It’s now well into September, and the cold and damp outside (even in the southern French Alps) certainly feels like the end of the season. I’ll try and get this out before equinox. In a nutshell the summer has been full of vol biv adventures throughout the length and breadth of the Alps, both before and after my fourth Red Bull X-Alps. I’ve had a few stops in various places to recuperate and I’ve also looked to broaden my horizons by getting into gliding – I’m writing this from the club house at La Motte du Caire. The strategy for the future is not to plan too much – given the hopelessness of this during the pandemic.
Northern French Alps
I entered Europe via Zurich, depending on whether you count Switzerland. First I stayed with Tom Payne, who I met way back in my debut X-Alps in 2015, then headed to Interlaken to Steve Bramfitt‘s (and Samira), where I have based myself ever since – at least, my non-vol-biv kit remains there. After a few days he was headed to Bornes to Fly, which worked perfectly for me because I needed to pick up my new harness from Neo on the southern side of Lake Annecy. The Neo boss Eric arranged for me to join the comp at the last minute. Steve had Thomas and Matthijs supporting so I borrowed the latter to be my supporter, on paper at least. The event was three days and a course was set for two triangles. I completed the first on day one, which was convenient as I made it back to the headquarters for some wifi – I hadn’t managed to get mobile data yet. The crew had fed me while I was on the road and later they brought me what I needed, coming down the hill after attending to Steve.
The next day Tom de Dorlodot and myself hiked and flew together for the first half of the day, then I was mostly on my own – yesterday a few radio transmissions got through but I didn’t manage to make contact anymore. I finally ran back to the headquarters to finish a few minutes before curfew, and found they’d already headed back to Interlaken! I’d already planned to make my own way back but probably I would have exchanged a few small items of unneeded gear for my SPOT messenger. But I eventually sorted out a data SIM card and all was well.
Until, of course, I dropped my phone off a cliff several days later. Trying to arrange my life whilst on a hillside with limited reception and battery life was never easy, but now I was really on my own. I decided the paraglider would feature in the rescue, and took off to carefully examine where I’d been sitting and the likely fall zone, appropriate place to land, and how to navigate to where I might found it. It was half successful – the phone was found on a snow chute but the case and screen had disappeared. Interestingly because of the gesture commands I realised I could still use the phone to take photos but I could not recover any of the internal data – but I had the uSD card and SIM. So I found another launch nearby, thermalled out of the lee, and flew to Annecy, landing as close as possible to the phone shop.
Various mini adventures in the area were cut short by having to attend to such administrative nuisances, but overall the area is absolutely stunning and a really interesting place to fly. Once everything had been attended to it was time to make my way back to Interlaken. I managed to get over the Italian border in one go, but needed to relaunch on the other side before crossing the Aosta valley. Then I landed high in a perfect location to start the next day. Coincidentally Steve Bramfitt and supporters drove right through my valley on their own X-Alps reconnaissance, had I known the next day would rain, and I’d camp two nights in the exact same spot (with dwindling food and no accessible water) I might have asked for a lift! But it’s only character building.. and after some more great flying experiences I arrived in Interlaken a few days later.
Interlaken and pre-X-Alps
The weather was stormy – this summer wasn’t much of a summer – but I was quite happy to lay low at Steve’s place for about a week, and organise a few things, much easier with electricity, wifi, and a laptop. Nicola (Nikki) McLaren had agreed to be my official X-Alps supporter and she picked me up a few days early so we had time to head out to the Jura mountains and have my wingtip repaired (from a rock on the edge of a snowy launch) – thank you to Housi, the GIN dealer.
Matthijs offered his place in Interlaken and Nikki got some work done there while I flew locally, scrapping my ambitious plan to dodge airspace on a northeast heading. Instead we drove early the next morning which gave me time for a beautiful flight near the Santis turn point. Unwittingly I flew internationally, landing in Liechtenstein, from where we continued through Austria to arrive late at night at the camping for the X-Alps pre-week.
