Meet Sam Forman and Jam Jones. A year ago they were sat in a pub in Vauxhall coming up with ideas for an adventure. This week, we met them for the first time in Chamonix to begin our training to help them fly from the summit of Mont Blanc in aid of Macmillan Cancer Support and the Alzheimer’s Society.
Sam has cycled from London to Chamonix, where he rendezvoused with Jam ready to climb Mont Blanc and fly from the 4810m summit. They haven’t let the fact that they’d never done any mountaineering or paragliding before put them off!
Some people may see that as foolhardy. But the fact that they’ve got this far just goes to show what a can-do attitude can achieve. They’ve both been training for this for months, so are both incredibly fit. But as we discovered for ourselves recently, getting properly mountain fit is almost impossible in the UK. There‘s nowhere you can climb 1,000m in one go! And there’s definitely nowhere to get acclimatised to being at altitude – without that, just breathing at 4,800m will be challenging, even before you factor in the physical and mental exertion!
Within 2 days of Sam’s arrival a window of opportunity appeared for the summit seemingly out of the blue. From our perspective, this was almost the worst possible timing! Along with Sam, we had to sit by and watch our friends set off for the summit without us. Dan and Shane had been in Chamonix for weeks training and getting used to high altitude. Irwyn had joined them on many of their training expeditions and couldn’t resist it as a training opportunity for the forthcoming flight with Sam and Jam. Whereas we had just arrived from the UK.
But we made the most of the weather window anyway – Sam certainly didn’t get much chance to rest from his 1,000km bike ride! We headed up to the Aguille de Midi with Dan, Shane and Irwyn, put Sam on a rope between the two of us and headed down the arête then across the ice to the Cosmiques refuge. That arête was my first walk in crampons two years ago – and despite the experiences I’ve had since, it still scares me! So I can imagine how Sam felt – legs still quivering from his time on the bike.
Looking from the hut at the route to the summit, I was glad not to be going. We could still see the scars of the serac fall which had killed 4 people less than two weeks earlier. I’d seen photos of ice walls on the route which were certainly beyond my level of technical climbing skills. The guys set off for the summit at 2am the following morning. We got up at 5am and headed out into the dawn glow. At the bottom of the Aguille de Midi arête, Sam had his final briefing for his first tandem flight. Climbing kit and ropes in the harness meant it wasn’t the most comfortable flight ever, but there really can’t be many people who can say their first ever flight on a paraglider was off the Aguille de Midi at dawn – the first wing above Chamonix that day.
While I was flying down soon after, I saw the first gliders launch from the summit. On landing, we all headed back to base to pick up Jam, just arrived from the UK, then back to the landing field with cold beer to meet Dan, Shane and Irwyn as they landed.
Since then, we’ve been doing something every day – getting up as high as we can, hiking, flying, drilling the boys on basic mountaineering and paragliding. Now we’re waiting for another weather window. Last year, there was only one day where it was possible to fly from the summit. Dan and Shane, who were here then, missed that opportunity because they weren’t yet acclimatised. Jam and Sam have worked incredibly hard to get this far, so we’re hoping the same won’t happen this year. But really all we can do it wait and hope and keep ourselves as fit as possible in the hope that our turn comes next week!
The Ozone Chabre Open finished weeks ago now! The results are in and most people have left Laragne either back home or onto their next adventure. In all we got four full tasks in, from three different launches with many happy pilots in goal every day. It really felt like a fun comp where every pilot could learn something in a supportive environment with just enough friendly competitiveness to keep things interesting. Unfortunately, registration for next year doesn’t start for another 7 months or so, but if I could sign up now, I would!
I’m not going to do a write-up of the fourth and final task – the time has passed. But I’d already written this one, so it may be a bit late, but here goes…
Day 3 was another beautiful looking day, forecast similar to the day before. Initially it looked good for a task to Gap, some 50km to the north east. But cloud development in that direction meant that the task was revised to Aspres again, this time via Beaumont and the Sailplane Ridge.
As often happens in the mountains, despite the similar forecast, it was a totally different day! The ridge was scratchy and even seasoned locals like Rachael Evans of Allez-Up had to work hard in dribbly thermals before finally getting something that went up to cloudbase.
For me, I let my short attention span get the better of me for the first time in the comp. Frustration at having to scrabble on the ridge, sometimes with quite selfish pilots, led me to make a couple of bad decisions, eventually taking a weak climb too low over the back meaning I couldn’t get back for the first turnpoint on the ridge.
