Friday, December 31, 2010

Last Flight of the Year

I spent the last few days in London as a tourist and got back to St Andre late on the 30th. This gave me time to get a last flight of the year; and it was a very simple, standard hike and fly. I landed in the normal St Andre LZ; the last few times I landed there, it was covered in snow. The snow has melted and I hadn't realized that this had left the LZ very, very muddy. By the time I walked off the LZ, my boots weighed about 5 Kgs each!

At this time of year, you always think back to the years flying (and the year generally). I no longer keep a careful log of my flights, but I posted 52 hours on Leonardo, so I'm going to guesstimate I had about 80 hours in total. I was a bit disappointed in how little flying I got in during the spring (due to work demands and poor conditions) but apart from that, I feel I've had a great year. Some fabulous flights without any incidents at all (no collapses, no bad launches, no bad landings, no dramas at all). In fact, landing in a muddy LZ was as bad as it got!

Let's hope for the same in 2011!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

December Hike and Flies

I'm used to Oregon and over there the winter months just drag by. Gray skies and lots of rain make flying difficult and even hiking is hard work.

But the early part of the winter has flown by here and I can't believe it is Xmas already. There have been plenty of days of bad weather - mostly snow, sometimes rain. But here precipitation falls quickly and you seldom get a run of bad days. St Andre is just at the altitude where the snow can last for weeks or it can melt in a few days.
The result has been plenty of sunny days; normally with a lot of snow on the ground but right now it has almost all melted. I've had several hike and flies (and, of course, a few hikes too); I take my lightest gear and the hiking is a pleasure. There have been two general problems. First, the hiking can take a lot longer when the snow is difficult. Second, there are lots of days with light winds in the valleys and strong winds at or just above ridge height; unfortunately, you can seldom launch on the way up, so you have to choose your days carefully.

I'm using my electric gloves and they make such a difference, both in the hiking and flying. Today is Xmas and I managed to get in a quick hike and fly, using the W launch of Chalvet. Door to door, when the snow is easy, is a tad under 3 hours. The christmas duck is in the oven, I'm about to light the fire, the ski season has just started - not too bad! 

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Snowy Hike and Fly

Another very cold night with a big blue sky and snow in the morning. Light winds made a hike and fly the obvious choice and I considered a few peaks. For a bunch of reasons (mainly avalanche risk and not having that much time) I choose the normal S launch at St Andre and took my lightest flying gear and warmest clothes.

The hike up was beautiful, with the snow getting deeper all the way up. On the summit there was essentially no wind; the S launch is not at all steep and with the deep snow it wasn't obvious I could even get off. I made a couple of take-off 'trenches' in the snow and dug a little edge to stop my wing sliding down the hill. To make matters worse, I had my little speedwing and what little wind there was changed direction once I laid out.

Anyway, I just got off and had a very short flight down to the LZ. Despite this being my first sled ride at St Andre, I really enjoyed it!

A few pics

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Sunshine and Snow

Most of this week has been beautiful; cold, lots of snow with a blue sky. I've been fairly busy and had a cold at the start of the week, so I didn't get out as much as I'd have liked. But I felt better today and had a very pleasant hike. Most of the paths had either no tracks on them or just animal tracks.

A few pics

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Snow in St Andre

This weekend definitely feels like the start of the winter. Although there was already snow higher up the mountains, St Andre has stayed clear of the snow. But all that changed over the weekend.

Saturday looked as though a super-cold hike and fly might have been possible; the start of the day was cold and clear but with bad weather forecast to move in during the afternoon. However, things happened a little quicker than the forecast; as soon as the first clouds appeared it was clearly very windy at launch height. So I had a snowy hike in the Thorame valley. I used the hike to test some new gear. I now have electric gloves and they were very good - but only for the first 4 hours of the hike, by then the batteries were exhausted! I've also been breaking in some new boots, and it seemed a good occasion to give them a longer hike; they were fine, but my feet were happy to see the end of the hike. I saw a couple of boars and a fox; the fox played for about 5 minutes before he realized I was watching from about 400 meters away - then he run away very fast.

Overnight, a lot of snow fell on St Andre. I had a short tour on my XC skis, but my feet were a little painful from the day before, so I didn't stay out too long. I'm back in the warmth now, about to light a fire.

Pics of the hike and St Andre under the snow.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Hike without Fly

When my cleaner arrives, I try to get out to make things easier for her - hike, fly, cycle, whatever. I debated flying this Wednesday, but cloudbase, mountain tops and freezing level were all forecast to coincide. Then I thought about a hike and fly; but the predicted meteo wind wasn't really from the best direction for the hikes I fancied. So I decided to go for a hike that I could start from my front door.

The hike was very nice; it started in the mist. The mist burned off and I had a nice climb up to a ridge. Some very pleasant ridge walking, with the last bit over a dusting of snow. I ate my lunch on the peak, which was just flirting with the clouds. Afterwards, a gradual descent back to St Andre. While I was very happy with my day, I realized I should have taken my lightweight gear and flown down; even in November, the anabatic wind was overcoming the meteo wind pretty easily. No big deal, good data for next time.

And then I came back to a wonderfully clean house!


Thursday, November 11, 2010

Armistice Day Flying

Twentieth century wars have made a big impact in France and today is a national holiday. The day dawned clear but cold in St Andre; there was ice everywhere. It would have been flyable here, but it looked just as flyable nearer the coast and a whole lot warmer. Unusually, I decided it was worth driving to go flying. Greolieres or Gourdon?

I stopped at Greolieres and found a bunch of Nice based pilots - all enjoying the national holiday - debating whether to fly there or at the Col de Bleyne. The group split and I joined the majority at the Col de Bleyne. From a warmth viewpoint, this was only a small improvement over St Andre (launch is essentially at the same altitude, even if it's a little nearer the Med).

