Monday, December 22, 2008

Winter solstice

The Alps are simply spectacular at the moment. Several metres of snow have now fallen and the meteorologists are saying that it's the whitest start to the winter for thirty years. I'm continuing the base training with two good ski tours over the weekend of the winter solstice.

On Saturday I climbed the peak of La Thuile (2294m) above Albertville with a group of friends from Chambéry. We donned our skis at 800m and worked our way up though the forest, then high alpages, and finally the summit slopes to top out 1500m higher. The photo on the right shows Daniel skinning up at the moment we exited the dense forest. As you can imagine, the view from the top was stunning: the photo at the top of this article shows the view looking north over the Combe de Savoie and the Massif des Bauges. Snow conditions on the descent were extremely variable: rock hard wind slab near the top, which became breakable crust and eventually sodden wet powder. Skiing the patchy rotten snow through dense trees to get back to the cars was really quite a challenge!

On Sunday I joined up with Amis Montagnards, a mountaineering club based in Geneva, to climb Le Buet (3109m), the highest summit in the Aiguilles Rouges massif. The 1800m tour follows a remote valley due West from the Col de la Forclaz at the north end of the Chamonix valley, before climbing steep slopes to the summit. With several metres of fresh snow and blue skies conditions were simply perfect.

The summit is high and slightly removed from the high spine of the Alps so the panoramic view from the top is incredible. To the East we could see deep into Switzerland, including the unmistakable peak of the Matterhorn. The Mont Blanc massif dominated the view to the South East, and to the South we could see as far as the Meije and the Barre des Ecrins, over 150km away. The photo to the right looks over the Chaine des Aravis, one of the classic paragliding routes in the region. The descent was sublime: the high altitude wind slab quickly gave way to 1000m of vertical descent through sculpted virgin power fields. Skiing doesn't get any better than this.

It seems incredible to me that in just seven months I'll be racing through this wild terrain, literally from horizon to horizon, and hoping to take only a few days to do it! Still, with 3300m of ascent completed over the weekend with four kilograms of boot and ski tied to each foot and another few kilos on the back, the physical preparation is off to a good start.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Training update

So, last Saturday was the Escalade race in Geneva, 7.25km up and down through the twisty cobbled streets of Geneva's Old Town. The race draws over twenty five thousand runners of all ages to celebrate the defeat of the Savoyardes in 1602. According to legend, the invaders were turned back by an enterprising woman who poured a pot of hot soup over them! I ran the course in 27m34s, an average speed of 15.8km/h, finishing 52nd out of over 1800 in my category.

Winter has arrived early in the French Alps and there's already over a metre of snow, even in the mid mountain. Speed training is over now and it's time to focus on base fitness for the winter season. My main activity is ski touring. This uses special ski equipment that allows you to release the heel of the binding so that it pivots at the toe. With artificial seal skins glued to the base of your skis you can ski up the mountain. Once at the summit, you peel off the skins, lock down your heels and ski down. There are no lifts so you earn every turn of the descent. Climbing up gets you very fit and you experience the high mountain at its most hostile: deep winter. It's the perfect X-Alps training.

I did my first proper tour of the season last weekend, climbing up the Dent de Verreu in the Chablais massif with the Amis Montagnards mountaineering club of Geneva. The top 300m was so good - 50cm of fresh virgin powder - that we had to climb up again to ski it a second time!

Right now I'm in Zermatt, Switzerland at the foot of the Matterhorn. Tomorrow I'm back on the freeride skis for the fun Infinity Downhill ski race: 2200m vertical metres in one go from the top of the Kleine Matterhorn down to Zermatt. It's a bit of fun but it's also a chance to check out one of the turnpoints and chat to the locals over a beer about flying and running in the area. Not all the preparation has to be hard work!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Rules version one

We've just received version one of the Red Bull X-Alps rules for 2009. There are likely to be a few changes yet, but of interest is the minimum equipment that you have to fly or run with all the time:
  • paraglider
  • harness
  • emergency parachute
  • helmet
  • mobile phone
  • GPS logger
  • GPS tracking device
  • three emergency red signal rockets
In 2007 most athletes' sacks weighed about 12kg, except for Vincent Sprungli's which weighed under 10kg.

The radii around the turnpoints have not yet been decided. You have to pass south of the summit of the Marmolada and north of Mont Blanc.

Of note as well, is that this year, like in 2007, there is no enforced rest period and trailing teams will be eliminated (first one after 72 hours, then one team every 48 hours until you pass Mont Blanc or someone finishes).

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Axis Mountain Masterclass

As part of Team Axis UK, I'll be leading the an advanced mountain cross country course around the Northern French Alps (Annecy, Chamonix, St. Hilare du Touvet) next Spring.

