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...