Monday, August 31, 2009

Clouds and Wind

7 pilots headed up La Chabre; we didn't have an official retrieve, so this would be more typical of Laragne flying if I were to move here. Some forecasts warned about S winds and we found three gliders more or less ridge soaring, struggling to get high. There seemed more wind and maybe less thermals than on a typical day. I launched and was pleased to find good enough thermals straight away.

Pretty soon, the clouds were the problem; I was at cloud-base and wanted to head W, but some clouds were blocking me. You had to always choose a route with an escape route available, so I headed N - the Buech valley was in sunshine. The flying was relatively straightforward, though I always seemed to arrive at a peak or ridge that was in shade. I wanted to wait for the other pilots, but I seemed to be either at cloudbase (and struggling to stay below it) or in shadow (and struggling to stay up). As the day went on, the wind strengthened.

Coming onto the sail-plane ridge I headed left (W) for a cloud but it gave no lift. This was a bad mistake, it left me in a position where I had to fight the strong valley wind to get onto the ridge. As I started to sink out, my concern changed to finding the LZ that would minimize the problem of the wind - I got one above the valley bottom that was OK.

I got a couple of lifts back to Laragne without any problems. The first guy asked lots of questions; I first told him I was American then Scottish and he felt Scottish was 'beaucoup mieux'.

Sunday, August 30, 2009


The forecasts for today were hard to interpret After some head scratching, I headed to Mens with 3 other pilots (Rod, Chris and Johan). Mens is on the north side of the Col de la Croix Haute - this marks the divide between the Southern Alps and the rest of the Alps (and often, the good and the bad weather). But it is relatively sheltered from N winds and we reckoned it would work today (as the Mistral slowly ran out of steam).

Mens is a lovely village as well as a flying site; we had a nice lunch there before heading up to launch. There we found at least 40 pilots; the local club competes in a club XC league and the idea was that all members would fly 20 Km, thus winning the comp for the local club. This seemed good news for us foreigners - the locals thought this was the place to fly today!

Alas, this wasn't the case. There was a strong inversion; it rose as the day went on, but it limited my flying to 1800m (6,000 ft). At least 2 of the club members got through the inversion, but most pilots were flying around launch height. With the number of pilots and lack of lift, things got interesting - I seemed to find several mini-gaggles where 4 pilots were turning left and 4 were turning right.

After around 1 hour, my three companions had landed and I flew out to join them. Just before the LZ, I found one weak thermal and decided to take it for practise - I rode it for 2,000 feet, with weak 50ft/min gradually getting stronger. It was my most enjoyable climb of the day.

Not the greatest of flying, but Mens is a very scenic site and the local club members were very friendly.

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Saturday, August 29, 2009

Mistral Day

Saturday was beautiful; cool and breezy - the Mistral had arrived. The sky was bright blue - the continental air descending the Rhone valley had very little moisture content. It was probably flyable at St Vincents (a site sheltered from N winds), but I'd flown the last 6 days and reckoned I deserved a break. So I explored the countryside and towns around Laragne and Gap.

In Gap I had a refreshing beer in a cafe and the paper I was reading nearly got blown away by the Mistral - dangerous things these winds. I had intended to get back to Laragne in time for a walk, but I didn't - I went for a nice meal with 3 other pilots.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Petit Mistral Day

The weather was due to change into a Mistral pattern for a day or so; this is a strong Northern wind blowing down the Rhone valley that can 'blow the ears off a donkey'. Friday is a day of transition - a petit Mistral - where we thought we might fly La Chabre on the North side. We were worried the wind would be too west to do so, and that's how it proved. Rachael, Chris and I managed to get off; there was lift (I got about 150ft over launch at the start) but the thermals were all being broken up by the wind. We landed 15 minutes later, in the same order we launched in, but in different fields.

