Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The X-Alps: The Inside Story

Judith Mole and I have just done the follow-up podcast on the race and it's aftermath. Have a listen to it on Judith Mole's paragliding podcast page.

The race was very tough but I was very happy to still be in the race at its end. The podcast covers a lot of topics, but if I've missed anything then email me at twpayne at gmail dot com and I'll answer your questions here.

Photo credit: ©Vitek Ludvik / Red Bull Photofiles

Saturday, July 18, 2009

818km race to goal via seven turnpoints

The glider has been relined (and the risers modified to prevent more tree landings!), the rucksack is packed (about 10kg with minimum gear), Alex has stocked and fuelled the van and we're ready to roll. Race briefing is a 7:45am tomorrow morning, we'll be in Salzburg city centre about 10:30am, and it all kicks off at 11:30am (0930 UTC).

Who's favourite? I don't think anyone feels confident that they will be the first to Monaco. So many world class pilots, several strong walkers. And of course Toma Coconea. The forecast is pretty grim: there'll certainly be a few good opportunities to fly, but with strong Westerly winds forecast for the next week at least I wouldn't be surprised to see a Coconea/Toase one-two, maybe with only Toma in goal. But the forecasts are more often wrong than right.

It's gonna be a long race. You don't really get the scale of it until you see the terrain: hundreds upon hundreds of kilometres to cover, valley after valley, mountain pass after mountain pass. The full scale of the endeavour has only really become apparent recently, but I'm really looking forward to the challenge. The past few days here in Austria have been busy but comfortable. Twenty four hours from now I'll be walking though the night and my life will change completely. Not just during the race, but I know that the Tom Payne at the finish of the race will be a different one to the one that started it.

Let the adventure begin.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Pre-race jitters

Of course there were going to be a few problems immediately before the race.

Several competitors have only just received their equipment. Harnesses and gliders are arriving in plastic bags and factories from around the world. It's a bit late for major modifications, but a few grams can be trimmed here and there. Vincent Sprungli was not happy with the glider sent to him, so he's decided to use his glider (a Boomerang 5) from 2007.

I managed to get things wrong today by not noticing a tangle in my lightweight risers on take off. The line lengths on paragliders need to be accurate to within a few millimetres but the tangle meant that one set on the right-hand side were shortened by 10cm. It didn't really fly very well in this configuration, I couldn't even fly in a straight line and so I ended up in the trees below launch. Thanks so much to Alex for organising getting me out and for Jurgen (one of the safety team) for getting me and the glider out unharmed. I need to replace the lines but that's the only damage. A simple modification to the risers will prevent this happening again.

This morning we had a briefing on the rules: the Race Organisation are going to be very strict on a number of rules this year, including airspace and the number of supporters.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Fuschl am See

After three days driving through the incredibly varied scenery of the Alps, we arrived at the Race Headquarters in Fuschl am See near Salzburg today. Austria is a breath of fresh air after Italy. The Italian terrain is a mix of forest, fruit trees, gorges and power lines, but in Austria it seems that every field is a perfectly mown lawn and every mountain has gentle grassy slopes on top.

The teams are converging here at Race HQ and we've already met the Czechs, the Polish, the Canadians and fellow Brit Aidan Toase. The Japanese teams' vehicles have been spotted but we haven't seen the pilots or their supporters yet. Initial race briefing is at 4pm tomorrow so everybody should be here by then.

The next few days will be spent in various briefings on safety and use of the live tracking equipment. We'll also meet the media and have a few official photos taken. There's a whole host of professional paragliding photographers present, including Ulrich Grill and Felix Wolk who'll also be following us during the race so expect some spectacular images during the race.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Approaching the start line

My supporter Alex and I left Geneva on Saturday morning and are driving the first half of the route backwards to the start. We checked out the "South" route via the Sondrio valley and the Nufenenpass that Alex Hofer took so successfully in 2007. It's a commiting route, and we both have renewed respect for Alex's tactical and flying ability. The valley floors are low and the tree line is high, and with many peaks below the tree line there are very few potential launch sites. Landing fields are very scarce in many places, there are far too many vineyards, orchards and power lines. All in all it's a very committing route: if you can fly it, as Alex was able to, then it's almost a short cut, but if the weather's not so good or you make a mistake and land early it can be a very long walk to the next take off.

Today we drove through the Dolomites. The scenery is simply incredible. Once again there are a multitude of possible routes. Here there is no lack of take offs and landings, but the valleys are as narrow as the mountains are steep, which is to say very. There are several high passes to cross, which makes adds up to a lot of height gain and loss if you're stuck on the ground due to weather. It's definitely a section that you'd rather fly than walk! Martin Muller explained to me that to fly successfully through the Dolomites you have to stay high. In the French Alps where I've done most of my mountain flying getting low is not a problem: you can use the regular pattern to valley winds to find ridges facing in to wind and so find a thermal back to cloudbase. The Dolomites are different: the valleys are tight and windy and if you get to low you simply get flushed down to the valley floor. To make progress you must stay high, jumping from peak to peak.

Right now I'm typing this in Leinz in Austria. Tomorrow we'll check out the most likely route past the Grossglocker turnpoint and then up to the Watzmann and in to Salzburg. We have to be at Race HQ in Fucshl am See on Wednesday for several days of briefings and pre-shoots before the race start on Sunday morning.

I don't think that I really realised the scale of the challenge that is the Red Bull X-Alps until Alex and I started driving the route. It is simply a gargantuan challenge. But this will be the subject of a future blog post.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The harness

Sup'air are kindly sponsoring me with an excellent harness. It's a lightweight version of the Altirando XP with a few minor modifications to save weight. The modifications are:

  • No comfort padding on the inside. The normal Altirando XP has some rather luxurious padding for your back, but Sup'air have removed this to save weight. The race harness keeps the full airbag back protection found in the standard version.

  • Lighter buckles. These are a lighter, simpler and a touch more fiddly than the normal light clip buckles. However, it saves a few grams!

  • Fewer pockets. Once again, just to save weight.

Sup'air have added a lightweight removable leg cover. This is streamlined and warm in the air, and can be removed and put in the van if there's a long walk ahead. In rucksack mode it's very comfortable to carry.

The reserve parachute is a Sup'air Xtralite Small which is a fully certified reserve parachute weighing less than 1kg. It packs in to a very neat combined front mount container which doubles as a cockpit for mounting my instruments in plain view.

These are the final pieces of gear, I'll get the scales out tonight to find out how much it all weighs.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Weather strategy

Right now there's a thunderstorm in Geneva. The lightning is spectacular and the rain torrential. There's just a thin sliver of clear sky sandwiched between the towering clouds and the crests of the Jura mountains. The light has an metallic blue quality, illuminating the city in eerie surgical glow. I've never quite seen anything like it.

Despite the years of preparation, the months spent training, route planning and tuning gear, the winner of the X-Alps race will most likely be decided by the weather. Maybe the strong pilots and aerial tacticians will be able to weave a thread through the mountains, keeping them in the air and covering hundreds of kilometres day after day. But if the rain falls and the wind blows then the runners will be kings. Positions in the race will rise and fall based on each team's abilities to exploit the weather to play to their own strengths.

Alex and I have a whole host of weather information sources at our disposal. For the general long term forecasts we use TopKarten which publishes the output of the American GFS model (click on the link then click on GFS). This gives us forecast pressures and wind speeds at different altitudes, precipiation, cloud cover and more esoteric variables like CAPE which allows us to predict the chance of thunderstorms. You can click on the "+6" and "-6" links to animate through the forecast for the next two weeks. We'll use the output of this model to make the grand strategic decisions, for example do we take the north route through Chur or the south route through Bellinzona?

