Day 6 – Chamonix

This day sadly is a humbling lesson and Im happy to report no one was badly injured. But there are a lot of take aways from this day and I think they need to be addressed.

We woke up and had a spectacular breakfast at the chateau, fully prepared to take on the day. Everyone was well rested, showered, and had tons of calories! Today we planned to fly from France to Switzerland and I was so excited to cross a country border in a paraglider. We arrived early to the chairlift, Aiguille du Midi, which would take us from the base of Charmonix to Plan de l’Aiguille (2317 meters).

Badass snow launch off giant mountain, commence!

Eduardo launched after a few pilots, including one speed wing (but mostly tandems), and almost instantly soared into the clouds. Bianca helped Janika and Paul launch and got them a great happy flight down off such a cool site. Next I launched and began hunting for thermals to take me to cloudbase to begin my trek, I followed Bianca for a bit thermalling with her and then managed to hit an awesome 3m/s thermal but immediately left its core and my wing pitched forward about 30 degrees as I entered downdraught and i pulled hard on my breaks to prevent a frontal but it kept fighting me. I unfortunately didn’t have the correct intuition because I made the wrong choice and wrangled the wing into submission by pulling the brakes and trying to balance them with a much tigher hold AND HELD THEM THERE. While this certainly bought me time to think about what I was doing, it also really increased the pressure put on my wing and I could see the wing getting more and more upset with my brake input until my wing invetibably went into a full stall and collapsed and I fell at 8m/s towards Mont Blanc until the wing reopened in a dive and I corrected with a weight shift and brake input to release energy and help the wing sort itself out. Unfortunately, once was not enough for me and I really wanted to test Bianca’s ability as an SIV instructor out a little bit so I managed to repeat a stall one more time before I decided I needed to understand what caused this behavior. To me at the time of the event, I was inexperienced and didnt have the correct intuition and handled the situation with a wrong maneuver that inevitably collapsed my wing. That was enough reason for me to decide to land and go through the data and understand what had happened to me. Having never experienced that, I think, I made a big error in relatively benign conditions and fortunately recovered it. High altitude mountains, adrenaline, and mostly my inexperience played a huge part in this event and are the reason I didn’t get to cross a country border with my paraglider. I landed shortly after in a field I saw, near our van, and a woman and her dog came out to bark at me for being on private property. I apologized and gathered my belongings and packed in a nearby parking lot. Here is the flight visualized.

I wasnt necessarily frightened by the event, but it was a great sign of my inexperience in the sport and made me excited that I still had so much to learn. Mostly, I felt bad for scaring Bianca with my impromptu wing collapses. At the restaurant the night before we talked a lot about the mantra “just manage it,” and i have to admit in the situation I put myself into, it worked great and gave me the confidence i needed to not panic and just focus on flying the wing (even though I was the one who collapsed it!).

After putting my stuff in the van I got myself some pity orange juice, light beer, and coffee and went on my way towards the rest of the team still flying toward Switzerland. Switzerland is not part of the European union. Why does this matter, you ask? Because our car’s data plan was purchased in the EU and doesnt have the ability to give data the second we cross into the swiss border. The other neat fact is that my cell phone has an inactive Google Fi SIM card that needed to be activated in USA, But wasn’t. This is to say that when i crossed into Switzerland, i had no communication unless someone messaged my Garmin Inreach satellite communication device. I had my navigation set to Bianca’s landing and was driving there. As I arrived and couldnt find Bianca, I pulled out my InReach to get an updated location and found a “Need help” message from Jason and he was fairly close by.

This is the map I had to go off of because it was my only available offline road map and topology map I had of the area. I drove up the road as much as I could and just set my EarthMate app to navigate to the location of the ping. After 10 minutes of running uphill through vineyards I miraculously came across Bianca with local rescuers (phoned in by an observer of the event) who told me hes okay and in my head the situation relaxed signifigantly!

I carried the rescuers pack uphill (its what Ive been training for, no need to skip a workout now!) and we heard Jason’s whistle calls and got to him and helped get his stuff together. Jason was super prepared for this and carried things I didn’t even think to carry (like the whistle) and made me reevaluate my emergency kit.