The others bagged it and we decided to head to St-Vincent-les-Forts - an hours drive away, but a site that works well when the Mistral is not too strong. We arrived and the wind was strong on launch, but gliders were flying and a few were high. Straight off launch I got a good climb and just kept pushing out and thermalling up until I was level with the mountain we wanted to get onto - the Dormillouse. Chris and I headed across and waited over the summit for Karen who had a slower climb; I lost quite a lot of altitude in the process but was able to rebuild it. The others didn't get across to the Dormillouse or, in the case of Johan, only arrived much later and we left them behind.

We pushed South under threatening clouds; we had to work hard not to go into the 'dark gray room'. When we emerged from the clouds we had to build some altitude on a spur to cross the next, higher mountain. Chris got in tight to the terrain and did so, Karen and I struggled a bit. Karen slowly slid down the mountain but I managed to find a thermal to get the job done. Chris and I headed South; Chris flew much nearer the terrain than me and was able to ridge soar. I was a bit too cautious and lost altitude compared to him - given it was after 6pm the danger of turbulence was pretty low but I was still in 'midday flight mode'.

We crossed the mountain and I looked for a thermal and didn't quite find it; we headed to a mountain on the glide out into the valley. Chris managed to get above it but I didn't arrive quite high enough to do so. This extended his flight a little and he got 'one village further' than I did. As I was walking to join him Rachel arrived with the retrieve vehicle and the other pilots - we had a beer in Verdaches and an interesting drive through the Clues de Barles and a nice meal at Digne. We got back to Rebinelle after midnight.

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Thursday, August 27, 2009

More Laragne

There has been a lot of rain in the last two days (fortunately in the evening, so we've been able to sneak in some flying). This is limestone country, so there are very few oveground rivers (most drainage happens underground). The river (La Meouge) below the local flying site (La Chabre) has been transformed from a blue river into a muddy torrent. Kids still play in it, but they emerge covered in mud.

The rain left the ground humid and this seemed to cause some huge cumulus clouds very early. We went up La Chabre and the wind was very slightly from the North; you can launch to the North, but it's hard to find a thermal there. We decided to try to fly a triangle and to head W. The wind became more neutral as we waited and it was obvious we could launch over the S side. I did a reverse, I think everyone else did a forward and there were weak climbs available.

The big problem turned out to be the clouds; there were monster clouds around, base was low at around 2100 meters, ridge height is around 1350 meters. So you had to operate in a pretty narrow band; I had to work hard at the end of couple of climbs to stay in clear air. Over the ridges, there were enough thermals to make progress easy - away from the ridges it was much tougher, especially if it shaded out. We flew W, then S and tried to get head back E, but almost everyone sank out within a couple of Km of each other. Two people manage to 'properly close the triangle', I just couldn't quite reach the climb to make that connection - a sunny ridge where everything else was shaded.

Later in the day we went to a 'glass-off' site to the west; but it wasn't quite soarable - except for a local tandem pilot flying with a four year old child!

A really interesting day's flying....

Tracklog ->

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Laragne - Day Four

Flying XC is full of decisions like "should I turn in this weak lift or fly through it for the better lift I expect soon". Generally, I take weak lift too often but today I made the opposite mistake - I flew through perfectly good lift expecting better stuff beyond, and ended up sinking out.

After the storms during the night, the day was noticeably weaker than previous days - a high layer of cirrus never really burned off. But the forecast was reasonable - with worries of overdevelopment later - so we headed up La Chabre. We launched a little late; after getting up I waited for some other pilots; they got high and set off just as I got low. I re-built my altitude but this meant I was at the back of the group.
I set off on the long glide to Beaumont. I didn't get a climb over Orpierre but the air was boaty and I arrived over the cliffs at Beaumont with what seemed enough altitude and immediate weak lift. I could have turned in this and got higher but I expected better lift just beyond it and kept going. Maybe I was in a rush to catch up? But it turned out to be a bad mistake; given the general weakness I should have taken it. I then was in a classic position - is it better to continue and hope for something or is it better to turn round and hope to find and work the weak lift I just flew through?

