Wednesday, 29 April 2009

A Great Time in the French Alps

Yours truly in restitution with Mont Blanc behind. Photos by Tom Payne

So after Austria we drove to France and met up with James and Joe who that night persuaded us to 'Ninja camp' in Annecy which involved my drinking a load of wine and sleeping on the ground, not so great for a 40 year old with a recovering back injury. Again Adam and I were a couple of days early for the course so we did a couple of flights one at Planfait in Annecy and another from St Hilare du Touvet.

Tom Payne (2009 X-Alps competitor!) was the organiser of this weeks mountain masterclass and as soon as I met him I realised that he had put a lot of effort in and that I was going to learn a lot from him. He brought along two helpers Toby Colombe (a very experienced local paragliding guide and XC pilot) and Quentin King another XC hound local to the area. We spent considerable time going over maps of the Northern French Alps learning about valley winds and convergence areas and generally getting a good understanding of the aerology of the entire area. The meteo winds were not ideal but they managed to select some great sites to fly from. We did a great little 40km XC from Montlambert which was hard won and very rewarding as well as visiting new sites to me such as Chamoux and Verel. We also flew from Planfait and St Hilare again.

Quite a wierd experience for me was an evening flight from Chamoux where I took off at 7PM and landed at 8:30PM struggling to get down! It was of course restitution or magic lift but I've never had it so strong and smooth; climbing to over 2000m in 2-4 m/s lift without really having to turn was a quite strange experience for me, especially as it was so smooth you could feel the wake turbulence from other gliders.

A fantastic weeks flying and more importantly it has given me the knowledge and confidence to plan some big XC's in the mountains. Thanks to Nicky Moss of Axis Paragliding UK for organising the trip!

Posing again for a Tom Payne photo ...

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Zillertal Open 2009

My first paragliding competition! A bit nervous obviously, mainly because of the start gaggles; the thought of 100+ pilots flying aggressively close together did give me some concern ... Wagga and Nicky both very successful comp pilots (British team) gave me lots of tips and dispelled a few of the nerves I had. Although it was just a local Austrian League comp it was attended by most of the Austrian Team and had a few of the big names there. It was a two task race-to-goal comp on two successive days.

Interestingly I found the race starts not too stressful. Obviously we were all competent pilots and although the flying was close and aggressive everybody was observant and predictable.

The first task was extremely frustating for me as my new Flytec 6030 all singing and dancing comp vario died on me and I was forced to use my backup GPS which I've never bothered to learn to navigate with (duh). So I attempted to learn how to use it mid flight with lots of traffic around me wearing thick gloves, not ideal! It wasn't very successful and I ended up following other pilots around the sky most of the time. This strategy worked some of the time until I flew a few kilometers too far past a turn point to a free flying pilot that wasn't in the comp! The acronym RTFM comes to mind 'Read The Fxxxxxg Manual'. The good news is I did the task and got in to goal, the not so good news is that I went over the goal line in orbit 2000m above the valley floor over an hour after the winner got in! I sheepishly handed in my instrument in the download area and sneaked out before the laughing started. You live an learn.

The second task was much harder and a lot fewer pilots got in to goal, so the fact I only got half way around didn't bother me too much and I got a reasonable amount of distance points. I did however stay up in to the night learning how to use my GPS. I also was keen to fly faster and so pushed on low not taking climbs to their maximum and using a lot of speed bar. Not really the best strategy for the day. Again you live and learn.

Anyway although I only came 37th I did learn heaps about comp flying and am really keen to do more.

Zillertal Open 2009 Results.

A five hour flight (almost)

Climbing above the Ahorn Spitz (click the image to see the sailplane between my lines).

So this was the first day of the course run by local guide Kelly Farina. We all headed up to the Penkenberg launch where we had a weather briefing and given a 102km task to fly around the local mountains. But conditions were strong with climbs around 6-7 m/s and strong north winds to contend with. Not unexpectedly things were especially rough in the sunny leeside climbs, so much so that only 10km in to the task Kelly cancelled it for safety reasons. Most of the guys soon landed but Kelly, Wagga and Joe heroically carried on trying to take a wider line further out in the valley which was reasonably successful. I was a little disappointed and as I'd already flown to the end of the valley a couple of days previously I decided to go exploring. I had in mind the task of climbing up over the top of the Ahorn Spitz mountain which looked spectacular still in its winter coat. But that was only going to work later in the day when the sun would warm its more west facing slopes (the other obvious faces would have been leeside), I therefore had several hours to kill before I went for it. Not keen to get a kicking by staying in the leeside conditions deep in the western side of the valley I decided to try and soar the north slopes of little side valleys on the more windward eastern side despite the limited solar heating. On the main valley crossing I spotted a lone glider doing exactly what I had in mind and joined it, it was Adam! Together we worked weak little climbs on the Gerlossteinwand. Eventually I got enough height to safely head over the top of its ridge to fly around the corner into the main Zillertal valley where I got a much better climb that took me to cloud base. Now high on the eastern side of the valley I decided to fly south and try to get above the Ahorn ski area which would be my base for an assault on the Ahorn Spitz and also where I could kill some time. Unfortunately whilst climbing out above the ski resort I noticed Adam over a kilometer beneath me struggling to get up and regretted not radioing him about my climb when I left him in the side valley (although to my defence he did look like he was doing ok when I left).

Watching the skiers above the Ahorn Ski Resort

I then just relaxed and waited patiently for the afternoon sun to come around. I'd play little games such as aiming my gliders shadow at the all the people sitting at the tables outside the resort restaurants who would subsequently peer up at me hopefully not too annoyed. I'd also fly close to the cable car when it started its regular journey down in to the valley waving at the skiers. I drank a load of water, ate a bunch of fruit bars, had a leak (no not on the skiers!) and with the sun arriving and feeling refreshed I headed around the base of the Ahorn Spitz to look for a climb. After noticing some cloud forming I connected with a great climb that took me all the way to base; two sailplanes spotted me and joined me in the thermal one just above and one just below. It was great climb and we ascended 1235m (4050ft) in 10 minutes at an average climb rate of around 2 m/s to a max altitude of 3050m (10,000ft). High enough for me to fly close to the iron cross on the summit and see the footprints of climbers. After that I went for a fly up the valley skimming base before finally calling it a day at just under 5 hours flying. A great day out all in all.

Looking east over the Ahorn Spitz

Zillertal Valley, Austria

Looking north up the Zillertal Valley

Adam heroically managed to do 95% of a 14 hour gruelling drive through the night to a little town in the Zilleral Valley in Austria called Mayrhofen. We had decided to arrive a couple of days early so that we could do some free flying on our own and get used to the spring alpine conditions before the course started. This turned out to be a good decision as the dreaded foehn wind came through later in the week putting a stop to a lot of the flying. There was a moderate southerly wind at altitude so we managed to do a nice 33km flight up to the end of the valley to the north and part way back; the following day we had northerly winds so we ended up doing more of a local flight closer to Mayrhofen. It was great to be flying high over alpine terrain again.

Axis Mountain Masterclass 2009

I've done quite a lot of flying in the month or so since my last post. Thanks mostly to being selected for the Axis Mountain Masterclasses "intensive courses aimed at developing alpine flying skills with a strong focus on mountain cross country; including aerology, route planning and cross country decision making".

As I had limited internet access on the road I will follow this up with a few separate posts covering the highlights of the trip.