The pre-week suffered from the pandemic, with the face to face meetings scrapped. Athletes always complain about the endless briefings but I do think the social aspect of the pre-week is important. It did mean we had a bit more time to fly however, unfortunately on one of those days I had the worst ever injury I’ve had from paragliding, just a few days before the race. As I write it has not completely recovered – but I’m doing pretty well so I shouldn’t complain. But certainly there are a lot of accidents in paragliding and we have to accept it is a dangerous sport. I have never broken my back, but I’m sure I would have at least five times if not for taking the impact with my legs. My undercarraige is quite robust but this hit was just too hard to escape any injury. While I could and should have avoided it (I put it down to bad judgement of conditions, being too hasty to top land), there are no doubt other near misses. Certainly I like to minimise these, and out of necessity I have been much more careful about my landings since.
Half an X-Alps
Pierre who I used to work with years ago in Brisbane, arrived as X-Alps driver and chef and we had a team. Nikki had the opportunity to put her osteopath clinician skills into practice, and we kept the show on the road. Activity actually seemed to be a good thing for my ankle, and it was a shame that we were eliminated on the sixth morning. You can read more about that on my previous blog post. After making new friends (Jacob, Anna) by the Zugspitze turn point, Pierre headed back home to family and his new house (in Brittany), and Nikki was on reduced duties, as I headed into the hills again to explore some new territory.
After a few days I found myself a little lacking in motivation – realising how important my support team had been – and gratefully accepted an ex-pat’s invitation to stay in their holiday house as we were passing through. I happened to land a two minute walk away but because the X-Alps organisation had without notice pulled the pin on my SIM I had no way of knowing where it was, and had to dodge storms and plead locals to borrow phones, and even use my satellite tracking, to re-establish communications – Switzerland, a first world country! You can’t even use wifi without a working SIM card.
Recharged, Nikki was keen to head to the Dolomites and find a spa. Fortunately they also have mountains so I was very supportive of the plan. Pulling into the campsite late at night I noticed a large (paragliding) backpack and suggested we camp next door – it turned out to be Cristobal, who I met in Santiago de Chile back in 2015. The next morning I had a go at a walk in vaccination in Bruneck, but was unsuccessful. Later that night all was forgotten as I soared high above the Dolomites, and continued on my way, finding a bed of hay in a barn to spend the night. The next day I had another great flight towards the X-alps finish in Zell am See, landing in the vicinity of the athletes closest to the finishers, stuck on the southern side of the main divide.
The X-Alps after party was a great way to unwind, and we spent the most time with the British, Dutch, and Polish teams. I arranged to join the Poles (Spike and Leo) on their way to the southern Dolomites, where I stayed at their guest accommodation for a week. We joined a few tasks of the German Open and I had got to know another area of the Alps new to me – definitely worth a visit, but I was also thinking of more than a visit.
Dolomites to Slovenia
Time for another vol biv mission, but where to go? I’d decided to forfeit my chf280 entry to Eigertour given the state of my ankle, but armed with my new ankle brace and approaching each landing very carefully I went ahead with vol biv. Before my visit I thought the Dolomites would be an inhospitable area for this but it wasn’t too bad. As for where to go, Switzerland didn’t look like a good choice based on the weather forecast, and indeed they had flooding. It wasn’t amazing where I was but good enough for another memorable vol biv through mostly new country.
Back on familiar footing, I was hiking up from Italy to the 2017 Slovenian turn point at Mangart (“Triglav”). It was a hell of a hike and I was extremely grateful that four years earlier I’d managed to tag it in the air. It transpired that Spike had a Polish paragliding group out at Slovenia (Lijak) that day, and Tomo, a tandem pilot who I met at the landing field after being rained on in the Mangart flight, said he was going there (home) later that day! But was it ok if they had another tandem to do at Bovec? Sure – we exchanged details and I dodged showers and flew to Kobarid to rendezvous. A magical area and what great luck. More flying the same day at Lijak, then pizza with the Poles, and back to the Dolomites.