I kept going and despite trying hard I sank out. Most of the others sank out early too. Dag and Chris got 50K heading North, always running away from the bad weather. Back around Serres the weather deteriorated very quickly; from growing clouds to monster clouds to thunder and lightening to gust fronts to torrential rain was only 30 or 40 minutes. We sat in a bar, glad we were on the ground.

It's a little frustrating to make such a silly mistake (the first I've made on my trip to France) but it was still a nice flight - just a bit shorter than it should have been.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Bad Weather Day

It is dark in Laragne and I'm sitting outside enjoying a wonderful thunder and lightening show. This was all part of today's forecast; we are hoping it will have blown through by tomorrow afternoon. This morning we managed a brief flight at Aspres before the approaching weather stopped play. The wind was strong, especially on take-off and (while it's always interesting to fly a new site) the flying wasn't very interesting - ridge soaring in a strong wind. Bad weather was rapidly approaching from the NW (although the winds were from the S) and I landed first - I didn't really see any point in flying for very long. The landing is at the corner of a large, grass airfield.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Laragne Day Two

There were mixed forecasts for today; as we drove up the hill hang glider pilots were driving down because they felt it was too strong. Up on top it seemed a typical La Chabre day; the inversion was creating a 'vertical venturi' and the sensible thing was to let the inversion break before launching. But it never seemed too strong for a paraglider, never mind a hang glider.

Chris launched and was able to stay up as everyone else got ready. I wasn't keen to launch too soon and then wait for everyone else, so I waited until a couple of other launched. By then it was easy to get up and Chris, Johaness., Mark and I climbed out. My radio wasn't working so I left the others at Beaumont, flew E to the 'volcano' at St. Genis and then flew past Veynes and landed in a wide part of the valley - just over 30 Km from launch. I really enjoyed my flying; towards the end I had a choice between being aggressive and careful; I favored the later (I was worried by the strength of the wind in the valley bottom) but I was probably a little too cautious.

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Sunday, August 23, 2009

Back to Laragne

Laragne is a favorite flying area in France for me and I intend to fly here for a couple of weeks. I'm staying with David and Rachael at Allez-up; they do a good job with weather forecasts and retrieve logistics and generally take the hassle out of flying. This week there is an informal XC course organized, and I've joined in that.

Today we had hopen to head up north towards Grenoble but the wind turned out to be more from the west and made that more difficult. The flying was also influenced by some worrying clouds; twice I went well off course to avoid them. The other pilots ended up heading more to the East (towards Aspres or Veynes); I managed to stick to the route but failed to get over the last ridge to get into the valley leading to Grenoble. I ended up dead ending in a valley below the Col de Cabre (not high enough to cross the col) but I really enjoyed my flight.

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Montclar Hike

The last day of the comp had a poor forecast - stable with high winds - but the idea was to head up to launch in the hope of getting a task in. I hadn't had a real hike at Montclar and I wasn't attracted by the hanging out at launch for either a poor, bumpy flight or a skunk. So going for a hike was an easy decision.

So that's what I did; I set off later than I intended and was probably a bit overambitous in terms of the hike length. But I really enjoyed the hike; most of it was on some high, open ground used for skiing in the winter and for agriculture in winter. I ended up with a nearly 7 hour hike and I was pleased that my ankle tolerated it.

It turns out that they did fly a short task at the competition. The winner was Luc Armant who won the first four tasks and placed high on the last one; a pretty amazing performance. French took the first 4 places. Top Brit was Adrian Thomas who used his X-Alps training to beat the chair-lift in a 'man vs machine' race up to launch. Skipping the last day of the comp dropped my position to 100; I was pretty happy with my flying (once I got round to launching...) though a bit disappointed with my results.

Pics ->

Friday, August 21, 2009

St Jean de Montclar

For at least 12 years of my kids first 18 years, we have taken a summer vacation in France. We’ve also had a few skiing vacations in winter or spring. We’ve covered most regions of France, including beaches, countryside and Paris. But this is the first time I’ve been in a ‘station de ski’ or even in the ‘hautes montagnes’ in summer.