I was really careful to keep my fingers warm on launch and launched near the front of a group of 12 or so pilots. Initially the wind was fairly strong from the East, but it changed (backed?, veered?) to the S and later the W. The thermals were amazing for November (7 m/s or 1400 ft/min) and it wasn't too hard to stay up; but base was low (2000m was as high as I got) so it was hard to make any real transitions. I wasn't surprised when my finders got cold and I decided to head to Greolieres, hoping to get a decent mini-XC out the day before having to land. I got too low to make the last transition and ended up landing. After warming my fingers and eating my lunch; I started walking back and got a lift from another pilot.

My electric gloves are in the States; I just need to get them through customs so I can fly in the cold weather!

Pics and Tracklog

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Late Fall in St Andre

There is a definite 'winding down' feeling right now. Some of the shops in the village have closed till the end of Nov. I'm assuming things start to get busier in December with the ski season.

The melezes (pine trees that change color and lose their needles) are just magnificent and the weather is still good. In fact, blue skies, cool air and warm sun make this time of year great for hiking but sometimes a little chilly for cycling. 

The sheep are gradually being moved out of the mountains; right now, most are back in the plains, but there are still some herds on the smaller peaks. Here, lambs are born in the fall (when the mothers are fattest) and some are really tiny.

I've been doing a little less flying than earlier in the fall, but still getting some airtime.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Hiking, Pretty Sheep, Wood and Chilies

Saturday dawned cold with low cloud - just what was forecast. But surprisingly things cleared up and it would have been flyable but cold. I decided a hike was a better option and headed for the mountains above Beauvezer. At the end of the 19th century the locals made a sensational path in the cliffs to reach the high pastures and the trees. Once through a narrow gorge, the hike is mostly in the forest; at high altitude here most of the trees are mélèzes; a conifer that changes color in the fall and loses its needles. With the blue sky, occasional patches of snow and fall colors it was very pleasant.

On the drive back to St Andre, I headed to a shepherd's gathering. There were various contests involving animals and humans, and lots of things to buy. I bought a whole bunch of chilies for 40 centimes (I paid a euro, telling the lady her prices were too low) and I bought a whole bunch of firewood for the approaching winter for 10 euros.

Some pics

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Frozen Finger Flying

Thursday looked like the best day to fly in the week. The basic forecast was SW low down, switching to NW around 2000m, and that turned out to be reasonably accurate. It seemed like a S launch day, which makes for a shorter hike. From the S launch, I could see around 10 people waiting over on the W launch. Conditions seemed great on the S launch - so I didn't see any reason to join them.

A quick lunch, then I launched and had no trouble at all getting high. In fact, it might have been better to get acclimatized first - right away my hands were very cold. Cold fingers in winter is normally a pest, but isn't terribly worrying because you're in smooth ridge lift (so it isn't that essential to feel the wing). So far, it hasn't been like that in St Andre; by anyone's standards conditions were active (6.5 m/s or 1300 ft / min up) and I was a little concerned I wasn't feeling the wing very well.

I headed N, pilots started launching on the W side and slowly joined me. Top of lift was around 2300m where the temperature was just above freezing. The sky was blue but XC potential was good. But my fingers were just too cold. I flew back to St Andre and landed after a little more than an hours flying. I need to order a pair of electric gloves!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Lost Dog Hike

After a decent week's work, you always want to fly Saturday. Today would have been flyable, but there were some 'issues' with the forecasts (high winds aloft, deterioration in the afternoon). It seemed better to hike and take in the fall colors.

I headed to a little hamlet to the SE of St Andre called Ubraye. Exploring new areas is fun in its own right, but it also lets you look at the XC issues (how many LZs are there in this valley?).

This is the hunting season. It's easy to assume paragliding is dangerous and hiking is safe; but at this time of year that may be inaccurate. I've lunched in restaurants with hunters many times in France; they don't go easy on the wine (who does) and you can't help but feel that afternoon hiking has its risks. But today, all I heard were some distant shots going off.

There is another, more civilized, form of hunting at this time of year. I met four guys with baskets filled with mushrooms. I don't know what is edible and what is certain death, but what they carried looked really good. Prime mushroom gathering spots are closely guarded secrets in this part of France; 'foreigners' are taken along only if they wear a blindfold.

Early on in my hike, I was joined by two dogs - I suspect they had been spooked by shotguns going off. They 'followed' me, but stayed ahead all the time - waiting at intersections of trails. Then one got lost when they were excited by something - maybe a boar or some other animal. The other stayed with me throughout the hike - my cell phone wasn't working and I couldn't phone the number of the dog's collar.

Back in Ubraye, I talked to the first person I met. He didn't know the dog but he turned out to be the Maire (mayor); we went to the Mairie, he phoned the number. There was no reply but he left a message and was happy to look after the dog until the owner came to collect it. I left him with the details of where the other dog got lost. The mayor said dogs often got lost at this time of year (alarmed by the shotguns) and almost always got home. Here's hoping...

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Feisty Fall Flying

We've reached the middle of October and the flying remains very good. Normally at this time of year staying up is the issue, but that hasn't been a problem yet. On Thursday I sneaked in a lunchtime flight and conditions (while not summer time scale) were remarkably strong - 6 m/s up (1200 ft per minute in old money). If I hadn't had a late afternoon meeting, I'd have tried to go further, but to keep things simple I flew a little tour, landing back in St Andre.

Of course, it's not the same as summertime flying. The hike up is a lot cooler / more pleasant, launch is quieter, generally you launch a little later and cloud-base is lower (2500m on Thursday). And it's colder - I had cold fingers throughout my flight (almost a perennial problem for me) but a 2hr XC at mid-Oct isn't bad!

