Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Bassano: Low saves, Fun and an Accident

Straight after the Dolomites we went for a week to Bassano (Italy just 50 km northwest of Venice) and stayed in Tillys in Semonzo just below the Monte Grappa ridge, famous in free flying circles. Every day was flyable and some days the thermals were quite strong 2 to 6 m/s, not bad for October.

The picture above shows three flights (red, green and yellow) that I made during the week. They all start out cruising along the thermic ridge and end up pushing out in to the very stable flats later in the afternoon when they start to work. Although no huge distances were flown the highlight for me were some of the amazing low saves that I managed to pull off, at some points climbing out to cloudbase from only a hundred metres or so above the ground. A flight is always more memorable when you have to work hard to stay up.

However it wasn’t all good news. I managed to fracture my back (T11 vertebrae) doing a silly mistimed swoop landing into the Garden Relais landing field. Amazingly, I was being X-rayed less than an hour after the incident and I'd like to thank everyone who helped out. I spent 3 days in hospital in Castelfranco Veneto and am now back in the UK looking forward to a month in a back brace. Unfortunately I’m supposed to be flying in India now but I had to cancel obviously, it'll be there next year. Needless to say a lesson was learnt.

Aerial photo of me being stretchered into the ambulance.

This is probably the last trip/flight of the year. Lets hope next season is as good, barring accidents!

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Paragliding in the Italian Dolomites

September 28th, 2008.

The Dolomites are one of the best flying sites in Europe but they are only flyable for six weeks a year. There must have been over two hundred gliders on the Col Rodella take-off with paragliders, hang gliders and rigid wings setting up everywhere. Pilots were fighting for a space to launch and out in front the house thermal looked frantic with sixty plus gliders circling in close proximity. It was quite frankly a zoo.

The task for the day was a simple 23km circuit flying over some of the main peaks of the area, the Sasso Lungo, Sella Group and Marmolada. Although it was a stable day the conditions seemed unusually turbulent and it quickly became evident that the sunny south faces were in the lee as the north wind had strengthened quite a bit. Kelly came on the radio asking us to be careful as he had already witnessed a hang glider tumble and a paraglider pilot almost falling into his canopy, not good to hear. Adam and I pretty much did the route, both getting to the Marmolada and both getting drilled in the strong valley wind to land a couple of kilometers short of the main landing field in Campitello. Flying at over 3000m gave some spectacular views of the Dolomites.

September 29th, 2008.

The Rosen Garten was our first objective today. It was even more stable than yesterday but with much less of the troublesome north wind. However, we did have strong temperature inversions and climbing out was tricky. Only Adam and I managed to break through the inversion to get above the main peaks and needles of the Rosen Garten. Later both Kevin and Adam managed to find that elusive strong climb and get back above the Sasso Lungo and then stay above the inversion while the rest of us slowly tired of the traffic beneath it, finally giving up for a nice beer at the landing field.

The next few days we had a lot of high level wind with a low cloud base and so cross country flights were definitely out. Instead we went for a boat about above the aerials west of the Col Rodella launch a few times.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Mont Blanc, September 2008

Well what a trip! Unsuccessful but fun none the less. The plan was simple, climb the highest mountain in Western Europe (Mont Blanc, 4808m) and fly off the summit with paragliders. I'd already climbed to the summit and flown off (Dôme du Goûter) almost 20 years previously and wanted to have another go but the mountain had other ideas ...

So Andrew, Jay, Hoppy, Chris and I had a bash but the weather just wasn't cooperating at all. We decided to climb the 'Normal Route' which is a non technical route which ascends up via the Goûter ridge, Dôme du Goûter, Bosses Ridge to the summit. But it was windy, windy, windy. Ascending up to the Goûter ridge was more like an ice climb as snow had recently fallen and was all the way down to the tramway station. Needless to say that there were loads of spaces in the normally packed Tête Rousse and Goûter huts as the weather forecast was not the best. Andrew entertained us by teaching us various card games and Jay brought the whisky ... Boy it was cold, really cold.

When the summit morning came at 3am we all set off without our gliders to have a summit attempt. Did I say it was windy? Yes it was really windy. We trudged up to about 4300m just below the Dôme du Goûter but had to turn back due to the wind and the fact we couldn't feel our hands and feet anymore.

Great fun with the lads and we did get to fly our gliders a few times although not from the summit. Congratulations to Jay and Tom for getting to the summit a week later. They and Hoppy even managed to fly from the Goûter ridge!