And it isn’t perfect. St Jean de Montclar isn’t a charming little village with a church, a square, a ‘lavoir’ etc. It’s a ‘nouveau village’ – a village created at the bottom of some chair-lifts, I’d guess in the sixties or seventies. But it isn’t bad either.

It’s hot during the day, but fairly cool at night. You can swim, play tennis or pétanques, hire a mountain bike, go for a walk, take a chair-lift up for a high altitude hike etc. You can even take a tandem paraglider flight (though, after yesterday, I’m not sure I’d recommend that). There’s a big lake just 15 minutes drive away. There’s plenty of cheap accommodation. There was a nice market last Sunday morning. And the scenery is really nice; a combination of open valleys and mountains. Nice villages nearby, with forts and museums. And it’s a nice size; big enough that you have everything you need, but not so big you can’t park your car.

All in all, not a bad place for your summer vacation!

British Open - Day Six

All of my flights at this comp have involved taking off late and flying by myself. This isn’t a sensible competitive strategy so today I decided I would launch early and try to fly with as many people as possible. But the best laid plans…

I don’t like hanging around on launch; I give myself plenty of time to get ready but not so much that I fry in the sun. Today, they brought everything forward an hour and this meant I launched around the middle of the pack. Plenty of lift off launch, but I struggled to get established on the main ridge; most of the pilots resorted to ridge soaring to wait for a decent thermal, but I didn’t fancy that. I headed out and joined a smaller, later group climbing up; we got established on the ridge no problem, but I was back to square one, missing the start and flying with a handful of pilots at the back of the group.

Tagged the first two turnpoints; just as I went for the second one, I saw a pilot just ahead of me tag it and climb in a thermal. After the turnpoint, I went to join him but he was already well above me and either the thermal was above me too or I just failed to find it. I still had plenty of altitude and headed for the next TP, passing over whatever triggers I could see. I never really got any lift and passed maybe 800 ft over goal; the air was pretty boaty and I kept going but shortly after goal I hit big sink. So I came back to goal, hoping to either get lift or to land.

Goal is at a col (a pass between two valley systems) and is often an area of convergence; it can be pretty messy in the afternoon. On the first day one competitor had a low level collapse, a cascade and hit the deck – his injuries weren’t as bad as initially feared but his competition ended there. I was finding some nice lift and very slowly climbing – maybe 400ft from the ground – when I hit the thermal from hell – strong, tiny and sharp edged. If I’d had another few hundred feet of ground clearance I would have taken it, but instead I snuck away. I decided to land S of goal and found a nice field maybe 1 km away.

After I had packed up my wing etc, I found my gloves had disappeared. I searched everywhere, unpacking my wing, flight suit, flight deck, helmet, looking inside my camelback. There are very few credible explanations for what happened (e.g. did a rabbit / marmot / bird take them for their burrow / den / nest?) – I’d really like to know where they are now! If you see a bird / marmot / rabbit wearing OR gloves let me know.

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Thursday, August 20, 2009

British Open Day 5

The chair-lift follows a slot in the trees and normally the ride up is very hot. There was a nice little breeze today on the way up and it made the ride more pleasant. But once on the plateau the wind immediately put in doubt the day’s flying; the forecast called for light winds, from the S turning SW, but the wind was much stronger than that.