Dolomites to Interlaken
Some more lying low in Spike’s guesthouse, joining with the tour group. One of the guests flattered me saying sharemyjoys was one of his favourite youtube channels, not realising it was mine! Finally I arranged to visit the gliding club in Belluno – nice people but it seemed like it would be costly to (re-)learn here. And from there back into the hills, to carve another route through the Dolomites. I spent two nights in the long grass on a ridge, habitat to various insect populations, as I discovered, before finally getting away. For a one thermal flight… but after a sweaty hike the day was salvaged and I got high and flew onwards and over the Marmolada.
There will be videos to describe the ups and downs of these trips, once I find a computer and the time to edit the footage, but for now I’ll just pick a few things as this will already be a long post. I’ve long ago decided that vol biv is hard enough without adding artificial constraints, so I have no shame in changing the goal posts as often as I see fit. So a few days in I had hoped to end up at Hugh and Jo’s place in Switzerland, but I picked the wrong side of the ridge and found myself being washed into the valley. Straight to the train station – where there’s a will (and a credit card) there’s a way!
The final arrival in Interlaken was amazing – a couple of flights wedged between storms – and enough excitement to make me entirely content with laying low in Interlaken for the rest of the week, or however long it was – again no weather to speak of that I missed.
Interlaken to gliding
Looking ahead to my future as an old man, I had been meaning to get into gliding in Europe – if not to get my license, at least to learn or see something. The southern French Alps are a very popular area and a fellow pilot Pierre suggested I join him at the Sisteron club. After spending far too much on a Swiss train ticket, thinking I’d try flying the rest of the way, I jumped in a bus and by the end of the day I was at the gliding club. It was raining (perfect day to travel) but the morning would be good.
First up I flew with Jean-Francois in a Duo Discus. He’d spent far too long scratching on the Gache on the previous flight so we towed straight to Chabre and did our best in the thermals chopped up by at least 20kt of NW. Great fun exploring the local area, recognising in the distance landmarks like the Cheval blanc, Morgon, etc.
The next day I flew with Matheiu in the ASK13, which Chris who took me years ago in NZ referred to as a “museum piece”. It was fine apart from the fact that after an hour or so I had to beg he would fly a bit so I could change my body position – my number one criteria if I ever buy a glider is that I can sit comfortably inside!
After a few days rain Pierre and his dad Norbert dropped me at Serres, where I met with Igor, a pilot from Lithuania who usually flies Russians. I hadn’t yet committed to the FFVP license process but just wanted to get a bit of airtime in the mountains. He flies a ASG32 which is a hot ship and he loves to have fun on the ridges! What was great is he would let you do things most instructors wouldn’t – but also it’s always good to see how others fly. I stayed with his family and his Latvian guest (/pilot) for a few days, then after a few social meetings, and a walk in to the Laragne clinic for my second vaccination, it was time to get back into the hills.
Hiking to a launch in the foothills I spotted a glider winching from the airfield at La Motte du Caire. I’d been recommended to come here but hadn’t managed to fit it in yet. I was really impressed that they were winching, and successfully thermalling, at about 11am. An hour or tow later I joined the same guy above the Malaup mountain, but didn’t get much further that day. So I decided to hitch to the airfield and met Fabien – also a paraglider! It was him I’d seen and it was apparently just to test the winch, his notion of thermalling that early had been laughed at!
Southern france to Disentis
Having learnt my lesson, I hitched towards the bigger mountains for another attempt at the vol biv. From Saint Vincent les Fort I hiked up and found a treeless gully to launch from. From just out of view to my left, paragliders were launching and sinking downwind in front of me like lawn darts, so I wasn’t in a rush to launch, but finally I got up and away over the Dormillouse. Upper winds, valley wind, the most exciting part of this flight was being blown up past St Crepin, a very windy place. But I hung in there and soon enough crossed into another valley, this time with headwind. I found some great camping spots in the air but I wasn’t game to land – it was rough. But over a pass (near Col du Galibier) I crossed to the northern French Alps and top landed safely on a high grassy ridge. Perfect.
