Continuing on from the initial German / Austrian segment of the race, where I was silly enough to give the Europeans a big head start, I had a lot of catching up to do. With a bit more airtime I started to climb up the rankings.
DAY 5: TIMMELSJOCH, PASSO DI CASTRIN
On the road at first light I climbed up to the first pass south of turn point 4. After the day of wet weather it was very cold and unstable with clouds milling around the peaks. Louis warned me of wind and suggested that I fly as soon as possible before it mixed in.
Reaching the col I began climbing up one side to find a launch that would give me clearance over the high tension power lines. With the breezes of wind coming in the opposite direction to the clouds though, I turned around and tried the other side of the pass. On the way I passed the Korean and said hello, explained the wind was a bit strange, and hurried off to find a nice patch of grass to lay out my wing.
Soon afterwards I was in the air and nipped around the corner to the limestone gullies leading up from the deep valley below. There had been a spot of sunshine recently and even though it was really early it was surprisingly active and I could thermal. It was like I’d discovered a big secret and flying in close I wondered if the Korean knew what I was up to.
Expecting to have a glide down I was really underdressed though and in minutes my hands were freezing. In any case I couldn’t climb too much due to airspace so I went for a glide across the valley, only to get trashed in the lee of the wind, losing most of my height. Even so, in the end it was a good glide and I landed on a cleared slope beside high tension lines near the base of the next hill, Tschirgant.
I packed and waited for Louis to bring me clothes and a packed lunch but soon discovered that he was on a mission and was already above me. I chased him up the hill, accompanied by a local (who had followed live tracking) who walked with me and his avalanche rescue dog. Above the tree line I found Louis and we looked for a launch – we had to choose between southeast sun, or northwest wind. We got it wrong initially so I walked over to the windward side with my glider in a rosette as Louis ran ahead.
There was a good breeze blowing and I took off to soar the hill. I made a few passes but already it was too windy for consolidated thermals so after getting as high as I could I swooshed tail wind through the col. Over the valley I made several turns in the lift that wasn’t there on the peak. I then continued to the next hill but didn’t linger long – straight into the lee for me. Here I got a booming climb, just as it should be. Good exercise for my arms keeping the wing overhead and good, sweet, strong lift. Soon I was working my way up onto the tops of the peaks over the Oetztal.
Although I’d slept most of the compulsory rest period, I was still quite fatigued when the going was slow (having recently used my night pass). Thankfully most of the flight was “upbeat”, turbulent with excellent instability and a good meteo wind. But after reaching the Timmelsjoch pass, fighting to stay awake any time the air was smooth and the lift was light, I considered landing just to have a short nap.
The glaciers ahead of me were pretty awesome though so I snuck along the main range to see if I could find a way through the high mountains. One thing led to another and soon I popped over into the next valley to the east, where there I finally landed for refreshments. On the ground I wasn’t tired anymore so I took off again but unfortunately lost all my height, the wind in the valley was quite confused and so was I.
Assessing my options on the map there wasn’t really much I could do apart from walk back to where I’d just taken off from. An hour or so later the wind was howling up the slope again and I could take off to soar up the last bit and pop into the lee once more.
Dropping like a stone I was getting 7 metres per second of sustained sink, but I knew I’d soar back up again on the other side. I did so and then I pushed towards the head of the valley. Here the winds were really strong, and for the first time in my life, I found myself going backwards on full speed bar! I wouldn’t say it was dangerous though since I could simply retreat to the same spur again and soar up once more to try something else.
I flew over high ridges making good ground to the south, the steep valleys giving me respite from the wind. Crossing into the Venosta valley I connected with a climb under a juicy cloud which I took all the way up to 3600 metres. The view was grand, to the east the Dolomites glowed in the sun under billowing clouds. The white snows of the Adamello range and the Brenta massif were visible to the south. I crabbed along in that direction with a 20km crosswind from the west.
Below me I watched some radical manoeuvres as an xalps pilot weaved between trees and power lines on their way to a high clearing. Immediately after a series of collapses they presumably were relieved to land. I wasn’t going to join them – my landing was at a similar height but on the next range south, a little more sheltered from the wind. Walking up the peak above Passo di Castrin I had hoped to fly but there the wind was howling and there was relatively shallow and forested terrain to fly over towards Brenta so I decided to call it a day.
