Sunday, July 7, 2013

Three hours

Three hours until everything changes.

It took two years to get to this point.

When the start gun goes, the relaxed mood of attention and preparation will be replaced with focused race mode. We're in good shape. Jon is in the best physical and flying form of his life. The atmosphere in the support van is good. Richard and I are working well together.

The weather forecast is OK for the Gaisberg area: some E'ly wind and cloudbase around 2000m, but the airmass is quite humid, and there's a chance of thunderstorms during the afternoon, especially in the high mountains and Dachstein area. With a mixed forecast, airspace to negotiate, several tens of kilometers to cover on foot, and a 3000m mountain to climb all in the first 24 hours of the race, it is sure that this year's X-Alps will be technical and challenging right from the start.

Game on.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Last kit...

Saturday before the race at 4pm - last bit of kit has just arrived (in the nick of time!) - a carbon footplate for my super lightweight pod harness from Ozone (the 'Ozium' harness).  Another 200grams saved!

Now everything is set - just the start tomorrow and then the fun begins...

Friday, July 5, 2013

Final preparations in Fuschl am See

The full team is now assembled at Race HQ in Fuschl am See, a few kilometers from Salzburg. In these few final days before the race we're making the final adjustments to the race equipment, being briefed by Red Bull on all aspects of the race, and preparing the media aspects. Here's a quick summary of what we've been doing.
The race vehicle in Fuschl

Harness tweaks

Race equipment:
- made final adjustments to harness and speed bar
- replaced risers (the originals stretched too quickly)
- tested Flymaster Live (vario, GPS, and live tracking) and Peips Globalfinder (satellite-based live tracker, emergency beacon and backup live tracking)
- checked all mountaineering equipment (we're going to need it!)
Some of the race electronics

Support and communications:
- made checklists for key operations (morning, pit-stop, evening, and night pass)
- packed and organised support vehicle
- tested and mounted Go Pro HD Hero 3 Black cameras
- configured laptops download tracklogs, display maps, and edit video
- set up phones for internet connections
Communication briefing
- route
- safety
- medical
- technical
- communication
Equipment test flight from the Gaisberg
So far - touch wood - everything is going smoothly, and we're well prepared for the race start on Sunday.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Having a plan...

Today went according to plan.

We turned up at the race office first thing and sneaked through the registration and equipment collection before anyone else made it there.  We then got through the technical checks on the glider and the rest of the equipment with ease (everything being in order).

The gear provided this time is excellent - great clothing from Reebok, a black edition GoPro as well as an Ambit watch from Suunto.  We also get some equipment just for the race - a Flymaster Live (for the live tracking) and Pieps Globalfinder device amongst other stuff.

We'd only just had time to look through all of this before we dashed up the Gaisberg to go for a fly.  My plan was to fly down to the Dachstein and back.  About half of the X-Alps field were there on take off and, spread over about an hour we all left heading south east.  Conditions were good, but even so the transition across the Abtenau valley to the Dachstein required some focus.  Once established on the Dachstein the conditions were excellent, with strong climbs and amazing views.  I didn't hang around though, the sky looked like it was going to overdevelop so I sped back to Fuschl as fast as my little LM5 would carry me.  Despite the headwind I made excellent time and was landing back in Fuschl after only 3hrs 30mins in the air - not bad for just under 100km!  The picture below is approaching the Dachstein turnpoint at 3000m!

Monday, July 1, 2013

Our route to Fuschl

After several days of stowing stuff in our Duracell provided campervan, finally on Saturday we were ready for the off.  With a better forecast in the western alps than in Austria we headed for Fiesch. 

Sunday morning, however, dawned damp with low cloud, well below Fiesch take off. So instead we headed up and over the Furka pass.  Up in the high mountains cloud base was higher and with almost nil wind on the pass I took off on the east side.  Although it was early conditions were surprisingly good and a short but very technical flight got me to just a couple of kilometres short of the top of the Oberalp pass. A quick lunch and I tried the same trick heading towards Chur but with a low base and strong valley wind I was soon defeated, so we gave up and headed for the Dachstein in Austria.

Our plan was to check out the paths up the south side of the Dachstein on Monday morning, fearing that the via Ferrata's could still be blocked by snow.  In fact, it was worse than we expected, even the access to the via ferrata's was deep in snow and avalanches and rock falls were regularly tumbling down the slopes as the sun warmed the snow.  Walkers coming through the col at Tor told of thigh deep snow even there.  This will be an interesting discussion in the route and safety briefing as I cannot see all this snow going in a few days time!

Thwarted in our efforts to ascend the Dachstein on foot, but having achieved what we came to do, I launched below the Sudwandhutte.  From there I climbed straight out in a powerful 3m/s climb.  The day was good with cloud base at 2500m (later it went up to 3000m) so I decided to head west along the route.  The only problem was a strong headwind (10-15km/h at base), but I made it to Mittersill, just short of the Wildkogel turnpoint before turning and flying most of the way back with the wind pushing me along!

Now we are in the race HQ at Fuschl, ready to start some of the admin work tomorrow morning when the race office opens.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Bouncing up and down in excitement

The start of the X-Alps gets ever closer.

With less than two weeks to go to the start, my training plan starts to ease off dramatically in something that athletes know as 'the glorious taper'.  As I start to train less I started to think about all the people who have helped me with the physical side of my preparation.

