In a paragliding shop in Annecy, we watched Chrigel’s live track on google earth, each turn easily distinguishable as he climbed in the final thermal, a glide away from the last turnpoint and the Mediterranean sea – the XAlps was over. Except for the athletes still struggling behind, they had another 48 hours to see how far they could get – but for myself, Andrew, and Chris, we’d already had a few days grounded in Annecy and were keen to push on for the next adventure – vol biv in the southern French Alps!
Cyrille from Annecy kindly dropped us at the train station where we assessed our options – and decided to head to Grenoble for the night. I was able to see a doctor (french speaking only!) with the blood test results and get my antibiotics course for Lyme disease, so we were all set for departure the next morning. A good forecast poked fun at the recent month of rubbish weather, remarking of the return of summer,
“L’ Ete est de retour!”
DAY 1: Parawaiting on the edge of the Ecrins
Our excitement built as our bus headed up a narrow valley, towards Briancon. Really incredible terrain rising out of power line filled gorges, and the Grenoble humidity was burning off – the day looked good. We jumped out at the pass, with views of impressive glaciated Ecrins mountains to the south. Unfortunately however after walking an hour or so we realised the wind was far too strong for us to fly. We waited for quite some time, lazing in the grass (Chris even managed to get sheep shit all over his trousers!). Eventually however our stomachs got the better of us and we raced off to a hut in search of food. On the way, with the sun setting, we tried flying but it was a little too late. The rest of the walk was quite dramatic with a steep drop off that didn’t seem to phase Chris, who had previously commented that he was scared of heights.
These two brothers are an inspiration for apprehensive would-be-pilots – they both fly exceptionally, but one is scared of heights and the other gets airsick!
We arrived late to the hut but managed to persuade them to heat us up some soup, I’m not sure but I think Andrew may have eaten the next mornings breakfast then and there too.
DAY 2: through Briancon
We decided to make an early start. At a pass we had a pleasant conversation with some Belgian girls without even mentioning flying, before veering off the track to a small hill to launch. There was a breath of wind now and again so we launched facing the Ecrins massif, and immediately turned to fly outward towards the main valley. In fact the breeze, hardly evident at the exposed launch, resulted in a very sinky flight. I pushed to try and escape the hanging valley.
I almost made it but seeing trees ahead I turned at the last moment. I had just enough time to flop down like a parachute on a small grassy patch surrounded by rocks and a creek – even got a small part of my wing wet! Andrew wasn’t far behind me but he didn’t turn, so after watching him disappear off into the void I went off to join Chris who had landed a little further up the valley. Despite the sinky wind it was a long walk down, so we decided to climb up the spur for a reflight.
The breeze remained light until the top of the spur, where I would have lost my hat in a split second if I hadn’t held onto it. A soaring bird soon disappeared into the cloud – it was a cracking thermal. I don’t mind thermals but I told Chris I’d be launching on the windward side, after the cycle had finished, thank you very much!
This I did and it wasn’t long until I connected with a good climb, albeit several hundred meters away from the terrain this time. Chris decided to land after seeing wind in the valley. Hitting cloud base at around 3000m, this was far from my mind. Cloud was obscuring the higher Ecrins peaks but I still got a good glimpse into the high glacial regions, it was very scenic. I flew down the valley toward Briancon but after an hour started getting lower, and landed in the valley. It was a down valley breeze and not the best for the area (a tandem pilot told me in the landing field) – but I’d had a good time!
An hour or so later a car stopped to pick me up – there was just enough room, as there was already two paragliders inside! Damn hitchhikers, you give them an inch and they take a mile – Andrew, Chris and I were together again and we disembarked at Briancon. Here we had a look at where the next bus was heading to – but there wasn’t a lot on offer, so we decided to hitchhike instead. Meanwhile big storm clouds were building, but luckily there was only a light shower. Hitchhiking was slow and Andrew decided to split up. I started dozing off, the next thing I knew we had three different lifts, basically getting us to the Col d’ Izoard at roughly the same time!
I had flown in this area three years ago on a solo vol biv, so it was great to see the area again. We decided to stay at the Refuge a stones throw from the pass. As it was full they suggested we camp nearby, but there was plenty of food available and we certainly capitalised on that!
DAY 3: through Guillestre
Andrew didn’t sleep the best, so I had to drag him out of the tent with comments of clouds popping, epic this epic that, etc… once we got some coffee into him of course things improved – and we set off for an hours walk to another pass that looked good on the map. (Chris had to head back to Paris and home so we parted ways.)