The goal is to develop your mountain flying knowledge and skills so that you can complete long XC flights in the mountains. We'll be in the Alps at the best time of year for XC flying and will cover all aspects, including mental and physical preparation, meteorology, aerology, route planning and decision making. It is not a beginner's course. You must be an autonomous XC pilot with some mountain or flatland flying experience.

The course is non profit-making and will be run at cost, i.e. cheap, with a full budget breakdown presented to all participants.

To find out more visit the Axis Mountain Masterclass website and contact Axis UK to register your interest.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Initial preparations

Now that we've been accepted the training can being in earnest.

For the physical preparations, I'm currently most of the way through a speed programme in preparation for the Escalade running race through Geneva's Old Town in a couple of weekends time. This is a short race (7.5km) but it's a great way to kick start my training. The goal is to build a bit more leg power and muscle around my knees to reduce the strain on them during the X-Alps. The weekly schedule looks like this:
  • Monday: rest.
  • Tuesday: 20mins warm-up (12km/h) then two sets of 10x 30sec sprints (18+km/h) with 30sec gentle jog between sprints and 3mins rest between sets, followed by a warm down and stretching on the track.
  • Wednesday: rest.
  • Thursday: 30mins warm-up (12km/h) then 6x 4min hard (16km/h) with 2min rests between them, followed by a warm down and stretching on the track.
  • Friday: 60-75mins slow (12km/h) on forest tracks.
  • Weekend: long duration, low intensity with a rucksack.
For example, two weekends I ago I climbed the Pic de Sambuy in the Bauges with my paraglider (1400m of ascent, unfortunately there was too much cloud to fly so it was a walk down too!), and last weekend I did a two day snowshoe trip in the Jura mountains, staying overnight in an unguarded hut.

Alex and I are starting to discuss gear, the route, strategy and logistics, but in these early stages it's more a question of working out what we need to work out, rather collecting all the details just yet. I've also started contacting some of the other Athletes to share information about the preparations.

Many thanks to all of you who have offered advice, help or simply best wishes for the race. Much appreciated!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Red Bull X-Alps 2009

Yes! We're in!

Alex Raymont and I have been selected to compete in the the Red Bull X-Alps, one of the World's toughest and most spectacular adventure races. We start in Salzburg, Austria and race, day and night for two weeks, the full length of the European Alps to goal on the Mediterranean coast in Monaco. If the weather is good we hope to cover 100km or more each day by paraglider, but if the weather's bad it'll be pounding along the ground with the paraglider on the back.

We're a team of two. I'll be running and flying, Alex will be the supporter, driving the support vehicle, fueling me for the race and making critical strategic decisions.

I'm delighted to announce that thanks to the gracious support of Nicky Moss and Mark "Wagga" Watts at Axis Paragliding UK I'll be flying a ultralight Venus II paraglider. Les Grands Espaces, the paragliding shop and school at the Planfait landing field in Annecy, France have also pledged their support with gear, and XContest, the international cross country league will be providing valuable route information.

Up to the race start on 19 July 2009, we're be keeping you informed through this blog. We'll look at the specialist equipment in detail, cover our preparations and share with you the highs and lows of the training. Once the race starts you'll be able to follow us live on the Internet through the Red Bull X-Alps website and Google Earth, with blog updates, audio clips and video. It'll be an adventure!

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Raiders of the Lost Chamois

Paragliding, hiking, mountain biking and roller blading. There can be few races in the world that combine all of these sports, but the annual Raid Chamois, now in its fourth year, manages it. Starting from the picturesque French alpine town of Thônes, halfway between Annecy and Grand Bornand, this unique race sees competitors using varied modes of transport to complete a challenging but beautiful 50km circuit around Lake Annecy before the final sprint back to base at Thônes.

Having discovered and done reasonably well in the event in 2007, I returned in 2008 with my non-flying but very fit friend Stephen March to have a crack at winning it. We collected together my old Gin Bongo tandem, a couple of lightweight harnesses, mountain bikes from here and there, and our roller blades to arrive in Thônes early on Saturday morning with a car full of toys. A mixed bunch of about seventy people, in teams of two or three, bustled about on the start line. Everyone from honed ultramarathon runners to father-and-daughter teams was there, and with a quick countdown from the starter we were off!