The wind got stronger in the early afternoon and the only ones flying were students at the local school and professional tandem pilots – all using heavily assisted launches. Just crazy. Eventually, the wind got less strong, a shorter task was called but there was a lot of overdevelopment. I wasn’t convinced and was expecting to ride the chairlift back down. Two people launched and the task was cancelled.
Again, a lot of pilots flew down – this seemed even more dubious than yesterday. As I got to the bottom on the chairlift the first drops of rain started. A brief deluge and 30 minutes later it was all blue skies and sunshine. I headed to Seyne to see the citadel, but only had time from a brief tour before it closed.
PS As we were on launch and the South wind was strongest, a paraglider appeared high above us from the S, flying fast. It stopped for maybe 5 turns over the nearby peak (the Dormillouse) and continued North. To the North there is an impressive range of mountains called Les Ecrins – I haven’t checked out how the flight hits these mountains. I’ve climbed some of these peaks on skis, but flying over them seems a little – hmmm - committing. Turns out this was a 330 Km (around 210 miles) flight; not a record but not far from it; the retrieve was a commercial flight back South.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

British Open Day 4

There were predictions of thunderstorms in the afternoon, so the idea was to head up the hill early and get in a short task that avoided the high ground. Riding up on the chairlift, the sky was 95% blue, but the other 5% was pretty impressive. We had just enough time to program the task into our GPSs before it was cancelled. Right then it was perfectly flyable, but based on the forecast and the growing mushroom clouds it seemed unlikely that a task could be safely completed. There was some grumbling but five minutes later a thunderclap silenced all that.

Most pilots flew back down the hill but launch conditions were poor and I didn’t see the point so I rode the chairlift back down with some fellow wimps. The afternoon weather was a little surprising; no deluges, very little fireworks, no gust fronts - just a gray, slightly gusty and damp afternoon. I wasn’t disappointed at all to have a rest day and I explored some of the nearby villages. At one town hall notice-board I found the poster of an XC pilot that disappeared a week ago; it was on the evening news a couple of nights ago.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

British Open Day 3

The day started with a blue sky, no clouds and zero wind. The task was 70 Km and involved a different start. You had to get about 6km from launch to the NW (into the wind); then come back, climb up and then a long run South on the main ridge, and then flying on the flats and around the lake. Because the start was further away, an early launch seemed to make better sense.

Before launch opened a couple of smallish dusties blew through all the wings, followed by a big one about 200 meters away. I was ready 20 minutes after launch opened, but everyone else had moved their plans forward too, so there were only around 20 pilots left on launch. At this point the wind switched; it varied between 90 degrees cross to straight over the back. We all baked in the heat, watching all the other pilots climb out, worried if another dustie would appear, wondering if we were going to get off the hill. A pretty stressful, unpleasant experience. There were a couple of ‘dodgy launches’ in little lulls and, just after the race had started, we got a decent cycle and got off the hill.

Like yesterday, we struggled to climb out; like yesterday, I found some lift away from the hill. A few pilots followed me but most seemed to stay kicking the treetops. Straight up over the peak, I climbed to 11,500 ft pretty quickly as the main gaggle came in below me, already back from the start. A couple of gliders had flown off a bit earlier, I was by myself and could have got a little higher but I saw a couple of fluffy clouds on the route to the start and decided to head out.

Slow going into the wind, got the turn-point, back to the main LZ with maybe 600 ft of clearance and slowly climbed out in weak lift. I headed South on the main ridge; a few pilots were following the ridge back North. It’s hard to accurately judge the position of another glider, but it certainly looked as though some gliders were going over the back of the ridge very low; I’m a wimp and stayed out in front.

I got the turn-point in the South, and had a choice of coming back up the ridge or flying directly NW to the next turnpoint. There were enough little clouds that I took the direct route. Lots of bumpy convergence, with my vario making very strange noises, led me to the next turn-point. At this point, I should have flown to a peak over the lake but I was pretty tired. I’ve flown four days straight in pretty strong conditions and today seemed like hard work. I headed back to the main ridge with plenty of altitude trying to decide whether to go on or to ‘throw in the sponge’. When I saw goal, it seemed to suck my glider towards it, and I landed there, missing out the last 3 turn-points.

To be honest, I wouldn’t mind a ‘bad-weather day’ tomorrow – but the forecast is excellent. Damn! I’ll see how I feel in the morning, but the idea of a nice, relaxing hike is pretty attractive.

