I’ve just returned from an epic three day vol biv trip through the southern French Alps with some of my best flying ever. Now (10-12 April) I feel I’m getting a feel for spring conditions! It reminded me at times of my first trip in this area many years ago where I wondered, is flying here always this good!? (I’d apparently chanced across the best weather in their 2008 season with my August trip). My first flight was my longest ever, both in duration and distance covered, the scenery was spectacular with snow covered mountains as far as the eye can see, the conditions were mostly hands on brakes flying but of course with great visibility and views from distant Mont Blanc to the hills of Cote d’Azur I couldn’t resist taking photos.
After getting groceries I hitched Gattieres, Saint Jeannet, Vence, and then three young ladies from Luxembourg decided to bring me all the way to Col de Bleine (quite a drive through various gorges) because they “had the time”. Blue skies, calm, and cold, I thought I’d arrived early (10:30am) but as I walked up the hill I heard whistling in the pines. It was thermic – it was time to do battle. I was on my own and felt quite small, so I made sure I didn’t rush myself and I was ready, before taking off straight into a thermal somewhere before 11:30am.
The climbs were strong, smooth, and sweet. I’d looked at David Dagault’s 330km track the night before so I followed his lead, pushing west along the ridge into the (yet to develop) valley breeze. I found myself in a northerly drift at medium altitude and wondered if there was a mistral developing and if that was why no one else was around. I fought my way back up again low over cliffs in leeside (not quite sure where the wind was supposed to be coming from now), and decided to keep on going. Thus was the pattern of the day. I would find a great climb, look at the maze of hills below me, go on glide, and from time to time find myself in a really bad spot – thanking my wing (flying the Ozone LM5 with Advance Lightness harness) and the strong sun to overcome all other forces and, after enduring the requisite punishment, get back on track.
Soon clouds started to form which was good moral support. And as I neared St Andre I noted various landmarks, the peaks and valleys that I’d explored in previous years. This flight was a great mix of the new and the familiar. I love to get to know an area, so it was nice to be close to places I’d been but far enough for it to be new.
At the southern end of Crete de Serres I had quite a time low down trying to get back up again, after giving up on the previous peak across the valley. With paddocks below to land in I felt quite comfortable enduring the rough air. As long as I have options, I really do like a bit of spice and energy in the air. Unlike where I learned to fly in southeast Queensland, you really can fly all day – the sun overpowers all.
Of course I am loving the performance of the wing as well. Many times throughout the flight I’d thought to myself, performance is safety. As long as you are comfortable dealing with turbulence you can make mistakes in your route and still manage to keep going. Having now dealt with some extreme turbulence (Cathkin peak in the Drakensberg) I now am fully confident with my wing. I love my harness too, comfortable and functional.
Once I’d joined the classic St Andre route I finally started to come across other paragliders. A relief since having only seen ubiquitous sail planes all day I was wondering whether I was supposed to be there. I felt oh so sociable.
Crossing to the Murgon was easy but from there to link to the main valleys to Grenoble was not to be. I spent considerable time in the lee of a spur battling with leeside thermals but in the end I gave up on the Grenoble route and jumped into the next valley, where high snowy cols blocked the route. I’d just have to settle for a scenic high glide over snowfields, nudging just a little into the wild heart of the Ecrins.
For the next part of the flight I had a reasonable grasp of where I was but I wasn’t familiar with the specific valleys and mountains. During a long crossing over the La Durance valley I relieved my bladder (my second ever inflight pee) before climbing up in steady valley wind on southwest faces as the evening hours set in. It was really gorgeous soaring over beautiful terrain.
The punchy hands on brakes flying that had dominated the day was now subsiding into gentle evening lift. Not only that but having felt like I’d been pushing headwind all day (wondering if I could have maybe planned my flight better, but also just putting it down to “good practice”) I was now happily sailing downwind.
Recognising Briancon and the valley leading to the Col d’Izoard I chose to fly the next valley over. I had a chance to pop over the col but it would have required a split second decision – I landed, walked a short distance and relaunched to sneak through the col, soaring the lower cliffs of Pic de Beaudouis a while to ponder options for the next day. Then down to land by a cabin to spend the night. It was locked but I laid out my bivvy on the doorstep.
I was pretty stoked to be there, having just clocked up my longest flight of over 100 kilometres (without turnpoints) in about eight hours. I only had just enough time to set up camp and eat before it was dark.
Giving the day ample time to heat up to overcome a light breeze from the northwest I sat on the spur, with a marginal west facing launch before peeling around to the south facing cliffs.