A short sprint to the bikes, and we leapt upon them. The first stage was a 12km mountain bike section from the centre of Thônes to the village of Alex. Instructions were simple: follow the Police car through the village, and when it stops, keep going on the track following green splotches of paint! The pace from the start was full-on: clearly Stephen and I weren't the only ones in it to win it! The wide forest track soon gave way to narrow, twisting trail and I struggled to maintain speed on the muddy ground. Dismayed to see others already zooming ahead, I focused on riding as hard as I could, albeit seeming a snail's pace compared to the other competitors, reassuring myself that the bike was my weakest discipline and that we'd make time back up on the hill.

We finally exited the forest and I welcomed the smoothness of cycle path and road to the church in Alex. Here we dumped the bikes (to be collected on our way back), hastily unpacked our walking poles and set off up the first climb of the day.

Pushing hard up the back of the Dents de Lanfon, the familiar limestone cliffs perched above us were our next destination. The lethargic sunshine was slowly burning off the low cloud to reveal a perfect autumn day. We knew that our first rest would be the flight across the lake. Game on!

Stephen, carrying the heavier pack, set a brisk pace up the hill; I scurried behind, cursing the vicious cold I'd been fighting that had left me unable to eat a proper meal all week. We were in fourth or fifth place, not where we wanted to be! The focused climbing started to have effect, and we quickly overhauled one team. The temperature in the autumnal woodland was perfect and the blue skies above beckoned us up the steep forest track to the first take off. Bantering with a fellow Raider, we broke through the tree line to be greeted by a secret hanging valley, well hidden from the distant clamour of real life below. A kilometre or so ahead we could just make out the lead team with their sacks and as we chased them we glanced over our shoulders to see who was chasing us. We had breathing space, but not much.

We crested the Col des Frêtes, now having hauled ourselves into fourth place, to see the first wings inflating and lobbing off on glide. There's an enforced ten minute wait at each take off to give you time to prepare safely. So, after about 35 minutes of biking and 1000m ascent in 1h20, we were ten minutes behind the leaders. The organisers on take off handed us a welcome chocolate bar each and Stephen and I quickly set about our pre-planned tasks, Steve unpacking the harnesses while I readied the wing. We were clipped in and ready to go on the dot of our ten minutes allotted time and launched immediately.

This was our first breather, our first real moment to admire the cadre of the natural amphitheatre hosting our sport. To our right the imposing vertical limestone precipices of the "teeth" rose out of the high alpage, slowly shedding its summer greenery. At our feet the forests were in full turn, a splendid mix of fall colours from green to brown to yellow to red. In front of us the still deep blue lake waited, and the familiar silhouettes of the Northern Alps marked the horizon in all directions. Steve handed me a chunk of chocolate bar and life was good.

Here was the first strategic decision of the race. We had to fly over the old château at Dunigt, but after that we had two options. Either land at Duingt and continue to the Doussard landing field on roller blades, or try to fly directly to Doussard. Stephen spotted a couple of wings scratching at Entrevernes, but the air looked stable so, rather than risk a long walk if we landed short, we headed to the declared landing field where our skates waited.

We arrived with loads of height, and with the leaders visibly packing up below us I threw the Bongo into a deep spiral to gain time and Steve leaned inwards to help. Idly I wondered whether the skinny lightweight mallions would take the increased G-force but they didn't budge. Squeezing the old bus into the landing field I missed the 4m radius target, but put us down briskly but comfortably inside the 8m radius, thus avoiding the four minute penalty but picking up the two minute.

As planned, we split tasks in packing up the wing and harnesses, and strapping on our blades. There were refreshments to be had here, but we didn't wait. We were still in fourth place, and other teams were now landing around us, no rest for the slow! One fellow, having spot landed on the target and thus avoided the time penalty, was now ahead of us, and we were delighted and amused to see that he was going to do the next 6km stage to Doussard on a mini scooter! After what seemed like an eternity our two minute time penalty expired and we shot off. The blades were a welcome way to cover ground quickly, even with the bulky paraglider kit on our backs, and we soon overtook first the mini scooter fellow and then another team to move up to third place. Working together really helped here, with Stephen taking the lighter bag and me slipstreaming behind him. Steve had been practising his blading, having only started this year, and it was a real morale boost to gain places on this section.

Doussard landing field and time to dump the skates. We shouldered the packs and readied the poles for a 1km run on the flat before the climb up to the Col de la Forclaz began in earnest. We were only just ahead of fourth place, and second was out of sight. We learned later that the top two teams had swapped places on the blading section, no doubt partly helped by the fact that the faster team was made up of professional skiers!

The 800m climb up to the Col de la Forclaz from Doussard is about as pleasant as an ascent can be. At just the right gradient, never too steep, you gain height quickly, brushing a million fallen leaves aside as you go. Every now and then a small clearing gives you a glimpse of the lake and height you've gained. Here, for the first time in the race, I finally found my rhythm, no doubt assisted by a few mouthfuls of Isostar energy bar and a squeeze of Steve's carbohydrate gel. I must have been tired because it actually tasted good.