Monday, August 17, 2009

British Open - Day Two

The results from yesterday were up in the morning; half the field made goal. Out of 110 pilots who flew, I came 79th – around what I expected. At a competition, I’ve learned to focus on my flying rather than my results. On a good day at a high standard comp, almost everyone has a great flight. I’d rather place last and have a great flight than score well with a so-so flight. And any flight here is pretty good once you get above the high ridges …

Today, the forecast was good but called for a stronger west wind. A long 80K task was called, with around 8 turnpoints, mostly on the relatively flat valleys to the west. All the pilots were struggling to visualize the task and the general consensus was just ‘to go where the GPS told you’. Easier said than done…

I took off towards the back of the group with around 10 pilots. Launch is relatively open and flat and the thermals kick off in front of launch, so decent cycles are rare and a group of pilots generally launches together. An immediate right turn is needed to avoid a cable car, so the first few moments of flight can be rather exciting. We didn’t get any lift off launch and slowly sunk out. Some pilots stuck to the slope, but I moved out front and found a ratty thermal that improved with height. A small group of pilots slotted in below me and we climbed up over the nearby peak – the Dormillouse.

The pilots that had launched earlier had got really high over the start, but we were struggling to get more than a 1000ft above the summit, around 3 or 4 km from the start. I delayed my start in order to climb a bit higher and things went reasonably well but it meant I was flying almost alone. Out to the start, back to the mountain, build back some altitude and head to the second turn-point. I could see a decent sized gaggle over it and expected to tag it and join the gaggle at around mid-height.

Unfortunately, the gaggle flew off just before I got to the turn-point. I followed but it was a bit disorganized as everyone was looking for lift. I joined it at the bottom, turning in weak lift as we all drifted away from the third turn-point. This was a tough choice; the climb wasn’t worth the drift but we were a bit low to expect to find some better lift. It might have been possible to drift back towards some high ground and eventually get up and make forward progress, but it seemed pretty indirect. So I headed back on course and the bottom few pilots did likewise and we ended up landing a few minutes later. I don’t know if the rest of the gaggle escaped or they just drifted further away before sinking out.

I wasn’t in any rush, so I started walking back to the village, St. Jean de Montclar. After maybe 30 minutes a car stopped and offered me a lift. It was the mayor of St. Jean and his wife; they asked lots of questions about flying. They were very happy to have the paragliding competition in their village. Although St. Jean offers great flying, it isn’t as fashionable as sites further north in the Alps - everyone was very glad of the extra business.

Thirty pilots or so made goal; I was 75th for the day. A lot of pilots landed around where I landed – the leg from the 2nd to 3rd turnpoint was over the flats and into the wind and (with the benefit of hindsight) was always going to be a tricky one.

Tracklog ->

Sunday, August 16, 2009

British Open - Day One

Having an apartment in the village helps a lot; I could relax in the morning and left just before noon. A relaxing ride up on the chairlift and I was at launch in plenty of time. A 60 km task was called which involved a ridge-run South then a run back North over the open valley system, crossing the lake, before heading back South to the standard LZ near the village.

You don’t have a lot of height to work with off launch here and a lot of the early launchers struggled. My energy levels seemed a bit low and I wondered if I was going to have a short day. I launched towards the back of the group and there were enough pilots in the air to mark the useful lift. My energy levels increased with my altitude! My timing was pretty good; things only got really busy for the last 10 minutes before the start and I was well positioned without having to endure too much traffic.

Things went pretty well, I was towards the back of the group, with plenty of pilots to mark the lift in front of me and just enough pilots to thermal with to make things easier. Conditions were pretty strong; at one point I left a thermaI that I found a little too rough (I can’t remember the last time I’ve done that). The wind was behind us for the run South, and I tagged the way-point without problem then climbed up towards the base of a cloud before the run NW into the wind.