Firstly, I have Fred Gazeau to thank once again for putting together a great training plan for me and to Laurent at New Concept Sports for sponsoring me again and providing plenty of advice.  In addition Nicolas Dominik, my physio has kept my body working properly even when I've tried my very hardest to damage it!

However, I wanted to mention someone else who has given up plenty of his time and facilities, not to mention his huge expertise, on working on my strength and co-ordination.  Fellow local pilot Pierre-Eric Thierry has spent one evening a week over many weeks building my core strength and co-ordination through circuit training and trampolining. Jumping up and down on a trampoline might not sound like the most logical activity for X-Alps training, but actually it complements the rest of my training and hopefully my improved core strength will help avoid injuries during the race.

So I wanted to say a huge thank you to everyone who has helped me to get to this point and particularly to Pierre-Eric for the gruelling Wednesday night sessions!

Monday, June 24, 2013

Low cloud, wind and showers

Sounds like an X-Alps flying forecast!  So I went out flying again under the new wing, what else can you do when you have a new toy that is itching to be flown??

Needless to say conditions were not to most peoples taste, in fact virtually no one else was out on the Saleve, our local hill near Geneva. After walking up the north end I took off at the telecabine and then flew south, but big black ominous clouds just above the top made me cautious and I stayed well out from the hill working the clouds rather than the ridge.  Still, I managed to get about a kilometre past the tower at the very south end before coming back north under a rather big ugly black cloud.  I could see sun the other side so I pushed the speed bar and made it through.  It still managed to rain on me a little though!  With the cloud suck now contributing to the wind which was off to the north, I could not make headway against the wind back to Veyrier so landed at Coin before hiking up and walking across to the 'table d'orientation' launch.  Once again I had the take off to myself, so took off and, just for completeness, flew north this time right up to the very north tip of the 'petit saleve'.

What a lovely and surprising evening of flying.  The air time is quickly adding up under my new wing and I am feeling more confident on it now, even at full speed! 

Sorry no pictures today - forgot to take the Go Pro! 

Sunday, June 23, 2013

First Impressions

Thanks to Tom for posting the photos from yesterday's flying.  I know many people are eager to know that the LM5 is like in the air so let me give you my first impressions from flying it yesterday.  Firstly some context - it was a windy unstable day with a low cloudbase, creating conditions Tom described as 'sporty'.  The conditions were demanding, not necessarily a first choice to try out a new wing but in fact this meant that in the 6hours and 30mins I flew the wing for, it had a pretty thorough test!

Let's first talk about the feel in the air.  Compared to my LM4 the brake pressure is much higher and the brake travel relatively shorter.  This means the handling is more direct and more precise, which is great but took me a bit of getting used to at first.  It turns beautifully, no tendency to turn out of the climb and easy to bank over tightly when needed.  In really knarly thermals (and we had a few yesterday) it was possible to be very aggressive when handling the wing - it always felt like it wanted to fly and never hung back like the LM4 could if you tried turning too sharply. 

The speed is very good, so much so that I was nervous about using the whole speed range.  On half bar it felt comfortable, despite the impressive speed, and I was happy to cruise at this speed but full bar felt extremely fast and unstable - this is probably just feeling, so I need more practise at this speed.  One thing I did notice was that there is a lot of pressure in the C risers so controlling and steering on the C's when on speed was difficult (especially with the skinny risers!).

Overall performance is of course difficult to judge.  The friends I normally fly with all fly R11/12's Icepeak 6's or Enzo's and frankly on my LM4 I simply couldn't keep up.  Yesterday when flying the LM5 next to Tom on his R12 I felt remarkably close in performance - at one point pushing into a strong headwind both on about 50% bar there was not that much difference in speed.  Glide we couldn't judge as we were on different lines.  Clearly the R12 is a higher performance wing - but I felt like I could 'stay in the game' which hasn't been the case earlier in the spring on my LM4. Net, I would say a huge jump in performance!

So, I still have a lot to learn but given the day was not great it is testament to the wing that I could just get on it and fly places.  The first flight was a morning flight from Plan Fait.  After the photo shoot (see previous post) I climbed up to the cloudbase at 1600m, followed the clouds to Veyrier and did a little local triangle when only 2 other wings had even scraped up to the teeth! Landing at Tailloires, more photos and lunch, and then we headed back up.  This time I set out on a 'Tour du Grand Lac' with Tom (tracklog is here).  The crossing from Veyrier to Semnoz was challenging with the low base and very strong SW wind on the north end of Semnoz.  It took forever to establish here and work south along this windy ridge.  I was having to us the bar to push low over windy ridges in turbulence (focuses the mind)!  But the glider was solid.  Once established on Semnoz, I continued to Croix de Nivelles, before dropping back into the Bauges and flying back past Annecy once again going north past Parmelan and back into the headwind to home.  Not a bad little loop to take my new toy for a spin and testing enough with such a low cloudbase (mostly around 1700m).

So awesome wing.  Thanks Ozone.

The wing in flight: photos

We had a fantastic day in Annecy today playing with our new toys. Jon's wing - a most awesome Ozone Mantra LM5 - arrived earlier this week and today Jon flew it for the first time. Jon will write up his flight and impressions of the wing in another post, but it's safe to say he rather likes it.

Here are a few photos from the day.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Sticking Sticky Stickers

After more than 2 days of stress caused by DHL losing my glider, I finally received it yesterday.  We immediately set to work putting the logos onto the wing.  With the help of Tom Payne, Quentin King and my long suffering wife we thought we'd get most of it done in an evening.  We were wrong - we are probably only half way there - what a lot of logos!!!

