Friday, November 24, 2006

Mountain Wave

Wave is fairly common in the Welsh Borders in the UK where I used to live, and I've flown gentle wave in my paraglider several times.

But this is a different story.

I met real mountain wave in my paraglider a few of weekends ago, in Saas-Fee in the Swiss Alps. It was the closest I have come to a fatal accident in a paraglider.

A friend and I had gone to do a bit of early season glacier skiing and had thrown our gliders in the back of the car on the off chance of flyable weather. On the Sunday the lift queues were interminable and the skies were blue so we decided to fly down from the top station (3500m) to the village (1900m). Jon was flying his Baby Boomer with his normal kit and I was flying my Aspen with my lightweight harness (no reserve). There was only one cloud in the sky, a distant cumulus over the Bernese Oberland which looked a little rounded and could have been a lenticular but in our valley everything looked fine so we disregarded it.

The take off on snow was uneventful, with a gentle cross wind but nothing too tricky. Jon lobbed off first and I followed a few moments later. There didn't seem to be enough wind to soar the upper ridges near the lift station, but secretly I hoped for a gentle thermal on the far, sunny slopes above the village. However, the atmosphere felt very stable so I resigned myself to a spectacular top-to-bottom flight over the dry glacier and scree slopes leading down to the resort.

Jon was a few hundred metres ahead of me, just flying over the headwall of the glacier when he hit lift. "Wa-hey," I thought, "we can soar!". But Jon kept accelerating upward while flying straight, climbing so quickly now relative to me that I looked down at my vario thinking that it must be me in driller sink but my sink rate was normal. Still without turning, I saw Jon fold in big ears, now climbing upwards and backwards. "Oh shit," I said, "this is going to be interesting." Anticipating the strong lift I struggled to push my speed bar, but I couldn't get it to grip against my slippery plastic ski boots. Ready on the brakes, I flew over the glacier headwall and prepared myself to be catapulted into orbit.

But I didn't hit lift. I hit rotor. Pure, evil, mountain wave rotor. The glider thrashed above me and I immediately knew I was in a very bad place. The left wing collapsed 30%, then, before it could recover, the right wing collapsed 40%, then the left wing collapsed further. I fought to control the wing, but this wasn't the localised turbulence that you find on the edge of a thermal. I was in a washing machine, about to be chewed up and spat out as a tangled mess of wing, line, and pilot. The wing surged, dived, re-opened, twisted and span. I looked from my harness to the wing and saw a full riser twist and the wing at the horizon, the glacier beyond. Over the deep crevasses and exposed broken rock, cliffs and scree slopes there was to be no survivable landing, not even under a reserve parachute, which I didn't have anyway. My single thought was quite clear: "This is serious."

With no recourse but to fix the wing before I ran out of altitude I focused on the task at hand. There was only a single twist in the risers and I found the brakes still worked. The increased airspeed and wing loading of the spin had re-opened the glider so I steered it out as if I was coming out of a spiral dive, against the twists so that they unwound as I exited the spiral. The final half turn flipped me round as the wing came overhead. Without hesitation I reached up for the big ears and somehow managed to push the speed bar despite my plastic ski boots.

The wing continued to thrash, roll and collapse with the ears in, but the increased wing loading of big ears and bar kept it above my head. With suddenly a moment to spare I looked around to see what had happened to Jon. He was below me, near the upper middle ski station. Finding himself going upwards, backwards and being blown into Italy in strong mountain winds he had rapidly assessed his options: he wasn't going to make progress against the wind, with big ears in he'd still end up behind the knife-edge alpine ridges, a reserve would have brought him down in the next valley in rotor. The only option was to escape the lift before he got blown back. So he spiraled for his life. A full-on, nose-down spiral that got him down and out. He didn't stop until he was close to the ground and well away from the awful wave.

Together we limped towards the resort and the beckoning safety of the golf course landing field. My wing, with ears and speed bar, continued to collapse but it seemed somehow trivial compared with what I had experienced in the twisted spin. Jon was doing a better job of managing his wing, and eventually we spiraled down to touch down within a few metres of each other on one of the greens in light, pleasant winds.

