You can’t fly from the summit of Mont Blanc in a westerly wind. It’s a well known fact.
But that’s exactly what Irwyn and I ended up doing last time we went up there. The forecast wasn’t straight westerly, but when we got to the summit, the wind was coming directly up the arête. We waited until the sunshine brought the wind up the southerly face and we were able to take off.
The last forecast showed the weather improving enough to make the attempt at the summit look sensible. But while the wind is dropping, it’s also turning westerly again. But this time, it’s unlikely we’ll be waiting around for the sun to do its work – while the temperatures are increasing, we’re still looking a frosty -13C at 5,000m.
But it’s the best opportunity on the horizon, so we’re taking it and just in case the wind does exactly as forecast (for once), we’ll be checking out the terrain on the way up for a nice launchable westerly facing slope!
The last couple of days have been filled with preparing our kit – a job which seems to expand to fill all available time! I’m delighted that Ozone have agreed to sponsor me again with a wing. The Geo II behaved perfectly last time – just as well as the first chance I had to inflate the wing was on the summit. This time I’ve had plenty of chance to play with it on the ground and it’s just as I remember. It inflates beautifully in any wind strength, feels solid overhead even in gusty conditions and is nice and responsive on the brakes, so I’m confident that however challenging the climbing side of the adventure might be, the flying side should be trouble free.
ITV Parapentes in Doussard have been incredibly supportive with the loan of two lightweight tandem wings. Graham will be flying the new Skyman tandem and Irwyn will be flying the ITV Awak 2. At 5.8kg and 6.4kg respectively, either wing represents a considerable weight saving compared to a normal tandem wing, so will make a huge difference to Jam and Sam’s chances of making the summit. First impressions of both wings are good… now we’re off to put them through their paces and give the boys some last minute take-off practice over Lake Annecy!
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!
Yesterday we were doing star jumps at 3,800m. Two days ago, we were at sea level.
There was definitely a grin on our faces on Sunday as we arrived in our playground for the next two weeks. We had a great time back in Sussex. Both of us love teaching paragliding, and it was surprisingly difficult to drag ourselves away from the Fly Sussex gang when the weather forecast there was looking so good. But being back to the Alps is really no hardship 😉
We eased ourselves in yesterday with a cable car ride up to the Aguille de Midi at 3,800m. We’re both fit, so our priority is acclimatisation. Doing training circuits up there, we could certainly tell that the air was thinner than we were used to!
As we were panting for breath, we worked out that from when we’d boarded the ferry, we’d climbed an average of 100m per hour for 38 hours! Hopefully the change in altitude should be just what we need to get ourselves ready – in a few days we hope to be climbing to the summit of Mont Blanc!
For now we need to call on all our reserves for the hardest part of the game – waiting! Tomorrow looks flyable from the summit, so our friends who have been here training for the last few weeks are going to be heading up there. Obviously we’re not ready – we only got here from the UK! But sitting by and watching others head off for the summit isn’t easy! But we’ll set off with them today and go with them as far as we can. We’ll make the most of it as a training opportunity so when (hopefully) our opportunity comes next week, we’re ready to go…
Good luck guys – we’ll be in the landing field when you get there with cold beer!
I woke up this morning with the rain drumming on the roof of the van, once again thinking we must be absolutely nuts! It’s cold, grey and raining – probably snowing up the mountain, much like it was yesterday when we headed up the Aguille de Midi for a bit of acclimatisation in the wind and snow. It’s looking like we’ll get a narrow weather window next week, so we need to get the acclimatisation in now.
This cold snap should reduce the risk of rock fall, even if we may be trudging through powder to get to the top. It’s not going to make the arete down from the lift station any better though. I was genuinely terrified when I went down it in June and it’s even worse now – it looks like a knife edge.
The big thing now is to assemble all the kit. I resisted the temptation to buy the down filled mini skirt at Vielle Campeur, and limited myself to a new head torch, energy supplements and climbing trousers. We’ve stocked up on food – carbs galore, enough food between two of us to feed a small family for a week. I’m also investing in a proper pair of mountain boots. I’ll do a full kit list post before we go.
Obviously the most important thing is weight – and the heaviest thing is my flying kit. I’m really looking forward to getting my wing – I’ve been promised a lightweight wing from Ozone, which is almost certainly my best bet for getting ice back from the summit to Maison du Moulin. It looks like we’re heading off tomorrow, so I’m really keeping my fingers crossed it arrives today, otherwise logistics are going to be VERY interesting…
There’s still some running around to do, but everything’s falling into place. I think we’re nuts! I’m nervous about the whole adventure. Will my kit be suitable? Am I fit enough? I haven’t done any real training, other than stomping around the mountains for a few months, being generally bouncy and hyperactive and splashing around the lake. But I’ve met the lads and don’t seem to be too far behind them in terms of fitness. And Irwyn’s taken me up the mountain before and has faith in me and that gives me confidence in myself…
I wasn’t really keen on the idea of flying off Mont Blanc. Or, more accurately, the flight should be awesome, but I had my first mountaineering expedition last month and it was tough and it hurt. I wasn’t sure I was up for walking up to the top.
But I’m easily led! As I talked it through with Irwyn, it started to become a real possibility. And rather than a simple flight straight down into Chamonix, we started to think about ways to make it a little bit more interesting…
So now I’ve accepted the challenge. And the challenge is to launch from the top of Mont Blanc with some ice from the top, and get it back to Maison du Moulin in Annecy for the post flight drinks. It’s just over an 11:1 glide from the top – with a bit of a tail wind and little bit of lift, it’s tantalisingly close.
Now, I’m scrabbling around for lightweight kit, working out how I can juggle a bit of training around an almost equally exciting visit from my big sister and, most importantly of all, where in France I can get some decent rum for my post flight drink!
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!