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Testing, testing, testing...

And so finally, all my X-Alps gear is starting to arrive.  Our sponsors have done us proud with some great bits of kits, so here is a quick round up of what's here, and what's not quite here yet...

First up, I have a new helmet, enforced by the new rules which stipulate we all have to have an EN certified helmet.  Fortunately Plusmax have done us proud and provided a special X-Alps limited edition version.  I was expecting them to send me one helmet, but when I opened the huge box they sent I was surprised to see two helmets - one for Tom, my flying supporter, too!

Next the reserve.  Skyman have given me a great deal on their lightweight ultra-cross reserve, weighing in at less than a kilo, but still rated up to 100kg (more than ample for my 85kg all-up weight).  They even sent me a lightweight bridle to connect to the harness (with 12gr dyneema connects of course - no metalwork on this set up!).

This brings me neatly to the harness.  Ozone have created a superb lightweight model which is a real joy to fly. It is comfortable in the air and very sensitive to weight shift, making it really lovely to carve big wingovers and play around in the air in front of the Saleve.

Finally, my wing is in Geneva.  This is the much anticipated LM5. I know it is in Geneva from the DHL tracking website, however it is still clearing customs.  All going well I will have it tomorrow.  As soon as I get a chance to fly it I will post my thoughts here. 

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Power Me!

It is with get pleasure and excitement... (intake of breath)... that I announce... (drum roll)... team GB's main sponsor in this year's X-Alps race.  Duracell will be powering our team, in some cases literally, in this year's X-Alps.

As you know, Duracell are renowned as a leading manufacturer of exceptionally high quality and long life batteries.  From flying instruments to head torches and phones to radios we'll have a plethora of gadgets that will need constant power and Duracell will obviously be taking care of all that.  Most significantly for us Duracell are also backing us by providing our team vehicle for this years race.  It will be somewhat bigger than in 2011, and it will be the HQ for Tom and Dad in the race.

However, rumours that Tom will have to wear a pink bunny outfit for the entire duration of the race are entirely unfounded!

I'm very happy Duracell are supporting us in this way and I'm very grateful to the team there for their belief in us - I'm sure we are going to have a lot of fun together!

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Catching up with Chrigel

With a strong Foehn wind already blowing in Meiringen, we headed to Interlaken yesterday to see the Amisbuhl take off and the next turn point in the 2013 X-Alps route.  The Foehn had not got this far as we arrived and people were enjoying early morning flights.  We found the take off and admired the impressive Foehn cloud on the Eiger opposite, before deciding flying would not be very smart, as sooner or later the Foehn would blow through here too.

Looking out over Interlaken
The afternoon was spent instead exploring the valleys to the south and looking at the options for crossing into the Valais from here.  This will be one of the cruxes of the route, anyone that manages to fly this part will gain significant time on those that have to hike over one of the high mountain passes.  The problem is that a day good enough to fly this part in the big mountains will almost certainly bring stable air to Interlaken, making the Amisbuhl take off a rather frustrating turnpoint from the pilots point of view, especially as we have to land there, potentially terminating what could otherwise be a good flight.  On the other hand it may just rain!

In the evening we met up with Chrigel, this being his home town.  Chrigel added to the local knowledge we'd downloaded off Phil in the morning to help our understanding of the area massively.

As for the weather, the Foehn is no longer blowing, instead we have rain and snow down to what looks like about 1000m! 

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Chur to Meiringen

A shortcut through snowy mountains?

We woke to heavy rain in Chur in eastern Switzerland, with a forecast of sunshine and strong winds later. After the obligitory jokes about there being "some flying opportunities" today we explored the route along the Upper Rhine Valley to the Oberalppass and Andermatt. Both the Furka and the Grimsel passes are still closed (there's been a huge amount of snow this winter), so we drove north through the heart of Switzerland to arrive in Meiringen. Some sun was starting to peek through the low clouds, but the wind was still strong.

Here we dropped in to visit Birdwing Paragliding, meeting Hans Nagel and Roger Christian (Roger is supporting Max Mittleman as part of Team GER3). Hans happily informed us that conditions looked good for a quick flight and so we rushed up to a local take off where Phil was just about to launch.

The conditions in the air were a bit sporty, with a low cloudbase and the Bise wind crashing through the Brünig Pass just to our right. Still, the mix of sun, cloud, and mountain made for some spectacular views and a chance to check out this part of the route from the air.

This morning we caught up with the exceptionally friendly and knowledgeable Phillippe Arn of Ozone Switzerland who kindly shared his huge XC knowledge of the area over a coffee. Right now, we're heading to turnpoint six, the Amisbühl take off above Interlaken.

Phil sharing his detailled knowledge

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Rain and more snow

Turnpoint 5
We drove south today following the route down the Inn valley towards turnpoint 5 at Sulden.  After crossing the Reschenpass we were soon back in familiar territory, at least for Dad and I, as we came this way from Merano in the 2011 X-Alps.  That time we were headed over the Stelvio pass, but today we turned left at Gomagoi (home of the great cheese and ham shop for those of you who have read my book from the 2011 race!) and headed to the ski resort of Sulden.  Rather forlorn out of season, this is however home of turnpoint 5 in this year's race.  We located the turnpoint itself, but there was nothing remarkable there, only a canary yellow chalet looking onto a field.
Continuing on towards Davos, the passes got higher and the weather became worse with each successive pass bringing more snowy conditions. Flying was certainly out of the question and all we could do was drive the route in order to see the terrain and plan potential options in the race.