Here's a quick guide to interpreting the output of the GFS model so you can predict the teams' strategic decisions during the race.

The first thing to look at is the wind speed. Meteorologists prefer to use pressure altitudes rather than elevations. To first approximation, 850hPa corresponds to about 1500m -- the altitude at which we normally fly -- and 500hPa corresponds to about 5000m -- the summit of Mont Blanc. Wind speeds less than 10km/h at 1500m are "go anywhere" days and paraglider pilots can fly in any direction. Up to 20km/h pilots can still fly but it's difficult to make progress against the wind, and above 30km/h we are grounded.

If there are also light winds at 500hPa then expect some very long flights, if you see a "snake" of strong winds (Stromlinien) over the Alps then it means that jet stream is near and flying will be difficult.

The precipitation (Niderschlag) is accumulated over several hours, so a little bit of light blue is not a worry: it means the occasional shower at worse. However, once you start seeing purple on the forecast charts then you can expect a wet day with limited flying opportunities between the rain clouds.

As I'm finishing off this blog post at my kitchen table the sun has set and the cloud above is as black as ink. Out on the road and in the mountains it will be a long and dark night.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Getting geeky

During the 2007 race I was glued to the internet, following the teams' progress through the Alps. Suddenly my phone rang: it was Aidan Toase: "Hi Tom, it's Aidan -- I'm trying to find a take off but I'm in the cloud and I can't see very far. Can you have a look on Google Earth and see if there's one near me?" Thanks to the live tracking I could find Aidan's exact position as he was on the phone, and was able to tell him that if he walked a few hundred metres north through a forest he'd come to a clear area where he could launch.

Technology has made an incredible difference to how we paraglide. Through the internet we have access to the latest detailed weather forecasts and up-to-the minute information from the sites. Using Google Earth and online databases like Paragliding Earth and XContest's incredible Skyways Map we have fingertip access to experience that would otherwise take years to acquire. Once in the air live tracking systems like Leonardo Live allow others to follow our progress in real time and are a great safety feature. Pilots who were flying ten years ago may remember analysing every word of the TV news forecast and somehow organising to go flying without using mobile phones. How archaic it seems now.

We'll have a whole host of technology on board to help us in the race. Here's a quick overview.

The 2009 live tracking, written by Harry Gergits, will be even better this year, with live updates every minute. Red Bull Mobile are supplying us with Sony Ericsson C702 which talk to our Brauniger Compeo+ altivario GPSs via Bluetooth. The Compeo+ collects a minute-by-minute log and packs eight track points in to an SMS which it sends every eight minutes.

Alex will use the live tracking to find me using a satellite car navigation system, and we'll both be watching the other team's movements to observe their route choices.

We'll also use the mobile phone to connect to the internet for the latest weather information and plan our moves on Google Maps and the Skyways Map. We'll make regular diary updates though MMS messages from the phone, which should be able to to text, photos, audio and video.

Suunto are supplying us with their new Suunto Core watch which includes an altimeter, compass and thermometer. All these features will be very useful for navigation in the mountains. For example, you can use the thermometer to measure the environmental lapse rate as you walk up to launch to get an idea of the atmospheric instability on the day.

I'll also be flying with the Leonardo Live tracking system created by Manolis Andreadakis which means that you'll be able to follow my flights in greater detail, it'll act as a backup tracklog in case I have problems with the official tracking devices, and will be further safety device.

Those of you who know me will know that I have a bit of a fetish for computers and have written quite a lot of software for paragliders. If you're an XC pilot then be sure to check out my XC planner and to analyse your flights with my Google Earth flight analyser (now integrated in to Leonardo). There are also a few geekier projects on my GitHub home page.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Grub's up!

Eating right is going to be critical if we want to survive the race. 2007 competitor Ulric Jessop perhaps put it best, he said:
I think my greatest advantage was [my wife and supporter] Ruth's cooking. She put a huge effort into preparing a set of recipes for the race. One night, we were parked next to the Czech team. They were tucking in to their pot noodles. Ruth had prepared stuffed veal cutlets. At that point, we knew that the battle was won.
You need to be fit and fuelled on the start line, but there's a big difference between single day events and multi-week events like the Red Bull X-Alps. In a single event you need to focus on getting enough energy in to your system to allow you to complete the race, you can recover afterwards. In shorter events like marathons you'll focus on carbohydate with a touch of protein and salt towards the end. In the slightly longer events, like ultramarathons, it's more important to eat slower energy sources like long chain carbohydrates, protein and fat. But we're not on our feet for a single long day. We're going to be pounding pavement day after day, week after week, and this is going to take a horrible toll on our bodies. We need to eat not just for energy but to recover - or at least slow down the inevitable damage.

Not only does the food need to be nutritious, it also needs to be quick to prepare using easy to find ingredients and easy to eat. Strong flavours and tough textures are likely to cause upset stomachs and a loss of appetite. In the van we have two gas cookers and a fridge, that's it.

Here's my favourite recipe which I've modified slightly from the original by my friend Alice Handerson. Preparation time is about twelve minutes start-to-finish. It's delicious, nutritious and easy to make and will be my secret weapon in the race.


Ingredients (per person):
- 125g of smoked salmon (economy salmon is great)
- 100ml of creme fraiche
- half an onion
- one clove of garlic
- quarter of a courgette
- 100g of fusili (spiral) pasta
- sea salt, ground black pepper, olive oil

Start heating the water for the pasta in a large saucepan. While it is heating up you can do all the preparation. Chop the onion in to small squares. Heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a non-stick pan and once the oil is hot, add the onion. To tell when the oil is hot, add a single small square of onion. When the oil starts to form bubbles around it then it's at the right temperature. Heat the onion over a medium heat for a few minutes, stirring occasionally. While this is cooking finely chop the garlic. When the onion is soft, add the garlic, keeping the heat medium. At this point the water for the pasta is probably boiling so put the pasta on with a bit of salt and a splash of olive oil. The olive oil reduces the formation of bubbles, allowing you to cook the pasta at a higher temperature for a better texture. Chop the courgette in to quarters lengthwise then cut these in to small chunks. Throw the chopped courgette in with the onion and garlic with a couple of grinds of black pepper and sprinkle of salt and fry, stirring occasionally. Chop the salmon in to small cubes. When the pasta is done (al dente is best), drain it and add the onion/garlic/courgette mix. Mix well: the oil prevents the pasta from sticking. Then add the creme fraiche and the chopped salmon. Mix everything up well in the pasta saucepan with an extra grind of black pepper and serve in bowls with a glass of freshly-squeezed orange juice. Delicious!

We're looking for other good food ideas. They need to be quick and easy to make, nutritous and simple. If you have some good food suggestions then please email me at twpayne at gmail dot com. Thanks!

P.S. Addie and Fatty Puff will recognise the title of this post.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Final stage of preparations, first glimpse of the race weather

Alex and I leave for Austria next weekend. In the meantime we're frantically getting together the remaining equipment. Last night we put a lighter set of risers on the glider (thanks Martin Orlik at Axis Para) and I test flew the glider with them this morning at the Saleve mountain near Geneva before the storms arrived and stopped play. The afternoon was spent putting stickers on the glider. There's a lot of them and the Red Bull logos are really fiddly. However, by the third sticker we were starting to get the hang of it and can now put them on quickly and cleanly.