I applied speedbar to leave the cloud – and it didn’t work. The left side was jammed and I couldn’t operate it. I was flying into around a 6 to 8 mph head wind, wanting to use half-bar but couldn’t. For the next 10 Km gliders passed me as I got lower and lower; there wasn’t much I could do about it. Over the open valley, I could find some lift, but it wasn’t really strong enough to overcome the drift. I got the next way point, but was low by then. I really wanted to head E to get back onto the main ridge, but I was too low to make it that far. So I headed NE, along the course line. Unless I could get a bunch of altitude, I didn’t want to commit to crossing the lake (there are very few landing spots down near the shore). I flew low over goal and I could have continued for another couple of Km because the ground falls away down to the lake, but ground-suck set in and I landed in goal without tagging the last two waypoints. As I was walking back to my apartment, the leaders came flying in.

The super sophisticated id-cards weren’t ready in the morning but we seemed to be able to fly reasonably well without them.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

British Open Practice Day

I awoke just before noon, opened the curtains and found a big blue sky, little wind and some big clouds building. I went outside to find out when I could take the chairlift up to launch and was reading the signs when someone called my name. It was Willie Todd, someone I knew from my rock-climbing days in Scotland but I hadn’t seen for nearly 30 years (when MacEnroe was a promising tennis player…). Willie has been living in the Alps for a long time, working as a guide, but he also flies and was going up for a flight. Willie told me the lift closed at 1, so I rushed back for a quick breakfast then headed up the hill as some French families were coming back down for their lunch.

Launch is a big plateau on the side of a mountain – a ski-area in winter, and a pasture in summer. Today there were lots of wings but no wind and only occasional cycles. I found Willie and tried to catch up on the last 30 years. There didn’t seem to be any rush; few people were launching and only a few of them were staying up. Eventually we couldn’t deny there were quite a few wings above us; both paragliders and sail-planes were all well represented.

I choose my cycle carefully and got a nice thermal off launch. I rode it for over 4,500 feet; with no wind, I climbed out directly above launch. The day before a comp is always difficult; you want a decent flight but you don’t want to get back to base at midnight. It was tempting to head South to St. Andre but I didn’t want to sink out in an isolated valley and have an epic getting back. So I stayed inside the local valley system and had a nice flight, trying the high ridges and the fairly open (for the Alps) valley system.

There were some sizeable clouds around and the atmosphere had an ‘electric blue’ appearance, so I was reasonably cautious. But no worries - plenty of lift and nothing excessive. The wings were all well spread out and, once away from launch, I only thermalled once with a paraglider.
I flew ‘somewhat’ near sail-planes a few times and (though I’ve done it before) it was a little unnerving. Once I only detected a sail-plane heading towards me by its shadow. And a couple of times I thermalled up with a sail-plane, trying to keep track of it, and was a bit worried when I lost it; when these guys fly off, they disappear very quickly. A few weeks ago here, two sailplanes collided; there were no survivors, so paranoia / caution seemed well in order.

After two and a half hours I decided to land. After a shower I went through a fairly painful sign-in process for the competition. The USA has the reputation of being a lawyer’s paradise; but here I had to provide evidence of all sorts of insurance and, before flying tomorrow, I will be issued with a competitor’s photo-id card.

Friday, August 14, 2009

French Leave

For the last 28 hours or so, I’ve been travelling to the South of France. I have a 6 week sabbatical – a treat I get every 4 years – and I’m using it to fly and hike here. In fact, it is a little more than that – I’m hoping to move here (either full-time or for the summer months) and I’m using this trip to fine tune my planning. I’m really looking for a place where outdoor activities (flying, hiking, cycling, skiing…) can be done more easily (less driving, better weather). In the last month I’ve barely flown in Portland – the thought of driving for 4-6 hours, taking my chances with (possibly outrageous) conditions and then driving back (maybe skunked) has just been too much for me.

