Sunday, December 9, 2012

La Course de l'Escalade

In 1602, on a cold December night the Duke of Savoy sent a suprise attack on the city of Geneva, against all odds the city successfully defended itself against the 2000 strong army of the Duke.  The occasion is now a celebrated moment in Genevois history.  Among many other festivities there has been, since 1978, a series of running races to commemerate the event. 

Last weekend was the 35th time this race had been run and it's popularity seems almost to outgrow the city.  With over 30,000 people registered they need to split the event into different categories with races taking place throughout the Saturday.  This year was also a special year - once every 5 years they run a longer 'Course de Duc'. Starting in France it retraces the Duke of Savoy's route into the city.  I ran this race in 2007 - at that time the run took place on the Saturday morning, but this time the challenge of scheduling all the races led them to run the race on the Friday night, starting at 9.15pm.  Well, they claim it was in order to better represent the Duke's march on the city, which took place at night (arriving after midnight).  Whichever it was, some 4500 people (more than twice the Duke's orginal army) took part.  The reason I'm telling you all this was because I ran the race, finishing about 700 and something with a creditable time of 1 hour and 22 minutes for the 18km course.  Tom Payne also ran so we had two thirds of our X-Alps team in the event.  Tom did prove once again that despite lack of training on his part he can still run faster than me with a time of 1hr 19mins!

However, running a relatively short road race is not particularly impressive training for the X-Alps.  In the X-Alps, we'll have to push ourselves day after day.  That is why, rather naively, I managed to let Tom convince me that running in the Course de l'Escalade the next afternoon was a good idea.  And so with heavy aching legs I lined up once again on a starting line in the old town of Geneva to run three undulating laps of its cobblestoned sreets.  Last time I ran this race, prior to the last X-Alps, I completed the 7.2km course in 29mins, but this time, with sore legs, I managed a poor 34mins.  Frankly, I was just happy to get around.

Both my daughters also ran in the childrens races in the morning too, so it was a family day out!  Each finisher gets a gift, and this year it was a tray.  It's all right but I don't think we really needed four of them in our house!  I'm sure the Dukes army didn't all go home with a tea tray!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

A high five to High5

Well the start gun for the 2013 X-Alps goes off on Sunday 7th July but effectively for us at Team GBR  the race began with the email to Jon about 10 days ago giving the news that we were in. One of our first tasks is to start collating the large volume of equipment needed for the event and once again, as in 2011, we are indebted to High5 for providing the sports nutrition products necessary for the race.

The 2011 race was, due in part to the weather, a war of attrition with all athletes having to spend whole days walking rather than flying, this took it’s toll and at the end of the race many athletes admitted to be ‘running on empty’ which had affected their performance in the later stages of the race. I (Richard) know that many of the supporters including myself struggled to get enough conventional food into the athletes to keep them going, but we were lucky, High5’s product supplemented and enhanced Jon’s diet wonderfully and as a result, whilst he may have ended every day tired and physically exhausted, he was nevertheless relatively well nourished.

Any shortfall in nourishment was provided by a milk based protein rich drink taken last thing at night, for most of the race we had used our supply of chocolate flavour but just 48 hours from the end of the race, disaster struck, we ran out of chocolate, Jon had to drink ‘pink milk’ I think he nearly sacked me on the spot as race supporter. Not wishing to have the same problem in 2013 I mentioned this to High5, as a result of their generosity I can confidently predict no shortfall in chocolate flavour for 2013, in fact I think we have enough for Jon to bath in…….now there’s an idea!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Waiting is Over

Finally, finally, our friends at the X-Alps organising team have announced the athletes in the 2013 X-Alps.  And we're in!  Yeahhh!

Anyhow, training and preparation has already started but the to do list has suddenly got a lot longer!  Sadly we are the only British team in the event this time, but I am convinced that we will be, once again, one of the best prepared teams in the event.  This year two supporters are allowed so my father will be joined by Tom Payne, veteran of the 2009 race and an outstanding pilot and ultra-runner.