On Wednesday I'll finally be able to collect the harness from Sup'air. I've chosen to use a third generation Altirando XP. Sup'air are producing a special version for the X-Alps which is a couple of hundred of grams lighter than the standard version. It's a really nice harness in the air, nicely aerodynamic with the removable leg cover and with some excellent back protection in the form of an airbag. Equally importantly, it reverses to become a very comfortable rucksack. I've asked for a couple of minor modifications to adapt it better to my rather skinny body shape. Stay tuned for a more detailed description of the X-Alps gear towards the end of the week.

Finally, the race start is just fourteen days away now. It's scarily close and the first long term forecasts have just been published. Two weeks is an eternity in weather forecasting and you can't really believe anything they say, but I can't resist peeking! The current forecast is that Austria will get quite a lot of rain the day before the race but race day itself will be dry with light winds at 1500m, which means that we'll be able to fly from the first turnpoint above Salzburg, the Gaisberg. The winds at altitude are moderately strong Westerlies, which could be a problem for making progress in the air. We're racing from East to West, against the prevailing winds and consequently the 'hard' way. This is the Red Bull X-Alps, after all...

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Who's flying what?

All major paraglider manufacturers will be represented in this year's competition. There's a good mix of competition, serial and even DHV2 wings. Here's the quick low-down on who's flying what:

Gradient (6 pilots)
de Dorlodot (BEL), Skrabalek (CZE), Gebert (GER), Makkonen (FIN), Pascale (ITA1), Carter (RSA)

Axis (4 pilots)
Pennicuik (AUS), Payne (GBR2), Vrabec (SVK), Rejmanek (USA)

Gin (4 pilots)
Ogisawa (JPN1), Geijsen (NED), Jagla (POL), Muller (SUI2)

Advance (3 pilots)
Eichholzer (AUT1), Morillas (ESP), Maurer (SUI3)

Nova (2 pilots)
Fanderl (CAN), Matsubara (JPN2)

Ozone (2 pilots)
Wirtz (FRA2), Toase (GBR1)

U-Turn (2 pilots)
Sprungli (FRA1), Takats (HUN)

UP (2 pilots)
Coconea (ROM), Hofer (SUI1)

Mac (1 pilot)
Susa (SLO)

Niviuk (1 pilot)
Penso (VEN)

Skywalk (1 pilot)
Frotscher (ITA2)

Sol (1 pilot)
Gryaznov (RUS)

Swing (1 pilot)
Amon (AUT2)

It'll be very interesting to see how the different wings perform. The full-on competition wings like the Gin Boomerang 6 (flown by all the Gin pilots) and the Ozone Mantra R09 (flown by Wirtz) have the best performance in the air. However, in the normal version they have a lot of heavy internal structure and semi-rigid parts to help them maintain their shape at high speed. The X-Alps versions of these wings use fewer rigid parts to save weight, but this will compromise their handling and potentially their safety in the air. It might be that the friendlier competition wings like the Axis Mercury 09 (flown by Vrabec and Rejmanek) which are designed without rigid parts will fly better in their lightweight versions.

Pilots flying lightweight versions of certified wings like the Gradient Avax XC2 and the Axis Venus 2 will have less performance in the air but this may well be compensated for by the relative ease of piloting. We'll be improvising launch sites in the mountains and conditions won't always be perfect. Having a glider that launches easily - which is most definitely not a full-on competition wing with its structure removed - in extreme cases could make the difference between a passable launch and no flight at all.

Finally, competition wings are designed for maximum performance in normal paragliding competitions. These are short, intense flights lasting two to four hours and very different from the long multi-hour cross country flights we hope to do in the X-Alps. Competition wings are extremely demanding and tiring to fly. As fatigue sets in during the race only the very best pilots, like Hofer, Eichholzer and Maurer will have the ingrained reactions to continue to pilot them at 100%. Personally, I know that I will fly better for longer and be safer on my Venus 2.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Team GBR2 in the air

My supporter Alex Raymont is an excellent pilot himself, having been Canadian National Champion in 2003. We also weigh about the same so we can fly each other's wings. On Sunday we flew a wonderful XC together from Annecy, me on my Axis Mercury and Alex trying the Axis Venus 2 that I'll use in the X-Alps. As you can see from the photo above, cloudbase was low but the clouds were tall. We carefully threaded our way through the Bauges mountains to the Dent d'Arclusaz and back. Alex was really impressed by the handling of the Venus 2, and especially its climb performance: it seems to be naturally drawn in to thermals.

Back in Annecy we stumbled across the two Japanese pilots competing in the Red Bull X-Alps this year. The photo above is of Kaoru "Ogi" Ogisawa (fifth in 2007) flying in front of the Dents de Lanfon on his 2009 gear. I think he wins the prize for the most stickers on his glider!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The dreaded "goutte froide"

Right now flying conditions are not good in the Alps. We're in the dreaded "goutte froide" situation. This occurs when cold air sweeps across the Atlantic Ocean and a blob on the end breaks off and floats around the Mediterranean Sea. It's visible on the temperature chart on the right as a big orange "bite" centred over the Adriatic Sea and is a low pressure system.

The winds blow anticlockwise around a low pressure system in the Northern Hemisphere and these winds collect moisture from the Mediterranean Sea and dump it as rain on the Eastern end of the Alps. You can see on the precipitation chart on the right that today is going to be a very wet day in Austria and Northern Italy. No flying there.

At the same time there's a big high pressure system over the British Isles and the North Sea. The winds blow clockwise around these and the air is squeezed between this high pressure and the "goutte froide" and accelerates, i.e., it's windy. At the West end of the Alps (Geneva) this cold NE'ly wind is too cold to flow over the Alps so it flows around them and is further squeezed between the main body of the Alps and the Jura mountains. It's the classic "Bise" wind: cold, dry and strong. Right now in Geneva it's about 40km/h at ground level and 60-70km/h at altitude. Further south, this wind blows down the Rhone Valley past Lyon and becomes the "Mistral" in Marseille.

In these conditions flying is impossible in all but the most protected areas. Plan Joux in Chamonix is one such site as it protected by the enormous cliffs of the Rochers de Fiz behind it. Further south, St Vincent les Forts is well protected by the 4000m+ Ecrins massif. At these sites you can fly comfortably all day long in bubble of light winds, but stray to high or far and you quickly hit the strong winds and things can get interesting. For paragliders, flying cross country is almost impossible.

The bad news is that such unflyable situations - rain in the East, wind in the West - can persist for several days at a time. The current forecast is for an easing of the winds tomorrow and the "goutte froide" to dissolve in to the surrounding air towards the end of the week leaving a fairly even pressure over the Alps. Such flat pressure fields usually mean storms.

The X-Alps has historically had fairly mixed weather, and if a situation like the current one sets up in late July/early August then it could become a war of attrition on the ground. It'll be tough.

Update Tuesday evening: Tomorrow (Wednesday 24 June) is looking like a cracking day in the Southern Alps while everywhere else in the Alps is pretty much unflyable. The hang gliders at the Hang Gliding World Championships in Laragne should have an epic day. It'll be very interesting if such a situation develops in the race: the runners might be able to get ahead in to the good flying conditions while the fast-in-the-air-slow-on-the-ground pilots will be stuck in the bad weather. You really have to be ready for anything in this race.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Team United

Alex flew in from Canada on Wednesday morning and it's great to see him again. We last saw each other in the summer of 2007, so we're doing a lot of catching up. X-Alps duties started immediately for Alex, with an evening at the PWC Annecy where Ulric Jessop presented the Bafta-nominated film of his 2007 campaign on a big screen next to Lake Annecy.