The air was unexpectedly very leeside, with air inexplicably poorly behaved given how light the air was on the exposed ridge I launched from. I tried various options, usually coming back to some stalagmite like cliffs low in the valley, a reliable trigger to rebound the air sweeping down into the valley. I was patient and calm but after close to an hour I decided that even though I hadn’t reached the height of the peak, it was time to push on. I arrived at a southeast facing spur not much higher than the trees and it was deliverance. Rough air welcomed me as I enthusiastically cranked the glider around – this thermal meant business. Pulling up warm air from the valley below it cranked me all the way up to 12000 feet.
This was absolutely just what I needed to get over the big mountains directly to the south – I wanted to make sure I was upwind of the westerly valley flow. Noting Ceillac to my left (Andrew and I did a vol biv trip through here in 2011) I crossed near Guillestre, heading towards a small col east of Vars where I’d flown through in August 2008.
A few good climbs later and I was tiptoeing my way toward this col. On the second attempt I just snuck through and glided through sink, remembering a classic dark rocky slope nearby which had whisked me up in minutes those years ago. True to form this offered a ballistic thermal, rocking my wing on entry to make me think twice about flying too close to what looked like a small herd of ibex. It took me all the way to cloud base at 4000 metres. I could see Mont Blanc clearly in the distance and thought several times about turning around and heading that way. I chose to fly through Col de Larche into Italy but I should have stayed in France, getting in front of the valley wind to the next spur just as Jon Chambers did in the 2013 xalps, thus leading into the Tinee valley.
I’d wanted to explore new mountains though so off to Italy it was. I wasn’t exactly welcomed, it is a confused valley with multiple influences and varied and often rough air. After making several crossings on the north side of the valley I was swept across to the southern side by some intruding wind. I found a slope which offered smooth gentle valley wind lift (the Lombarde), welcome when low but it started getting boring by the time I topped out. The next spur in absolute contrast was terribly turbulent – I suspect it has a lower pass allowing French winds to flush it in leeside. I hung in there but it was futile, I crossed the valley again and continued. After face landing for a pit stop I continued, making it back to the Col de Larche but with the afternoon having clouded up my hopes of reaching 4000 metres again had faded with the sun in thick cirrostratus.
Expecting poor weather the next day (seemed like a warm front) I dug my way into a shepherds hut and made a bed in the hay. I was half expecting to have to have a long hitch home so I didn’t want to walk half way up the mountain hut in the soft afternoon snow to a nicer shepherds hut I’d stayed in years ago.
Even though the sky was clear both times I went outside to have a look during the night, and the morning dawned clear, I was suspicious bad weather was on the way. Especially when I was post holing in the snow well before sunrise (relatively warm for 1900+ metres in April!) and wisps of cloud were already forming. Luckily further up toward the pass – which was completely covered in expansive snowfields and skiers tracks – the snow was perfect for scampering up, offering grip but not collapsing under my weight (most of the time).
I reached the col just before 10am and things were actually looking good. Light wind opposing the Tinee valley flow which was yet to start. After second breakfast I ground handled up the slope and slid through the col into leeside. Again despite light winds on the col (cols are supposed to be windy, right?) it was rough in the air.
Things weren’t looking good despite what must be one of the biggest sun facing cliffs in the country, but I had to stay around at least a little while to pay my respects. I had a few other options lower down but as I tried them it looked like I might not even make Saint Etienne de Tinee. The northwest wind blew all the way down to the valley, and I battled low against southeast facing cliffs. Nothing comes easy and each flight has had its share of rough gritty periods to sort the sheep from the goats. Finally I climbed up and things started to improve, as I negotiated the small space between cloud base and the snowy mountain tops.
The previous flight here last week had seen me take a death glide alongside Mt Giraud so I had hatched a plan to turn toward the Italian border instead. I decided to give it a go despite the low cloud base. Adjusting my phone or gloves and maybe something else I got distracted and glided to the wrong spur. Then I crossed the valley (again!) and yet again I was low and fighting. I got up and flew further along to see the planned route – the valley on the other side of the col was full of trees. After another sight seeing valley crossing I decided to continue – there were a few avalanche paths where I could land if I had to.
With my eyes on an avalanche path and moments from landing I was fighting low on the slope, pine trees, boulders, and patches of sun. Up and down and finally away, it seems I can’t do anything wrong. I pushed out in front of Mt Giraud, taking a while to recognise my starting point for my August 2008 vol biv.
Then I crossed a few more valleys pushing back along the Vesubie towards Nice. It was still early in the day (2pm I think) when I reached Roquebilliere, but I decided to land. With the mountain spines touching the clouds it looked like I was trapped. Having said that there are many times in the last three days where things didn’t look good but you just had a go and it worked out – maybe I was tired.
Anyway despite not landing in Monaco it was still a fantastic trip! I got myself a baguette, fromage, un pomme e la orangina before taking a lift back to Nice. Another eye opening trip… can you imagine something better?