Thankfully, amongst the steep slopes of unstable rock, what looked good on the map indeed was – a small grassy patch right on the col made an excellent launch. A short glide away some good ol’ french southern sun was beating down on big rocky stuff. There was some good climbs to be had and Andrew and I were soon wingtip to wingtip above the height of the local peak. We glided off together for the next mountain with a large cloud over the top, to the south.
I was a little slow into the next climb, as I opted to stay on the windward side of a spur. Andrew however recognised the wind was just the thermal sucking him up. I followed soon afterwards, but not soon enough apparently – reaching base a few minutes before me he simply glided off! It seems our plan of sticking together had gone out the window! Andrew later told me he wasn’t feeling well at all after a bad night’s sleep, and his hands were cold. His normally direct flying suffered as he changed his mind mid-glide and made a 90 degree turn. I was a few hundred metres above but after encountering strange air (a common experience for me in the Alps on most XC flights!) I pushed onward into the Queyras valley.
This is a valley of death, all gorge, cliff, and trees. On my previous vol biv here I had flown above it just above bushline, being absolutely certain not to sink below the alpine grass before landing. However, further to the east where I was, there were a few landing spaces that were still viable because it was only about midday and the valley breeze had not started cranking yet. I utilised one of these before hitching to Guillestre. Of course a very scenic drive, presumably my opinion is shared by the guy who drove me – he told me he’d come up here from Marseille every weekend for the last 40 years!!!!!!! Plenty of kayakers about as well.
I arrived in Guillestre just after the shops shut, luckily Andrew had just raided them and met me with supplies – chocolate mousse things, baguettes, french cheese, he did well. We hitched to our next destination, Ceillac, a popular flying site where a portion of valley breeze is siphoned off the Queyras valley to this side valley to create a happy place, where everything goes up. Andrew, normally chomping at the bit to fly, begged me to change the itinerary to include a night in the Gite d’Etape. It turns out his list of primal urges includes sleeping! After a longing look at the map, I acquiesced.
This Gite is on the GR5 long distance walking route, and was predominantly French although I think I remember hearing some other Aussies there. We had a good meal with a father and daughter from Seattle, who seemed to think their economy was on the mend. Not sure if this was in response to my anecdotal story of an American bushman asked what he thought people needed to do to prepare for tough economic times – “learn to walk in bare feet!”
DAY 4: Over the Col de Vars
I made a bargain with Andrew. I’d get up early and get some energy out of my system – a long walk along the GR5 up to the pass south of Ceillac – and meanwhile he could sleep in and fly from Ceillac instead. We would both head towards the Col de Vars, my route involved a long walk and a long morning sun facing ridge, his route involved flying a tricky but possible cross country to escape a rather enclosed valley.
So at the crack of dawn I was off. It was an enjoyable walk, and very beautiful – sun drenched cliffs over a still cool lake. I made good time and on reaching the pass the wind was perfect. It wasn’t soarable however and in hindsight it was too early. After a ten minute flight I spent an hour carrying half packed up gear along the slope, half way up the mountain, and heading towards massive cliffs baking in the sun.
My reflight put me in the bottom of the valley – punchy lift around but I wasn’t game enough or skilled enough to hang in there and get up. Still, breathtaking scenery, and I was in a relaxed mood when I chatted to a bloke who came to say Bonjour as I packed up by his tiny village.
Five minutes later I hijacked the nearest touring camper and got a ride down the rather narrow valley and all the way up to Col de Vars. A very friendly couple and as per usual they went out of their way to help, even pulling maps out and showing me where the paragliding sites were! I told them that in fact I preferred to fly off random locations in the mountains, and with a somewhat bemused acceptance they wished me the best and continued on their way.
I took a short walk across grassy fields and found a place to soar the valley breeze. In total I soared for maybe 40 minutes before taking a thermal up over the col. Wisps of cloud touched the nearby peak so cross country options were limited. I decided to bank my height, landing on a slope well above the col. After maybe an hours walk I passed a couple who had been on a relatively adventurous loop day walk, I was the first person to pass them by. I took some photos for them and then headed up to the skyline ridge.
The side of the ridge I’d wandered up was quite gentlemanly when compared to the uncompromising sheer drop on the other side. Baking in the evening sun, the wind was coming straight up the face. I just had to find a spot to launch! Oh – and I had to do it quick – cloud was creeping in from the west.
I confided to my helmet camera that I found the take off spot just a little intimidating! But I pulled it off without a hitch, and started sailing off towards the Italian border. After a big crossing over the Barcellonette valley, I had a gorgeous evening flight tracking up a long valley, surfing the faces of rocky peaks on the way. Finally I reached the border (a low pass at the head of two opposing valleys), and conveniently, some convergence clouds showed the way across the valley.