Friday, 11 July 2008

French Alps - July 2008

I’ve been really keen to do the ‘out and return’ cross country flight from Chamonix to Annecy via ‘La chaîne des Aravis’, it's an obvious 40km mountain chain connecting the two regions. It looks to be a spectacular flight and it's on my must do list. So I popped over to France for a few days to see if I could attempt it and also get used to my new glider an Axis Vega-II. Unfortunately the meteo wind together with a low cloud base made for difficult cross country flying, so I was forced to be happy just to poodle about locally in each region.
I managed to get over 11 hours of flying on my new wing in just three days and I’ve definitely fallen in love with her. She climbs really well, has nice flat turns, great sink rate and a good glide; what more could you ask? I guess I’ll have to leave the Chamonix to Annecy run for another time ...

Monday, 30 June 2008

Pakistan May/June 2008

From an early age I had always been fascinated with the big mountain ranges of Northern Pakistan with those exotic names like the Pamirs, Karakoram and Hindu Kush. I loved to read about the various climbing expeditions visiting these high and remote regions and I’d imagine scaling their 8000m peaks like K2 and Nanga Parbat. In the last few years I began to hear about the exploits of pioneering paragliding pilots in this region and again dreamed to go and experience it for myself, albeit this time at the slightly older age of 40.

But those stories of extreme bivouac trips, flying at hypoxic altitudes in some of the strongest conditions and remote places on the planet were a little intimidating to say the least. But then an American pilot called Brad Sander came to my attention, he had been doing some great flying in the area last year and I began to see that perhaps mere mortals like me could also visit. So with a sense of adventure and more than a little trepidation off I went for a month long flying trip to Northern Pakistan!

In less than 12 hours of travelling I was in a jeep with Brad bouncing along the famous Karakorum highway looking up at the glistening ice covered mountain of Rakaposhi (25,550ft) on my right. I recalled gasping when I first saw this video of John Silvester’s incredible flight over this monster mountain a few years back. We arrived in Karimabad nestled amongst the stunning scenery of the Hunza Valley. In our hotel I met up with John Silvester, Eddie Colfox and Alun Hughes coincidently there to do a bivouac trip along the fabled silk route and also a Canadian mountain man and pilot called Josh. I was in great company and I had the feeling that this was going to be a special trip.

And so it was, I flew higher than I had ever flown before getting height gains of over 3000m (~10,000ft) above take off. With launch altitudes sometimes above 3600m (~12,000ft) it meant that occasionally we were still climbing at over 6700m (~22,000ft)! Brad and I had organised oxygen but I found it a little cumbersome to use and often flew without it. Needless to say I felt a little hypoxic at times and absolutely exhausted after only a few hours of flying. Generally the conditions were strong and sometimes quite turbulent, but it was manageable with a good dose of active flying. I also experienced my strongest climbs with an average of over 8 m/s (~1500 ft/min) and peaks of well over 10m/s (~2000 ft/min); if I wasn’t too close to the terrain then it didn’t bother me too much. That said, getting the first good thermals of the day still needed a fair amount of scratching and sometimes, more often than I’d like to admit, I’d lose it and land after only 10 minutes of flying. As it can be a long jeep ride or even a multiple hour uphill slog back to launch it is not something you want to do too often.

There is an incredible amount of relatively safe cross country potential here for an experienced mountain pilot. Virtually all of it is virgin territory as there are only a handful of local pilots and very few visiting ones. There really doesn’t have to be any flying over really dangerous terrain, places where you cannot glide to get a good landing. You can pick conservative routes that follow ridges and valleys close to roads and rivers. There are plenty of villages that you can glide to if you bomb out and all the people are incredibly friendly, they will often offer you tea and food and welcome you into their homes. If you want inspiration then last week Brad just completed a fantastic and relatively safe flight of 249km from Booni to Hunza, a 9 hour epic to heights over 25,000ft. So it looks like he broke a lot of records with that flight and I'd be happy with something much more modest.

On one memorable cross country I flew into a valley and was flushed to the ground in big sink, so I chose a beach next to the river to land on that was close to a small village. Unfortunately I got hit with a bit of rotor and landed ungracefully in a small prickly bush. I just lay there on the sand for a while, exhausted, hot from multiple layers of clothes and other paraphernalia. Suddenly a man, still covered in shaving foam, came running down to help me and checked me over for injuries. With the help of other villagers he organised everybody and got my glider out of its prickly predicament, packed it and carried it up to where Brad had expertly landed. After watching both of us land, one of the villagers, with a wry smile asked if I was untrained! Humour is universal as they say.

This trip for me was an exploratory one, testing out gear for high altitude flying, getting to know the area and its potential. This is a place that I will visit often, not only for the flying but also to visit the friendly people and to seek out its breathtaking scenery.

Thanks to Brad for his help during this trip (and for providing the photos of me flying on this page).