In the email we recieved just ahead of the announcements on and facebook, we were also informed that the final route will only be announced in Spring.  This means detailed route analysis will have to wait until then.  Also included in the messgae, for the first time, is the start date which will be July 7th 2013.

So now the real work begins.

One of our first jobs is to line up the support and personal sponsors we will need to make sure the team is properly prepared.  More to come on this.

I will give regular updates here on our teams preparation and training.

Thanks to all our supporters, and particularly to Clare who's enthusiasm on facebook is much appreciated!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Keeping up with my 7 year old

Taking any opportunity to walk a lot is all part of preparing for the X-Alps.  Whether that means walking to launch when going out flying, walking to and from work or just heading out at the weekend to get some km's under my belt, it is all part of the job.  I was therefore more than happy to volunteer to walk in a sponsored walk with my 7 year old daughter, Lucy, on Sunday.  The sponsored walk was called the 'marche de l'espoir' and takes place each year in Geneva.  The course loops around the right bank, taking in the botanical gardens.  The complete loop was 6kms, but everyone was welcome to do as much or as little as they wanted.  We'd indicated to people sponsoring her that she could cover quite a long distance, perhaps 10 or more kilometers...

We started at 11am with a great release of ballons (see photo) and afer a lap and a half stopped for sandwiches.  Lucy was showing no signs of slowing.  After lunch we set into out third lap with vigour, and as Lucy had collected 2 'bonus kilometers' by answering quizzes on the way around, I thought we were on track to complete the card they'd given Lucy to collect stamps at each kilometer passed, which only had 20 boxes.  We finshed the third lap, collected the last stamp on the card at the finish, but then Lucy announced she wanted to go around again!  So with a second card stapled to the first we set off again on a 4th tour, completing a grand total of 24km (or 26 including the bonuses).  No idea where she gets it from!  All good training though...

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Test flying from a mole hill

Well, not a mole hill as such, but a hill called 'Le Mole' close to Geneva.  The testing part refers to a prototype harness being developed by Kortel.  As far as prototypes go this one was very early in the life cycle of such things, but still very impressie in both design and weight.  I'd picked it Saturday morning from Max in Cluses, and then, together with Tom Payne, set off to walk up 'Le Mole'.  Now despite the rather insignificant name, it is actually quite large.  From the valley floor we walked about 1300m to the summit in a little over 2 hours.  Small by alpine standards, but to put it into context for anyone from the UK that is equivalent to walking up Ben Nevis.  From sea level.

It was pretty windy at the top, and concerned about it increasing, I threw out my gear, connected the 'work in progress' that would represnt my harness for the flight down and took off.  Rather magically, the clouds were below us, so we flew out over them in rather strong winds (which, slightly concerningly felt a lot like mountain wave) before descending into the valley.

So, how, you ask, was the harness?  Well initially I couldn't work out why I seemed to be facing at an angle of 45degrees to the direction I was flying in, but after I found one of the adjustments had slipped during take off and corrected it, it was rather good.  It felt completely different to my other harness (the Delight from Sup'Air) and therefore took a bit of getting used too.  Can't give anymore away, it is after all a protoype!

Interestingly the next evening this peak was covered in snow which fell on Sunday night down to 1500m.  The seasons are changing!

Tom Payne preparing to launch with Mount Blanc in the background

Looking towards Geneva with the clouds below

Monday, September 24, 2012


Went down to St-Hilaire for a whistle stop tour of the greatest free flying festival in the world on Saturday.  The main purpose of my visit was to meet up with the XCmedia team (publishers behind cross country magazine) to discuss publishing a book I've written about my exploits in last years X-Alps.  Anyhow, no deal done yet but they seem pretty keen so watch this space as there may be more news to come in the next few months!

