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.