The next day I had an early flight to get water and wash, then another flight just before it became soarable (I tried!). Again there were upper winds so rather than wait I pushed on and made the Maurienne valley crossing. A convenient hitch saved me lots of walking but it was still quite a huff up to the Encombres pass. On the pass half a dozen hikers suddenly became silent as an almost invisible dust devil made itself heard. I thought I wouldn’t launch there – the spot I chose had a weak breeze but surprised me by getting me up super high, where I continued on in pleasantly smooth air (I feared the upper winds) as I skirted the north of Vanoise national park, and flew into Italy. Again I landed high – this was really a brilliant vol biv.
The next morning after a sleep in, with a light convective shower around sunrise, again it was windy. But underneath it was working in the lee. I took off just metres from my landing and campsite and flew towards the Matterhorn. On the way I had a scary moment sinking fast, deep in a hanging valley, but escaped, flying low over some slack liners and then scratching back up into an amazing thermal. The valley wasn’t finished with me yet though – I crossed it five times before landing with the height I had, choosing to have a picnic while I waited for the sun to come around. This worked a treat and climbed up quickly, waited for a sailplane to get out of the way, and then flew fast past the high mountains of the Swiss Italian border – Matterhorn and Monte Rosa – and landed at an Italian hut for a feed. Marvellous.
A few more days and I made my way to Disentis – a really amazing trip. Now back to taking the chairlift up the hill, eating, and socialising – the Paragliding World Cup Superfinal was on and I met some of the people I’ve only known through the internet. I ended up crashing a few nights with Ceri and the south American’s. I had a go at keeping up with the tasks but they left me in the dust. It’s a beautiful place, but like the rest of Switzerland, rather expensive. A really well organised competition.
Disentis to Vercofly
Heading west isn’t always the easiest, but it was another great trip, this time in the Rhone valley (after passing through Andermatt). The highlight was the long glide across the glacier after getting high near Arolla – me and a few Aussie mates hiked this area back in August 2014. I was really over the moon when I reached Italy. But I had to decide what to do next. On my way through Valais I’d hiked up to a hut at around three thousand metres to try and charge my phone a bit (didn’t even try with wifi) and wait for conditions. It was blue and still – you could easily hear the “Allez” calls and bells of the crowds below, as cyclists pushed their bikes up the pass. I was surprised when I heard the canopy rustle and vario chirp as a paraglider landed just behind the hut!
It was the organiser of the Vercofly, Laurent. The waiter at the hut, noticing my backpack, had already asked if I was doing a route reconnaissance. They encouraged me to enter but for the same reasons as Eigertour, I was reluctant. But I said I’d think about it. So a few days later in Italy, I modified my plan. Instead of vol bivouac’ing back towards southern France, I’d do a U-turn and head back. Matthew Scutter, who had just overcome a litany of disasters and taken bronze at the gliding world cup in Mont Lucon, said he was heading to Varese (the lakes in the Italian Alps) and to “drop by”.
The day before Vercofly I climbed to cloud base and snuck over the border back into Switzerland. It was the same pass I’d traversed back in May, but this time the wind was not helping my passage. On my last flight of the day I found myself about twenty kilometres short. It was rather late and my landing was on a hard inclined road in nil wind. I hit my heel hard and it hurt like hell – only because of my ankle – but I swore, “and that’s why I’m not doing the Vercofly!” I also had a cold and another miserable nights sleep – see my podcast, “Feeling sorry for myself”.
I hiked to a pass and a German couple helped me launch on the steep grass, in front of the Grand Combin. Clouds were touching the peaks and it really was a fun flight, popping through passes, and pushing through sink to avoid a wet landing in Lac Dix. It really started getting fun when I saw other paragliders. I picked the three who appeared to be leading, and chased after them. The Vercofly task is set at the start of the competition according to the weather forecast, and I had no idea which huts (a dozen or so) were on the course.