We've still got loads of preparation to do, everything from working out routines and tactics to buying minor bits of gear for the support vehicle. In all cases Alex has hundreds of good ideas, backed up by an incredible understanding of mountain gear. He'll be a great supporter and I'm very lucky to have him on my team.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

X-Alps Podcast

Judith Mole interviewed me for a podcast about the X-Alps. She asked a lot of difficult questions! You can listen to the podcast online or download it at Judith Mole's podcast page.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Three good days in Annecy

It's been a pretty windy Spring in the French Alps, but a ridge of high pressure built over the France and the Western Alps over the weekend and I took a half day of holiday from work on Friday to take advantage of it.

On Friday I took off with my friend and fellow Axis pilot Damien de Baenst from the Planfait take off. It's my favourite site. It's relatively low (900m) but the aerology is fantastic, meaning that as you climb up to the Dents de Lanfon you look down on take off. It's a real escape. The other main Annecy take off - Col de la Forclaz - is higher, and is a better choice in some weather conditions, but you don't get the same sense of "climbing out" as you do from Planfait.

From the Dents de Lanfon (usually called "the Teeth") we headed north to Parmelan where great 3m/s climbs catapulted us up to over 2000m. The air was exceptionally clear that day, and it felt like you could reach out and touch Mont Blanc, over 50km away to the West.

We headed back to the Teeth and then crossed over the lake to the Roc des Boeufs. Anyone who has flown in Annecy will know that these are classic flying routes. Here it took some time to find a way through the inversion at 1600m, but we both eventually made it through and headed for Margeriaz. I arrived somewhat ahead but found that the north tip of the ridge was only working weakly, so I continued round to the west face. Which was dead. Not a single peep from the vario. Now without enough altitude to get back to the north side, and stuck in the stability, it was suddenly all over and I was left with just enough time to chose a landing field. I radioed back to Damien to warn him and he was able to stay on the north side and continue his flight, eventually landing at the entrance of the Maurienne valley.

At this point I cheated. It was late in the day and there was no time to walk up to another take off, so I stuck my thumb out. Anyone who's landed in the Bauges mountains knows that there is very little traffic and getting home can take a long time. However, I was lucky, and after just 20 minutes a young guy stopped. His beaten up Peugeot 205 barely held together, no doubt shaken apart by the thumping hardcore techno music he was playing. The tempo of the music was matched only by the speed of his driving (and he was a local who knew the roads). It was great fun (and I loved the music), he kindly dropped me off at the Revard (4 Vallees) take off, and just one hour after having landed I was back in the air again.

Here the goal was clear: get back to Annecy. It was late in the day but I knew the route. The stability was still there, but my Axis Mercury climbs and glides amazingly so, despite being a lot lower than I would have wanted for several of the transitions, I was still able to make it back. In the landing field I met fellow first-time X-Alps competitor Ronny Geijsen who was in Annecy to test his newly-arrived wing and fly in the PWC. There's no book about how to prepare for the X-Alps, so we eagerly swapped notes about gear, training and strategy. He's also a thoroughly nice chap.

On Saturday I headed, again with Damien, to a new take off for us both at the south end of the Aravis mountains. Not much more than a small clearing in a forest with magically fewer line-snagging rocks than your average mountains side, it was a real discovery. We launched, once again, in to stable air on the wild, steep SE face of Mont Chavin.

It took an age to climb out. Every metre was hard won in the 0.3m/s thermals, and ten minutes work would every now and then be wiped out by a few seconds of -3m/s sink. It was galling. After several attempts to break through the inversion at 1800m I gave up and decided to do something different. With another Mercury (not Damien) and two DHV 2s headed West over the classic site of Marlens and on to the SE faces of Tournette. This was a flight that I had heard was possible, but I'd never tried before. On this day, with the stability, I fully expected to land early.

But somehow, despite the weak and broken thermals, we were able to soar up in the slope breeze and finally broke through to more unstable air above. To get through an inversion on a paraglider you've generally got two options: either find a large and strong enough thermal that's powerful enough to break through to the air above, or tuck in tight to the terrain, kick trees, and work the slope breeze. Today, only the second option was possible. But it worked! The slope breeze gave way to reasonable thermals and eventually we popped through in to steady 3m/s climbs up to cloud base now at 2500m.

This was a new route for me, and I remembered Aidan Toase's advice for the X-Alps: "You have to be happy flying alone over unknown terrain", so I resolved to explore as much as I could on this flight. I flew straight past Annecy, not bothering to turn in a thermal full of competition pilots preparing for the Paragliding World Cup. Alone at Parmelan, I found an incredible 4m/s thermal that launched me in to orbit and used this to head north.

Despite having lived in the area for several years, I had never flown these mountains before. Sous Dine, Sur Cou and the Pointe d'Andey came up and I cruised past them. My only knowledge of this area came from driving to the ski resorts of La Clusaz and Grand Bornand, and my memories consisted mainly of narrow tree-lined valleys with no landing options.

Several pilots have remarked on Alex Hofer's flying attitude: he flies with total confidence. There's no need to worry about having nowhere to land if you're not going to land. If there have been thermals in all the south-facing bowls so far, then so will the next one, even if it doesn't have a big grassy field to land in at the bottom. So, I adopted a new mental tactic. At each decision point, I asked myself: "what would Alex Hofer do?".

It's scary at first, but it works. I chose a remote col where there should have been convergence between the southerly thermal breeze and the northerly meteo wind, and indeed it worked. Elsewhere I flew into a high a tree-lined bowl and it worked as well. When you're high there are landing options that you can't see from the ground: the glide angle of your paraglider means that you have a large search radius, and you only need one decent field in that area to be safe. But you shouldn't worry about the details of identifying an actual landing field. Instead, I think the trick is to focus not on what happens if you don't find any lift, but rather the focus on where the lift actually is.

Finally I ended up flushed through some sink and too low in the low level stability to get up again and landed out. Five quick and easy hitches with several interesting people got me back to the valley below my car, but I knew (and had planned) to walk up from the valley floor to where my car was.

1000m height gain, 15km along the road, all with 25kg (40% of my body weight) of competition wing and harness on my back took just under three hours, fuelled only by a bit of leftover couscous and half a litre of energy drink. It was a good slog and almost dark when I got to the top. Incidentally, the road has 41 hairpin corners. It's reassuring that I can do it, and the only damage was a small blister on one toe because I was stupidly wearing normal cotton socks. It'll be a lot easier with Alex supporting me: proper nutrition, moral and tactical support, and a change of socks and shoes every now and then.

Sunday was the first day of the Paragliding World Cup. It's a long-term personal goal to compete in the PWC. I went along to the competition to catch up with friends there and to meet several of the X-Alps competitors. Watch out for the British Force of Mark Hayman, Jamie Messenger and Craig Morgan. Of this year's X-Alps athletes, five are there: Toma Coconea, Vincent Sprungli, Primoz Susa, Ronny Geijsen and Helmut Eichholzer. It was great to finally meet the legend that is Toma Coconea and his supported Gigi. Toma, the poor fellow, wanted to run up to take off but had been told that he had to take the bus! My friend and 2007 X-Alps competitor Ulric Jessop was also there and it wad great to catch up with him and get loads of tips gear and tactics.

I had the privilege of wind dummying for the competition, taking off just before window open to find out if anything, anywhere was going up. Luckily for me, the inversion at 1260m was just begining to break as the competitors launched, and I got a bird's eye view by parking myself over the middle of the course and watching the race. I've got to say, these PWC guys (and gals) are really fast. It's a great ambience on the ground, but once in the air everyone is focused on maximising every thermal and pushing as much bar as possible on every glide.

