’d probably end up walking back to Airolo, still it had to attempted.

View towards the Nuefenen Pass
As I came to the last few buildings at All’ Acqua, the day was definitely bright enough and so, optimistically changing my plan, I set off on a path up the mountainside.  Spurred on by being able to fly I romped up to the hut at Piansecco in only about 35mins.  Now at 2000m altitude I studied the sky.  It didn’t look great – although there was still patches of sun there was no wind up the slope and no activity, to the south it already looked cloudy and ominous.  It was still only 10am, but still it did not look so promising, so I decided to take the path that contoured round and rejoined the road.  Back to the walking plan!  The only issue was that the path went round the north face of a spur and was clearly snowed in.  It was only 100m or so and I figured once around the spur it would be fine.  The problem was it was impossible to find the path, and I was soon floundering (literally) in waist deep snow.  Great, soaking wet feet again!  Finally I gave up and retraced my steps back to the hut.  But, wait, there was now a nice breeze up the slope.  I’d been so focussed on making progress (or not as the case was) in the snow that I had not seen the conditions improving.  There were now a couple of cumulus clouds over the peaks opposite and the prayer flags on the hut were fluttering merrily up the slope. As I looked up I could now just make out a scrappy cumulus above me, barely visible under the high cloud above. Quickly I set off higher up the slope to find a launchable spot.  I found one, but the ground was covered in that thick twiggy heather that catches at your lines.  There was nowhere better so this would have to do.  I put the glider down and paused for a moment to consider what I was about to do.  I had no idea what flying here would be like – I was in a pretty hostile area deep into the mountains, and what is more power lines climbed up the hill in front of me leading away towards the pass on my right.  If I didn’t get up they effectively blocked my route and I’d end up having to fly down the valley in the wrong direction to find another tight landing and end up lower than I’d started the day.  Well nothing ventured, nothing gained they say!

Now, I had to find a way to get the glider off without breaking too many lines on the heather.  As the thermals were bringing quite a strong breeze up the slope I decided to lay the glider in a horseshoe with all the lower lines on the wing and the main lines bunched up toward the harness.   I ensured there were no big tangles but didn’t do the usual separating all the lines as this would put the lines onto the twiggy ground and they would for sure catch.  My plan was to pick the glider up in a strong gust so that it effectively opened in the air.  I had to do it one go as to put the glider down again would be asking for trouble.  It worked!  As I pulled it up I was expecting the familiar yank of a caught line, but it didn’t happen, it came up cleanly, unfurled in the air and with one bound I was off!

I climbed in what was really a very mellow 1.5m/s climb.  There was a light southerly, but that was fine as I needed to go north to the Goms valley.  After a long, slow, but enjoyable climb out I arrived at base at 3000m.  I’d intended to fly the 10km to the pass before passing through, but for some reason, maybe just amazement with being at 3000m over this beautiful place, I decided just to fly direct though the mountains to Oberwald at the head of the Goms valley.  I half expected to get drilled and end up landing there but in fact the glide was benign and I connected with the SE face on the other side still around 2000m.  I’d done it, I’d just stolen a flight across the main alpine chain, on a day I normally wouldn’t even consider going flying!

Flying SW down the Goms valley was straight forward, conditions were better here.  There was a strong NE wind now which pushed me along but also made the flying quite demanding.  The development was quite big already and storms were expected later so I kept a healthy separation from both the ground and the bigger clouds.  Looking south east I could see the Bedretto valley was now clagged in – the window of opportunity was closed, I’d just got through in time.  I passed a handful of hardy XC pilots coming from Fiesch, but there were only a few, this was hardly an epic day.  As I arrived above Fiesch launch and started to try to work a weak and wind broken climb, I saw one lonely pilot on the launch.  He looked unsure whether to launch or not, glider still unopened.  As I passed overhead he seemed reassured and started opening out his glider.  I felt like I needed a sign on my wing that said ‘X-alps pilot in training, don’t think because I’m flying its ok!’  I never did see him actually launch, maybe watching me get thrown around and blown downwind did the job.

Landing near Visp
After Fiesch there was a big patch of shade from some high cloud so I got very low but scratched back up.  At 1400m the wind was strong from the NE, even though the valley wind below was blowing the opposite direction.  I got back to over 2000m around Visp, but not up to cloudbase.  I could have carried on down the Valais, but I’d flown this a few times and I wanted to see into the Zermatt valley so I crossed over onto the E faces at the entrance to the Zermatt valley.  It was touch and go which side to go to as it was now after 1pm and the sun was pretty much straight down the middle.   I was too low, and I knew it.  As I came into the valley my ground speed accelerated to 50kph as I was being carried along by the valley wind.  I could have made quite some distance into the valley like this, but putting the glider down in this almost unlandable valley in a howling wind wasn’t how I wanted to finish the day, so I turned after only a couple of km’s into the valley and pushed back out on speed bar to land just outside Visp.

What to do now?  I’d had an epic flight and it was only just after 2pm. I had one more day but now that I was within a couple of hours of home by train the lure was too great.  I decided to walk the 20km or so to Luek and then take the train home from there, the walk felt good despite the wet feet!  I seemed a million miles away from the where I’d started the day – in a run down little hotel in Bodio.  Still I’d done in 3 days what I’d set out to do in 4.  I decided Easter Monday would be a day of rest.

You can view the flights here:
Day 1:
Day 2:
Day 3:


  1. Great write up Jon. Very nicely done and the best training I can think of for the Xalps. Making the most of dubious conditions and small windows.
    All the best,
    Alex Raymont

  2. Excellent write-up John. It certainly goes to show your decision making has to be spot on. Obviously, your in a different league to me though as I would have failed at every hurdle.

    Well done mate and all the best.


  3. Awesome write up Jon and thanks for sharing your experience. I certainly got some flashbacks reading about Biasca and the Nuefenen Pass.


  4. Good Stuff and Good luck Jon.
    Fly Safe,