Prior reading: Xalps race
This was the focus of the Europe trip for me – a vol biv / hitch alongside the X Alps competition, a non stop paragliding and hiking race along 800km of the highest mountains. The aim was to fly when we could, and enjoy other offerings of Europe when we couldn’t. While initially we were going to hitchhike and catch public transport during poor weather, at late notice we adapted the concept to a road trip, which just multiplied the fun factor. A motley bunch, lets just call them Aussies, half a dozen of us!
Day 1. Salzburg race start
James, Andrew, Chris and I wandered down to Mozartplatz (Salzburg) for the start of the Xalps, and unexpectedly heard the Carl’s voice across the square – he’d driven down with Marcus early in the morning.
The excitement was slow to build, but a couple of hours later up the Gaisberg it was fever pitch, we almost had to hold Andrew back to stop him launching before the X Alps athletes! These guys, having walked up, were just a little more conservative in choosing when to take off. Indeed, the first unfortunate punter sunk out after launching and had to take another walk. Locally the weather was great, but in the distance some telltale clouds indicated what was forecast – a front arriving, the dreaded fohn wind. Athletes would have to fly as far as they could before getting rained on for the next few days.
Carl thought lightweight gear was awesome when he rocked up to launch with his altirando… then he realised he didn’t bring anything warm to wear!
It was a great start but punishing for some who did not manage to get away – like one grovelling athlete who was below me on my 40 min flight where I never got above launch.
Chris and James both got to 1800m but stayed local, while Andrew needed no encouragement and headed off in hot pursuit of the XAlps guys. Marcus and Carl both were delayed waiting for their chicken lunch and things clouded up by the time they flew. All save Andrew met in the landing field, and half an hour later the front came through, a rather dramatic event.
Day 2. To Grossglockner
A gloomy morning but as we neared the Grossglockner (roads up over 2000m) things looked a little better – we spent the night at Salmhutte, a good experience for all. It was basically a case of deft manoeuvring, the younger four gently persuading the guys with the car to get out of the chalet and the cafe and onto the mountain track! But being paraglider pilots, we are an excitable bunch, and once the idea was sown everything flowed along quite nicely.
The temperature was frigid and the icy wind was howling when we left the car in the late afternoon. We walked past a hydroelectric dam and climbed up a hillside with views of a glacier stretching down from the Grossglockner and surrounding peaks.
Carl scampered up the hillside like a puppy let out of his kennel, while Marcus moved at freight train pace with Swiss restraint and Euro walking poles. The difference between these two strategies would be felt in the following days!
After a beautiful traverse we arrived at the Salmhutte in time for dinner, and indeed the promises were true, you can get a nice cool beer in the mountains.
Day 3. Grossglockner to Italy
Carl was so invigorated and excited by our foray into the mountains that he agreed to a 5am start for the climb. We crossed shattered rock wastelands with a few snow tongues here and there, working our way upwards. A via ferrata section brought us up to the ridge, where mist drifting past allowed dramatic views of the glacier below, and the beautiful Grossglockner (3798m), further up the ridge. This is the part where “you definitely need crampons”, so the others decided to head back, although they didn’t mind me poking around for a bit more of a look.
Admittedly it was rather chilly and the footsteps leading across the snowslope were rather icy. It took me some extra time but eventually I climbed up onto snowdrift and rocks and avoided the icy section, rejoining the ridge to climb up easy rocky terrain about a hundred metres further on.
Passing the hut it was back onto easy snow slopes, which eventually led to a snow couloir. Finally things started to steepen up for the final summit cap, which was mixed ice, dry windblown snow, and rock. With a snow axe and no crampons my movements were slow, balancy, and deliberate. Soon enough I popped out onto the final summit ridge, and felt the full force of the wind, a strong and bitterly cold gale, especially considering the state of my odd pair of hole ridden polypropylene gloves!
