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!