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


  1. Jon, what can I say? Congratulations pays no merit to your feats of glory and respect from fellow pilots. I can feel your elation just reading your journey to the "top of Europe". So many congratulations. You are the glorious conqueror on that day.

  2. Congratulations Jon, what a fantastic couple of days you have had! Your photos have brightened up the view in my office no end.

  3. Massive congratulations; am hugely jealous!

  4. Well done Jon, what a great achievement!

  5. Congratulations on another epic flight.

    Huge respect, really inspiring & very glad you made it.

    Fly safe


  6. Massive achievement. Well done!

  7. Great read. I had wondered about the difficulty of taking off again after top landing in such a place, and you told the story. Scary. Great achievement, a once in a lifetime opportunity.