Somehow the world of the mountain wave seemed far away as we lay in the warm grass cursing our stupidity and feeling lucky to be alive. We stared back up towards the glacier: of course, you couldn't see the boiling pot of turbulence at the glacial headwall. It was strange to have such a close brush with death and yet emerge unscathed. Above us the wave bars were now clearly visible and rotor cloud foamed from the peaks around us.

Thursday, January 5, 2006

Ataka les pistes

With a scream of "Ataka!" my skis leave the ground and I plunge down the slope. Skimming the tops of the bumps I pull on the brakes in search of a glide angle and I fly over the piste. As it flattens out my skis touch down in the powder, leaving tracks in the snow that come from nowhere. Raising my hands to pick up speed, I carve deep in, the wing just tugging gently from above, eliminating any fear of loss of control. Exposed rocks ahead mark where the slope falls away again, and I accelerate towards them, daring them to shred my skis. At the last moment I pull the brakes and convert my speed into altitude and sail, laughing, over the top. Below me, the slope is rocky and rough so, grinning, I raise my hands. The wing immediately picks up speed and dives downslope, and I go with it, dodging the piste markers while bemused skiers interrupt their struggle to stare upwards. Here the mountain is steep and even at this speed I cannot stay close to it. I pull on the left brake and the wing and I dive together into a steep turn, burning altitude like a meteorite. I traverse back over the piste with feet to spare and turn right to align myself with it. Flexing my knees, I begin my flare early but I still touch down at 50km/h, turning the wing into a kite to pull me to the chairlift and another go!

If you hadn't already guessed, I went Speed Riding for the first time today. It's as much fun as it looks, and not even half as difficult.

In my mind, I had planned a long technical article explaining in excruiating detail every aspect of the day, but that's not what the sport is about. Instead, here are a few bits of information.

The wings are small free-fall parachutes, with some small modifications. Long brake travel, very inefficient (especially in turns), very quick, super solid, and very easy to fly. Take off is probably the trickiest bit until you get the hang of it, but by the end of the first day you'll just be chucking your wing upslope, inflating and launching the wing from a bag of washing with the front and rear risers, and then skiing off. The better you are, the smaller the wing you fly, and the faster you go! Landing is easy, then you just bunch up the wing and get straight on the chairlift. On my first day today I did twenty flights and the good guys tell me that you can do forty if you're keen.

As far as crossover from other sports go, surprisingly skiing is probably a bit more helpful than paragliding. This is because you're spending the day on snow, and occasionally skiing down steep stuff to take off. Skiing gives you a familiarity with this situation that frees you to focus on the flying, whereas non-skiers might be overwhelmed by the winter mountain environment. Having said that, anyone who flies a paraglider or a kite will very quickly (read: one or two flights) pick up launching and flying. Paraglider pilots will have the advantage judging landings, once they get used to knocking five points off the usual glide ratio!

A word has to be said about the required weather conditions. In the video it's blue skies and forward launches in no wind. On my first day today it was blowing 40km/h on launch *and snowing*! And we flew in light rotor. But it didn't matter at all. Collapses are virtually unknown (strong turbulence just increases your sink rate) and forward speed is rarely a problem. If you imagine the wind strength in the high mountains required for an eight square metre wing to soar, then you'll have an idea of the upper limit on conditions. This is not a sport that does its laundry on windy days (although, afterwards, you might have to do yours).

What does the sport offer? Well, it's pure descent, pure fun. No stress trying to stay up in weak conditions (it's impossible in all conditions), no fear of collapses (flying in the lee? it doesn't matter and you won't care). Brief, intense experiences shared with friends, and a vin chaud at the end of the day. Perhaps Hans describes it best: "C'est du Playstation!"

Thanks to Franck Coupat, Hans Prunaretty and David Eyraud for a wonderfully warm welcome and a brilliant day! I'll be back with the Northerly wind to Atak the couloirs...