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

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