Unfortunately, I didn't manage my electronic equipment very well - helmet cam left at home, GPS filled up after an hours flying - so I've shown by SPOT track-log!

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Tete De L'Estrop

Saturday would have been flyable but it didn't look great, so I decided to go for a hike in the high mountains near Allos. I haven't climbed the Tete de l'Estrop - just under 3000m - and winter will put a stop to such things shortly, so that seemed like a good target.

The start of the hike was disappointing. Construction for some new ski-lifts has left a high valley more like a building site than anything very natural. Ski resorts look cute when they are covered in snow but the development process is much less attractive (though the engineering is impressive).

Once I cleared the construction area, I had a lot of rocky terrain to cross to get to the summit. It looked as though a 'straight-line' approach would work, but the terrain has a very pronounced 'grain' with lots of hidden cliffs. Route finding wasn't terribly easy. Much of the hike involved walking over rocks from chair size to truck size. Occasionally, a rock would move in a spooky fashion that got me thinking of the hiker that amputated his arm.

Clouds were moving in as I reached the summit and I didn't stay long. Much of the descent was in the clouds - a GPS makes navigation so much easier in these circumstances (I'd probably have turned round without one). 

The shepherds are slowly moving their now fattened herds back down from the mountains back to the plains. Most of the herds are back in the valleys and will be making their way along the roads for the next few weeks.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Fall Arrives

I've been pretty busy with work and had a trip back to Scotland to visit my family, but I've been back in St Andre for the last week. The flying season is obviously winding down but most days remain perfectly flyable. All my flights have been  easily soarable and I'm sure short XCs would have been possible, but I've avoided any retrieve hassles and stayed local.

I've had a few flights and some short hikes and bike rides. The real delight is the early fall colors and weather - blue skies, warm sun, cool air and gorgeous trees.  

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Ballasting Up

It's unusual to get a nice surprise in the mail, but I did yesterday. My employer (Autodesk) sent me a booklet of 'cheques dejeuner' (luncheon vouchers). They allow me to spend 9 Euros a day in a local restaurant. The French don't mess around when it comes to food...

So today I had my first 'working lunch', an excellent couscous. Maybe I should order my XL wing now…

Evening Hike and Fly

I haven't had an evening flight in the last 2 or 3 months - I'm much more into midday flying. I'll be visiting Scotland in the next few days (and I won't be taking a wing there) and recent conditions haven't warranted an afternoon flight, so I fancied an evening flight. The weather has been beautiful but cold for the last few days; very cold air has fought a warm sun and generally won.

After a decent day's work I packed my lightweight gear (beach harness, speed wing, warm clothes and not much else) and headed up the hill. The combination of cold air and lightweight gear made the hike up a real pleasure.

On launch I found around 20 pilots monitoring the wind strength; to me it seemed to be strong but launchable (with a normal wing). As I got ready, some pilots launched and by the time I joined them conditions were much less strong. With my little wing I struggled more than most as the lift weakened and slowly got lower before heading to the LZ after maybe 45 minutes. Everyone seemed to run out of lift at around the same time and landed together.

The circus is visiting St Andre and a bunch of pilots and I packed up our wings watched by various animals!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Back home...

I've been in the States for the last 2 weeks or so on a business trip. It went pretty well from a business and visiting (both friends and family) viewpoint, but the weather was too poor to fly or hike. Even when these trips go well, they are tiring; long days at work, little exercise and lots of eating all take their toll.

Today was my first day back in St Andre. I was due to fly in a little weekend comp, but the forecast (especially for today) was poor and it was cancelled. I got up late and had a nice hike in the mountains N of St Andre; winds, some clouds, some sun. The higher peaks had a dusting of new snow and we're clearly in the fall.

It's good to be back!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

British Open Follow Up

There was quite a bit of controversy during and after the British Open in St Andre, and (at least for a St Andre resident) it makes interesting reading. Quite a bit of it is related to the 'standard' competition debate ("are competitions dangerous?") but a lot of it is specific to the nature of the event and (according to some) St Andre.

While there are competitions in the UK, the British hold their championships abroad principally for logistical reasons. XCs in Britain are fickle beasts, where you have to choose exactly the right site at the right time using detailed weather forecasts. Most of these sites are very small and couldn't support 150 pilots. And then there would be lots of driving just to get to the sites, never mind do the retrieves.

Holding the competition abroad allows them to choose a single site that will work reliably through a week. This year, they choose a week in Slovenia and a week at St Andre. St Andre is both a common and popular choice; a lot of the pilots know it very well. 

Intimidating terrain at St Andre
But, of course, it is alpine flying and presents a bunch of problems an XC pilot in Britain will rarely see - intimidating terrain, strong thermals and valley winds. There are certainly less intimidating places that could host a competition where the flying would be more familiar to a British XC pilot. And a number of the pilots feel that the competition should be held at such sites. 

This is a debate for British pilots (I'm British and a pilot but not, for this purpose, a British pilot) - how do they want to choose their champion, what sort of event do they want? But the economics actually broaden the debate. The event was oversubscribed and capped at 150 pilots; but the majority were not "British pilots" and there's an argument that choosing "less interesting sites" would reduce attendance and make the event uneconomic.

And then there were a lot of incidents; 14 in total, 10 of which were reserve rides - fortunately without any serious injuries. A shockingly high number, especially on one day when there were 5 deployments. I'm told all the pilots accepted responsibility for their incidents, rather than believing they were the victims of a malevolent site or task committee or plain bad luck. The organizers certainly treated safety seriously (for example, everyone flew with a live tracker) and I wouldn't fault any of their decisions. Most of the incidents seem to me to be caused by 'the urge to compete' overcoming normal piloting decisions; maybe augmented by less experienced pilots following others into dubious places. But, of course, others interpret the events a bit differently!

