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.