Vercofly to Varese
I really enjoyed following along and was quite happy to skip landing at the huts. At one point I saw a paraglider fall from the sky and disappear behind a ridge. I decided not to go that way – I think it might have been one of the accidents – but it was in full view of the alpine hut and several other pilots so I didn’t feel they would need my assistance. An hour or so later, after catching the three Swiss leaders, I landed on a much nicer part of the ridge than Patrick von Kaenel had, in the lee. A short time later Tanguy the french competitor joined me, I opportunistically scanned his XCTrack task and now I knew where to go.
After dark (and a little hitching) I reached the alpine hut and found Patrick. I’d expected many of the race leaders to be here but he was the only one, as apparently the competition had been cancelled, with four accidents on the first day. I paid an exhorbitant amount for microwaved food (water not included, and I noticed Tanguy, who turned up later with Simon, didn’t finish his!), then carefully hiked back down to my tent, starlight across the valley. The next morning I decided to continue west.
My second flight involved a lot of scratching around but finally I broke through and literally got blown into Italy. Going down the Saas Fee valley was fun, cruising at 80km/h, but there were a few nervous glances over my shoulder hovering in the strong winds later on. In Italy I had a hut to myself, complete with a full pantry and gas stove. And the next day a wonderful flight through the wild Italian mountains and across Lago Maggiore.
Again it was time to unwind – eating, snoozing, occasionally helping Matthew get through his daily win beer prizem and wearing a Skysight tshirt, the first change in clothes in quite some time. The eGlide format is really interesting to me, a FES (battery driven propellor) is a really good motivation to go all out and buy a new glider. But in the mean time, I was hanging by the pool. Vol biv is often strenuous and character building, but if you can do it right, you expend as little energy as possible. In the same vein, I don’t seem to have trouble spending a week doing not much at all. As a former colleague used to say, “laziness is a sign of progress”.
La Motte du Caire
Fabien, who I’d met at the gliding club, had arranged for me to start on the 6th of September. Just the “kick up the bum” I needed to catch a train across Italy (just before helping Matthew get ready for his final task). A couple of days of beautiful (but not always straight forward) flying and I got myself within striking distance of the airfield. For the final leg, Fabien himself happened to pass by, and we arrived two minutes early.
Right now I’m on the gliding club computer and it’s 11pm, today is equinox. I’ll try and wrap this up quickly. I’ve this morning filled out a complete page (25 flights) in Europe in my Australian log book. It’s somewhat frustrating that it seems I will need to duplicate these in a French Carnet du Vol – as if my existing experience is completely inconsequential. Also I haven’t quite given up yet but it seems that despite passing my theory exam yesterday, I won’t be able to get the SPL (sailplane pilots license, recognised by EASA throughout Europe) until they resume operations in the spring. But bureaucracy aside, the team has been great and I’ve been getting some brilliant airtime [I’ve started posting my flights on weglide, and sometimes I post to ayvri], as the leaves on the hillsides start to show some colour.
Like any gliding club, it is full of characters. My instagram post mentions my instructors – Jean Renauld who I’ve done all but one of my La Motte training flights with so far, and Bart, who patiently supervised my theory exam yesterday. Christian runs the club, and can sometimes be gruff (once noting that he prefers the dishwasher because no-one around here knows how to wash a plate!), but is also responsible for making sure everything is neat, cared for, economical, and well organised. And Momo, who cannot fly anymore after failing his medical (he’s getting on a bit), is part of the furniture here – and flies through the computer on which I now type. Either with an old version of Condor (the gliding flight simulator), or by tracking us all – this morning while I was sitting in the Pegase one seater he said, “No Chamonix today, ok?” with a twinkle in his eye, “Momo is watching”!