As we could not find the usual sign for the pass we made our own in the snow!

Wednesday, May 15, 2013


Sunshine. Lenticular clouds. An approaching front. Strong wind. Not a flying day. Instead, new country and a tourist day on the Zugspitze, turnpoint four. The Zugspitze at 2962m is the highest peak in Germany, and a rather spikey peak at that. In the race Jon will effectively have to climb the summit, but today we took one of the three cablecars up to the top to scope out potential approaches, launches, and flying routes.
Richard and Jon at the 'top of Germany' on the summit of the Zugspitze

Looking across to the Zugspitze summit from the glacier looking at routes and launch sites

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Elbows and bottoms

Austria is mostly wonderfully organized, but it does miss one key item of outdoor equipment: decent maps. You can, if you are lucky, find a map of the local area (albeit usually not in most sports shops). If you manage to lay your hands on one, everything looks very clear and confidence inspiring. Until, that is, you actually try to use one to navigate. At this point you will find that the map bears only the most superficial resemblence to actual reality. Yes, there is a path here and a few roads there, but those switchbacks on the map merely mean that "the path winds around a bit here" and the topology of the road network is frequently a complete fabrication.

Today we checked out the route from the Gerlos Pass (near turnpoint three) towards the Zugspitze (turnpoint four). Jon, Richard and I hiked up from Gerlos to the open - but deserted - ski slopes above. Above us was blue sky and fluffy cumulus clouds, but also a moderate SW'ly wind. We launched into light leeside conditions and climbed out over the pass to 3000m. The views were stunning: deep green valleys, blue sky, and the perfect white of fresh snow on the alpine summits. Working our way north, we flew up the Zillertal valley (home of Kelly Farina's Austria Arena) and towards the Innsbruck airspace to land at the corner by Jenbach. A short and exceptionally scenic flight, but we also learned valuable lessons about this critical section.

From Jenbach we explored further along the route around the Innsbruck airspace, up until the eastern slopes of the Zugspitze.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Light snowfall at turnpoint three

We're now in the Pinzgau Valley in Austia, the paragliding superhighway from the Dachstein Glacier (turnpoint two) to the Gerlos Pass on the way to the Zugspitze (turnpoint four). It's perfect X-Alps territory: from the open and perfectly manicured valley floor at 800m, well-marked trails through dense forest take you to the grassy open summits at 2000m. The launch and landing possibilities are limitless.

Jon and I hiked from Bramberg am Wildkogel to the Wildkogelhaus at 2005m: turnpoint three. The Wildkogelhaus is a huge hotel/refuge prominently perched overlooking the entire valley. In the winter it is bustling with skiers, and the summer packed full of tourists who've caught the cable car from the valley floor. At least I imagine it is. On a cold Monday in early May the place is shut up and deserted. Thick cloud cover, snowfall above 1800m, and fresh snow on the ground from last night's weather front meant that we were alone on the mountain.

We launched two steps in front of the refuge into messy air, more wind and turbulence than anything else. It was still snowing, and the north west wind was occasionally breaking through, making the fly down interesting at times.  As we circled over our chosen landing spot, Richard arrived with the van and greeted us with hot cups of English tea and luxury chocolate chip biscuits.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

And... BOOM!

Full stall! Recover immediately to stabilised tail slide position. Raise hands smoothly to reconstruct the glider's span and release to regain forward flight. Then, immediately, another BOOM! Full stall again.  Tail slide. Reconstruct. Regain forward flight. "BOOM!" Fabien shouted into the radio again and Jon deliberately full stalled his glider for the third time in less than a minute.
Full stall!
This weekend was over-the-water training in Annecy in the French Alps with Fabien Blanco of Flyeo. The objective was to build a solid understanding of the glider's behaviour - and how to recover from even extreme situations - with the guidance of one of the World's best advanced instructors. Over the lake, with a speedboat ready and waiting to fish us out of the water if needed, we were free to focus on exploring the capabilities of our gliders.
Jon and Tom with Fabien Blanco of
The full stall is a paraglider's "reset button": you bury both brakes, causing the wing to slow down so much that the airflow detaches. With insufficient air pressure to remain inflated, the wing crumples up and falls behind you. The sensation is like falling backwards off a chair. Now, plummeting earthwards at 8m/s, with your glider a messy ball of line and cloth above you, you have to coax it back into a flying configuration before you run out of altitude.

In the seven flights over two days, we worked through personalised programmes which for us included accelerated collapses, dynamic full stalls, and asymmetric spirals. The training was fantastically effective - and great fun - and by the end of the weekend both Jon and I were completely happy to bury the brakes, reset the glider, and rebuild it back into flying mode again all in a few seconds.

The full team GBR is now on its way to Austria - I'm writing this sitting in the back of a camper van on a Swiss autoroute. Tomorrow's destination is Zell am See, and from there we'll spend the next seven days working along the course line and checking out the route. This trip will take us through Austria, southern Germany, Switzerland, northern Italy, and back into Switzerland.

Leaving home

Sunday, April 28, 2013

More snow

I was out training up on the Voiron today, and there was fresh snow from about 1000m, with a lot of snow at the summit (almost 1500m).  Incredible, it is, after all, nearly May for goodness sake!

