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!