We eventually then had to go to the police station where they confiscated his glider over the mercy of some judge- we are currently battling getting his equipment back and I find it slightly offensive that they even took it in the first place. Anyone who knows Jason will know he is a great and cautious pilot who got into rough air. We did the responsible thing and went to the hospital to confirm he was okay and there were no hidden injuries. After all this, we went to a nice hotel to rest that Bianca and Eduardo picked out and I didnt let Jason have top bunk.

Lessons learned

  • No matter what, don’t stop thinking and never panic. Manage your situation to the best of your ability. If you can’t, your reserve is the right decision.
  • Sheer between a thermal and draugh can become super strong. Always let the wing fly and make relatively quick corrections but put the wing back into trim position. This should have been a simple awesome thermal but instead I made it into a problem.
  • Have offline maps and do your best to have as much information about the local area prior. If I didnt have the GPS maps offline I would not have been able to navigate to that coordinate quickly.
  • Not having a data connection prevented me from knowing the overall situation quickly and that stressed me out longer than necessary.
  • Act and have a priority. I was picking up Bianca but the priority immediately changed and clearly hers changed too. Trust your team will do the right thing unless your intuition says otherwise.
  • Paragliding is an amazing sport. Learn with it and don’t fight it! Make sure you enjoy it and grow with each step.
  • If you need time off to reevaluate yourself, take it.

Day 5 – Parc Naturel de Vercors

We woke up surrounded by a vast view of the mountains. I set up my camera to take long exposures through the night of the van and stars but the intervals were poorly timed and the photos brought in too much light to make the star streak effect I wanted. We packed up and started driving again. We drove through the morning to Saint Hilaire, TP10, to scout it. Jason and Eduardo hiked up while Bianca and I took the scenic funicular, a 600 meter lift constructed in the 1920s by swiss engineers to climb up the incredible mountain.

It took us about 20 minutes to get to the paraglider launch but unfortunately the winds were not in favor us. Rotor everywhere and one other guy on launch feeling lucky and setting up, for no reason except to embarass himself. The site is an absolutely beautiful cliff launch when its working but unfortunately for us, this was not the case. We instead decided to go back down, do a hike, and then head to the next site.

Everything but the windsock was perfect

So off we went to hike and learn about Ravine des Trois Fontaines, which I believe meant “Race up the mountain,” because thats what I did to expel some spare energy I had hiding away in me. It was great that I wore my Salewa mountaineering boots because they totally let me run up ski slopes without my socks getting wet. For a second before putting them on I was considering putting on my running shoes but then I realized what elevation we were at. Theyre great for the training to because each boot is something on the order of 1kg instead of my running shooes which are near 400 grams.

Speed hikes never looked so good

After this we headed to Passy, France for a great glassoff flight and meeting up with Bianca’s friends, Janika and Paul. The site is unworldly with Mont Blanc in front, a towering face behind, and a beautiful grassy launch.

Eduardo launches at Passy

The low pressure cooking valley under Passy was the buildup for a beautiful flight. The sun slowly simmered it and as I launched, I hooked a great thermal and took a few circles to climb it before I realized what I found was happening to the entire valley, all I had to do was fly straight and I would have the same elevation gain.

Jason and I fly close to have a quick chat

We climbed up and could fly anywhere in the valley once we found a high elevation, gentle 2.5m/s thermals could be found almost anywhere and the views were simply stunning.

There were maybe 10 other gliders flying around the region but for the most part if you wanted to isolate yourself you could. The lower terrain was fairly catabatic so landing low once the mountain began casting a shade was a less than ideal idea. Jason and I opted to land right at launch next to the car for convience and to avoid that exact issue.

“Bumbling Around”

As we folded the wings there was a large noise and we could observe a huge rockfall on the mountain behind Passy’s launch. We had a beer and soaked in the views just a little longer from the view before meeting up with the gang. We all grabbed pizza at a hidden restaurant called Le Caveau, an old sheep barn converted to a wine cellar. To end the night, we joined Janika and Paul at their Airbnb chateau which had of all things a laundry machine! Its the simple things in travel that truly make a day exceptional, but more than anything the real treasure is the company. Everyone got a bed and the towering mountains watched over us as we slept.