The day was grey but dry, however the fresh snow on the trees was melting fast meaning that it was effectively raining under the tree cover so I got soaked even though it wasn't raining!  Still, there was a pleasant surprise in store - as I ascended the last 50m to the Signal de Voiron (the summit) I came through the layer of cloud engulfing the Bassin Lemanique to see the Jura across from me and a perfect sea of cloud below. A view worth every bit of the 4 hours of walking and running through the mud and snow!

Thursday, April 25, 2013

A very long day

Flying again.  3 days earlier the forecast had looked fantastic, and the emails bouncing around about which epic triangle we should attempt came thick and fast.  As the day approached, the forecast didn't look quite so amazing.  Suddenly everyone had questions, but we were committed now.  A veritable army of us were trying to coordinate getting to a launch above Ugine with as few cars as possible.  The faff factor was quite high. 

Launch seemed to filled with all the great and good - exceptional pilots from across the northern French alps.  I launched first.  Perhaps it was impatience, but it was clearly working and it was almost 11am.  Clement Latour was close behind me.  Interesting how the two X-Alpers chose to be first in the air!

Conditions were weak on launch, but we were soon up and noticed the first unexpected challenge - a really quite strong SE wind.  On we pressed, heading south on the classic route, however I soon made an error and got very low after crossing from the Col de Tamie after pushing on too fast and not stopping to 'top up' my height.  I lost precious time and Tom and Ulli who were leading the pack got away from me.  After that things got better and I blasted down to the south end of the Bauges.

Heading South - Dent D'Arclusaz behind.

We had planned to cross to the Chartreuse, but the base looked low and it looked very murky down there so we turned north instead at the Pic de Sauge.  We were moving well now and I found myself in a small gaggle with two French pilots, but I wasn't sure who they were.  We arrived together in a roaring 4.5m/s thermal with two sailplanes, coring tighter than them we soon outclimbed them, but the thermal was huge and there was plenty of space for all of us.  Suddently the day felt great.  Another 5m/s climb over Colombier and I was beginning to think it was a 'go anywhere day' after all. 

Perhaps I was overconfident, but I took a direct line to the Roc des Boeufs, ignoring a good cloud off to my east.  I arrived at Roc Des Boeufs with only just enough height and had to climb as my two friends from earlier passed me to my east.  My route was ok though, cloud base was lower than over Colombier, but I reached it in the middle of the ridge and pushed straight for Mt Veyrier.  A brave or a stupid choice, still not sure.  I wanted to try the direct line thinking that it would be faster, but Veyrier was windy and there were no good climbs so I limped over the back and struggled to Parmelan.  Hmmm, should have gone via Dents de Lanfon after all.

It didn't get better, in fact it got much worse.  Everything was shaded out now at Parmelan and I had no choice but to take a weak climb.  Impatient and still a long way from base I pushed on as there was sun on the next hill.  With a westerly wind now at this level, I found myself with a choice as I approached the next spine - cliffs in the sun or the windward side.  I chose the cliffs.  Doh! third error of the day. Suddenly in rotor and seemingly pinned by the wind I had no choice but to dive into the back of a horrid bowl (see the funny little horsehoe in the tracklog) in order to get back out.  It took for ever because, once again, it clouded over and shaded everything out.  Back up to hill top height, but still a long way from base, I pushed on again.  Sur Cou was in the sun and a gorgeous cumulus above it was being fast approached by two paragliders climbing.  As I arrived the vario started singing, it increased nicely, just as one would expect, but everything above me spread out once again, the hill went into shade and I was left working weak bubbles to try to get back up.  I could have screamed - this was getting very annoying.

I did finally get up at Sur Cou and pushed on to Pointe D'Andy (not sure how to spell that one).  This time finally, the sun and the mountain played ball and the spine I aimed for triggered a beautiful climb up to cloud base.  Phew.

Next I jumped across to Le Mole.  Funnily enough the wind was NW here so, approaching from the south was a bit uncomfortable, but I was soon established in a thermal and climbing back to base over the summit.

I looked at my options - I didn't want to go back the way I came, instead I wanted to try a new route.  I contemplated making the short glide over Mieussy to the hill behind but time wasn't on my side so instead I glided past the north of Cluses to join the after work soaring pilots launching and soaring the hill in the valley wind behind Cluses.  I arrived at the top and took a surprisingly broken climb.  I had no need to be high here - staying low suited me as the valley wind helped me on my way back south towards Sallanches. So onwards I headed past the chalets at Les Carroz.

Being low in the valley is all very well but at a certain point I was going to run out of valley.  Finding an into wind spur I climbed up and thermalled away from the top.  It was weak but the day was slowing down and I needed to be high for the next part. So I stuck with it. It seemed to take me forever to climb the almost 2000m I needed, finally arriving at base at 3100m just next to the Pic de Varan.  A horribly sinky glide took me towards Megeve with only a couple of weak scraggy clouds left to aim for.  As the shadows lengthened another weak climb took me up to almost 3300m.  I took every meter I could as I thought this was my last climb and it was an awfully long glide back to Ugine.