You can read more at Judith's blog and at the paragliding forum.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Plan B....

The forecast looked really good; top of lift maybe 3000m, light winds, blue sky; a local club gave it 4/4. Nothing suggested an early start was needed, I had plenty of work to do, so I arrived on launch at around 12.20. I ate my lunch as people started launching and got off towards the back of the group.

Big lift (quick climb up 1000m) then big sink (1:1 or 2:1 on full bar). Headed N and got stuck at L'Allier. I yo-yoed between ridge height and 200 m over but couldn't build the altitude for the next transition. There were maybe 8 other pilots in the same boat. It seemed like an inversion around 1900m was making life hard; the wind was also stronger than forecast (probably because it was trapped below the inversion).

I could have tried to make the transition low, but generally the next ridge (Charvet) is normally more stable than L'Allier so I didn't see the point. I could have waited until the inversion broke or I found a strong enough thermal, but I was getting fed up. So I decided to fly S back along the ridge to launch and then come  back - I was sure things would improve by then and at least I'd have the feeling of going somewhere.

Back at launch, I got a nice climb and noticed that there was a building cloud on the route E to the Crete des Serres. So I changed plan and headed there and had a nice ridge run to the Pic de Chamatte, turned round and landed at La Mure. I went to see Ray and drank a beer before he dropped me back in St Andre.

Not the route I intended to fly, and a little disappointing compared to the forecast, but it was a very pleasant 2.5 hour flight!

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Windy End to the British Open

Today didn't look suitable for decent flying, and I normally wouldn't have gone up the hill. The forecasts were calling for 10 knots from the NW at almost all levels and that normally doesn't work here - too strong and not the best direction at low altitudes. But it wasn't completely ridiculous, so everyone went up the hill.

A task was called that took reasonable account of the winds - wide cylinders round some of the turn-points, wide valleys in easy glide most of the time - with the window opening at noon. Like several of the days, the start involved a tricky glide into the wind, to wait in an exit cylinder over a rounded hill out front.

Waves of Lenticular Clouds from the LZ at La Mure
I launched 15 minutes after the window opened and (unusually for St Andre) didn't find it easy to get high. In fact, shortly before the start I found myself low, well below ridge height, and struggling to get back up. When I got back up, I was alone, and I hadn't even started the tricky glide. Not good.

I set off low, with some wings ahead of me, in the hope someone would find a thermal. No-one did, I tried some promising lavender fields and they didn't work. I found myself really low around Hyeges before working my way back up above ridge height. All the time the wind was strengthening. I got high again and tried to cross to the start again, but the wind was far too strong by now.

I returned to the ridge, and admired the waves of lenticular clouds. After nearly a two hour flight, I decided the wind was getting too strong for safe flying and headed to La Mure to land. Just as I made that decision, the task was stopped. It feels a little strange to fly for so long and so hard, just to get minimum distance!

The air was a little sinky on the way to La Mure, and I used about 1/4 bar to punch through it. Google Earth gave me 75 Kph on that part of the flight; despite the strong winds, the air was reasonably laminar (the advantage of landing at La Mure) and I had an uneventful landing.

No-one got goal, but the task was scored. Thankfully, there were no deployments or other incidents today.

Some info on the wings? Ozone R10s had an amazing dominance; 15 of the first 20 overall places, with 2 of the rest being other Ozone wings. But the spread was more than that - the 'last' R10 was in 124th place. 40 out of 150 wings were R10s, with another 18 Ozone wings in the field. 

Some info on the pilots? Russ Ogden won fairly comfortably. I don't really know if all the R10s are 'the same', but if that's the case his win is all the more impressive. 

Some info on the conditions? 6 flying days out of 7, but 2 of the 6 days were stopped (not cancelled) which isn't bad at all.

Friday, September 3, 2010

A Bad Day at the Office?

One of the striking things about paragliding is how unpredictable it is. You're standing at launch, the forecast is good, you feel confident, a line of little puffy clouds is encouraging. It looks like a great day and you have every chance to fly 100K - but… you might sink out after 10 minutes. 

But that's not the most striking thing about paragliding. There is obviously a big difference between (say) a good day's and a bad day's hiking; good views versus no views, being comfortable versus being wet. But that all pales in comparison with paragliding, where a seemingly small mistake can leave you in the hospital or worse. In paragliding, a bad day can be very bad. So keeping a sense of perspective is important - I wish sinking out early was the worst thing that could happen in paragliding!

There was a good forecast for today and a 83K task was called. It actually looked like the easiest task so far, because most of it was over relatively high terrain. For the first time, we had cumulus clouds. I started half-way through the order and flew onto the Antennae with a gaggle, not at all worried about sinking out - after all, I've flown there at least 30 times, and never sunk out. Up at 2000m, clouds were a problem.

Then the unthinkable happened; the gaggle as a whole started to malfunction. Things had overdeveloped horizontally and the whole area was in the shade. The gaggle kept circling, but it was going down. At this point, if I'd ignored the gaggle and stayed on the ridge, I'm sure I would have been fine; I might have been stuck there for 30 minutes but I'd have got away eventually.

But I kept following this dysfunctional gaggle (making it even more dysfunctional in the process). Oh, the gaggle is circling out front; I head out front even though it doesn't seem to be going up. I arrive, and it is slowing going down. I turn and see that the gaggle has gone back to the ridge. So I head back there, but now I'm 100m lower.

In the end I landed after a very short flight with around 25 others - almost all of them with a story similar to mine. In the end the day didn't match the forecasts; only about 40% of the field made goal.  