It was here, in this freezing wind, that climbers converged and things became congested. I kept climbing, if nothing else just to keep warm – but suddenly was told to wait where I was, and talk to the guide. They wanted to rope me up! Hey guys, it’s not a rescue mission yet! The guide seemed to think I was a little crazy – well, indeed – but I also think the Euro climbers are crazy, dragging tourists up here who have no idea how to use crampons, and nonchalantly throwing a “feel good” rope around the fixed steel poles, from time to time! Anyway each to their own. After climbing both up and down to keep warm between passing strings of climbers, I decided that the views had all been seen anyway, and I carefully retreated.
Once I’d descended the snow gully it was easy going and a case of run back to catch up the others. Past the Salmhutte and into alpine grassfields again I was sheltered from the brunt of the wind, but there was still a significant breeze blowing across the slope but more or less down valley. So I sure was surprised to see a paraglider pop over the ridge, just in front of me! “Is that you Chrigel??!!” Of course it was. Occasionally his wing would pitch backwards in the turbulence, but generally he was doing fine, edging his way up the valley in crosswind.
The others had already reached the car, and had watched Chrigel cross the valley (to the ridge where I’d spotted him), before attending to the frantic enquiries of the supporters of Toma and the Austrian pilot in pursuit. The general decision making process went like this:
“Is it flyable?”
“F****d if I know!!!? Is Chrigel flying???!!”
We went through the same scientific analysis ourselves at various stops heading down towards Lienz, but elected not to fly in the end…
In Lienz it was straight to McDonalds, for internet access and a closer examination of how they were all faring.
Once Marcus had established by phone that the local site was blowing 38 knots, Andrew agreed that we could push on to the next turnpoint, Tre Cime (Drei Zinnen) in the Dolomites.
Day 4. Tre Cime (Drei Zinnen)
With wind and wet snow in the morning, Carl made it clear that he had no need for any Canada nostalgia but agreed to play cards. Marcus showed us as many games as we allowed him, his explanations of the rules being “Just play.. And it’s fun!”, then a firm “You can’t do that”.
James and I went for a walk in the freezing conditions, the clouds parting to reveal spectacular postcard scenery before our eyes.
We then jumped back in the car for a tour past several dozen Marmalada’s (yes we can understand how you got lost Lloyd!).
Day 5. The Dolomites
We flew Canazei in the morning. The Dolomites with a sprinkling of snow. Stunning.
The Dolomites have a fierce reputation amongst paraglider pilots… indeed our own XAlps athlete, Lloydy, has said that flying here was what most scared him about this race. So we were sure to promptly get the cable car up – clouds were forming already in the early morning.
Andrew and I enjoyed some nice thermals straight over launch. So confident were we given all the stories of this “we have good thermals” place, we didn’t even top up before gliding over to the impressive rocky thing behind launch. Unfortunately we were not beamed back up again, so after scouring the cliff faces (I even lost visual on Andrew as he scratched a little further, low around the corner), we landed in the grassy fields behind launch!
Andrew walked straight back to launch, but I tried flying from where I was, squandering some precious time… when I arrived back Andrew led three local pilots into a thermal, doing a forward with slight tailwind as the thermal drew air into it. But when I tried to join him I was not able to connect, instead soaring the lower spurs for an hour or so, (my hands toasty warm in big thick gloves) before meeting the others in the landing field – they were elated after gliding over to Marmolada and back, but with very cold hands! This is the catch 22 of being prepared I guess!
We then drove to Merano where we spent a couple of hours in a cafe, checking emails and the live tracking, before driving into Switzerland.
Immediately after arriving in Switzerland, we felt the pinch – higher prices. I got a good photo of Andrew in the car, after we ate gulasch soup and pizza at a restaurant. I wondered what the restaurant staff would have thought seeing him looking the part of an excited homeless person finding a scrap of plastic that still had some biscuit crumbs in it.