The 'will I, won't I' game occupied me as I glided along, but it looked good as I came over Crest Voland, a village perched on a shoulder above the Gorge De Bargy.  At least, one minute it looked good, the next I was in strong sink and not even sure I'd clear the plateau.  Worse, the gorge beyond was all in shade so I could not tell if there were any landing options if I pushed over the edge.  The last building had a clearing next to it, and I took my feet out of my pod ready to land there.  Suddenly the air felt better, the sink went and I was being pulled forward.  I tucked my feet away, cleared the trees and flew out over the gorge.  I was expecting lift here as the valley wind must be hitting this face.  After gaining a bit of height I decided to soar around the west face still lit up in the late afternoon sun.  I set off in that direction but strong sink sent me scuttling back to my small area of lift.  Only 7km away from my finish in Ugine, I thought the day was done and this one may just have beaten me.  Then all of sudden, along came that magical think - a thermal just when you need it!  I took it higher than I needed to do but it meant I did not have to push into wind through the gorge now, just glide over the last hill, arriving level with the take off I'd launched from some 8 and a half hours earlier.
Back over Ugine - note the evening shadow in the valley below

I landed, badly, next to Tom and Ulli.  Exhausted but happy.  Only a 159km flat triangle to show for my marathon time in the air, but it was after all only a 'good' day and not an 'epic' one!

Track log is here:

Sunday, April 21, 2013


'Finally' I shouted across to Tom.  We were cranked over, wing tip to wing tip with the vario singing its 'isn't the world wonderful' 2.5m/s up song.  'Finally', because we'd just spent the last hour grovelling (listening to the rather pathertic 0.5m/s beeps of our varios) to get away from take off at Plan Fait in Annecy.  'Finally', because it was already mid April and this felt like the first real XC day of the year, rather later than usual.

It had taken a long time to get out from take off but miraculously our group seemed to reform as we all headed south against a stiff meteo wind, in search of some kilometers.  In the group were Tom and myself, Damien De Baenst, Ulli Prinz and Guy Anderson amongst others.  All fast pilots on fast wings - I felt like the poor cousin in this field on my old X-Alps wing, struggling to keep up with the clutch of R11's, Enzos and Icepeak 6's.

We worked our way south and after St Jorioz everyone seemed to momentarily lose conviction about where we were going, I'd been nearly dropped off the end of the gaggle but then caught a 4.5m/s bullet thermal next to the cliffs (vario song: oh my god... hold on tight!!) and suddenly found myself high and leading the group out to Margeriaz, against the headwind but in beautiful convergence.  I knew the lift wouldn't last as we approached the west facing cliffs against the seemingly increasing headwind, and I was pleased the others caught me at this point as we all pushed round the nose against the south wind, attempting to connect onto the south face.  Standing on the bar in turbulence getting very, very low indeed was not pleasant but we all persevered, believing lifting air was just round the next spine.  It wasn't.  Or the next...  Ulli pushed on and squeaked over the crux, he'd made it.  Tom was behind him, lower than Ulli, not going up, but higher than me.  He wasn't going to make it on his R11, so I knew there was no chance for me following the same line.

With trees thrashing in the wind below us and above some very flat terrain, I chose what I thought was the only sane option - push forwards over the fields to find better air and landing options as I was already skimming trees.  Luckily I picked up a 1.5m/s thermal doing this, it was drifting me back quickly but crucially gave me 100m more than I'd had when I'd pushed through the gap.  Tom scooted back and slotted in below me but just too late to join me pushing round behind Ulli, now climbing away nicely.  I managed to get through with about the same clearance over the last spine as Ulli had (i.e. none!) and continue south.

The rest was easy going and a nice out and return to the south end of the Bauges with a relacing tailwind back to Annecy.  Ulli, Damien and Guy continued to Parmelan and back to make a round 100km,whilst I was just happy with the flight back into Annecy landing.

The next day was good too, but I was out flying on my own this time from Plan Joux, near Chamonix.  The south wind was still blowing but it was really only noticeable high and less than the day before (15kph at 2500m).  After bagging the Pic de Varan, I followed a Gin glider south down the Contamines valley.  It was stunningly beautiful and we were soon past the resort itself and completely surrounded by mountains draped in deep snow right down to the valley floor.  I turned back as I did not want to head too far south here, instead working back to Les Houches.  My friend on the Gin pushed across to Aiguelette des Houches - an obvious route to easily connect back to a top landing by the car.  Now I was getting greedy and was enjoying the flight too much.  I glanced at my instruments and at the sun.  It was 5.30pm and the sun was round onto the Mont Blanc massif itself.  'I wonder' I thought to myself as I pushed along the mountainside into the Chamonix valley.  The inital sink did not surprise me given the wind direction and having crossed the col at Les Houches, but it continued...  Trying to find something, anything on the spines above Les Bossons, I noticed the flags at the tunnel entrance were blowing down the slope.  There was a katabatic flow, helped, I'm sure by the southerly wind.  I realised my error and dived across the valley, arriving on the other side only a 100m above the valley floor.  There was little valley wind, both a blessing and an indication that nothing much was working.  I spent 15 hot and sweaty minutes climbing 50m or so and then loosing it only to climb again, only to loose it again.  Eventually I succumbed to the inevitable and landed.  A rather beautiful trek through forested mountainside for the next 3hrs and 15mins got me back to my car about 20mins after darkness completely engulfed the alps!

Intoxicated by 2 good days flying I took Monday off too and went to Verbier with Tom.  Unfortuantely the wind on take off was behind us, and rather strong, making take off difficult to impossible.  Finally there was a lull and I got off the hill to connect with a lovely 3m/s climb to 3200m.  Tom was able to launch in the next lull some 35minutes later!  In the end we did not fly as far as planned, we were too late for our chosen route in any case, however unusual conditions presented themselves.  With so much snow high up there seemed to be strong katabatic flows of cold sinking air spilling out of high hanging valleys down into the lower levels and it was one of these that effectively blocked our path north (we'd planned to attempt to fly to Interlaken!).  Instead we got to land backwards in the strong valley winds near Martigny!