Going back to my earlier point (what's a bad day in paragliding), the first 'early-lander' I met had hit a powerline in landing and destroyed his wing. There was a deployment that ended in the trees (at this point, I don't know the state of the pilot). Me - I had a one hour flight, with two nice 500m climbs before a safe landing. 

Not that bad…

Thursday, September 2, 2010

British Open - day four

Today's forecast had some good things (weak winds) and some not so good things (high cirrus, subsidence aloft), so a fairly short, technical task was called on the lowish terrain out west of launch. Things were very slow on launch, with the incoming breeze following the sun round the sky. To start with, it was over the back; for a long time, it was 90 degrees cross from the S. It was a long time before the wind dummies could launch, never mind stay up. Conditions seemed to strengthen when they straightened out and suddenly launching (especially the new Ozone gliders) was a challenge.

The start involved a transition into the wind, waiting on some shallow terrain, then entering a 8K cylinder. I launched towards the end of the sequence and went across (I think) with the third gaggle. Start was generally uneventful, get the first turn-point and head S; the wind was mostly from the WSW but not too strong, so you could make progress. But I was either climbing in a thermal or on around 1/2 or 3/4 bar all the time - very little time to relax.

The second turnpoint was a long way to the S and I was relatively low when I got it. By this time, there was a thick veil of cirrus, but there were still workable thermals and I managed to get back up. I headed NW towards the third turnpoint, but conditions were weakening all time. I felt if you could get this turnpoint, things would get easier - basically just a downwind run to goal. By now, I was towards the back of the pack.

I got onto a slope leading to the turn-point at mid height, expecting to get some lift from the valley winds but that didn't happen. I headed back to the road and was surprised to find the wind in the valley from the N (i.e. 'downhill'). Anyway, I landed after 3 hrs 20 minutes, just over 2/3 of the way round the course, very happy with my flight.


Wednesday, September 1, 2010

British Open - day three

The forecasts were pretty good for today; not too windy, sunny, blue skies, but with a possible inversion to deal with. Things were happening slowly on launch, and a 101 Km task was 'simplified' to a 90Km task. Basically a 35K run N to the Tete de l'Estrop, a tricky transition back to Cheval Blanc then a ridge run SW along the 'Montagne de Coupe' and back to goal. Easier said than done…

I had arrived in plenty of time to make my preparations; in particular, I kited my wing in weak conditions to make sure I was ready to launch. The start was very simple - basically fly 4 or 5 K along the main ridge and exit the cylinder. (Comps give one hour between launch opening and the task starting; sometimes, you need that hour because the start is hard; and sometimes - like today - you really only need 15 minutes. This all worked out fortunately for me today).

While there wasn't abundant lift, conditions had become strong on launch. Most of the pilots blasted off at the start of the window. I compromised between when I wanted to launch (maybe 30 minutes into the window) and avoiding launch blowing out (which it was on the verge of doing). With the strong conditions, the marshals helped everyone launch. 

And they helped me too; but normally I pull out the wing tips and make sure the wing is ready to inflate. Today, I was a little lazy and left that to the marshals. In strong conditions, all these things become harder and they threaded a wing tip through the lines. When I went to build a wall, it didn't look pretty….

I ended up disconnecting and setting it all up again. All the time, conditions were strengthening, but I was acutely aware that I might not fly. 15 minutes before the task started, I launched dead last. I almost connected with the bottom of the gaggle as the task started.

The flying was reasonable and I joined up with several wings. After yesterday's fiasco, I was very attentive on glide. Onto Costa Longue with a group of wings and no real trouble getting established. Near the summit, I was probably a little conservative and let too many wings fly off while I built altitude.

I got established over the Montagne de Boules and then tried a couple of times to commit myself to the glide to the first way point. But the wind was strengthening from the N all the time and I turned back twice. While I could have gone on a 'death glide' and got a few more points, I decided to turn round and have a better flight. My second attempt had left me low on on the mountain and I struggled to work my way up.

Once I did so, I could join the pilots that had tagged the first waypoint. I had a decision to make; try to fight around Cheval Blanc with the 'real pilots' or simply glide back to the super tempting Thorame Valley.

Conditions were very rough; there were 5 parachute deployments; most or all were on Cheval Blanc. Does this sound like 'wimp justification'? Anyway, I took the easy option and was very happy with my 2.5+hr flight.

Back at the front of the field, 87 of the 150 pilots made goal, with times from 2 hrs 20 minutes to 5+ hrs. Pretty impressive, if you ask me.


Tuesday, August 31, 2010

British Open - the view from the rear

After yesterday's Mistral, today looked reasonably good for flying; at 5000m the wind would still be strong, but lower down it looked perfectly manageable. The task was basically an out-and-return to Allos - around 35K to the N. To add a little interest, the start was a 5K exit cylinder around a low, uninteresting peak 10K to the W. There are 150 pilots in the comp and the idea (presumably) was to spread field out, but it certainly made the start tricky.

The window opened early at 12.05 for a 13.05 start; conditions were still pretty weak and pilots struggled. A tricky decision; you needed to do some flying just to make the start, so you couldn't wait too long. I launched at 12.20, and (for the first time here) spent quite some time below launch before working up and heading W with a group of gliders.

All the 150 wings seemed to be concentrated just inside this 5K cylinder. There was some weak lift, but it didn't seem to have an obvious center, so pilots just seemed to circle around fairly aimlessly. I saw a few close calls and then a pilot cut sharply behind me; I couldn't see exactly how close he got, but it felt very close. We exchanged a few choice curses.

The task started and I was happy to see most wings fly off. I followed towards the back of the group, not particularly keen to be in traffic. Most pilots flew in a pretty straight line towards Allos but I stopped to top up on one of the ridges. Then a group of pilots turned back and joined me and I felt vindicated.

