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!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Route in 3D

As an added bonus, here's the Red Bull X-Alps 2013 route in Google Earth KML format, including the turnpoint sectors.

The turnpoint sectors will change a few times right up to the start of the race. We'll only know the final route when Jon starts the adventure in Motzartplatz in Salzburg on July 7, in a little over four months time.

Click here to download the route.

The Route

Red Bull have announced the route for the 2013 Red Bull X-Alps: it's over 1000km, that's 15% longer than in 2011!

However, despite the extra distance, the route offers the option to follow the classic XC routes in Austria, Switzerland and France. With long valleys to follow there could be some epic flights.

To help plan our route, I programmed the turnpoints into my XC Planner software. You can zoom in to see exactly the terrain that we'll race though. You can also show the airspace, and the thermals thanks to

Here's the link to the route in XC Planner:

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

A quick round up...

It seems to have got very busy here, so much so that I realise I haven't posted anything for a while now.  So here is a quick round up of what has been going on.

At the end of February I was back in Cumbria in the North of the UK to give a very well attended talk to the Cumbria Soaring Club in Kendal.  Cumbrians always want value for money so not content with my 'usual' talk on the X-Alps they wanted me to throw in the Mt Blanc landing and some details of my preparations for this year to boot.  It was a pretty full, but enjoyable evening.  I started flying in Cumbria 22 years ago so the area has very fond memories for me and it was great to see some familiar faces along with plenty of new ones.  Of course, I had to take the opportunity for a bit of training while I was there so I set out on the Saturday morning up Middleton Fell - I had intended to fly, hopping across the fells X-Alps style but as I climbed the first hill snow started to fall. By the time I reached the take off point it was a little windy (but manageable), the wind direction was not ideal and the snow had become more sustained.  Dspite all this, I still considered flying before deciding I was enjoying the walk too much and continued on my way.  The picture is taken somewhere near the summit.

Back in Geneva I've been busy too - getting my training regime sorted out.  I got back in touch with Pierre Gazeau, the genius behind my training plan for last X-Alps, and after a thorough performance test he's set me up with a detailed training plan for the next two months.  He was pleased to see I'd already been following the philosophy he laid out for me last time around and this showed in the performance data.  As I wrote in my book, it seems to be very important to do the right training for an event like this (vs. simply doing a lot), and understanding the science behind it certainly helps, as does having someone like Pierre oversee the details.

Back in January I'd been experiencing some pain in my knees when I was training. After various doctor visits I've now been working with a Physiotherapist who seems to have resolved the immediate problem but is intent on keeping an eye on me and making sure the root cause (apparently a slight misalignment of my pelvis) is properly fixed to avoid any recurrence.  I bounce between being immensely impressed with his treatment to being somewhat sceptical (well, proding inside my ears did not, at first, seem a very logical place to work on to fix a knee problem!!)  On balance though it is working, so I'm sticking with it.

And if all that wasn't enough, I was flying again at the weekend, only a short flight in Chamonix, but good to be back in the air after a winter lay off, despite it being a stable day (the views were stunning though).  I did manage to miss out on some great conditions the day after in Verbier though.  Still, it seems the flying season is here.  Yipppee!.