So, business meeting over (well it was more a chat over coffee and croissants to be honest), I had the fun of exploring the trade show.  I stopped by the Sup'Air stand to talk with my fellow X-Alper and good friend Clement Latour.  Clement has entered the race for next year as well and should have no problem getting in.  I had to drop off my prototype harness with Sup'Air for some repairs. Whilst I ran back to my car to pick up the harness I bumped into none other than Chrigel Maurer trying to find somewhere to park his van, after saying hello we were holding up the traffic so I agreed to catch up with him inside, however we never did find each other later on.  Anyhow, back in the show I spent some time talking with Mike Cavanagh, boss of Ozone, next to their balloon filled stand (yep, it really was nothing other than balloons, quite odd!).  Ozone backed me in last years race by providing me with a great wing to fly and have agreed to do the same for next years race which is jolly nice of them. 

I also met up with Max Fanderl and many many more great people too numerous to mention.  I even strolled down to the launch just as the cloud cleared and saw the first fancy dress gliders launching.  I couldn't stay long but the most impressive I saw was a tandem launching on a tandem bicycle!  No photos I'm afraid as I didn't have my camera but you can always look on the Coupe Icare website.

Back in the trade fair I saw a pretty impressive lightweight harness design from Kortel - hopefully I'll get a chance to test the prototype soon.

That was it, back to Geneva in time for tea !

Monday, September 10, 2012

Starting Early

Part of our teams success in last years X-Alps was the fact that we'd spent many, many days checking out the route as a team.  We knew where to go both in the air and on the ground and we had the route pretty well sussed out before the start gun went off.

That said, there were some interesting route choices that we'd overlooked and some of these proved very useful for those that took them. Some of the more, ahem, adventurous routes include sections over 3000m. The problem with these parts is that they become rather snowed in well into the summer, so spring reconnaisance trips are not really feasible. With this in mind, Dad and I set off for a few days of good late summer weather to check out a top secret 'haute route' between the Matterhorn and Mt Blanc. Here are some pictures from our trip:

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Here we go again...

After much prevarication I have finally put in my application for the 2013 Red Bull X-Alps.  Applications are open until the end of September; however we are unlikely to find out who is selected until the end of October.

Last time around I was an outside bet and only made the reserve list in the first selection, but then about a month later, I was added to the starting line-up.  This year I think my chances are much better, with a solid performance last time and a 5th place finish, I would hope to make the cut with much more ease.  Having said that, nothing is confirmed until the organising committee announce the athletes, so in the mean time I will continue with my training and preparation and hope I am selected once again.

Monday, August 20, 2012

It got better...

After battling to make the top landing on Saturday, and being one of the few (see last post) it turns out that Sunday was the 'easy' day to do it with thermals up to 5200m and over 60 people landing on the summit!  What a party!  Hats off to everyone who made it...

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The big white one..

So, Saturday 18th August, day two, attempt two.  This time we started from Champex to avoid the difficult first section.  Conditions were better, the stable layer was still there at 2800-3000m and to get through it required a lot of patience and working small bubbles very close to the rocks, but we got through it early and managed to stay above it along the SE faces.  This time we all made it down to the south end, and just as we started climbing on the SE spur that leads up to the summit we could see a veritable armada of gliders all coming from the French side via the Col du Meage, attempting the same thing.  Luckily we were there first and I arrived with Tom and another identical glider (that I took to call 'Tom lookalike').  Tom was highest and had the first attempt to connect with the top part of the ridge, but was not successful.  It was extremely difficult to climb over 4000m but I managed to squeak out to about 4300m with the 'Tom lookalike' on a grey Icepeak 6, from here we pushed onto a rocky ridge that was soarable, and gradually worked our way up.  I was begining to get excited now, calling my altitudes on the radio, 4500m, then 4600m then 4700m...  In hindsight this was probably not that helpful to my friends scratching around below 4000m!  At 4750m we now had the really hard bit to do.  The ridge we'd just worked up was set back from the summit.  To get onto the windward side we'd need to push into wind round the side.  The icepeak lead the way, and seemed to get a bouyant line at first, but then started to get thrown around.  I follwed him and got drilled in sink with very little forward speed.  I watched him scrape onto the nose and start soaring up.  He'd made it, but I was not going to.  I wasn't prepared to take the risk so I turned back and dived for the relative safety of the soarable ridge.  I climbed again to 4750m, but couldn't get higher so I went for it.  I pushed the bar, but then hit severe turbulence and though better of it.  Once I was through that it calmed down and I was making progress with about 10kph forward speed.  Finally, after what seemed like an eternity I scraped round onto the spine where the main route up from the Goutier hut leads to the  summit.  Now I was in gloriously smooth lift waving to some mountaineers descending the summit, in an aerial elevator.  It was incredible. The view of the summit was fantastic.