I headed for Orpiere as the realisation sank in – no points for today – for myself or for my team, and probably an afternoon sat miserably at camping waiting for everyone to come back with their happy tales. I had chosen my landing field, planned my approach and was almost getting my feet down to land when I connected with a climb at the bottom of ridge. This gave me some thinking time and I decided that if I’d scuppered the task anyway, I may as well do something interesting. I wondered if it would actually be possible to push back from Orpiere to the Chabre ridge and get the turnpoint…
So, while I was hearing on the radio talk about the clouds and wind over Beaumont, I was thermalling up high over Orpiere. As the radio reports moved on to clouds over the Sailplane Ridge, I was pushing slowly and patiently forwards trying different routes back to the ridge, still only 1km or so south of the Orpiere ridge. By the time I finally clipped the first turnpoint, Jockey was on the radio warning pilots coming in to land at goal that the field was thermic.
I managed to reach the next turnpoint at Beaumont then pushed out to land, as the wind around there and Serres was now too strong for me to carry on safely.
Distance-wise, it may not have been an epic flight (16km of the task route). But for me, I was delighted! Losing concentration and giving up too easily is one of my biggest weaknesses in XC flying. For this flight, I had to call on all my determination and concentration so that I didn’t just give up. I tried something, risked failing, learnt a lot and achieved something genuinely difficult. What a day!
After three pretty epic days with masses of flying, I think the whole comp is pretty relieved to have a day off today.
On Monday, the forecast was for a pretty much perfect Chabre day – light southerly winds and high cloud base. Our lovely task committee came up with an interesting task to get us to Aspres – a 50km route via a point on the Chabre ridge about 5km to the west, Orpiere to the north, then east to the far end of “the volcano”.
For me, the most challenging part of the race was the start – an hour on the ridge before we could enter the start cylinder. This is fairly usual for competitions, but I wasn’t prepared for it – all I could think about was my hungry belly and having to wait until 2.15pm when we’d be off on glide and I’d be able to faff around and get at my lunch!
Finally, 2.15 arrived and off we went! Hands off, lunch out, eaten and time to focus back on the race! I clipped the first turn point at Orpiere in what felt like a good position. I pushed on to the volcano looking for lift to top up on the way, but didn’t find anything. Having just missed goal the day before, my strategy was to fly conservatively and get as much height as I could. So when I reached the volcano, I took my time to look around for another climb, rather than pushing on for the turnpoint.
After finding nothing workable on the corner of the volcano, I saw Chris White climbing on the tandem further back. As I went to join him, he pushed out, and I scrabbled around not able to connect with anything there either! Seeing pilots struggling on the front ridge, I was beginning to worry a little. There was obviously no point going back the way I’d come, so I carried on along the rising ground, keeping an eye on my escape route over the back of the volcano. But when I reached the high point, I was rewarded with a strong climb all the way to cloudbase at about 2800m!
It felt like I was a long way behind by now though. I was flying on my own watching pilots heading off towards goal as I bumbled along under the cloud in the other direction to get the turnpoint. I’d planned to take the same cloud street back towards the goal, but drifted slightly off course and lost a bit of height on the way. But one ratty climb halfway put my glide to goal at about 2:1. Here being conservative paid off – otherwise the wicked sink and a slight confusion with my instruments could have left me scrabbling over Aspres town struggling to get up to get the final turnpoint.
I was delighted to get to goal, along with about 70 other pilots! Lots of smiles all round! I was the 4th girl in, behind Susie Burt, Foram Pandya and Christelle Tabarle, currently first place for the girls. You can see all the results at www.flylaragne.com
The main lesson for me was, like before, stay focused. There were several times in the flight I had to give myself a stern talking to. Being hungry at the start had made the landing field look very inviting and I was almost lured into ending my flight early! I was also tempted on more than one occasion to leave a climb before base and race on. But I kept my focus and it paid off in the end. I was relatively late into goal – 46th overall. But I got there! And in comps, there’s no point being quick if you don’t actually make goal…
OK, I’m a day behind with posting now. That’s the problem when it’s flyable – so busy!
Sunday’s challenge was a 40km elapsed time task. With a fair bit of north wind still around after the Mistral yesterday, we were flying from Bergies near Sederon. This in itself was a plus for me – I’ve flown around Laragne a fair bit, but this is one site I hadn’t flown!
Catching the first thermal is known as a challenge and several good pilots were quickly in the landing field. Those who were lucky enough to get up and away enjoyed smooth strong climbs up to base at around 2300m.
It was a fairly straightforward task – two turnpoints and goal back in Laragne. A massive proportion of the pilots were downed by an into-wind leg on the final glide into the landing field. But with nearly 40 pilots in goal and lots of happy faces, it really was a great day.
Highlights for me were flying (and getting away from) a new site, bobbling along under a cloud street for several km and and seeing one of my best mates get into goal for the very first time!