I could climb an hour and make a long glide the next morning so it didn’t make sense to take a long winding walk down. I tried to rest as I waited for the struggling van to make its way through the mountains.
DAY 6: BRENTA, PASSO DEL TONALE
It’s nice to start your day by climbing a peak. The race rules say we can move from 5am and I was just a little late for the first flight time of 6am. My supporters rolled down the hill ahead of me and stopped at a likely football field – which after a nice long glide over the shady valley I had just enough height for one turn and a couple of wingovers before landing. Further down there was forest and gorge and the best roadside landing possibility I spotted in the next hours walking was very desperate indeed – no need for that so early in the morning.
The shade meant my climb up forest tracks and marked paths was quite pleasant. I was taking a direct line to the Brenta, intending to fly eastern faces, something which never really occurred to me when we flew the area in the familiarisation month before. Reviewing the live tracking I see I was the only one that took that route but in my case the timing and weather was perfect.
Passing the first clearings higher on the ridge it was still pretty desperate – scrappy launches, lots of trees and power lines, and it seemed risky in terms of soarable flying. I continued along the ridge and with time slipping away I finally decided to cut through 400 metres of bush, blindly hoping that what I’d seen on the map would work as a launch. It’s unusual to find yourself off the path in Europe but there were sections of undergrowth here where I could not see the ground!
Out of the forest a perfect launch availed itself. It was tight and there were some prickly looking bushes around but it had a good drop off and was fanned by a thermic breeze and there were a few slope landing options scattered around just in case. I took off and conservatively flew the faces for a while before gliding out to the spur and connecting with a thermal. I could then get more and more aggressive as I pushed higher and deeper and the terrain suddenly became much more dramatic.
Sometimes you fly better if you are not prepared, it certainly is humiliating landing in a hot valley fully clothed. Knowing this and hoping to fly the 20km to Brenta quickly I had stuffed my jacket and gloves in my harness. Soon enough I was getting quite cold so I landed high on a snow patch to change. I also wanted to check that the pass I’d eyed up was appropriate to fly through enroute to turn point 5. Soon I was on my way again and it was gorgeous flying in textbook conditions and I arrived promptly at the Rifugio Maria e Alberto ai Brentei turn point 5.
I scribbled on the turn point sign, had a quick chat with my mates, and kissed my girlfriend. Time to get back in the air. The Korean climbed out and left while Pascal (AUT4) when I passed him was scratching on the lower hills after re-flying. I took a risk crossing slightly low for a ridge with a nice cloud on top, arriving slightly too low and having to land and run further up the hill. I then stayed deep in the mountains in a bid to avoid the awfully strong valley winds coming over the Passo del Tonale.
I tried to get as high as I could but at some stage I had to bite the bullet and go for the crossing. Sinking into the valley wind I opted to go for the ridge further downwind where I hoped I could hide. It didn’t work for me and I had a rather nasty landing (it seemed really fast in sinking air, but my impact was surprisingly uneventful) on a fire break cut between the forest. Bunching up I scrambled up another few hundred metres to refly but the air was still very confused in there, switching from tail to headwind quite frequently. In the end I cut my losses and landed a little higher up the valley.
A relatively long walk followed as I climbed up to a pass for an evening flight in the vicinity of Passo del Tonale. My personal phone was still out of action after getting wet on the rainy day so I used the Garmin maps, which can be easily misread so I had to be careful. In the end it probably didn’t matter a great deal as my flight was late and after exploring some interesting convergences and trying to soar in the evening sun I didn’t make much extra progress and settled for a simple glide down into the valley.
An evening walk through beautiful Italian villages and then I started climbing up a narrow zigzagging road to another camp with the van amongst the stinging nettle. Of course a delicious hot meal and quick discussion of the day ahead was the standard before settling for sleep.
DAY 7: TIRANO, BERNINA PASS, CHIAVENNA
Another early start to cross the less well defined ridge to the east of Tirano. I had a low altitude flight over shallow slopes, managing to find a fresh cow pat with my foot on landing. Then up above the col for the long crossing over the Tirano valley. Given there were only a few small clearings in the forest on the other side, I wasn’t sure if I was wasting energy climbing to the highest point, but as it turned out I didn’t have even a metre to spare.
Eyeing up several face landings to save me a long walk in the hot sun, in a split second I decided to go for the one that originally I thought was too high to be reachable, weaving between tree tops and landing triumphantly on a quiet one lane sealed road. Up I went, there was already hints that it was starting to work but it was a stable day so it paid to get as high as possible.