We got high and pushed onto the Costa Longue; after the start, this looked like the hardest transition of the task. I'm afraid I didn't pay enough attention and didn't use enough bar on this transition; the result was I arrived last and lowest, and I couldn't quite get established on Costa Longue.

I got back to goal just in time to see the leaders arrive (a first for me). 85 pilots made goal (which is pretty impressive). The percentage of Ozone R10s was also impressive, especially for the first 20 pilots or so.

The rest of the week looks pretty good, hopefully we are all going to have some good flying! 

Monday, August 30, 2010

Les Lacs de Lignin

Today was a Mistral day, so no flying in the British Open. I'm sure that's a big disappointment for most of the pilots, but not for me.  Mistral days are beautiful for hiking - deep blue sky, bright sun and cool air.

I headed to the Lacs de Lignin. An isolated valley culminates in a handful of lakes. There are a couple of shepherd's cabins and, of course, plenty of sheep. Unlike most valley walks, this is a tour; the return is on a shelf a thousand feet above the valley bottom, with, at the very bottom, a shady canyon full of lovely swimming pools.

La Rentrée

St Andre is a little bit quieter this morning. It's "la rentrée", when the french return from vacation and restart work and, in particular, school. Instead of the summer hours, when everything is open 7 days a week, almost all the shops are again closed on a Monday. Instead of having three bakers to choose from, only one was open this morning.

I knew it was going to happen, but it still caught me by surprise. 

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The British Open, Day One

The British Open is being held this week at St Andre, and, since it is now 'my local site', I felt obliged to enter it. 150 pilots have entered; the majority British, but also a lot of French and other nationalities.

Sunday was the first day and it promised to be windy; near the top-end of what I fly here, and an early launch looked the best bet. But competitions are fairly inflexible beasts in terms of timing; it just takes a long time to get everyone up the hill, a task decided, GPSs programmed etc. A short (62Km), technical task was called; the hardest part would be the first half, as it was either up-wind or cross-wind and was over relatively low terrain to the west.

Launch opened at 12.20, with the task starting at 1.20. The combination of meteo wind and strong cycles didn't make launching easy, but everyone seemed to get away safely. I got off fairly early and didn't have any trouble getting high; up to 2850m on the main ridge, near the Antennae. It wasn't particularly obvious to me how best to start the task; the first turnpoint was 12K from launch, but the start was an entry cylinder at 8K around it. I thought the best approach was to push west, into the wind, and get onto a shallow ridge SSE of the turnpoint; then you could wait for the start and fly mostly cross-wind to tag it.

The main gaggle was higher but further away. I headed W with a group of wings; after a sinky glide, we got established on this ridge and could thermal back up. But the climbs were slower and you drifted too much if you tried to get high. The highest I took any thermal was to 2000m. The task started and I made my way slowly to the first turn-point; as usual, I seemed to find myself flying alone. Got the turn point, back to the shallow ridge and headed S to the next turn-point.

There were good thermals, but the wind was getting stronger all the time and the drift made them hard to use. If you haven't tried it, flying cross-wind in a paraglider is a lot harder than it sounds! The second turnpoint was the summit of shallow hill where three valleys meet. If you could get the turn-point high enough, you could probably glide downwind back to the main ridge at St Andre and onto easier flying. If you arrived low, you could expect it to be windy and difficult.

Unfortunately, I arrived low - bad-planning on my part; I should have been pushing W instead of drifting E in thermals. I found lift near the turn-point, but the combination of the wind and nasty terrain downwind made it hard to use. 500m short of tagging the turn-point, I decided to push out front and see if I could get higher, but again no luck. It was easy to stay up and I could still have tagged the turn-point, but it didn't look likely I could get away again. At this point, I decided it was just too windy and to go out and land. On full bar I had about 15K penetration; after 12 minutes off this I joined a couple of pilots in a nice field.

As I landed, the task was stopped because of the high winds. 35 pilots had made goal and the task was scored.


Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Speed To Fly

I hadn't flown for nearly two weeks (busy with work, doing other things, so-so conditions) so I was pleased to see a decent forecast for Saturday. I headed around to the LZ and found lots of excited pilots there. "Have you brought your passport? Do you have some Swiss Francs?" one guy asked. The forecast didn't seem that good to me!

With all the pilots, it took some time before all the shuttle logistics worked themselves out and I was up on launch. I counted 77 paragliders and 10 hang-gliders - easily the busiest I've seen launch at St Andre

Conditions, though, were very weak and stayed that way for some time. Philippe and Francois fly tandems for the local school (Aerogliss) and almost always get above launch but couldn't today (of course, they couldn't keep their clients waiting all afternoon for conditions to strengthen). A couple of vultures flew past at launch height and they were using occasional flaps to maintain. The sky was blue except for some cumulus forming to the South.

All the wings that launched sunk out until a R10 managed to get above launch. More people launched then, the skies got 'busy' but most pilots were below launch in 'survival mode'. I launched when around half the pilots were at or above launch level, knowing that I couldn't afford to pass up even weak lift. 

I've been trying to fly a little faster at St Andre. If you take every thermal you can stay well above ridge height, but it takes you forever to get anywhere - things are so sinky on glide. If you only turn in the strongest thermals, and fly more at ridge level, you get a better glide with a little bit of ridge lift - and it generally isn't too difficult to get back up if you sink a few hundred feet below ridge height. But today didn't seem a good day to try that approach. Staying up, at least until conditions strengthened, was the priority. 