Day 4 – Montclar, FRA

We started the day with cooking in the van, Eduardo and I decided to hike that day and did a one hour hike up some grassy ski slopes and lifts while Jason and Bianca drove the car to our launch at 1900m with a light SW wind at launch.

Bianca launched and immediately hooked a thermal right in front of her, Eduardo launched soon after, then me. From the air Jason took a bit longer to launch, he had a knotted line, and wasnt able to hook into the easy thermal we found so he had a difficult time climbing up and inevitably sunk out.

I was climbing up along the ridge and found something on the northern face that helped get me above the ridge line at 2300m. From there we began heading South East alomg the ridge line. About 20 minutes in flying down the line, Rodolphe Akl, and his supporter came flying into our gaggle.

So heres me, the noobie flying in a Skywalk Arriba 3 EN-B wing, with four great competition pilots in EN-D wings. And Im keeping up with them, bumbling along!

Rodolophe had a partial collapse out in front of me and turned out into the valley. I followed him to avoid any rough air but because of this I also suffered altitude loss as I left the ridge line. I entered a bowl that very quickly started eating at my altitude and I wasnt quick enough to save it. While I think I made a valiant effort, my flight came to an end in that bowl but i found a thermal that did help me almost save myself. I inevitably made the decision to end the flight and began my flight to find a safe LZ near the main road I could see.

I went between two large hills that were isolated but as I flew through them I could say was “please dont have rotor!” As I found a yard to land in the wind speed at the surface changed a little and I made a correction to slow myself down a little but it dropped me a little faster than I had expected. I maneuvered around sone trees and fences but landed in the front yard of a house. What an amazing first mountain XC flight! Heres an animation of it on Ayvri.

As I began to pack, a nice man named Martin, came out and greeted me. As I asked about finding a place to eat he offered to drive me 5k to a small town called Seyne and I didnt pass on this. He told me about how he was a fighter pilot in the 70s flying F100s and Mirage 3s. The dude suddenly turned my head upside down and now he was the bad ass!

Sorry for the blurry picture

As I grabbed a drink in Seyne and waited for Jason I met a few paragliders who did a similar flight through the valleys and we talked about our flights. They launched slightly further north from us. I was humbled by the kindness of the “Flying Elephant Paragliding Club” and their joy of flying.

After this Jason and I had a long drive down south to meet Bianca and Eduardo who landed in Saint-Andres-Les-Alpes at a PG site where they saw a bunch of people kiting and thought it was a good spot to land. Unfortunately from their altitude they didn’t have the ability to tell that the wings were miniwings and speedwings, the wind was howling down below but they landed ok.

We drove through a national park and decided to park there for the night. We had some amazing views in the morning awaiting us.

Failed attempt at an hour long exposure.

Day 3 – Briançon, FRA

Finally, lets fly!We used the Puy Ailaud Pelvoux launch point at 7100 feet, approximately 3000 feet above town. We drove up most of the way and hiked up for about an hour to get to a snow covered launch point. We chose to leave the car up at launch and get it after and leave the gear somewhere.Bianca and Eduardo launched and proceeded to get a great 20k and 70k XC flight in, respectively. I on the other hand sunk out within 15 minutes of launch and couldnt find a singe thermal!I managed to find something to maintain altitude but I made an incorrect decision to head south after my launch which was ultimately my failure as the NE wind was prevailing over what I thought was a large heated rock and that decision forced me into nothing but sink.I had a nice landing in the field of the oldest farm in Vallbuise, as the owner Pierre who came outside excitedly told me as I packed up.My first flight in the Alps was a lesson in studying the topography of your flight! If you are hiking one hour to get to your site, at least spend that much time learning the site so you can have a macro image in your head of where you are flying and how to predict where the thermals are. It was also a great gear test! I learned about my headphone set for my radio was functioning poorly, my clothing selection was great, and got my XC tracker up and running with waypoints for the routes. I also saw first hand at how a gopro camera can challenge your take off, i had to reset on my first launch attempt and the lines definitely got tangled.I landed in a small farm and as I was packing up the owner came over and chatted with me about his home. It was apparently the oldest farm in the town, built in the 1630s.Jason landed shortly after me and we reached out to each other via garmin and facebook messenger. He was able to land fairly close to me and we reconnected quickly to begin planning our trek to the car at launch. As we were walking we discovered a hostel where the owner, Jean, let us leave our bags so we could hike up. But then he offered to drive us! Jean was a firefighter and as we chatted I kept calling him a hero. Not only because he saved lives, but because he also saved our ass from climbing up the side of the mountain.We grabbed the car and proceeded to get Bianca, who landed at a sail plane airport 20km away. As we drove to Eduardo, he was telling us that some PGs were flying near Barcelonette and we should go there and he would walk to us. However on the drive as we passed a lake we found a huge gaggle of PGs flying a site and Bianca excitedly shouted “GET THERE!!!”Saint Vincent Les Forts was such a beautiful and fun ridge to soar with a wide cliff launch and plenty of room to top land (or you could fly all the way down to the lake and hike up!). Bianca, Jason, and I had an amazing time flying and soaking in the views.