As for the results (sorry I only really paid attention to the girls’ results, so apologies to those who were looking for a more objective report)…
Of the 16 girls in the competition, five got to goal (a slightly higher ratio than the blokes). Massive congrautations to Catherine Castle, Karlien Engelen and Ella Pyrah for popping their goal cherry! Particularly well done to Karlien who won the day flying her first ever comp task (and thanks for marking a
few thermals for me)!
As for me, at the end of the first task, I was 5th out of the girls and a fairly respectable 36th overall. I was one of a mass of pilots landing about 1km short of goal. If only Jockey’s transmission warning of a low level north wind had come two minutes sooner!
I learned some good lessons from the day. Most important, it’s that you have to keep working all the way to the end! Don’t assume you’re going to make it into goal until you’re actually there as you never know what’s going to present itself! So next time, I’m going to try and look at goal as just a waypoint on a longer flight, aiming to fly high over the top of it… And who know where I’ll end up?!
EDIT – OK, so we’ve already flown the second task before I got chance to post this, but no sneak previews, otherwise this will never get posted!
This week was the spring equinox. As the days get longer, there’s definitely a sense of optimism and excitement as pilots everywhere start planning their next adventures.
It’s felt like quite a long dark winter – well, it is six months since we headed back from Spain in September to get rid of the expensive van-shaped storage units sat on the drive (well, that’s all they are when they’re broken and taking up space). But even that was my choice – a few little things needed sorting out once and for all, so instead of heading to Nepal to finish my instructor training, I decided to stay in Wales and focus on tying up loose ends.
Looking back, it’s actually been quite a productive few months. I’ve had enough good weather days to keep me sane – usually out teaching with the Pembrokeshire Paragliding team and our awesome students. I’ve managed to improve my tandem flying skills and get my rating. I kept the promise I made to myself last year not to spend January (when winter feels at its longest) in the UK, with a few weeks learning powder skiing and ski launches in the mountains around my beloved Annecy base, and I’ve learnt more than I ever thought I needed to know about fixing vehicles, navigating Cardiff via its autoparts shops and how to get best value for scrap metal.
But spring is in the air and I can hear the mountains calling me home to where the sun is shining, thermals are beginning to bubble and the red wine is cheap! There’s a buzz among all the pilots I speak to – a video we’ll make, a route we’ll fly, a possible business venture. It’s a bit early to share all my exciting plans, but I’m looking forward to kicking off the season back in Annecy in May. Followed by a mixture of competitions, mountain adventures with Graham and Maison du Moulin‘s Irwyn Jehu (possibly even a couple of UK firsts) and freelance guiding, it’s shaping up to be an exciting summer!
All that aside, I haven’t flown a single cross country flight since August and my UK belly needs to go! So, it’s almost time to say: “So long winter, bring it on!”
The first group I guided round the Alps by myself was a rowdy bunch of Israeli pilots looking for big distance XC and a taster of the French Alps.
I’ve worked and played with some of the best guides of the Alps over the past year. They’ve helped me get to know these mountains and given me a great foundation for my own guiding work – and also given me high standards to live up to!
Straight off the back of two weeks working on Passion Paragliding‘s Alpine XC Adventure, I headed back to Annecy in the rain. When I found my group I was relieved – very welcoming and not too scary! They were as keen to escape the rain as I was, so we wasted no time and headed towards Laragne, with the hope of an evening flight on the way at Aspres if the clouds behaved themselves.
As we approached St Hilaire, there were wings in the air. With thunderstorms further south a possibility, I seized the opportunity and took the guys up for a flight. St Hilaire is a stunningly beautiful place with waterfalls cutting through the awesome cliffs and the funicular railway running up between the two take-offs. Even so, I was nervous as I went to meet my group in the landing field after a slightly extended top to bottom. But it’s hard not to be wowed by your first flight there and even my XC hungry bunch were grinning from ear to ear.
At Laragne, with the Ozone Chabre Open happening, the task for my group was simple: outfly the comp. So I briefed the competition task with a couple of extensions. The clouds growing behind me gave me the perfect opportunity to talk about mountain weather and the need to be ready to adapt your flight plan, then we were off. As the clouds grew over one of the competition turnpoints, the task was stopped to prevent 70 keen competition pilots disappearing into the white room. A quick chat with local expert Rachel of Allez-Up confirmed my view that conditions elsewhere were still good, so I updated my group over the radio. A couple chose to land immediately, some continued to scratch their way to the deck an hour’s walk from the nearest road, while Chino, playing catch-up after initially taking off with a knot, outflew everyone, landing miles from nowhere.
