What a difference a day makes

Mont Blanc in the background
Les Saisies - with Mont Blanc in the background

I went back to Les Saisies on Monday after an amazing flight the day before. It’s a beautiful site with take off just under 2000m above sea level, almost in the shadow of Mont Blanc, with the Aravis chain behind.

The wind felt better than the previous day – straight on the hill and consistent, with a few nice thermals coming through. No-one was staying up yet, but after watching for a while, I decided to get my wing out. I suspected that they weren’t really trying, generally turning away from the house thermal as soon as possible.

As I was making my final checks, one glider finally went for it and turned right from take off and stayed up. Relieved I wouldn’t have to be the one to make the first move, I followed quickly and found strong lift everywhere!

Yesterday, my flight had ended as I’d wasted my height searching unsuccessfully for a climb above Rochebrune meaning that once I crossed the valley, I was scrabbling low for a climb, having to constantly watch the power cables between me and my landing options. If I got the same height today, I’d head straight across the valley and try to climb up onto the Aravis, then head towards Passy and possibly on towards Cluses, where dinner would be served later.

Les Saisies take-off
Looking back at take-off

And today, things seemed even better than yesterday! I began to get excited – the climbs felt similar to the day before, but I was soon well above the height I’d made on my first climb the previous day.

I made slow progress – my glide was interrupted as the lift was everywhere, tempting me to stop and turn and top up my height. But not a problem – one of my mistakes the previous day had been to rush, landing before 2pm when the day was probably just getting going.

The day before I’d only made the lift station on the other side of Les Saisies town – the next reliable thermal marker – because I’d found a climb from the bowl in front. This time I arrived with masses of height. The climbs were strong, but broken, so I lost them several times and had to search around for lift, but I was generally getting higher, so not particularly worried. Finally I drifted back a bit and found a much easier climb and wound myself up to 2,600m.

The fact that this climb was better further back should probably have warned me that the next climb wouldn’t necessarily be so easy to find as the previous day. But so far there had been lift everywhere! While it wasn’t necessarily easy finding the best bit, going up was not a problem.

So I headed straight for the next lift station, a usually reliable thermal source. I slowed for a couple of bubbles of lift, but didn’t stop, expecting a good climb ahead. Nothing! Going past the lift station, there was still nothing. I was getting low now and needed to make a decision quickly. I was too low to go back the way I’d come and see if I could make anything of the last bubble of lift I’d come through. I should probably have turned north towards Flumet, but thoughts of flying down an unknown valley  and how to get back if I bombed out stopped me. So I turned south to fly over the plateau where I’d found lift yesterday.

The cows watched lazily as I put my feet down ready to land and take off again if I couldn’t clear the hillock they were grazing on. They didn’t bat an eyelid as I picked my feet up and sailed past them, just clearing the ground. The gently sloping plateau in front of them kept giving me pockets of lift, which made me think I was saved, until I lost them and lost as much height than I’d gained getting them back. Being patient, lurking, keeping on working the scratchy lift is something I’ve been training myself to do. But I didn’t do this today. The birds seemed to be doing the same – working a patch of lift for a couple of minutes, then going off to find something better. The next possible lift source was always so close that I went looking to see if it would be better. And it was! But I was below the level of the ridge now, and climbing up above it proved impossible for me – as others had found earlier in front of take off.

Carrying on along the ridge, I could see the valley ahead with the official landing just beyond the town. I was surprised the valley wind was  weak, with the trees below me showing no sign of a breeze. I found one promising bit of lift which I worked for a while, pausing to politely return the wave of the holidaymakers in the houses below which were helping me climb. But like everything else I’d found as I flew along the ridge, it only took me so far – not enough to get back up the hill, and my general direction of travel was still downwards.

