A paraglider’s paradise?

DCIM100GOPRO
Ready to take off at Bucaramanga

Imagine a flying site which is so reliable you can almost guarantee it will be flyable. Sounds almost perfect, doesn’t it?

OK, so let’s see if we can make it better… Let’s add somewhere to stay right by take-off with a friendly vibe where you can lie in a hammock in the shade watching the sky until the conditions are just right for you. Is that perfect yet?

Well, almost. But let’s throw in breakfast, unlimited good coffee, retrieves, and radio support from two excellent instructors, just for good measure.

And while we’re imagining our perfect paragliding retreat, let’s set the price. We all know pilots don’t like spending much money, so we’ll chuck in all the extras for free and keep it about the same price as any other hostel in the area.

It all sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? So imagine our surprise when we arrived in Bucaramanga to find exactly that!

Getting to Hostel El Nido at 8am, exhausted after a 9-hour night bus ride across Colombia, Sarah, the Colombian lady who runs the hostel, did everything she could to make us welcome, magicking up a couple of extra plates of breakfast for us and pouring the tastiest coffee we’ve found in Colombia down our throats.

Hostel El Nido - a great place to hang out and watch the sky!
Hostel El Nido – a great place to hang out and watch the sky

As we ate our breakfast, we watched the birds exploring the first morning thermals in the valley in front, so we quickly polished off our third coffee and headed out to join them.

A badly timed launch on the tandem (neither of us are known for our patience) meant that our first flight can only be described as a brief orientation to the site as we found ourselves in the landing field in no time. But not a problem – the retrieve van was there waiting for us. Within less than half an hour we were back in the air. This time, staying up was no problem and we were high above takeoff before we knew it and able to explore the area properly.

The site tends to blow out in the middle of the day for all but the heavily loaded tandems (there are no skinny tandem pilots here) and those on mini wings. This may not suit everyone, but we found the enforced lunch break welcome setting us up nicely for the evening of soaring and restitution until the sun set.

The next day, the same. And again, and again and again! On the one day the weather wasn’t so good, the overcast sky slowed down the thermals, but it was still flyable with enough wind to soar by the end of the morning.

The place isn’t great for XC at the moment thanks to a recent reduction in the air space allowed by nearby Bucaramanga airport. Maybe this will be relaxed again in future? Let’s hope so!

But in the meantime, it’s still a great place to practice your XC skills and clock up loads of airtime. The thermals are just boisterous enough to warm you up for the European spring, without being so strong that they throw you around the sky. The flatish land out front gives you the chance to practice identifying thermal sources and joining up thermals. And if you’re wrong, you just land and have another go! You can set yourself little triangles to fly to build your skills.

Despite the lack of big distance potential, we certainly found enough to keep us entertained for a few days, so if you’re in Colombia, it’s definitely worth considering adding Bucaramanga to your itinerary!

Beautiful flying at Bucaramanga
Beautiful flying at Bucaramanga

Moments

One of the real joys of travelling for me is the way we nomads come together and then move on again. It may only be for a short time, but the memories and shared experiences last much longer.

Fun and games in the truck to take-off
Fun and games in the truck to take-off

Most of us didn’t know each other a month ago. But travelling pilots are already part of a bigger family. We are practised at making ourselves at home in any given environment. We already have friends and experiences in common. The moments we share may be surprising or they may be mundane. I was delighted to discover that Tommy, our new Venezuelan friend, knew the trout smoking German we’d stayed with in the Andes during a visit to Venezuela in 1984.

Graham's first piñata
Graham’s first piñata

We’ll never forget our first ever piñata for Graham’s birthday – thanks all for the piñata bashing lessons! And even though it was the last thing we expected to be doing, hosting Christmas dinner for our new-found family of 8 was a joy! The whole of our Christmas and New Year period was spent working and playing together. Together we broke the record for Real World Paragliding’s busiest day ever, Cade and Becca from America, Tonno from Guatemala, Tommy and of course Mr and Mrs Real World, Christian and Steffi.

Waking up to sunrise on takeoff on new year's day
Waking up to sunrise on takeoff on new year’s day

So, even though half the gang has moved on, the memories live on. Thanks for making the last few weeks awesome! This video from Cade and Becca really says it all…
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Sam’s first flight

Graham and Sam sailing past the Aguille de Midi at dawn
Sam’s first tandem! Graham and Sam sailing past the Aguille de Midi at dawn

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!

Jam's first tandem flight with Graham at Passy
Jam’s first tandem flight with Graham at Passy

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!

Dan Shane and Irwyn on the summit of Mont Blanc
Dan, Shane and Irwyn on the summit of Mont Blanc getting ready to fly

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.

Preparing for a dawn flight from the Aguille de Midi
Preparing for a dawn flight from the Aguille de Midi

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.

Landing field beers
Cheers Dan – the first of our gang to launch from the summit

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!

Sam is posting updates of their adventure at http://mtblanc2013.blogspot.co.uk – they’ve got some great pictures and details about how you can sponsor them.

Aerobics at 3800m

Star jumps at 3,800m
Star jumps at 3,800m
Star jumps at 3,800m
Star jumps at 3,800m

 

 

 

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!

Chabre Open day 2

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…

Sorry – no pictures today. I was too busy flying!

First impressions of Israel

Briefing the route to St Andre
Down here, over here, up there and you’ll be in St Andre before you know it…

Posted by Jenni

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.

Looking back at Chabre
Gal looks back towards the awesome Chabre ridge

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.

Sunset at Buc
Enjoying the sunset at Buc

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.

Benny waits for his retrieve
Benny in the last of the daylight waiting for his retrieve

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.

Briefing the route to Annecy
This is the way we would fly back to Annecy if the clouds were higher!

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.

Me at Buc
I get to play too! Joining the guys for a sunset flight

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.