Progress was horribly slow; but as more and more gliders were landing below you couldn't afford to be impatient. Typical high pressure conditions, with very disorganized thermals. I had to turn back and look for better lift several times. It took me 1hr 20 minutes to cover the first 8K; fractionally faster than walking speed (in more typical conditions I do this in 30 - 40 minutes). As I transitioned onto Charvet, I came in well above 10 gliders that were struggling; I wasn't surprised to sink down to their level and join in the struggle. 

Clouds were building and I knew if I could get onto the higher mountains to the North things could improve. The transition from Charvet to Cheval Blanc is a critical one and I was patient for a long time, hoping to get really high. Instead I bounced around with everyone else, generally just over over ridge height. 

But then I saw a glider hit a rocket thermal. He was about 0.5 Km away so I used fullbar and saw he was drifting E quickly. I hit the lift and committed to it. The first turn was good, the second turn was ok, the next one was slow… I had arrived too late!

At this point I should have gone straight back to the ridge but I tried to look for a thermal that was no longer there and had drifted too far to safely get back to the ridge. 2 hours of patient flying were wasted right there.

While most people didn't do very well, the patient and skillful were rewarded with good flights. A little more patience...

Saturday, August 14, 2010

A Gray Sky

For the first time in a long time (40 days?, 50 days?) the sky was gray this morning. The forecast even included rain later in the day. So I had intended to do a quick hike & fly with my speedwing first thing in the morning, to get some exercise and a little bit of air time.

But when I got up the sky looked pretty threatening. It looked as though the rain would come too soon to fly, so instead I did a short hike. As it turned out, I could easily have sneaked in a flight. I extended my hike to 4 hours and got back home just before the bad weather arrived.

There was plenty of rain this afternoon, but it stopped early this evening and it's very pleasant outside now. The sun should be back out tomorrow, but the wind will be a little strong for the next few days. I will probably go to St Vincent or the Dormilliouse - relatively sheltered sites - for a flight tomorrow.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Caduc Hike

I've been doing quite a bit of flying and cycling lately, but not so much hiking. So I wasn't at all disappointed when today's forecast was too windy for flying. I decided to climb Caduc; like many mountains here it isn't very high (2650m, a little less than 9,000 ft) but there is a long walk-in.

At this time of year an early start helps to avoid the worst of the heat. But I wasn't as disciplined as I should have been, and started the hike just after 10 am. It was a long, tiring day but with wonderful views from the summit. The wind at the summit was very strong (30 mph? gusts of 40 mph?); I was glad I had some extra clothes to wear while I ate my lunch.

I had flown over here 8 days earlier, and the terrain (a jumble of steep ridges and tight valleys) seems just as confusing from the ground as it is from the air.


Mornings in St Andre

I'm sure I will change my mind in December, but right now mornings in St Andre are pretty special. The sky is always blue (sometimes light blue, sometimes deep blue). Being in the mountains, it is always cool in the morning and evening, so just going outside and walking around the village to buy bread is a pleasure.

Today, there was a small pottery market in the main square. It wasn't cheap, but there was some very nice stuff on offer. And there was a little stand where the kids could try their hands at throwing pottery.

 Some pics

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Saturday Triangle

Saturday's early morning sky was a darker, clearer shade of blue than usual; a sure sign of the Mistral. St Andre is some way E of the Rhone valley and if the Mistral isn't too strong you can still fly here, but it certainly complicates things. Conditions looked better earlier, with the N wind getting strong at altitude after 2 pm.

The shuttle logistics didn't work out in my favor (at this time of year it is too hot to walk up the hill), and I got to launch around 12.45. Conditions were already spicy on launch, and it was obviously bumpy in the air, but it appeared workable (some wings were moving around a lot less than others). I launched quickly; almost immediately afterwards there was an ominous radio transmission asking pilots not to launch and to keep the air clear around Moriez.

In a completely blue sky I headed north to clear the area; there was plenty of lift, though it was a bit bumpy. Arriving at Lambruisse, I headed east, hoping to fly a triangle back to St Andre. I got a nice climb at le Grand Cordeil and then headed SSE and everything went very smoothly. At one point I was considering heading to Annot (that would give less flying into the wind), but I got a good climb and saw I could make an upwind transition onto the Crete des Serres.

Once I made the transition, it meant I could keep heading S (instead of landing in St Andre). I had a nice ridge run to le Pic de Chamatte, then turned round and followed the ridge back to St. Andre (more into the wind in this direction). Although the flight didn't take me very far, and lasted less that 2.5 hours, it was very satisfying and, of course, eliminated the retrieve problem!