Flying competitions is definitely a different set of skills to the cross country which I've been focusing on. In fast and full-on competition you have a defined task, you're flying during the strongest part of the day, and you have the world's fastest pilots around you to help you find lift. Flying XC, typically on your own or in a small group, flying all day long, and adapting your route to the terrain and the changing weather conditions is another set of skills. It's a real sign of maturity in the sport that paragliding has now evolved in so many different directions.

Alex arrives in Geneva on Wednesday for the final month of preparation. The race start feels awfully close now.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

A few words of wisdom from Aidan Toase

Aidan very kindly shared much of his experience of his two previous races and good humouredly answered my incessant questions.

I asked him what is it actually like to fly in the X-Alps:
You do some crazy things like taking off from the top of a mountain at dawn and landing by 6am. I did this in Davos: I left the van at 3:30am and started walking up. Then it started snowing. Just as I got to the top I broke through the cloud layer and saw that it was relatively clear on the other side of the valley. So I found a bit of snow, laid out the glider and took off. It was a short flight, but amazing. The plan was to walk up the other side and do fly XC later in the day, but it all went horribly wrong after that.
On the advantages of running versus walking, he responded:
It's not about efficiency, it's about wear and tear. And running really tears you up.
On the interaction with your supporter:
Sometimes you're so focused on the race that you don't realise what you're putting your supporter through. You ask them to buy a blister pack from the nearby town because they've got the van and it's just a short drive. When they get there they find that the pharmacy is closed but they don't want to come back empty handed so and they drive to the next town. Before you know it your quick request has caused them a multi-hour round trip.
On his application to race again in 2009:
I'd love to apply and not get in. Then I could not do it guilt-free.
Aidan also revealed the secret that won him eight place in his first ever X-Alps and sixth place in 2007, but I'm not going to share it here :-)

Friday, May 29, 2009

Aidan Toase and the Simplon Pass

On Thursday I met up with two-times X-Alps veteran and 2009 competitor Aidan Toase to check out route around the area of the Simplon Pass and the valley to the Matterhorn. We explored potential take offs and landing areas, and discussed route options in the area. Although it's a classic paragliding highway, it will still be a complex section to negotiate during the race: we have to fly around airspace at Sion (the same airspace that cost Martin Müller the title in 2007), we're flighting the strong valley winds, and the area around Martigny where we need to cross to Chamonix Mont-Blanc takes the full brunt of the valley wind and is always very, very windy indeed.

You can follow Aidan's blog at

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Wing arrives, Swiss League Cup

My X-Alps wing arrived on Friday! Thank you Axis UK! She's a beauty: 6.3:1 flat aspect ratio and racing trim giving her accessible comp wing performance and weighing just 4.8kg.

No simple top-to-bottom to get to know her, instead I took her to Frutigen near Interlaken in Switzerland for a round of the Swiss League Cup. For me it was an opportunity to discover a new flying area, get to know the wing, try out the X-Bus and meet a few of the big names in Swiss paragliding.

Saturday, day 1. Conditions were expected to be tricky and indeed they were! Although the airmass was unstable, rising atmospheric pressure restricted their upward movement. The result was small, weak, snotty thermals that seemed to form randomly and then peter out after a few turns. You'd occasionally hit a 2m/s thermal, but most of your time was spent grovelling over the trees in 0.2m/s. The Task Committee set a 49km task around the local area. Most of the field, including me, bombed out at around 20km, simply running out of options at the third turnpoint, but a few pilots persevered. PWC Champion Anja Kroll won the day, getting to goal in 3h20m and 35 minutes ahead of the only other pilot to complete the course.

I was really happy with the wing. I was flying in my normal cocoon harness which put me 5kg over the top of the weight range and yet I was still able to climb well. The air was turbulent behind the spurs in the lee of the valley wind and yet on a day when two wings ended up in the trees I had nothing more than a tip collapse.

On Saturday night I got to test the X-Bus, my first night in the support vehicle. It's brilliant! Comfortable, plenty of space to stand up and cook inside, light, heating, music, and a warm night spent in my down sleeping bag. It's a home away from home.

Sunday was forecast to be marginal: sunny in the morning but with Foehn winds in the Valais and moderately strong SW'ly winds at altitude. Fellow X-Alps competitor Chrigel Maurer was here today (he lives just down the road) and I was eager to find out more about his preparations. He's designed his own wing and sewn his own harness: the combination is very compact and weighs only 10kg. As we arrived a take off the race committee realised that with the strong winds it wasn't going to be taskable and made a quick and correct decision to can the day so we could get a short free flight before conditions got too bad.

Many launched quickly (although a few decided to take the bus down) and those who did fly were rewarded with a stunningly beautiful flight. The weak thermals of yesterday had been replaced with solid two and three metre per second climbs. I took one to over three thousand metres and with stunning views in all directions, including the lakes of Interlaken and the unmistakeable 4000m trio of the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau peaks, one of the turnpoints in the 2007 race: see the photo at the top of the post.

The forecast was spot on, however, and with a Foehn wall visible tumbling over the cols between the peaks, a brisk 30km/h wind at 3000m, lenticular clouds forming, and a forecast of storms in the afternoon it wasn't a day to hang around so I spiralled down to land back at base.

It was a real pleasure to meet Anja Kroll, Joerg Ewald, and Swiss paragliding guru Martin Scheel. The organisation by the local school Cloud 7 paragliding was excellent, and thanks to all of the pilots who made me feel so welcome. While I was walking back on Saturday a car full of pilots spontaneously stopped for me and I had to explain that, in fact, I didn't want a lift and actually wanted to walk back...

Update: Martin Scheel's beautiful photos of the event are now online at his site

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Vehicule aquired!

I've finally found a camper van for the race. Provisionally named the "X-Bus", she's a 1992 Ford Transit Nugget Westfalia. Four seats, four comfortable sleeping places, and enough room inside to cook in bad weather. The engine (a 2.5 litre diesel) and the bodywork are both in good nick. Will do the job, basically.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Alpine flying podcast

Judith Mole has put together a series of excellent podcasts on various paragliding topics and has just interviewed me about alpine flying. You can download it or listen to it online at Judith's podcast page.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

First photos of the wing

Axis have sent me the first photos of my X-Alps wings. All being well I should receive her next week.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Map collecting

According to Cross Country magazine (edition 119, page 62), competing in the X-Alps costs €7,150, of which €750, over 10% of your budget, goes on maps. I can well believe it! You need every part of the Alps covered at 1:100 000, the turnpoints at 1:50 000, and the most difficult sections at 1:25 000. When you realise that you're likely to walk or fly 1,600km, i.e. one thousand miles, that's a lot of cartography.

The Race Organisation announced the final route recently and there were a couple of surprises.

As announced previously, we start in the Mozartplatz in the centre of Salzburg. We head up to the Gaisberg, the local mountain where we'll run though one of Red Bull's inflatable arches on to the take off. Weather permitting, we'll be taking of at about 1pm, the perfect time to start a long cross country flight.

The first turpoint is the Watzmann peak in Southern Germany. We have to get within 1km of the summit. It's a decent mountain summit and quite steep on both sides so this first turnpoint will be a challenge. If flying conditions are good the leaders might tag it in the early afternoon around 3-4pm , but if we're on the ground then the lead runners won't be clipping the cylinder until the early hours of the morning.

Next up is the Größglocker, Austria's highest peak. I say "next up" but there's a lot of mountain terrain to cover before you get there! Here we need to pass within 5km of the summit. It's high mountain terrain so actually getting physically within 5km of a 4000m+ summit is quite hard. The Größglocker lies on the primary alpine spine so it's a long climb up to it and a long way down on the other side. If you load up my Google Earth file of the route you'll see that, if you're on foot, you'll have to leave the road and follow mountain paths just to get the cylinder. There's nothing difficult about mountain paths per se, it's just that they're a really inefficient way to cover ground compared to slogging along straight tarmac roads, or, better, flying down a straight valley at cloudbase.