Just booking the flights was challenging. I need to visit my mother in Scotland on the way home, so ideally I wanted a triangular trip – Portland <-> Paris <-> Glasgow <-> Portland. But however you try to do it, it seems as though airlines can’t cope with anything except a return journey. Everything I tried to reduce the cost just increased it. Change a return trip to a single trip? Ok, but triple the price. Cut a bunch of flights from your trip? Sure, just add $800 to the price. In paragliding terms, they can do ‘out-and-backs’ but nothing else. So I ended up with a cheap Air Canada flight - Portland -> Vancouver -> Montreal -> Paris.

Checking all your flying gear is always a bit worrying but at Portland I was told “your gear will go straight to Paris, collect it there”. At Vancouver, I had to go through Canadian customs and immigration. As I did so, I looked idly at a random luggage carousel what did I see - my flying gear! Wow!

It turned out I had to pick it up and move it from the US to the Canadian system, when it would then get transferred to the French system and I’d get it back in Paris. It couldn’t or didn’t move automatically from USA to Canada. If I hadn’t seen it, I’d have arrived in Paris and my gear would have been … who knows where. Talk about a ‘near miss’…

Apart from that, the journey went well. A little sad – the last time I did this trip, I visited my father-in-law and had lunch with him before the long drive South. But he died suddenly last January – these little opportunities are gone for him, and for me too, and won’t be coming back.

Things are always a little more difficult (or less predictable) in France than the US. When I arrived at the apartment I’ll be staying at for the next week, I asked the young girl if there was a super-market nearby. Yes, she said, there is an “Eight till Eight” just across the street. When I was young and naïve I would have fallen for this trap, but I asked her when it closed. “Seven o’clock” she replied, “you’d better hurry”…

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Dog Days of Summer

I've already said that Portland is a tough place to fly in the summer. Last weekend I went kayaking with my son in the San Juan islands, I didn't fly the weekend before, so I was itching to fly this weekend. But last week was a heatwave with Portland temps maxing out at 107F (42C) and the weekend was only a little cooler. I had a choice of a 6 hr drive to some flying at Mt Howard but I just couldn't face the drive. Encouraged by a half-decent forecast, I hoped to fly the Gorge on Saturday. But it blew out early on Saturday morning and Sunday didn't look any better, so I decided to join Brad and Maren on an SIV course at Yale Lake for the Sunday - at least the lake would be reasonably cool and I'd get some air-time.

I'm a bit of a wimp and don't really enjoy SIV clinics. But SIV can help when things go wrong. It's best to avoid problems, but if you regulary fly XC something will go wrong eventually - you'll get a nasty collapse, you'll fly into rotor, you'll spin your glider, you'll need to avoid cloud suck etc. SIV clinics build skills that increase the chances of handling such problems.

I got my current wing (Nova Factor) around 9 months ago and I love it. It's a step up from my previous wing (Nova Mamboo) but I haven't done an SIV clinic on it (apart from an impromptu clinic going over the back of Baldy - So this was a good opportunity to try it out.
It was nice to not have to look at the weather and decide what to do in the morning. And to get up at a civilized hour. And to have a short drive to Yale Lake. And to fly in shorts.
The SIV clinic went pretty well. My glider was well behaved in everything I did. It didn't feel very nice in a B-line stall (it oscillated a little), but that isn't something I've ever used or intend to use 'for real'. It 'fell' from the sky during accelerated collapses (asymmetric and symmetric) more than my previous wing and the tips were always a bit slow to re-inflate. One accelerated frontal seemed to leave my wing parachutal (when I tweaked the As, one side was soft). But overall it was pretty docile; no nasty turns on asymmetic deflations.

Most of the time at an SIV clinic isn't flying; it's talking to others, watching others fly, kiting, or riding in the boat. And I did a fair amount of these things today. Yale Lake is a pretty scenic place, immediately SW of Mt St Helens. Normally I fly there late in the fall or early in the spring, so it was nice to fly when it's warm and watch others boating around and swimming. Brad and Maren (local instructors) and Stu (boat owner, driver and tow operator) all got a chance to fly as well.