Monday, April 23, 2007

An Incredible Privilege

It was a good day. The forecast was slightly dubious: all week they had been saying that it would be more humid on Sunday and would storm. Secretly, I was quite looking forward to a day off. However, Laurence Stein was keeping a close eye on the weather and called us over for a 11am start from Chamonix when the forecast suddenly looked much, much better on Saturday night. The stated goal was out-and-return to Annecy.

Quentin King, Laurence and I arrived at take-off as the wind was deliberating between the two sides. A fast run eventually got me launched, straight into a 3m/s thermal marked by several pilots in the air. Leaving the Brevant at a shade under 3000m, the glide across and climb up to the Rochers de Fiz was straightforward. There was no visible inversion in the valley below which was a good sign, the only question was whether it would storm later in the day.

Flying across to the Aiguille de Varan, the lift always seemed to be where I wasn't. Finally I managed to climb up to 2700m, still a hundred metres from base and 400m below where I wanted to be. However, I decided that this was as good as I was going to get and so set off for the Quatre Tetes on the end of the Aravis. The slight sink was compensated for by a gentle tailwind and I arrived on the SE-facing slopes at about 1650m. It was a long slow, struggle to gain altitiude in the weak slope breeze, but finally I got enough height to soar around to the S side where a reasonable but rough thermal took me above the peak. Another couple of turns before Point Percée set me up to glide down the Aravis.

Or so I thought. The hanging valley below was still full of snow but the cliffs above were clear and I assumed they would be working. I was wrong. I flew along the cliffs, finding nothing, and I when I arrived at the snow line I knew it was all over and it was going to be a long walk out. Turning tail I flew low over the snow fields and just escaped the valley where I blundered into a solid 4m/s climb that took me back to the height of Point Percée. Laurence and Quentin, having taken off fifteen minutes after me, had now overtaken me and were gliding along the Aravis so I toped up until I lost the climb and chased after them, leaving 200m higher this time and detemined not to make the same mistake again.

But I got it wrong again. There was nothing, even above the cliffs. Quickly I had to decide whether to try to make it over the next col and around the corner or turn around again. It was touch-and-go but, figuring that the day was already over with the time I had wasted, decided to go for it. Flying through the col with literally three metres to spare I expected to be greeted by S-facing scree slopes and an easy climb. But no, it was another snow-filled bowl! Quentin and Laurence were climbing weakly on the cliffs ahead and above me, but for me all was lost. I glided around the bowl, just one metre off the snow, not expecting anything and not finding anything. Suddenly, I spotted a white glider climbing out from the bottom of the bowl and I headed over to be greated by a weak, broken, ratty thermal but it was my only ticket out of the back of beyond so I hung on.

Finally climbing above the tops I popped out a couple of k behind Laurence and Quentin and, despite the rough, lifty air above the Aravis I could finally breathe a sigh of relief and focus on the next stage.

From here on the flying got a lot easier. Good climbs on the Etale, Charvin and Sulens got the three of us to Tournette above Annecy at 2pm. We looked down onto the lake to see people starting to climb out Planfait and Forclaz, and yet we had already flown all the way from Chamonix! A bit of radio chatter revealed an uncertainty as to whether it was in fact too early for Roc de Boeufs. However, we were high, the day was looking classic, and there was already a good breeze on the lake so we went for it.

The Roc was working, but it wasn't easy. Taking one climb and thinking it was in the bag, I headed for the peak for what I expected to be a rocket launch to the forming cloud above. It wasn't working. I got stuck short of the second electricity line and got battered in the rough air. I couldn't find anything solid enough to turn in and so fled back North. Laurence had a similar experience and had to fly back the full length of the mountain to get back up again. Quentin had climbed out with ease, earlier.

Finally getting above the peak I was suddenly on my own. Laurence was now a long way behind, Quentin's radio was now dead and I didn't know where he was. It was time to start back to Chamonix but which way? Back across Annecy or south fo the Dent d'Arclusaz?

