Words can’t really describe last Monday, but I’ll give it a go, as much so as I don’t forget anything about the day as for people to read.
Ever since I saw Vertige, I wanted to fly off the Aguille de Midi. I never expected to do it so soon though. I’d assumed it would be complicated, that I’d need more flying experience or mountain experience, or I don’t know what…
Then suddenly Irwyn made it possible. The weather was right, we had a good group and there was apparently nothing to stop us. Oh shit!
Becky, Dan and I were all pretty quiet that Sunday. It’s one thing to dream of doing something like this, but to be faced with the reality was pretty daunting. I had doubts. Would I be able to keep it together walking down that arete? Would I be able to take off OK? Would it be as good as I’d imagined? Was I ready for such a big adventure. Unable to sleep, we sat up drinking wine until the small hours, not quite believing what we were about to do the next morning.
When we arrived in Chamonix though, I was content. Even if we didn’t get to fly, it was already a good day. We’d got ourselves together to come and do it, and that was a great feeling. But we checked the conditions on launch and it looked promising. We bought our tickets for the cable car and went to get fitted for boots and crampons at the local hire shop. I’m still giggling at the thought of my first time playing with ice axes and crampons 😀
At the top of the cable car, we took a while to get accustomed to the altitude and take in the views. When my legs started wobbling walking down the stairs in the lift station, I realised just how nervous I was about getting down that arete. I get vertigo on escalators or concrete stairs – I just don’t trust my feet enough. I wasn’t going to let it stop me though. Irwyn roped me onto him, which was just enough reassurance to let me do it (the others decided to go unroped) and we set off, through the gate that said: “Access only for mountaineers.”
Eek! This is scary stuff. With thousands of feet empty space to either side, I felt my knees shaking. We must have been one of the slowest groups to ever make our way down that path, much narrower now than in the video I’d seen. Irwyn’s patience was fantastic, reassuringly coaching me through one of the scariest experiences of my life. Just concentrating on placing one foot in front of the other, checking the crampons were biting with each step, I focused only on the snow within a foot around me, refusing to look at the awesome views. They could wait!
Once we got off the flat narrow bit at the top, I began to relax a bit. The path was steep, but wider and we started side-stepping down, which felt much more secure. Still slow, still wobbly, still nervous, but I was able to look up and start take in the awesome mountains around me. “This is actually OK!” I said to my patient guide. And: “Wow! I’m actually doing this!”
At the bottom of the path, our hugs and cheers were testament to the joy we felt at having overcome our fear. Walking through the thick powder the rest of the way to take off, falling into holes, tripping over with my 18kg pack on my back, just made me laugh – even more so when I realised that whichever route I chose, however stupid, Irwyn, still roped to me, would have to follow!
But then another challenge… I never thought I’d have to deal with the issue of where to stash my ice axe in flight. Setting up my wing with the axe’s pointy handle sticking out the top of my harness caused me a moment’s concern. I really wouldn’t want to land on that!
After Dan and Becky gracefully demonstrated that our launch site wasn’t going to to work – nil wind take-offs in deep soft powder are not easy – we decided to move to another site. Rather than pack up and do the 45 minute walk up and back to the southerly take-off, we found a convenient snow ledge that allowed us to invent our own bespoke launch technique.
Third off, I laid out my wing on top of the snow ledge and made my way down the slope below. The effects of the altitude became apparent as I had to check and recheck my lines several times before I was happy. As I’d watched Becky and Dan take off before me, I wasn’t expecting to be able to stay on my feet all the way down the snow field, so when my feet gave way below me, I just concentrated on keeping the glider above my head as I skied off on my knees, whooping with delight.
The flight itself is almost a bit of blur. We were lucky to be able to fly down the Vallee Blanche, over the glacier, rather than the more usual route overlooking Chamonix town. The rocks were stunning, although with only pockets of lift. I floated around above and in front of them, switching between trying to climb and photographing the amazing scenery (have to get myself a video camera). It was when a light aircraft flew between me and the cliff that I realised I was nowhere near close enough to get the lift off the cliffs and was instead sitting in the sinking air in front of them.
I came round the corner to see that the valley floor got shallower and realised I needed to get some lift if I was to get happily over the valley mouth. It took what felt like forever to cross to the other side of the valley through increasing sink, hoping that it meant that there was some good strong lift behind it. Finally! I felt relief as the vario stopped droning. The diners on the terrace of the hotel opposite probably heard me as I shouted “Wheeeee!!” going quickly from sinking air to a peak of 5m/s upwards. It was patchy though and I had to work at scraping my way up the slope to get me above the ridge on the other side.
When I came out of the valley, still climbing, I played around in the thermals a bit, and considered trying to get back up. But with my mates already landed, I decided to go and join them. Giggling and gibbering on the radio as I approached (“Ooo, look at the pretty choo choo train”), I set myself up and landed alongside them.
The experience was only slightly marred by our guide getting stuck on the mountain, unable to take off. But eventually, after four hours of trying, he got the right conditions to launch and the four of us were reunited. Ask him for the story one day…
Back at Maison du Moulin in Annecy, the day already seemed like a bit of a blur. Three happy pilots, giggling, drinking champagne and watching the stars…
So now I need to do it again, to really appreciate the flight and convince myself that it wasn’t just a dream!
See the videos on Dan’s Youtube page.