After that we're passing south of the Marmolada in the Dolomites, as expected and as in 2007, but it's the next turnpoint that holds the biggest surprise. We have to approach and leave the Matterhorn through a quarter-cylinder North East of the summit. After a straight run/fly across Northern Italy (it sounds so simple put that way but it's several hundred kilometres!) this rule means that we're effectively forced to cross the backbone of the Alps again to connect with the Upper Rhone Valley. There are several options here: you could cross very early into Switzerland to Chur, or later via one of the Gottard Pass, Nufenpass, or Simplon Pass. You could even head directly towards the Matterhorn but then you have to climb the Monte Rosa. The best option during the race will depend very much on the weather, and it's likely that different althetes will chose different strategies depending on their personal strengths and weaknesses. I'd expect the Swiss to cross early in to their home territory where the flying could potentially be very good, whereas the runners might talk a more direct but less flyable route. Whatever turns out to be best on the day, you'll need to have considered every possibility beforehand so you can make an informed decision.

We have to tag the Matterhorn turnpoint from the NE, so we'll end up walking or flying along the valley to Zermatt. It'll make for some spectacular images with the iconic peak in the background, but we have to leave by the same side as well. Given that Zermatt is surrounded by 4000m+ peaks in every direction except NE this is not surprising, but it does limit options that would otherwise have been open to the mountaineers.

The final part, blasting along the Rhone Valley to Mont Blanc (carefully avoiding the Sion airspace of course!) and then turning south for the sprint to Monaco, is the same as in previous years so you know it already :-)

If you haven't read it already, be sure to read Cross Country magazine's interviews with the 2007 athletes.

Preparations update

Work's been really hectic over the last month so I've had very little time to update the blog. Here's a quick summary of what's been happening:
  • Red Bull have announced the final route, including the details of the turnpoint cylinders. I've made a Google Earth file of the route to help my route planning which you can download from here. The start is at 11:30am in the Mozartplatz in the centre of Salzburg on 19 July and Red Bull estimate that we'll be taking off from the local mountain, the Gaisberg, at about 1pm. After having run up it, of course!
  • The Axis Mountain Masterclass was a great success: three days, six sites and nine hours airtime in everything from snotty thermals below an inversion to screaming 6m/s climbs to magic evening restitution soaring to gentle XC conditions. Congratulations to our Axis "Mountain Master" Adam Stanfield and our two Axis "Mountain Stars" Colin Hawke and H.H. Tsai.
  • XC season is here and I've been out enjoying the feisty spring conditions in Annecy and St Hilare. The flying is currently best in the Pre-Alps, but come the Summer and the time of the race it's likely to be quite stable and inverted in the Pre-Alps so the best flying route will follow the high mountains. The photo at the top of this post was taken during a great XC day in Annecy with my friends Damien, Pascal and Esa.
  • Axis have finished building my glider and it's just waiting for its test flight. I should have it next week. During the Masterclass I got the opportunity to fly an Venus 2 RX like I'll be using in the race, albeit with normal materials, and it's brilliant: solid, fast, and despite being over the weight range it still climbs really well. Compared to a competition wing it's much easier to handle but still has excellent performance. Given that I'll be flying tired this is big advantage.
  • Pal Takats (HUN) and I are interviewed in the latest issue of Dragonfly magazine. You can read the magazine here.
  • I've found a camper van and it's just going through its checks. All being well I'll have it on the road in a couple of weeks. It's a Ford Transit Nugget Westfalia with a 2.5l diesel engine and 130,000km on the clock.
  • Finding a harness is proving to be problematic, but there are potentially good options from both Sup'air and Woody Valley. There are numerous comfortable harnesses, several light harnesses, a few reversible harness/backpack combinations, but not very many that are all of the above.
That's it for now, the good news is that work (real life) should be less demanding this month so normal blogging service should resume.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Australia and back to snowy Canada

Last time I blogged I was on my way to Australia from New Zealand. Flew into Melbourne where apparently they feel the need to warn you about spontaneous dancing? Hmm.

Had some great flying at the newly enlarged launch of Corry
ong in the Australian alps. Fairly near the more famous paragliding destination of Bright. I reckon it'll be quite popular, light valley winds and we did 45 and 60km triangles at the Victoria Serial Series.

After that it was off to Manilla via brief stops in Canberra and Sydney. Nice cities but not what I came here for. The photo above is what I came here for! Lots of good flying for the first couple of weeks I was there. Got over a 100km but no personal best distances. Luckily for us we were inbetween flooding up north and fires down south. Predictably it was bad weather for the xcopen competition. After that it was good wx again and I got my best flight a 99.9km triangle! Great day out with friends, we had planned it before launching and we flew in a mini gaggle and stayed in touch on the radio. Sweet to fly to the end of the day with a big long final glide in the evening air.
Bit of flying at Killarney and then it was time to head home.

Back in Canada the snow was still coming down and in fact the best part of our snowfall happened late. Got a half dozen good days of ski mountaineering in. The flying season is happening at the same time so you have to look at the conditions and decide which looks best. Tough life!

Looking forward to getting over to the alps though. And hopefully the weather and schedules will allow Tom and I together to see more of the course up close. Seeing it on maps and the computer is not the same.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Axis factory report

So I recently visited the Axis Paragliders in Brno in the Czech Republic. Brno is the Czech Republic's second largest city and has been home to Axis since the company was founded in 1990. They have recently opened a second factory twenty kilometres from Brno and manufacture some gliders in Sri Lanka.

The focus of my visit was to talk to Axis's designer František Pavoloušek about the design and construction of my glider for the X-Alps. However, the visit turned out to be much more than that. It was fascinating to learn so much about the gliders and get an insight in to the full process of design, testing and construction that results in a modern high-performance paraglider. Every detail is carefully considered: materials, profiles, processes and finish.

Axis have been using their own profiles since the beginning. Compared to other manufacturers', they are relatively thick and efficient. This means that Axis wings, for the same pilot weight, are comparatively small. Consequently the wings are solid, fast, agile and collapse resistant. For me in the X-Alps this means I'll get great performance from a small (and consequently light) wing.

Safety is a primary concern of the design team. This evident throughout the range, even in the company's flagship competition wing, the Mercury. It isn't a question of getting the hottest glider possible through the tests, but instead paying attention to safety characteristics beyond what the certification measures. For example, the profile and trimming is carefully designed to create a glider that wants to fly and does not remain in deep stall. For pilots, this means that if we're flying slowly e.g. to top land on a UK ridge or squeeze in to a small landing field then if the glider starts to stall then when we raise our hands the glider immediately starts flying forward again. Gliders without this characteristic would dump you on your back.

The design team are hard at work on a new tandem and developing the Mercury.

As for my X-Alps glider, well the specification looks like this:
  • Manufacturer: Axis Paragliders
  • Model: Venus II XR
  • Lines: Unsheathed
  • Colour: Fire
  • Upper surface: 36g/m² Skytex
  • Lower surface: 27g/m² Skytex
  • Risers: Custom ultralight
Without a doubt, she's the perfect X-Alps glider for me and I can't wait to fly her!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Axis Factory

I'm in Brno in the Czech Republic at the moment, chatting to Axis Paragliders about the details of my wing for the event. It's great to meet the team in person and it's fascinating to learn about all the details that go into making a top quality paraglider. Axis' designer, František Pavloušek has many excellent ideas for how to make the wing even lighter. I'll post a full report when I get back to Geneva.

