'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!