It doesn’t stop there – we were all quite chuffed to find a large dormitory room in town, which we had to ourselves – especially considering the hotel prices just around the corner! Coming from Australia we can afford these prices but that’s not the point – paragliding is all about that ethos where you get something for nothing really – from just whipping out a special something from your backpack, using all your cunning to negotiate risk, and figure out how to profit from your environment, you get the ultimate experience!
Day 6. Piz Palu
In our dorm room all was quiet until someone said in a surprised voice, it’s 7:30! Next stop was St Moritz, Carl was all excited about going to such a exclusive place, but his comments afterwards were, “the coffee was shit!”.
Andrew was struggling to contain his eagerness as the sun was shining but the clouds were starting to look pretty threatening and we were still checking internet… Finally we got in touch with a local who directed us to another cable station up the valley. It was as if he was the sole surviving paraglider pilot in a lost backwater valley of Switzerland, he certainly was elated to see us. Complete with a document portfolio of all of his flying exploits since 1973.
It turns out that the day was good, only an isolated shower off near the Italian border. We all had great flights, views of the Piz Palu turnpoint and flying with mates up over 3000m.
We felt we’d made good use of the day as it rained on us through our drive toward the main “highway” valley of Switzerland, but as it started to get dark we began to think about sleep. After the first few places were full we timidly mentioned a possibility that must have sent chills down Carls spine – a night in the tents! Thankfully he managed to negotiate a deal – something we didnt fully appreciate at the time, waiting in the car. No room in town – but someones friends brothers mate or so on had a cabin only accessible by Gondala. Not knowing anything else about it, we noted the high tension lines fading into the dark in the narrow valley but Andrew and I threw the gliders in just in case. As our gondala climbed into the black, flashes of lightning added to the mysteriousness and we kept ascending as our excitement grew and perhaps the others felt a tingle of regret at leaving their gliders behind.
We arrived late but happy at the Capanna Formazza, and hungrily devoured a bowl of bread, wedge of cheese, and handmade salami before heading to bed.
Day 7. Capanna Formazza to Zermatt
Andrew and I began ascending the walls around the glacier carved cirque with a lake in the cradle.
The ground was covered in green plants and juniper and some peaks came into view across the lush valley. As we followed the ridge along the edge of the cirque we noticed a wind was blowing. The ridge was steep and studded with cliffs on the windward side, so finding a launch was tricky. Our wings kept sliding down the steep grass but we got off within 20 minutes and didn’t want to leave it any later. It was just after 9am but there was lift around, or was it rotor? Changable winds on the cirque so soon I joined Andrew, who was in the valley, and we had a reasonably fun descent, except for some thoughts of the wind and landing, and a scare with some hidden wires up the valley. Landing was most enjoyable as Markus held up the Aussie flag and I skimmed above the ground to grab it just before touchdown.
We rushed off to Fiesch, a premier Swiss alpine paragliding site, but the weather was cold, wet, miserable whiteout on the alpine pass where we got out of the car briefly, and not surprisingly all the paragliding shops in Fiesch were closed.
We continued driving to Zermatt and then the fitter four had an enjoyable late afternoon walk up to the Hotel du Trift, one of the few mountain huts out of reach of a chairlift. Our host was upbeat, interested in us flying, and referred to us as the kangaroos. As we ate dinner, “Don’t eat the plate!” he told Andrew. After our fourth serving of meatloaf and mash I think we had made a name for ourselves as the neighbouring table of Japanese offered us two serves of tbeir custard pudding! Later in our bunks Chris noted that my top bunk seemed a little wobbly and insecure… I wondered if it would lead to a review of the “If you are still hungry you get more” policy at this Swiss hut, although we did note that, while too embarrased to ask for more (yes we do have limits), Andrew and I did not recieve any offer for more food that we declined and in fact wished Chris and James had done the same so we could have enjoyed their portions.