Bianca flying a Skywalk XAlps 3
We top landed after an hour and a half, drank a beer, picked up eduardo, attemped for over an hour to find food, and then settled on setting up camp and pretending we werent hungry. Nothing is open when we want.

Day 2 – Silvretta, AUT

Day two mostly consisted of driving 300 miles through Austria, Lichtenstein, Switzerland, Italy, and France. This was intended to leave poor weather and get to flyable regions as the dominant east side of the alps was either snowing or raining.

We stopped in Tujetsch, Switzerland to scout a potential path and did a quick hike for approximately 2 hours through the region with 1600 feet of elevation gain.

We ended the night in Briançon, where we would finally have our first flights in Europe! By the way, Jean Baptise Chandeleir totally shot parts of his “Weightless” video here!

The humor is we are so busy during the day and in Europe most food places close around 10pm. The only place we could find to eat was McDonalds.

Day 1 – Munich, GER

Day one encompassed a flight from Boston to North Carolina to Munich. I got a beautiful viewing of the aurora borealis*.

Upon landing and meeting up with the team, we analyzed the weather (rain everywhere) and set off to Lermoos, Austria to scope out TP5. The initial plans were to start in Salzburg but that was too east and furthest away from better weather, so the goal was to migrate to the middle of the playground and drive to good weather the next day.

Rained out and damp, we opted for a light run up a hill before starting the drive to better weather south west. The run let us scope out Lermoos and start observing topology, features, and accuracy of the weather reports.

After a few hours of driving we found a desolate spot a few miles from the border of Austria in Silvretta and chose to camp there. It was an excellent first test for the van in seeing how it performed in the conditions (0C, wind, and heavy snow)……The next morning we discovered that 400 meters down the road was a road closure and camping in the conditions were completely unnecessary and did not cut time from the drive.


*To those curious, I set my camera to high ISO(800), largest aperature(1.5), and a 10 second exposure. Then to reduce glare I brought the window shade and covered most of the camera.

X

A few months ago I was at a meeting for my paragliding club to assist in designing a club website when I sparked a comment to Bianca and Eduardo, “If you guys need any help, let me know.” — A few days prior to this meeting XAlps released the competitors of the June 16, 2019 race to Monaco from Salzburg and Eduardo was selected as a competitor. Ok, so normally that type of comment goes nowhere, but here I am, packing up two large sized bags of my gear and a carry on and boarding a plane to Europe for two months.

Researching, planning, training, shopping, contracting work… everything- has gone into what I am shortly embarking on with the team and I couldn’t be more excited. This trip will be the culmination of a few years in the sport of paragliding, my resurrection into fitness, and my undying love for adventure all wrapped up.

My goal over the course of the next two months is to sum up my practice, process, and documentation so that perhaps a future paraglider can make a better mental model, a better goal, or be motivated to try something that they otherwise wouldn’t study.

As I pack, I have made a spreadsheet gear list with weights, brands, and a few other details that might matter to those who are curious. I will follow up on reviewing my decisions for the gear in a later post.

So now here I am, packing up my belongings and preparing for an adventure. I hope to learn from the best, train with the best, and come out with an experience no one will ever understand except for those who were there. So here we go.