The weather is looking very good for XC in the French Alps this Saturday. I can't wait to get out on my Axis Mercury!

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Col des Verts

A forecast for strong winds and rain in the afternoon meant that flying was off the cards, but the morning was sunny. I headed for the Col des Verts (2499m) in the Aravis mountains on the touring skis with the Amis Montagnards. I'll let the photos tell the story.

Skinning up on beautiful snow.

The sun creeps over the summits, leading us upward.

A lone ski tourer heads for an unknown objective.

Refueling before the final slopes.

Natalie skins up the last few metres to the col. Behind her is the Point Percée (2750m).

Luc rips up the heavy powder on the descent.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Pounding pavement

The first cumulus clouds of the season, the first sign of instability in the atmosphere, have appeared over the last few days. The first tentative XC flights of the season have been made, and soon the paragliding season will begin in earnest. For the closing moments of the ski season (for me) I'm doing my last ski tours and have increased my running distance during the week before paragliding takes priority every weekend.

I've chosen to focus on four types of workouts, plugged into my MP3 player to give me the right rhythm:

Regular runs are steady runs at a comfortable pace. They're a way of getting the miles in to the legs in a limited time. My music of choice is Annie Mac's Mashup and I aim to run for about 60-70 minutes and cover 15-17km.

Tempo runs start with a good warm-up, 20 minutes at a gentle pace, followed by 30 minutes "comfortable but hard". The goal here is to spend time running close to your lactate threshold, it basically gets you used to running at race pace while tired. This is followed by a 10-15 minute warm-down and the soundtrack is provided by Judge Jules spinning big room club tunes.

Long runs are a reasonable distance run at a slower pace. I try to limit these to 25-30km at about 14km/h. Many runners believe that these, in combination with tempo runs, are the key to preparing for long distance races. However, if you run much further than 30km without consuming food and/or an energy drink you tend to exhaust your body's energy supply and hit the infamous "wall". This is painful, but more seriously it takes a long time to recover afterwards so you compromise the following training sessions. The only music to listen to during long runs is Kutski playing hard dance and hardcore, a "runner's high" is guaranteed.

Recovery runs are shorter runs at a very easy pace. Generally I aim to do 11-13km at an average speed of 12-13km/h. You don't really even break a sweat doing these but they have the beneficial effect of clearing your muscles and are best done the day after a hard run. I tend to do these with my running partner from work, Nicolas Morisset.

Race sponsors Suunto have sponsored four competitors with a Suunto T6C watch and a customised training programme. You can follow their training on the Suunto at X-Alps blog.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Great snow, great touring, zero visibility

It's snowed a lot and I've been out to play. On Saturday I headed in to the mountains with the Amis Montagnards mountain sports club to tour up to the summit of the Roc de Tavaneuse (2156m) above Abondance in the Chablais region. Conditions were challenging with piles of fresh snow and flat light, but our Chefs de Course, Mark Schaerrer and Patrice Rouiller, led us expertly on a brilliant tour with three amazing ascents and descents totalling 1700m of height gain, cumulating with the spectacular NW couloir of the Point d'Ardens (1959m). I'll let Mark's excellent series of photos tell the story, here (click on "diaporama" to see them full screen).

Monday, February 9, 2009

Matterhorn turnpoint

The most iconic mountain in the Alps, the 4478m Matterhorn is part of the huge Monte Rosa massif which straddles the border between Switzerland and Italy. The only way from one side of the massif to the other is by foot or by air, there are no bridges or tunnels for the supporter's car. Driving from one side to the other takes several hours: Cervina (Italy) to Zermatt (Switzerland) - only 13km apart as the crow flies - are 232km and 3.5 hours distant by road via the Grand St Bernard pass. This turnpoint will likely be the most challenging of the 2009 Red Bull X-Alps, both physically and logistically. It could make or break several athletes in the race.

Back in Decemeber I visited Zermatt to chat to the local pilots about the flying options on the north side, two weekends ago I visited Gressoney-la-Trinite (Italy) during a freeride ski weekend to check out the southern options. The photo, taken by Sébastien Jossi, shows me looking over the Val de Gressoney from the Rothorn pass. The summit below the sun is the Testa Grigia (3315m) on the ridge between Gressoney-la-Trinite and St Jacques.

The obvious route from the Marmolada takes us in an almost straight line to Domodossola in Northern Italy and then onwards west to Macugnaga. But here the obvious route abruptly ends. On a direct line to the Matterhorn lies the Dufourspitze, at 4633m the highest mountain in Switzerland. Its imposing 2700m vertical East face, one of the very largest faces in the Alps blocks our way. Few options present themselves, none of them good.

Heading just north of the summit, the lowest pass to Zermatt is at 3400m. High mountain glaciated terrain, and the far side is flat enough that if you were to fly from the col it's unclear if you would out-glide the huge Gorner glacier (shown in the photo on the right taken by Zacharie Grossen) to reach a safe landing in Zermatt (1600m). Assuming you do make it to Zermatt, then you find yourself trapped by 4000m summits in all directions and it's another 1800m vertical ascent through inhospitable glaciated terrain to a col to regain the south face of the Monte Rosa massif. Those without mountaineering experience need not apply.

The terrain to the south could hardly be less favourable to X-Alps competitors. A series of 3000m ridges run north-south with deep valleys in between. The cols are high and the valleys are low: to get from Macugnaga to Cervina involves four successive ascents of 1500m, 1600m, 1000m and 1200m respectively -- that's over 5000m of vertical just to make about 25km of forward progress. Walkers following the classic Tour of Monte Rosa will take four days to do this, we'll want to do it in much less. Logistically it's a nightmare: the supporter has a multihour drive between each trailhead at the top of each valley.

Other possibilities include walking round the south side of the massif (about 200km from Domodossola to Cervina) or making an early radical route choice and crossing into the Swiss Vallais and approaching the Matterhorn from the north, a very long way round and risking disqualification if you infringe the Sion or Zermatt airspace.

So much will depend on the weather here and the final position and radius of the turnpoint (the race organisation haven't defined it yet). If flying conditions are good it's possible that we'll be able to fly from Domodossola to the Matterhorn in one day (it's only about 50km by air) but cloudbase will have to be very high for us to surf the south face of the Monte Rosa and safely pass the numerous cols at 2800m. The only flights in XContest's amazing Skyways map are top-to-bottoms from the summit of the Breithorn (4164m). If conditions are mediocre then maybe we'll be able to skip some of the ascent by flying from the cols and landing halfway up the slope on the far side. Should the weather be bad enough to keep everyone grounded then it's not inconceivable that the more-flying-less-walking competitors, having flown much of the way from the Marmolada, will be slowed by the steep terrain, giving the runners an opportunity to catch up and possibly overtake.

Of course, getting to the Matterhorn in the heart of the Monte Rosa massif is only half way: you then have to find a way out...

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Scoping out the competition

Part of my preparations is to learn as much as possible about each of my competitors. Some are amazing XC pilots, others are great runners, a few are both. It's important to know which is which.

This serves several purposes. Training-wise, it helps me understand how I'm doing relative to the others. It's hard to find training partners with sufficient fitness so comparing myself "virtually" to the other athletes helps me understand my progress and motivates me to do more. Running long and hard is surprisingly easy if you picture Chrigel Maurer (SUI3) landing a couple of kilometres in front of you!