The icepeak 6 had been soaring around all this time, but now he'd decided to head off without landing.  I almost did the same, it was awfully windy after all.  But then I figured I ought to at least have a look, so I put in big ears and did some low passes to see what it was like.  The wind was moderate and blowing along the summit ridge.  Just below the summit was a flattish area and this seemed to be the obvious place to land.  I came in a little low and nearly put down on the snow below, stopping myself just a foot from the ground and skimming away again.  I realised I needed to be in exactly the right place otherswise I risked sliding down the steep face with nothing to stop me.  A couple more attempts and I did it.  I'd just top landed Mt Blanc.

Immediately I was on the ground I realised it wasn't the best idea.  I'd landed where I wanted to be, but a little further back than I'd planned.  The net efect was the glider dropped down behind me already on the downslope.  It was flapping violently in the wind and trying to drag me.  I'd also been unlucky to hit a hard icy wind blown patch.  I hit the deck and dug my feet in as hard as I could whilst I hauled about 2m of brake line in.  Once I had the glider under control I was able to kick some foot holds in and bunch the wing up and cross the few meters to the well worn path before walking the last few meters to the summit itself.  I was on the summit ridge, but all on my own.  No one to celebrate with so the only photos I have on the summit are self portraits.

It was windy and cross the slope and I was worried about launching again, and about the wind picking up.  So I decided to not hang about but to take off.  Unfortunately it was heinously difficult.  I managed to find a flatter area with softer snow to get some purchase.  Nevertheless, because the wind was blowing along the ridge I had to have one tip up the slope and one down, and with only snow and ice below it would simply slide down the slope.  I tried all sorts of things, inflating from bunched up, digging holes in the snow to stuff the wing tip into to hold it in place so I could build a wall, but it all failed.  Every time I picked the wing up it would twist round or overfly me.  I was very tired with the effort and probably being heavy handed, but I was beginning to get seriously worried that I'd be walking down to the Goutier hut.  The main problem with launching was that a few meters in any direction and the slope got steeper, getting dragged off the side did not bear thinking about, so if it didn't come up exactly right I'd just dump the wing again and stay safe.  Finally after nearly an hour of this another group of wings made it up and suddenly there were paragliders all around me.  I wasn't alone any more, but I was actually willing them not to land for thier own sake.  At about the same time two Italian mountaineers arrived on the summit and I asked one if he'd mind holding the wing tip for me, which he duly did,  this will make it easier I thought, but no, I messed up two attempts and he obviously could not hang around as he was at the summit quite late as it was.  By now a few of the other pilots had started to top land, so I was no longer alone.  One very kind French pilot (who's name I never got - sorry for that) spent some time helping me sort out the wing.  It still took quite a few attempts, but finally I was off, back in the air.  I owe a huge debt of gratitude to that pilot, so if you are reading this, thank you.  I counted 4 other wings landed below me, and perhaps a 5th looked like he was lining up to land, so perhaps in total 6 of us did it today.  I watch as others now attempted to relaunch and struggled just as I had.  I hope they all made it off alright, whoever was the last was a brave soul.

So that was it, I soared around up to 4950m and took loads of photos before flying down and back to Champex by virtually the same route as yesterday, flying round the restricted zone, but this time along the middle of the valley.

I was exhausted, I'd spent about 1hour 25mins at the summit, and that was on top of having started the day by walking up to the Champex take off.  Still, what a day!  Although it is by no means the first time Mt Blanc has been top landed it is the first time it has ever been done by a Brit, so I'm rather chuffed!

Flying with tom Payne over the Col Ferret

The goal is in sight!