So, three good days in the air, but normal life called and I needed to work for the next 4 days.  There was no choice, despite excellent forecasts for Wednesday and Thursday, which proved to be true with Damien pulling off 200km flights on both days. Chapeau!

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

St Hilaire flying

Sunday night we drove north arriving back in Chambery late in the evening, after a quick bite, literally, at the fastest Pizza restaurant in the west, we checked in to the local Formula One hotel ready for a good nights sleep before the epic flying day that was promised for Monday, well at least that is what the internet told us. Alas the good night sleep was not to be as a fair percentage of the Polish nation seemed to be partying in the hotel and Monday, whilst dawning bright, did not immediately look as if it could be described as epic. Still undaunted we drove up to St Hilaire and after a fine breakfast at the bar near take-off we wandered across to the launch to assess the conditions. Not great, lots of pilots launching but few rising above take-off, still neither Jon or Tom are too good at waiting so when the first pilots did begin working weak thermals they decided it was time for the off. The intention was to attempt a crossing to Chamrousse but clearly these were not yet the conditions so the dynamic duo set off north along the ridge. Tom had decided to fly his Gradient Aspen and clearly in the still quite fierce north wind it lacked the performance so he managed to scrape back to the training field by the St Hilaire landing. Jon meanwhile pushed south to Grenoble seeking better weather but eventually scraped his way back north to take-off, finding some weak thermals and finally a couple of hours after taking off pushing east to attempt the valley crossing. Leaving St Hilaire at 1300m the glide took him to Brignoud but by now the conditions had deteriorated with little chance of working the slopes to Chamrousse so the players on the Brignoud tennis courts received an unexpected visitor.
By now it was clear that the internet had lied, epic flying was not to be had today so we decided to drive north to Allevard to take advantage of the last flying hours of the day. A half metre or so of snow covered the take off but Jon followed by Tom took off for what turned out in the flat evening conditions to be a glide south towards Pontcharra.

So some more of the route looked at and in addition to the flying some more paths checked and facilities noted.
Richard Chambers 
Pretty picture of a waterfall, scratching back up to take-off at St Hilaire!

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Airborne at last...

Ok, it's not on the X-Alps route, but our best chance to get some flying in today was at Gourdon.  As we drove up conditions looked good but as we arrived the cloud base dropped below the launch and the locals thought it was relatively unlikely that it would lift. 

Undeterred, Tom and I went to the top landing area and spent the next 30mins practicising ground handling and even trying out cobra launches (not enough wind!).  After grabbing some lunch the cloud did miraculously lift and, being clipped into our wings already we hot footed it over to the take off and lobbed off for a play around under some nice clouds.  A short flight but probably the only flyable window of the day as just after we landed the cloud came back down below take off.

Back up north now in the hunt to find some flyable weather.  St Hilaire tomorrow...

Saturday, March 30, 2013

It's grim down South

Dedication.  We're in the South of France, trying to find a way through the maze of twisty little roads, all alike. The weather isn't helping.

We started the day in heavy snowfall in Barcelonnette in the Ubaye valley. With the high mountain cols that Jon will fly through in the race all being closed, the only option was the Col de Larches (1991m) into Italy. Over 1m of fresh, wet snow has fallen in the last 48 hours and - unsurprisingly - the high mountain roads were slow going and virtually empty.

We cut through Italy, where the continuous snow became continuous rain as we dropped down to Cuneo, only to have the rain turn through sleet and back into snow again as we climbed back up the Col de Tende to break into the hideously narrow valleys of the Alpes Maritimes. The same weather system that has enveloped the Alps for the Easter Weekend is manifest as rain and fog here, near the Mediterranean coast.

Here the mountains are steep. Roads wind furiously back and forth, clinging precariously to precipitous cliffs. There are no valley floors as such, only narrow gorges where two mountains meet at a river. Power lines criss-cross the area, and the few landing options - such as they are - are small fields deep in the trees or high road and rail bridges arcing over deep gorges.

Jon led the team, checking out potential improvised take offs and scouting walking and flying routes for this last - and extremely technical - section of the race. Visibility was poor: we found open areas that could become take offs, and by peering at the map, only able to speculate whether these would or would not be usable in the race.

Finally, we checked out that roads and paths leading to the X-Alps finish in at the take off in Peille. Normally we'd be greeted by a glorious view over the sparkling sea to Corsica, but here there was only fog, as thick as London pea soup. A Red Bull X-Alps windsock was just about visible in the gloom (although the wind was blowing over the back of course).  Still, when push comes to shove, and we're racing the final straight, now we all know where we're going.

The next two days look flyable: Gourdon and the Southern Alps tomorrow (Sunday), and then St Hilare and the Northern Alps on Monday. It'll be good to get back in the air!

Tom Payne

Friday, March 29, 2013

Floundering in Snow

It's Easter, and our whole team is together preparing for the race that is now in less than 100 days time.  We're checking out the finishing straight of the race, from St Hilare to Monaco.  From last time we know the importance of taking the time to get familiar with the areas we'll be racing through - knowing the valleys and checking out possible ascents that likely could be done by foot.

The problem we have is two fold.  Firstly the weather is terrrible and secondly there is far too much snow, and fresh snow.  The later makes many of the routes we want to check out impossible, especially as the avalanche risk is extremely high with a very unstable snow pack.

