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.