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