I’ve just returned from a weekend staying with Dennis and Gillian of Alpine Flyer lodge which was also where I completed my BHPA club pilot rating in October 2010. Even back then after completing my course I knew I wanted to return when thermals would be booming.
Therefore I had been eagerly looking forward to this weekend, and in the end it didn’t disappoint. Arriving Friday morning (20th June) at the lodge, we set out to fly before the conditions over developed as this was forecasted and things defiantly looked unstable.
I managed a top to bottom not breaking through the inversion, I was still nervous about straying too close to the slope and trees, I have a healthy fear of hitting the tree tops. I managed to maintain my height and even climbed a little but nothing huge, but it was good to be in the air again. You can see from my flight log that I didn’t take a climb until over the landing field and thus some distance out from the the slope.
Calling it a day as the clouds where building over the back of Plaine Joux, we headed back to the lodge.
Saturday the 21st may, dawned with clear skies but again the threat of things becoming
over developed in the afternoon, we headed out around 11 up to Plaine Joux, the first try saw me struggle with the reverse launch, Dennis suggested that I was launching like an Englishman, pulling the wing into the air too quickly and thus risking that it will overfly me, adding that the Buzz should come up without too much effort and the important thing is to keep the wing moving through the with my body rather than pulling too strongly. A couple of tries later I got the wing into the air. Again I managed to extend my flight but not maintain it, the second flight of the day saw a longer flight time, managing for the first time to get above Plaine Joux and a gain of 300 metres. It was nice to get higher than take off and break a little of the tie to the earth, Dennis was flying and managed to stay up longer than me, which is to be expected with him being a skygod and all!
Once we were both on the ground we spent some time looking at the the clouds and assessing the weather, the forecast was for clouds and thunderstorms, the cloud above Plaine Joux was definitely becoming quite large, with icing forming around the edges, the day finished early, with many pilots deciding to land before being sucked into the upper atmosphere.
Sunday was a wash out with low cloud cover and rain, and also it was the day after the rapture so I was just glad to be alive and not suffering a hell on Earth. I doubt that God will be the one to kill us, we are doing a pretty good job of it ourselves. I spent most of the day in the lodge, and after finding a good time lapse app for the iPod touch, made a little cloud time lapse to pass the time.
Monday morning brought clear skies and an excellent forecast, although there was a bit of high cloud, and it felt and looked stable. We decided to hit the launch at around 11.30, hoping by that time things really would have gotten going. Gillian was due to fly while Dennis manned the bus and transport. On the drive up there was a certain amount of nervousness and excitement. With the prospect of good weather and thermals, my stomach was already doing excited little jumps in trepidation of the day’s prospects.
The trepidation was played out once we arrived, Gillian and I looking at the sky, both thinking that things had not yet started to pop. We discussed the weather while watching the school pilots collapse, panic and throw them selves off Plaine Joux. It was evident that things had not yet got going and with the time approaching 12:30 I was concerned that my appointment with the airport shuttle bus at 4 would destroy my day.
Around 13:30 a couple of visiting pilots turned up and were managing to thermal and delay their falling a little. We decided to unpack, and I launched first, turning hard right and into a thermal, I stayed with it for 200 metres, Gillian quickly following me and reaching my level. Gillian made off to the west and the buttress, we had watched a lone glider who had come from Chamonix take a climb there earlier so hoped we would stray into the same thermal. We were hunting around finding a couple of bubbles but nothing significant, I still was concerned over being to far out from the landing field and not having enough height to make it over the trees. This lead me to decide to fly over to the hospital while Gillian hugged the buttress a little closer.
Finding nothing over the hospital, I was forced to land while Gillian was still in the air. Dennis met me and we discussed the flight, which although lasted 45 minutes was cut short by my decision making. Dennis observed that I could get closer to the tree tops, and while a healthy respect for colliding them is good, if I am turning in lift away from the hillside and most likely could continue the turn without problems or danger. Up until now I had always done a figure of 8 and finding more sink than lift, being cautious of the trees below.
Determined to work harder we drove back up the hill. I launched and initially struggled to find lift, although I was closer to tree tops, the thermals were broken and hard to centre. There was about 5 other gliders in the air and we all were alternately finding lift only to slide a bit further down the hill when we topped out. I found 0.5 m/s over the hospital, after watching someone else climb out from there, and stayed with it for a couple of hundred metres. Gillan had worked her way back and joined me for a turn or 2 before flying off.
I stayed with the thermal which slowly developed and once I had reached a decent height, I made the jump to the buttress, with Dennis’s advice sounding in my ears ignored my nervousness and flew along the cliff face in gently rising air. Ahead, the same glider that had marked the hospital thermal was scrapping up the mountain side over the scree slope. The slope had been pointed out by Dennis as early as Friday as the route up the mountain side to reach the exit point of the valley.
By this time I had been joined by others and we all took the climb over the scree slope, the vario was singing like a canary found bang to rights. All I had to do was keep the wing tip on the edge and ride the air to the top. Dennis was giving me time checks over the radio, knowing hat I had to be on the ground no later than 3:15 if we were to make my shuttle bus.
I was desperate to break the 2000 metre barrier, and hung on to the thermal while others had left to continue on their cross countries. At 2055 metres I called it a day and took the time to take in the view, I was still a good 500 metres under cloud base, but with the rising sheer valley side not more than a couple of hundred metres away, views of the plateau behind me and the still all powerful view of Mont Blanc ahead.
I had a huge smile on my face and I must confess a whoop escaped my lips, I can’t articulate the feeling, only a fellow paraglider, glider, hang glider or bird will know the feeling. To be so high on nothing but the grace of nature and your own skill is breathtaking, it makes you feel alive.
With half bar applied I headed back to the landing field, the wing still being bounced by the turbulent air, but it felt robust I eased on full bar for a few seconds to check the rigging of the speed bar lines, and that I could take it all the way to the bottom. I reached the landing area still way too high, pulled some big ears and for the first time looked for some sink.
Hands getting tired from the big ears, I released and cranked the glider over in a tight turn, with Dennis giving encouragement over the radio I turned up the turn and sink rate to bleed off my hard won height. After some fast descending, I finally landed after an hour fifteen minutes , with my height gain and flight time records well and truly broken I was tired and thirsty but happy as hell.
Dennis came over and greeted me with the words, “What a flight”, and it was. There were better people than me flying that day that got higher and further, and I am sure that I could have gone higher and further myself. In the end my plane trip home to Brussels loomed and cut short my flight. I turned off my vario, looking at the max climb that I got, which was a respectable 8.4 m/s or 1700 feet a minute in old money… not bad at all!