Back at base, the big clouds put me off trying for an evening flight at one of the local sites. Buc, off to the west seemed like the best option. But it was no sure thing – I suggested we had a 50% chance of flying. Just over half the group took me on the chance and were treated to a couple of hours boating around in smooth evening lift until the sun set.
The next day, with stronger winds locally, I took Israel to St Vincent les Forts, one of my favourite sites. Today’s task was a 50km route to St Andre les Alpes, one of France’s XC gems. The strong conditions, both in terms of thermals and the high level wind, weren’t to everyone’s tastes and three of the gang headed back to base. Meanwhile, Chino and Gal turned south. Helping each other through the first part of the flight, all looked good. Together, they weathered the battle zone, leaving just one last climb to put them in easy reach of St Andre. But it wasn’t to be. Choosing the most remote valleys they could, they landed safely at the foot of Cheval Blanc. Chino, not sure of his GPS coordinates, gave me the next best thing – the phone number of the hotel he’d landed next to. Thankfully, the proprietor thought nothing of some a random English girl calling him to get the address because her friend had landed in the garden! I was soon on my way to round up my flock, somewhat frazzled by the full power conditions of the southern Alps, but awed by the flight they’d just achieved.
Heading for home, I was surprised to get a text from Benny, last seen struggling above launch, saying he was just short of St Andre. But what I first took to be a joke, turned out to be true! Benni’s determination and patience had paid off to give him the “flight of a lifetime”! Despite him having landed just a few km away from where we were, the small mountain range between us meant we were at least a two hour drive away, so he set off hitching for home as we drove the same way. With my eyes drooping as I dropped Chino and Gal off, Avner agreed to go find his friend. Relieved to simply take the role of navigator for I while, I jumped in the passenger seat.
Eventually, over a deserted mountain pass, in the very last of the daylight, we found a delighted Benny. With hugs and congratulations done, my pilots safe and sound, I crawled into the back seat to sleep through the drive back to camp where dinner was being served and wine was flowing.
The next day, despite my optimistic late night weather forecasts, conditions weren’t right for a much anticipated trip to St Andre. So, after a severe telling off for Israel from the campsite reception for their over-exuberance in the small hours of the morning, we slowly prepared ourselves to head back to take-off at St Vincent. But just as we were leaving, a text message brought the tragic news of the death of a friend and fellow pilot in Israel. With all thoughts of flying forgotten, my group quickly decided to head back to Annecy and friends there.
Regrouping a couple of days later, the group wanted to make the most of the last few days of the trip, so we headed to Chamonix to attempt the route back to Annecy. The weather was against us, so as well as the route home, I briefed a couple of possibly more achievable tasks to occupy the group. Three of us made it out just beyond Passy, but the low cloud base and late start to the thermals had us down after about 20km. As Gal and I chose nice fields next to a main road, Chino, true to form, selected a field where the “power lines cross over the river, next to the motorway” – a description that could cover most of the valley. An hour of searching later, we found him. But it’s hard to be annoyed with someone who’s grinning from ear to ear because of their flight, so after a little gentle teasing, we headed back to Annecy for a final evening flight to round off an amazing and eventful week.
I sadly said goodbye, happy and somewhat relieved that things had passed (relatively) uneventfully. Of course I learnt things. Don’t be afraid to state the obvious – I remember my first time in Annecy with Matt Pepper talking through valley winds, anabatic winds, meteo winds and other local conditions you get flying in the Alps. I remember when I didn’t know what a gust front was. These are all second nature to me now and it’s easy to forget there was a time when they weren’t! Just because a pilot has more hours than me, that doesn’t mean they know about Alpine conditions and how to fly XC in the mountains.
But that was what was great about this group. I was honest about my experience, that several of them had substantially more hours than me. But they knew how much there is to learn about flying in the mountains and that’s what they wanted from me.
I also realised that it’s an incredible amount of work for one person! There’s a reason why guides normally employ drivers. It is possible to do it alone, as I proved. But I think it’s better for a group to have a separate driver so the guide is free to give quality air-to-air guidance. And yes, I am capable of working from 8am to 11pm, day after day. But I’m no iron woman, and it definitely helps to have a bit of support!
But all in all, a success! If your group describes you as: “the best air guide in the Alps,” you’re probably doing something right, yeah?! Even if you’re the only one they’ve had 😉
But I couldn’t have got here alone – huge thanks have to go to Irwyn at Maison du Moulin in Annecy, Toby of Passion Paragliding and David and Rachel of Allez Up in Laragne for all the experience and advice, which helped me get a rowdy bunch of Israeli pilots to experience some of the best sites in the Alps.