I'd flown the Dent d'Arclusaz a few times in the past week and there was a good (almost too good cloud above it). Looking to my left I saw Marlens, Charvin and the Aravis chain stretching towards Mont Blanc and Chamonix in the distance. I knew the long route home and I believed it possible.

Now on my own, 70km from home and seeing the now epic sky it was time to race. Full bar and a tailwind whisked me to the Dent d'Arclusaz with only a few turns in a stonking 6m/s climb at the Dent de Pleuven. There I was joined by a blue Sigma 6 who Laurence had told me was in fact Lucas Bernadin from Chamonix. We raced each other to base in 5m/s climbs at the Dent d'Arclusaz and then headed different ways back. Lucas crossed to a big cloud in the middle of the Bauges whereas I took my traditional line along the Albertville valley.

In the distance I saw a red and yellow Airwave glider scraping the clouds and thought it might be Quentin. I raced on, taking good climbs and gliding on the bar. I wasn't quite as high as I would have liked for the long transition to Marlens, but had always had a tailwind here and knew that Marlens worked from very low down. Arriving just a couple of hundred metres behind Quentin we were both delighted to see each other and whooped our way up in the slope breeze and thermals to base above Charvin. It was 40km to Chamonix and it still looked achievable. But it wasn't going to be easy. A storm had brewed and was dumping rain on the north end of the Aravis. Over our route home there was a large but not too tall cloud shading the entire Megeve valley. It was going to be close.

Lucas had set of first and I waited for Quentin at base before heading off together. Not sure where to aim for we saw that Lucas had a climb and we joined below him. However, it soon petered out after a few turns and we headed off to the last bit of sun on the Megeve airport, instincitively spreading out 100m apart to search for lift. Finally we found it, and we climbed together in a smooth but weak 1m/s. Suddenly I felt a few spots of water and realised that it was raining on us! We continued climbing together and as we rose the rain turned slowly to light hail. Immediately to our west a huge twisting funnel of rain was dumping on Megeve itself. The sun illuminated it from behind and it was truly stunning to behold.

Toping out just below cloudbase we set off on glide over the shaded valley, still in light rain, aiming for the sunny slopes of Mont Joly in the distance. We just made it, connecting with the slope breeze which released into a nice thermal. Chamonix was now in the bag and the three of us set off, Lucas leading the way.

We crossed the col into Chamonix valley into rough air over Les Houches. After a sinky couple of minutes over the broken mountainside above Les Houches I finally connected with a decent climb and Quentin came to join me. Together the climb took us from 2200m to cloudbase now at 3750m. This was simply beyond words. Incredible vistas across the slopes of Mont Blanc opened up as we climbed. Wisps of cloud and huge seracs clung to its flanks. The pure white snow, perfect red granite and deep blue sky made this simply one of the most amazing moments I have experienced in a paraglider.

We left the cloud at base and I looked over my should to see Quentin heading straight for the Aiguille du Midi! There was a small cloud near the peak so I headed over to join him. We soared amongst the stone pinnacles in the pink evening light, climbing above the Cosmiques hut and waving at the climbers relaxing on the balcony. Quentin climbed higher, working the lift to finally top out over the top the Aiguille du Midi itself. Seen from the air it is incredible: a modern fairytale castle built in the sky. Buildings clinging precariously to the impossible rock spires, between which arc soaring bridges. For a few moments we felt like birds, incredibly privileged to be here, now, at the one moment that it was possible.

I had now been flying for over seven hours, but wasn't quite finished yet. My final objective was the Drus and the Aiguille Verte so I headed along the Chamonix Aiguilles, almost overwhelmed by the mountain splendor. I looked down on the Vallee Blanche and to the imposing north face of the Grand Jorasses beyond, with the mighty Dent du Geant perched on its southern end. Behind me the clouds built around the Aiguille du Midi, finally closing the door on that magic moment.

Finding a climb on a spur below the Grand Montets I thermalled up, over the lift station under the watchful eye of the Aiguille Verte and the Drus next to me. Drifting over the cable car and still climbing, I decided that I and the flight were complete, and glided into the valley to land.

All photos taken by Quentin King, see the full set at You can download my GPS tracklog from Leonardo.