Saturday, July 31, 2010

XC to the Dormilliouse

Today's forecasts seemed a bit inconsistent; some promising aspects, but some negative ones too. Meteo Blue's soundings looked good for noon but started to look strange from about 2 pm. In fact, it looked more like a problem with the computer model than anything real, but I decided to get on launch early.
Things looked promising on launch, with less wind and fewer clouds than usual, and it started working shortly after midday. For once, it looked as though we had good XC conditions on the weekend - an opportunity to fly far! 
I launched at 12.30; there was plenty of lift, there were plenty of wings to mark it so I tried to keep a fast pace, heading N and only turning in the best thermals. I managed to get a nice climb at the Antennae and this let me straight onto Cheval Blanc. 
I got high over the summit of Cheval Blanc and had various options. The classic XC heads N over some pretty inhospitable terrain (big mountains, little dead-end valleys, isolated settlements) to reach the Dormilliouse and St Vincent. Less committing routes headed E or W; they were certainly tempting but I decided to go N.
From then on I saw more sail-planes than paragliders - at one point I was in a thermal with 5 of them. There were very few clouds in the sky and this actually helped; first, I could use shadows to better gauge the distance to clouds and other aircraft. Second, it made it much easier to keep track of newly forming clouds.
Things went very well over the mountains; I was able to stay above ridge height and make quick progress. But things changed when I needed to get onto the Tete de l'Estrop, the big mountain that lets you escape this 'empty quarter'. I was behind and above 3 paragliders that were scratching around mid-height on the mountain. I saw they had a thermal, so I headed over to join them. But by the time I arrived, they were 2000 ft higher; worse, the thermal was also above me. I struggled, gradually losing altitude. I had my LZ picked out and was wondering how many hours hiking I had ahead of me when I hit a strong but disorganized thermal. What a relief!
From the Tete de l'Estrop to Dormilliouse is a relatively straightforward ridge. Easy flying was regularly interrupted by some very strong thermals and I reached my target - 50 Km in a straight line, in just over 3 hrs. 
Now what? Part of the adventure of flying XC without a driver is the retrieve and that started factoring into my calculations.
I knew I was tired and conditions were strong. I didn't want to land in the evening in some isolated valley. So I rejected the obvious option of turning round and trying to fly back to St Andre - it meant committing to another 3 hours in the air (a German pilot did the round trip on Saturday, it took him 7 hrs). I could keep heading N or NW, but then the retrieve logistics would start becoming really difficult. Or, I could head out over some flats, land at Seyne les Alpes, drink a beer and take the air-conditioned bus back to St Andre (yes, I had memorized the timetable).
I wish all paragliding decisions were that easy!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Evening Test Pilot

I've been aware that my wing needs to be re-trimmed for a few weeks now; reluctance to launch, heavy controls, slightly asymmetric trim. Last Sunday I did some kiting and it was hard to get the wing completely overhead, even when the wind was strong. Nova has a new, complicated system (NTT ) for trimming a glider and, of course, I want only the best for my baby.

I could get a NTT re-trim done in France - but it involves doing without my wing for two weeks. Hard to do that at this time of year. I've been a bit silly - I could have sent my wing away during a trip to the US in May or when my son was visiting in July and I wouldn't have missed it. Isn't hindsight great?

So I decided to do a 'quick and dirty' re-trim myself and postpone the 'real' re-trim till November - there's too much good flying at this time of year. So, after a decent day at work, I headed to the LZ and stretched all the lines; everything went according to plan, except the wind was blowing at 15-20 mph. I wanted to do some kiting to check everything, but not in that sort of wind (especially with all the spectators).

In the end, I did about 3 minutes of kiting and suddenly the wind died. Everyone jumped on the shuttle and we headed up to launch. It was strong on launch, with a big group waiting. After 10 minutes or so, it was noticeably less strong and I launched. My wing came up nicely, the controls felt a lot lighter, it was flying really nicely - great! I built some height, observing everyone rushing to get ready and headed N along the ridge.

I normally don't get very excited by evening flights; but this one was very nice. I found a nice gentle thermal, got high and headed W (away from the hill) and there was gentle lift everywhere. The sun set - very pretty - and I knew the moon was full but it wasn't quite up yet. I could easily have flown to Barreme; but then there was a retrieve problem and maybe looking for an LZ in the dark wasn't too smart. I came back to the ridge, arriving well below launch, and benched up easily. I flew about for a bit and then headed for the LZ.


Saturday, July 24, 2010

Escaping the Mistral

Meteo Blue and Aeroweb are the two forecasts I most use here, and they both had Saturday being good for flying at St Andre. In fact, Meteo Blue's forecast looked epic. But the Mistral had returned and I thought it would be too windy and turbulent, so I decided to go to Montclar. It escapes the worst effects of the Mistral, you take a chairlift up to launch, it's lovely and a relatively simple place to fly.

Unfortunately, at this time of year it's a 1hr 30 drive to get there (tourists...). And when I arrived I discovered that the chairlift isn't open on a Saturday. It was a close decision whether to just walk up or to go to St Vincent les Forts; I decided to do the latter.

St Vincent and Montclar are both on the same mountain (the Dormilliouse). If conditions are decent, most flight plans start by getting above the Dormilliouse. But there are a lot of differences. Montclar has a huge launch area, is higher and is a thermal site; even in a competition it doesn't feel very busy. St Vincent is a drive up site, launch is tiny, when the Mistral blows it gets very busy and most flights start with quite a bit of ridge soaring until a thermal arrives. Top landing right beside launch is the standard approach at St Vincent and all this is in the center of the village; so there are lots of spectators and lots of professional tandem pilots. In fact, it feels like a little bit of the Northern Alps that has escaped south.

I was one of the first pilots to arrive. There was clearly plenty of wind and staying up would not be a problem. I had a nice early flight but conditions were pretty weak - it's a west facing site and starts working relatively late. Most people were ridge soaring just above launch height; I found a slow thermal that got me half-way up the Dormilliouse but then it fizzled out. I decided to top land and wait for conditions to strengthen.

Conditions were much easier on my second flight and I managed to get above the Dormilliouse. The views were absolutely stunning but I didn't get photographs to do them justice (too bumpy for manual photos, my helmet cam was 'full'). At this point, a standard flight heads SSE along a ridge; but that was exactly downwind and the strong wind would complicate logistics. So I flew out from the peak and completed a nice little triangle before top-landing.

I would have taken a third flight, but the wind was slightly stronger. The number of pilots, the relative inexperience of some, the tricky launch conditions and the small size of launch were all great for the spectators. But they resulted in a long wait for anyone wanting to launch and a few anxious moments. I decided it wasn't worth the risk or the wait.

There actually was a petanque competition going on just by the landing area. One pilot's top-landing attempt went a bit awry and he landed in the middle of game. No-one was hurt, but I couldn't help wondering what the petanque rules say about such an event....

As I suspected, the only flights at St Andre were early morning sled rides, so I felt it was worth the trip.

First flight
Second flight
Some pics
Info on St Vincents