So today Tom and I set off, properly equipped with snow shoes, to check out some potentially cunning routes and even more cunning launches.  Dad had the job of driving round to the other side of the mountain to meet us, whilst we spent lots of time route finding in the forest.  This proved to be more difficult than expected due to the snow underfoot, incessant rain from above and virtually no visibility thanks to being engulfed in cloud. We located one path and then skirted around to find a second route up, however we overshot and the path we found and followed took us to only 500m or so from where we needed to be but unable to get there, thwarted by either a ridge too dangerous to traverse, thick forest that was more or less impenetrable or open snow fields which made a worrying 'whuuump' noise every now and then as we gingerly skirted around them.  Common sense prevailed and we retraced our steps, dropping 250m in altitude to ascend once again on the correct path a little further along.  Snowshoeing was tough as the snow had virtually no structure and even with the shoes we were sinking in deep, making each step hard work.  Finally, we arrived at the col we were aiming for, a cunning launch option we thought, but no, it wasn't to be.  The ground was too flat and there were tall trees in front making launching here more or less impossible.  At least we ruled out this option for the race!

By the time we reached the car we were both soaked.  Tom claimed his boots were more like buckets of water due to the amount of snow that had found it's way in!  We still have 3 days of the Easter break and there are signs the weather may improve for Monday so we may get one day flying in!

Monday, March 18, 2013

Help needed... sponsor opportunity

When we took part in the X-Alps in 2011 we were very fortunate to be backed by Pringles Xtreme who as our team sponsors provided our race vehicle - covering the 2 months rental costs required to have the van for the practise and the race.

Unfortunately Pringles don't have budget to do the same for us this time around, despite being extremely keen, they've had to reluctantly turn down the opportunity.  This means we are open to any one else who would like to sponsor our team.  What do you get?  Well, like Pringles you have almost complete freedom to decorate the vehicle as you like and you can have the main logo on one surface of the wing.  Because many people follow us on the ground the van is a great opportunity to display your brand and the wing logo lends itself to fantastic photo's (see the front cover photo on my book).  You will also be able to leverage a lot of the buzz around the race and you'll be mentioned on the X-Alps site as well as links on this blog.  If you are interested then please get in touch as soon as possible by email on 'jon chambers 121 (at) hotmail .com' (without the spaces).

If you know any contacts we can get in touch with in companies that may be interested then please let us know these too.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Flying training

I'd love to be able to write that Spring is here in the Alps, but it isn't.  Despite rearing its head two weeks ago, when we had some glorious weather, the temperature has plunged again and wind, rain and snow seem to be the order of the day at the moment.  Nevertheless, the X-Alps is a flying race above all else and I've written a lot on this blog over the winter about my physical training, so now it's time to update you on the flying side of things.

In recent years (non X-Alps years) I've been guilty of being rather slow to get back into flying after the winter hibernation.  The good XC days come early in the Alps, normally in April, and it doesn't do to be feeling rusty when setting off on a 10 hour epic XC in bubbling spring conditions.  So my approach since the beginning of March has been to fly whenever possible.  2 weeks ago I was in Chamonix for warm and glorious, but dissapointingly stable conditions.  Last weekend, despite a mediocre forecast I managed to fly on both days. Saturday was more for physical training than flying, I walked up our local hill, the Saleve, and flew back down before walking 2 hrs home.  Nothing but a top to bottom but the take off was tricky with the wind cycling between 0-10kph down the slope!  Sunday however saw the first glimpse of proper spring flying, as I spent an hour exploring good thermic conditions on the Saleve.  Very unstable air meant the plain in front was flyable, but Geneva TMA rather limited me on that front, I also thought about making the transition to Annecy but in the end I chose to stay in the local area and just enjoy the happy sensation of banking over hard in 2.5m/s thermals.  It feels nice after the long winter months.
This weekend was again an unpromising forecast.  Friday had seen good conditions, but like most people I was stuck in the office.  Saturday's forecast was to start sunny but with high cloud coming in during the afternoon and very strong South wind starting to blow from the middle of the day.  The south wind is called a Foehn wind in the Alps and it brings dangerous conditions.  So I decided to head in the other direction - to the Jura mountains on the other side of Geneva, to a lowish south facing site called Vesancy. This is the opposite side of Geneva to my house and it took a frustrating 2 hours to cross Geneva by public transport before I could finally set off up the mountain from the town of Gex.  A serene 1 hr and 40mins walk up through the forest, on roads still deep in snow and trackless, saw me reach the beautiful take off overlooking Geneva, the Saleve and Mt Blanc (see main picture).  The wind was already blowing, but it wasn't too strong so I launched into what turned out to be very rough and turbulent conditions.  Despite the strong wind on launch there was precious little dynamic lift and I was left working broken and turbulent thermals that were blowing me to the NE in the direction of Yverdon les Bains.  If the climbs had been more consolidated I'd have turned and headed that way on a wind blown, UK style, XC flight.  But, they were turbulent, the wind was strengthening and the sky was becoming quite grey so I settled for a exploration of this new site for me and landed back near Gex before walking most of the way back home.
So, my philosophy from now on in is to take every opportunity to fly, in as many different places as possible. I believe there is no substitute to being current on the wing and in the air. Flying in even marginal conditions helps to drive confidence and build and hone skills needed for this challenge.  So, as with my fitness training, I'm taking the flying part very seriously too!