Taking off on high grassy pastures beneath crumbling rocky cliffs several hours later I scoured the slope for lift. There was fickle lift around, I investigated around the corner where the slopes faced the valley wind, and then returned, a little lower than launch. In the end I had to be really aggressive, turning in tight around fleeting bubbles and working my way up the slope, before finally connecting and getting established high above the peaks.
Following the mountain tops I made good progress getting good lift as I went from peak to peak. When the range turned though conditions were different and try as I might I could not get enough height to be comfortable enough to make a crossing towards the southern side of the Bernina pass. I retreated and finally made a compromise with my height, aiming for a bowl between two spurs.
On the other side it was still hard going and I face landed and had a short flight and then another walk to the spur I hadn’t tried yet. Here I managed to finally get away although initially I went down and had a few worried moments following light stuff out the front before I managed to get up amongst the high cliffs and the amazing glaciers surrounding the massif in the midst of the Bernina pass.
Soaring amongst these 4000 metre peaks and assorted glaciers was certainly a highlight of my xalps. What’s more I was finally in the midst of the other competitors, as after losing everyone on the first day I wondered if I’d missed the whole point and may as well just be on a vol biv trip on my own. I’d seen the Korean and Englishman flying just ahead of me, there were a few others scattered behind so there was no real fear of elimination anymore.
Next I had to make a decision about whether to go deep into Switzerland or follow the long Italian valleys to the south, having a few conversations with Louis (via phone and bluetooth headset) to discuss the options. Hoping to stay high and out of the valleys I tried to cross over the main valley near St Moritz but despite getting to cloud base and to 4500 metres altitude I still didn’t think I would make it into the westerly headwind. Louis thought I should try and follow Ferdy’s line (NED) but he started his day on that side (much earlier) and I just didn’t think it was so easy anymore. So I turned back and began a long descent into Italy, sinking below the inversion again and landing as close as I could (!!! a tricky committing landing!) to the town of Chiavenna.
Despite the late hour it was definitely still hot at these low altitudes but I pressed on to the west. Approaching the dinner spot I got a surprise visit from my aunt and uncle who had at the last minute changed their travel plans and diverted to join my Dutch relatives and follow us. Dan and Louis had the pit stop routine well-rehearsed and after refuelling I took some lightweight overnight gear with me and USB battery packs and continued up the hill.
Approaching the 10:30pm curfew I approached an elderly Italian man in a mountain summer hut and announced that I’d be spending the night camped on his lawn. We had a quick look at the map together and he gave me some water and I settled down for a good night’s sleep.
DAY 8: TESSIN VALLEY, MATTERHORN, LAC DES DIX
With some minor navigation errors, getting up to the pass took me a little longer that it was supposed to, and when I arrived the feint breeze was not very helpful – I had to climb up higher to launch. Finally I set up on a steep slope that was as rocky as it was grassy. I had to do a fast forward launch and I noticed a cravatte but it would have been awful to gather up my glider and try launching again so I kept going. Unfortunately it didn’t clear once in the air as a knot had firmly tied off over half a foot of my B-lines. I had to weight shift to maintain heading, even then it was marginal, and as soon as I’d crossed through the pass I looked for a landing on the high slopes beyond.
Clearing the knot I took off again (after ringing Louis to double check that there really were landings below as I couldn’t see any!!). After crossing the main valley I landed half way up on the other side and continued up the hill. It was hot with blue skies and it was going to be another good day – I just needed to get high. I kept walking past the first few launch possibilities as I’d rather be safe than sorry. This was well worth it in the end as there was some scratching involved on the steep forested slopes before I got over the rocky spines and into the good stuff.
As soon as I was established over the peaks a series of juicy clouds marked strong 5 metres per second climbs. The clouds had only started forming but the day was now fully developed. Some great flying followed, flying at full speed, climbing at full speed, and jumping from one impressive mountain to the next.
Just before crossing the Tessin valley I had to slow down a bit and spent some time floating around near the summit before connecting with a good climb. Knowing Steve (GBR) was flying the same route I was competitive about catching him but it was a little sad seeing him low and struggling in the valley east of the Tessin. [Post script: I am not sure who I saw as this does not fit with the Live Tracking history.]