Day 8. The Matterhorn
Our host at Hotel du Trift told us, “Next time come back in summer!” It was snowing lightly still as we left after a leisurely breakfast. Cold hands up at the snowline but the clouds were clearing. Of course Andrew wanted to fly there and then but considering we were already at cloud base height we could afford the time to walk around further for more views of the Matterhorn which finally began to show itself. What an impressive peak!
Back at our gliders the sun came out and we hurried to get ready. In a few moments all four of us were in the air. We put on a good display for the three girls who watched us launch and thermal up over 3000m before crossing towards the Matterhorn. A truly memorable moment but all I could think about was trying to turn on my helmet camera with my clumsy overmits.
A few hours and multiple top landings later I landed to meet up with the boys, Phil had just finished work (flying tandems) for the day so we went to his place and then had a bite to eat before rallying the troops for the next turnpoint, Mont Blanc.
Day 9. Chamonix Mont Blanc
We got up at a reasonable hour, well rested after a night in the Gite de Belvedere in Argentiere in the Chamonix valley. Most of the guys went into town but James and I elected to walk up to launch. It is an amazing walk opposite the Mont Blanc massif, but it was quite a way and given our semi-leisurely departure hour and the early morning nature of flying the Aiguille Rouges, I was in a hurry!
This in fact continued in my flight, after midday, racing along the ridge. It was completely overcast however with Brevent (the peak above launch) brushing the clouds. I should have taken the opportunity to top land above high cliffs on the way to Passy, but I instead eventually gave up and pushed for the landing field.
Some time earlier Chrigel had slipped past, Chris later said he wasn’t even turning and the mountains basically swerved out of the way to let him past.
Right now I am waiting in Les Contamimes, where we’ve just finished stuffing ourselves, as Andrew and Carl are still returning from the col where they landed, some weakness in their strategy perhaps? (Following Chrigel without any maps is all well and good until he disappears!)
Day 10. To Annecy
We stayed in a cosy and comfortable room in Les Contamines. In the morning Andrew and I made a last minute decision to try and fly from Mt Joly to Annecy. It was a bit of a hit and miss objective, Carl was keen until he saw the high cloud, but in the end we think the coffee did it – the three of us walked up to the pass from the telepherique.
We climbed higher to increase our chances but of course before we knew it the sky became completely overcast. Beautiful grassy slopes to slope land on but with clouds on the summit of Joly it was very humid and warm. Andrew was a little higher and took advantage of a short sunny period to pop over the back, Carl knew he needed to be higher but with tired legs he felt powerless to do anything about it, and I decided the best thing to do after a few short flights of limited xc value was to pack up and take a walk along the ridge, great views of the Chaine des Aravis to the west. An hour or so later I launched again for a pleasant 40min flight into the valley, meeting Carl who had reached my landing paddock after his third ride hitching. We made conversation with our driver in French. He mentioned that his fear of paragliding could have stemmed from his time working as an undertaker, burying four pilots! (Including one delta pilot).
Finally we reached the Annecy landing paddock in Doussard, and sat in the hot sun for over an hour before getting a late flight, completely shaded out again I might add, with showers at times heavy in the west. Some easy hitching got me from Planfait landing to a booked out Doussard, then the first car gave me a lift right to the door of the Hostel Annecy.
Meeting up with everyone again at nearly 9pm of course led to a delayed shower, feeding being higher on the priority list than hygiene. I grumbled at us going to a restaurant again with a very busy waitress and several courses dragging into the night, all I wanted was some bread and water! It came eventually though and by midnight I was happy and well fed!
Day 11. The end
Carl took off for Barcelona, Marcus and James headed back to Switzerland, and Andrew and Chris stayed on with myself hopeful of some vol biv action after getting gear fixed, trying to attend to the 3 week old spot on my leg, and feasting on cheese, bread, and dried meat after riding bikes around the lake. Meanwhile Xalps athletes continued their march in the rain, Chrigel being miles ahead amused himself and those watching from home/work by writing “hello” with his track log.
NEARLY TWO YEARS LATER,
I have put together video footage of the trip, if you have a spare half hour.