After a leisurely crossing I found myself on the wrong side of the Italian valley wind, so pushed out into the shady tributary valley. Here I found more convergence and had quite a good ride until I got spat out the side and found myself sinking like a stone. Full speed bar in any direction, no difference, I was going down fast (possibly 6-8m/s sustained, if I remember right). This was explained by a valley wind spilling over the cloud capped peaks to the south. Closer to the ground it levelled out a bit so I could slope land. I was quite chuffed to confirm with some passing walkers that I had chosen the right valley, I was back on the GR5. Ecstatic after a good flight I continued up to a lake and spent the night in a shepherds hut. It doesn’t get much better than that.
DAY 5: Past the highest paved road in the Alps
Blue skies and a nice mornings walk to a pass. Nothing but sharp piles of rocks, but I had to get the wing out didn’t I!?? You know, it doesn’t really matter how many lines you get clear of the rocks, if you don’t get them all!! I gave myself an hour to amuse myself trying to launch, before bunching up and walking down hill a few hundred meters to find some GRASS!
It was a stable day so the extra hour probably was just what I needed. Launching from the grass I soon regained the height back to the pass IN THE AIR! So, that’s how you do it eh?
It was a spectacular place to fly, steep eroded rocky cliffs with a dark tint, facing directly into the sun. Yet still I was just scratching in front of the cliff. Finally after maybe an hour I broke through, climbing a few hundred metres above the mountain. I then took off on glide before getting another confused cross country moment (prolonged 4m/s sink on a sunny valley wind facing slope, with neutral groundspeed). Landing in a high meadow I decided to go for a walk, dashing over a pass (not a big climb as I was already high) before dropping the pack and scooting off to a hut for a feed. I was low on food, and the French hut lady did a fantastic job of postponing that problem.
Back to a steep grassy slope I launched and tried my luck again on this still blue day. After spending a considerable time bobbing around I glided around the side valley for a change of scenery before crossing to the end of the valley. I was considering landing in the valley but it is notorious for strong valley winds. So I spent some time trying to top land. A flight or two later I landed by a road and hitched up to the highest bit of tarmac in the Alps. The family who gave me a ride were quite exhausted having just climbed a peak in the area.
At the high point we stopped and they showed some interest as I did a little vol biv demo, my glider raising a small dust cloud from the scree slope before flying off into the sunset. I landed in a high meadow and started putting together another architectural masterpiece.
DAY 6: To Saint Andre les Alpes
The wind picked up during the night, somewhat foiling my plans of landing high to position myself well for the next morning. Anyway, I had a nice walk, and amused myself by climbing a rocky bump off to the side of one of the passes. Here I enjoyed nice views of broody cirrus and leeside cumulus, quite a change from yesterdays’ blue skies.
Finally I began my descent into the valley by foot (besides the wind pretty much writing off the day, the glide angle over trees was a stretch). Reaching the road I snuck off to the stream for a nice cool dip, drying in the warm sunshine. That’s another one for the hitchhiker karma bank, a wash and a change of clothes, quite civilised really.
I’m not sure how well it worked however as I did walk quite a few road miles before a Dutch gentleman brought me to Entrevaux, a few kilometres past his camping ground. Unfortunately the train was several hours away so I hitched back along those same few kilometres of road! A young french couple in a van dropped me at the junction, where the young rockclimber Lea brought to the Annot junction, and finally a local woman brought me into Saint Andre. Fantastic!
Andrew had arrived earlier that morning, having had a cool little trip of his own. He’d flown from Ceillac and nearly got out, just a minor mental problem with minimal ground clearance and headwind and death valleys changed his tactics to hitching. When he’d reached the Col de Vars, only an hour or two after my flight, the wind had been absolutely howling, he said… and in the opposite direction! He had remembered me saying something about St Vincent les Forts, so set off in that direction – meeting a older Dutch couple who were quite taken by it all. They apparently insisted on being his concierge for the next day at the flying site!
Anyway he had attended to some dull chore in town that morning (booking his trip back to Australia), so he was still there when I arrived. Despite some local pilots commenting that the conditions were “bizarre”, we were quite keen to go and have a look.
After a windy launch we enjoyed a beautiful evening flight, going to land only after we mutually agreed, via airborne shouts, that we would head to the African restaurant for dinner!
Therefore, it ends perfectly – a good solid feed, recounting tales with a flying buddy!
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What next? Oh, the 7th day – is that a day of rest? Just a lazy CROSS COUNTRY flight!
Andrew and I flew most of the way to Dormillouse together, but I got delayed and trailed him on the way back. It overclouded and I was cut off by a spur, after my landing in the valley I watched sailplanes go back in forth as the ridge came into full sun again! We both hitched back to meet at 9pm for a late dinner (at the African restaurant, a third time for Andrew!)