Crossing the Tessin I went a little further south than I needed to, since I still hadn’t decided on my exact route. I spent some time poking around close to a high and isolated rocky mountain before heading north, deciding to follow a line along the heads of the long south running Italian valleys. I tried again to see if a direct line would work but in the end I flew north to cross the Tessin a second time between Airiolo and the Nufenenpass. I was really cautious about staying deep in the mountains and away from the valley winds but I didn’t have much trouble climbing again on the other side.
It was a good run down the Rhone valley, using sail planes, clouds, and terrain to guide me and staying high in the mountains. It was uncharacteristic of me to leave the big mountains on the first day of xalps. Not only do you leave yourself with more options when up high but it is incredibly scenic and uplifting, particularly when you sneak through high glaciated cols at close range. This was a taste for what was to come.
Crossing the Simplonpass worked fantastically and I followed a sailplane to find a climb in the lee. This was a bit of a mistake but it didn’t matter in the end, I glided off for the Mattertal (Matterhorn valley). Not knowing this area that well I was a little nervous about losing my height into a valley wind well known for its strength. But soon enough a spur offered dynamic lift and I soared up just high enough to glide over and connect with the thermals coming from the sunny lee. There were a few other xalps pilots in the vicinity, leaving the valley. I watched them and was motivated to outsmart them.
Narrowing in on the Matterhorn turn point 7 I saw two xalps gliders take off from a high launch on the west faces above the valley. They were doing ok but I was amazed at how much energy they must have spent on hiking up in the hot sun. As I went off to tag the turn point I told myself not to end up in their position.
Just like clockwork, near the edge of 5500m turn point cylinder around the Matterhorn I got a whiff of funny business. There was a nice little convergence line between the valley wind and the westerly pouring over the high glaciers to the southwest. I followed it where possible, tending towards the western side of the Mattertal. There the westerly dominated and I eyed up the 3600 metre col just ahead of me. It was reasonably windy but it was also in the sun. Poking around rock faces, weathering the turbulence, and peering down over melting glaciers I spent half an hour here, back and forth, testing my luck.
Finally I decided to give up and cross back to the western faces before it was too late. But on my way out I felt something, followed it, and minutes later I was triumphantly thermalling over the glacier. It was a high col though and I still needed more height. Pushing in deeper, I finally connected with the steep shady cliffs on the peak right next to the col, and found lift. Taking it as high as I could without meeting the lee of the westerly I pushed for the col. It all happened very quickly. I was just above and behind the col with no penetration in the wind and only seconds to find my speed bar before sinking into the lee. Luckily my boots didn’t catch on the pod this time and I flew through literally with metres to spare – I even sat forward in my harness thinking I might have to take a few running steps. The highlight of my xalps!
Exuberant, I glided along a huge bowl surrounded by glaciers. Unknown to me, earlier in the day Ferdy (NED), Gavin (USA2), Pawel (POL), and Micheal (SUI3) had also flown through this col. They thermalled up on the next mountain but when I passed through everything was in shade with cloud obscuring the peaks – I took a long glide north to sunshine. Another few climbs and I pushed west until I was grounded, having to land in the lee of strong winds.
Knowing I only had an hour to the flying curfew (9pm), I packed up my wing super quick. I didn’t change clothes or anything, time was extremely tight, and I literally ran as fast as I could on any flat section after climbing up out of the bowl where I’d landed. I reached the end of the plateau just a couple of minutes after the time I’d decided I’d need to be there, but decided to go anyway. There was a perfectly good refuge just up the ridge but in fact my main motivation for getting down was I needed to get all my electronic instrument batteries charged up again.
Losing a couple of valuable minutes fumbling with knots in my lines I went onto full speed bar as soon as I got into my harness. Deliberately gliding on the sinking side of the valley I pulled big ears to speed my descent. I didn’t glide as far as I would have liked (waiting until the next morning would have been far more effective) but put it down hastily in the nearest clearing and walked the last few kilometres to the road along seldom used overgrown trails in the fading light.
It was a pretty cool evening – Tom Payne gave me a call to interview me about my day and then Gabriel, a sailplane pilot who we’d contacted some months before but hadn’t yet met in person, appeared alongside me in his van. Just before the 10:30pm curfew I met up with Doke and Louis, and we scrambled to find a place to camp in the dark. I insisted we set up camp somewhere reasonably safe from the road – it’s always the simple things that get you. A quick bite to eat and then I settled into the bivvy bag with the alarm set for a 5am start, now in 11th place…