During the race, knowing the strengths and weaknesses of the other athletes will help Alex and me understand their strategy decisions and plan ours. Come the final sprint from Mont Blanc to Monaco, you're unlikely to outpace Coconea (ROM) over the ground so if he's ahead of you you'll probably best off looking for an opportunity to out-fly him as Hofer (SUI1) did in 2007. But if it's Hofer ahead of you then you might be able to beat him by running if the weather prevents him from flying. Running can be a hard but relatively reliable way to gain places: witness how Coconea relentlessly reeled in the leaders during the bad weather in Switzerland in 2007.

Two thirds of the 2009 X-Alps athletes have competed in the event before, so there's lots of information to be gleaned from their previous performances. Of course, this year they'll be more experienced, fitter, and better prepared! The "newbies" like myself are still unproven and unknown. A few are competing in the Paragliding World Championships in Valle de Bravo, Mexico which I'm following in detail (alongside thousands of other Internet spectators) on For the other competitors I'm following their blogs: see the list of "Athletes' Sites" in the right hand column here.

The flying isn't great here in Geneva at the moment so I'm compensating by training on the ground: if I can't fly then I'd better go running! After a month and a half of base training, I'm now starting to ramp up the weekly mileage. The goal here is to condition my body to day after day pounding pavement. Several athletes were forced to retire in 2007 due to foot and leg problems, including Vincent Sprungli (FRA2) who walked too hard after a 200km flight. As described in my earlier blog post, you're unlikely to win on the ground alone, but it's important both physically and psychologically to know that you can complete the course without taking your glider out of the bag. To give you an idea, I'm currently doing 30km runs in about 2h15m and am aiming to do a sub 3-hour marathon sometime in the Spring. If anyone knows Maurer's marathon time then please email me at twpayne at gmail dot com. Thanks!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Southern Travels

Well while Tom is ski touring, training, and analyzing routes I've come down south and am working on my tan. Stopped in Fiji for some great island hopping and snorkelling before coming to Auckland NZ for xmas and New Years with family. The flying around the coast of Auckland is very beautiful with sites for most wind directions. Its windy at times and can be fickle but apparently experienced locals have counted more than 60 flown sites within an hours drive of the city over the years! Thats a lot more than Vancouver. Got a golden day with Michel, Hugo, Francois, and Damien at some huge sand dunes on the west coast south of Dargaville. Pacific Pyla. And to make it interesting we had to commit to be being there for a full tide cycle as the sand is undriveable at high tide. The wind was with us and it was on for the full 10hrs we were there! I reckon I flew 7 of those, everything from big to little dunes and an inch away to 300m above. A remote and wild location just made it magic.

After that I escaped the gravity well of the city and went down to go hiking among the big volcanoes of the north island. Crossed Tongariro park from west to east and summited on Ngarahoe. Colorful volcanic landscape and it was very nice to be in the hills and sleeping in the tent again. Next its Australia and some thermal flying. Maybe some more of the addictive dune flying before I leave if the wind happens! See here for more pix:

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Axis Mountain Masterclass dates

The dates for the Axis Mountain Masterclass, the advanced XC course for experienced pilots looking to develop their alpine flying skills, have been announced:

14-17 April: Mayrhofen, Austria with Kelly Farina.
23-26 April: Annecy, France with me. Backup dates are 28-31 May.

You can attend one or both courses. The Mayrhofen course is immediately followed by the Zillertal Open competition. The courses are non profit-making and are run at cost.

For the Annecy course we will meet at Geneva Airport on the evening of Wednesday 22 April. We will travel to wherever the conditions are best, and return you to Geneva Airport by about 10pm on the evening of Sunday 26 April.

There's more information about the Mountain Masterclass on the Axis UK website, contact Axis UK to register your interest.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Tactical calculations

Strategy and tactics will be critical to success (or otherwise) in the X-Alps. I'll talk about strategy and flight planning in a future blog post, but first here's a quick analysis of tactics: deciding the quickest way to get a few tens of kilometres along the course line.

A few back-of-the-envelope calculations quickly show how important flying is. On the ground you can reasonably expect to average about 5km/h. In 2007 almost all competitors managed this, the notable exceptions being Coconea (ROM) who averaged 6km/h over long distances day after day and Etike (TUR, '07) who seemed barely able to walk up one mountain, let alone down the other side.

In terms of altitude gain, 600-800m per hour seems a fair average over a two to three week event. You'd certainly expect to be faster in a shorter one-day event like a mountain ultramarathon, but if you're walking hard up the slopes of Mont Gros above Monaco at 800m/hour then you can be happy with your physical preparation.

In flight, in typical XC conditions, you can cover 20-25km/h along the course. In favourable conditions you might average 30km/h but in the X-Alps were racing East to West which means that we're fighting against the prevailing winds. History has shown that conditions are rarely ideal. So, let's assume that you average 15km/h when flying, and that you've got a modern glider that glides at 8:1 (allowing for a bit of sink and/or headwinds).

With these figures - 5km/h walking, 800m/h height gain, 15km/h flying, and 8:1 glide - we can answer a few simple questions that will help us plan our strategy.

Is it worth walking up a hill just to glide straight along the course line?

Walking up 1600m takes two hours, add a few minutes on launch to get prepared, fly down, and a few minutes packing up, say three hours total. You glide 1600m * 8 = 12.8km. In the same three hours you could walk 15km, but it's close. If you can glide over a lake or other obstacle that you'd normally have to walk around, then even a fly down can be a winner. Plus you get a rest, of course!

If you're flying, how weak does the lift have to be before you'd be better off gliding down to land and walking?

Assume you're in the last thermal of the day, it's smooth but weak. On the ground your competitor will cover 5km in one hour. In that same hour you only need to gain 5000/8 = 625m, i.e. a shade under 0.2m/s, and you'll cover the same distance as the walker but with much less physical effort. To Alpine pilots, 0.2m/s barely registers as a thermal, but compared to slogging it our on the ground it's the best tactic.

These simple calculations show that you're almost always better off flying. Even a walk up for a fly down is almost worth it. The only time you'd chose to walk if it's flyable would be to get through airspace or if the headwinds were so strong that couldn't even make 5km/h average forward speed. But you have to wonder...

Would a professional ultrarunner carrying the minimum kit win the Red Bull X-Alps?

After Coconea's incredible performance in 2007, many asked if you really needed a paraglider. Would you be quicker just running? In 2007 Hofer (SUI1) took 15 days to cover just under 1500km from Austria to Monaco, that's 100km - two and a half marathons - per day every day for two weeks. The shortest route was taken by Muller (SUI2) who covered 1279km. It's likely that a runner would have to cover a greater distance.

There are road races that cover that sort of distance, such as the Trans Gaule (1150km across France from Roscoff to Perpignan), but they tend to be split into daily stages. For example, the Trans Gaule takes 18 days, an average of 60km each day. There are some non-stop races, such as the Sydney-Melborne race where the Greek Yiannis Kouros set the world record for 1000km on roads of 5 days 2 hours and 27 minutes in 1989. Multiplying up, he might be able to complete the X-Alps course in 8-9 days. However, a direct comparison with the X-Alps is hard: the ultrarunners are covering predominantly flat terrain and without a rucksack.

A minimal rules-compliant pack would probably weigh about 4.5-5kg: 2.5kg for an ultralight mountain glider, 0.8kg for a minimal reversible rucksack-harness, 0.2kg for a helmet, 0.6kg reserve and 0.5kg of tracking devices and other compulsory equipment. Such a set-up would be good enough for a fly down, but you'd be hard pressed to cover significant distance flying with it: it would have poor performance and be rather uncomfortable!

The new course for 2009 follows many classic flying routes through the Alps and this year I think the flying will be more important than ever before. Fitness will be very important, but my focus will be on the flying. In the words of my supporter Alex Raymont "No-one out-walks a 200km flight".