From the solitude of the forest you arrive suddenly at civilisation at the Col itself. Only a hundred metres or so remain, amongst farms and cafés, to the take off but those last few metres are steep and brutal in the blazing sunshine. Thinking ahead, I note that no-one's soaring around take off and so the second flight will likely be a top-to-bottom.

The Forclaz take off has just been refurbished and is now a paraglider's dream of astroturf at the perfect gradient. No time for us to admire the landscaping though, we've just seen the second place team launch so we're still ten minutes behind them. We're unlikely to make this up on the ground, but a good flight could make all the difference. The next goal is the mountain bikes back in Alex. It's about 10km as the crow flies, a trivial flight in the summer but now, it's now autumn, the thermals are weak or non-existent, and there's a high plateau to cross. Will we be able to squeak out enough of a flight to gain back a place?

The flight preparations are smooth and efficient and you don't need to tell Steve twice to run on take off. We're flying again with a perfect launch, heading directly for the bikes and the penultimate leg of the Raid Chamois. Flying straight, once again we have a moment to relax and see huge smiles on each other's faces as we continue on this magical adventure, flying though the stunning mountain scenery.

Lady Luck, however, seemed to have temporarily forgotten us, perhaps overwhelmed by the autumnal splendor herself. There are only two pips on the vario, not enough to gain height with the lumbering tandem, so the only choice is to fly straight, maximising our glide and racing our shadow over the ground. Below us on the ground I see another Raider, seemingly alone and separated from his team. I wave and he waves back, then I turn my attention back to our flight. It's touch and go whether we'll make it over the edge of the plateau, and as we approach I see that the edge is a mix of trees and power lines. No question then, I put us down in a large field on the plateau. From here it'll be a downhill run to the bikes, but it'll be a long run.

Everything packed away, I stare at the map, trying to plot an efficient route. Direct and over the hill or longer and around it? We opt for the second and we're half running half walking again. I've never been here before and despite our haste we notice scattered details: a babbling brook, an decrepit barn crammed with rusting farm machinery, a lone summer leaf caught in a ray of sunshine, green and gold against the russet backdrop. Another time I'd stop to explore but there's no time now. Our route takes us below the cliffs in front of the Planfait take off. Gliders scratch above our heads, clinging tentatively to the rare slivers of lift, but I know that the conditions in the air are too weak for us and we've made the right choice. Later we learn that another Raider, having landed near we landed, walked up to the Planfait takeoff and flew from there, for a third flight of the day. We, however, have ground to cover.

Steve races ahead, almost dancing down the path despite the ten kilos of wing on his back. Normally I'm the quicker one on the descents, but this time it's all I can do to keep up with him. We walk each uphill and jog each downhill, sweeping under the rocks at Bluffy, one of the best thermal triggers in the area in Summer, but unfettered with gliders now. A missed turning brings us out on the road, not quite where we expect, but fortuitously closer to our destination and after a quick check of the map we push on. My energy levels are zero but somehow I keep going. Steve looks as fresh as a daisy.

We arrive in back in the village of Alex, unfamiliar from this new direction. A lone volunteer has spent the afternoon keeping an eye on the bikes and we thank her as we collect ours. Those doing the short route landed near here after flying from the Col des Frêtes hours ago. We, however, are doing the long course and are still in third place.

Swooping downhill on the bikes with the wind in our hair, our eyes water after the self-propelled effort of the run. The speedometer peaks at 40km/h, and it's great to be covering ground so fast. We swap leads, taking turns to slipstream each other. Approaching Thônes, the route turns off road and on to wide track again. It seems like a hundred years ago that we were frantically pedalling in the opposite direction, but it was only this morning. My legs are empty lead pipes and I cry in frustration as I will myself to go faster and my body responds with mute refusal. There's only one stage left.

We hang hard left at the roundabout, following signs for the Adventure Park. Plunging into the park we skid to a halt at the foot of a tall tree and we're handed a climbing harness and a via ferrata kit. We haul ourselves up the hanging rope ladder and clip into a huge aerial slide that whisks us across the river with whoops of joy. A second slide takes us back across and we hand back the harnesses and jump back on the bikes for the final sprint to the finish.

Riding as hard as we can, we retrace our earlier steps to base and cruise over the finish line to third place. Waiting for the prize giving we enjoy a massage from the on-site physios and share our experiences over a beer with our fellow Raiders. What a day!

All photos courtesy of Tristana Crespo, find out more about the Raid Chamois at, and maybe see you there in 2009?!