Finally in front and above the summit

On the top of Europe!

Back in the air again, Pascal Maillard on the black wing, and other pilots now on the summit

Looking down to the Aiguille Du Midi

Potrait with Mt Blanc behind

Friday, August 17, 2012

Tour du Mt blanc (again...)

The 17th and 18th looked likely to be possible days to attempt the now famous top landing of Mt Blanc.  Here is the first attempt on friday 17th...

We started from Verbier (just to add a bit more challenge) with a big group of pilots but the conditions were very stable and it took us over an hour just to reach Champex.  Pilots were starting from here too and I joined up with a green Omega 8 with whom I ended up flying much of the way with.  Once above Champex we were on our way finally, although we'd lost many good pilots on that initial stretch.  There was a stable layer at around 2800-3000m and we were not breaking throught it, finally just before the col ferret I managed to punch through to 3500m, enough to get over the col, but the time was getting on - we'd averaged less than 10kmph for this first section, as patience was the name of the game in the stable air.  Tom and some other wings were not lucky enough to get through the stable layer so now we were just two.  Once over the col things improved, with my new found friend on the green Omega we stumbled into a 3.5m/s thermal that propelled us up to 3900m.  Finally real flying!

The next section past Courmayer was straightforward, but I was worried how late we were.  At the corner of the Meage glacier I took the inside line up into the granite and ice whilst the Omega went round the front.  Unfortunately for him his route did not work and after a couple of attemps he ended up on the deck near the entrance to the tunnel du Mt Blanc.  I was now on my own. I'd connected with the south east spur meanwhile and worked my way up to over 4000m.  After a few attempts it was clear nothing was going higher, and that last 800m to the summit might well have been a few thousand.  I cut my losses and headed for the Col du Meage. I just scraped through and whooped my way out into the Chamonix valley.

The trouble is, the Mt blanc side of Chamonix valley is closed airspace in July and August so I had no option but to fly across to the SE faces of the Aiguille Rouge - but it was after 5pm and the sun and the wind were on the other side of them.  I climbed over Aiguillette Des Houches, then the Brevent, but then I was running out of options.  I was following the spine but could not go onto the back side (into the sun and wind) because of the nature reserve, so finally I took a deep breath, pointed across the valley at the ridge below Grand Montets (this is after the restricted zone) and prepared to be flushed into the valley.  Which I was.  When I reached the other side I was at a lowly 1800m and everything was still stable, I dribbled along this side of the chamonix valley, working ridge lift from the valley wind on the spines and working the occasional weak bubble for a few hundred meters. 

Steve and Emma called on the radio from Chamonix and told me they were there with a car if I needed it.  They then obviously got bored and told me they were going to the pub by the landing field.  I was low, hot and tired and getting out of Chamonix valley looked quite unlikely so this innocent radio comment represented rather strong 'ground suck' (or should that be 'pub suck'!)

Finally, I reached the end of the valley at the La Tour ski area but by now I was right down to 300m off the floor.  I scratched my way back up in the valley wind, found a small bubble to take me to the west facing ridge next to the col du Balme, which remarkably was soarable in the westerly wind that was now blowing.  I patiently soared up to 2700m, before plucking up the courage to dive over the col into the downward flushing air once again.  I took a bit more height on the next slope (soaring once again!) and now I just had a prolonged glide back into La Chable along the valley.  I expected the valley flow to be pushng me along and the slopes to be bouyant, but in reality the first part was very sinky, and I ended up having to use some late evening restitution on a tree covered slope which was into the valley wind in order to get round the corner back to La Chable, even so I didn't have the height to cross the village and land in the official landing, instead having to land in the last field just before the village.  This had it's advantages - it was nearer the pub where Tom, Quentin adn Martin were waiting!

In the end I was the only one who made it round but it was painfully slow, very technical and challenging at times.  In total it was 95km but in the unimaginably slow time of six and a half hours.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

An Xtreme Day

Here is a bit of fun with Pringles Xtreme, our sponsors in last years X-Alps.  Huge thanks to Tom Payne and Quentin King...