However, as I flew back and forth over the holiday homes, I had chance to look again at the ridge and the valley ahead of me. I realised that the valley I was looking at wasn’t the one with the landing field in, and that the reason I wasn’t feeling a valley wind was that I was sheltered from it by the outcrop I would have to pass to get to the landing field. But if there was a strong valley wind, it would be rough as the wind swirled round and over the outcrop. When another bubble of lift took me up, I felt the first bit of rotor and immediately turned and fled for the other side of the valley, my suspicions confirmed and a valuable lesson learnt.

Towards the official landing
Ah - that's the valley I was looking for - with the outcrop on the right that had been shielding me the valley wind

I reached my chosen landing field and found the true wind, which left me barely moving forward for a moment. I decided not to try and work the lift over here, tired of fighting to stay up and relieved to be safely away from the rotor on the other side of the valley. The cows in this field did what cows always seem to do, and watched lazily as I came in to land next to them, then sloped off to give me chance to pack up my glider.

No sooner had I unclipped than my phone started ringing. Freddy and Becca had watched my retreat from the rough air and graceful landing across the valley and were almost immediately on their way to collect me – a gold plated retrieve service!

I packed up wondering whether I’d have had more success climbing back up if I’d crossed to the other side of the valley sooner. I still don’t know – I’d have encountered the valley wind earlier, which could have helped generate better lift, but may have made it more turbulent and harder for me to get along the ridge. However, the three wings that flew over me, climbing as they went, as I limboed my way under electric fences to get out of my landing field, were suggesting that it would have been worth a try. The sky was looking beautiful and as we drove towards Cluses, I looked up at the lovely little clouds dotted along the top of the Aravis. Next time…

I got another lesson in Alpine weather as the evening came and the thunder started in the Chamonix valley about 6.30pm, shortly followed by torrential rain and gusts that brought down trees. I resisted the temptation to comment on a picture posted on XC Mag’s Facebook page from someone flying over Mont Blanc at 6.30pm – maybe they were flying with earplugs in as the thunder must have been pretty loud from there!

Same site, different days - track logs
Same site, different days

Flight log – day 1

Flight log – day 2

Pictures thanks to Becca Sullivan

Best flight ever!

Posted by Jenni

From take-off at Chabre
From take-off at Chabre

I really wasn’t feeling good about my flying today. My head was all over the place on the way up to take off at Chabre in Laragne and my first flight was a flop. I got a few decent climbs, but wasn’t happy with them and eventually pushed out front to try and find something that I could stick with. I found the landing field!

Getting back to take-off, I nearly got straight back in the car to leave without even walking up to take-off. But then thought I’d at least go up for a look.

Dressed in shorts for a quick top to bottom, I overcame my nerves and negativity and launched. Oh yeah – this is why I do this flying thing! As I started to climb with just one other wing in the air, things started to fall into place. Still nervous of the enormous (no, gargantuan) cliff behind takeoff, I kept well forward of the ridge until I suddenly found myself in a beautiful strong, smooth, wide climb that held me securely enough to drift over the back.

Looking back at the cliff, I was stunned. It had looked huge from the ground, but nothing like as intimidating as it did from the air. Going off behind it was a huge deal for me and left me feeling awed. And I was still climbing! When eventually the climb ran out (yup, I lost it), I knew there was no going back. I radioed back to Becky simply saying: “I’ve gone!” and set off on a glide across the back of the ridge, generally aiming for the campsite. I knew I should be using the speed bar as I went in search of the next climb, but I was so stunned to just be there that I contented myself with a sinky glide.

Catching another climb or two on the way, I realised this was now a *proper* cross country flight – not some one thermal wonder or something that someone else had mapped out for me.

As I reached the valley, I knew I’d need to find another climb to get back to the campsite, so headed for the volcano on the other side of the valley. Nothing! And so I looked at landing options and turned out over the road.

Blip, goes the vario as I approach my landing field. And then it goes beep. And then it does it again! So I turn, and it does it again! Watching the pilot I’d followed over the back packing his glider away in a nearby field, I was continually surprised when my vario failed to stop beeping as I turned in a slow climb that gradually strengthened and drifted me back across the volcano. I stuck with it for what felt like ages, climbing and climbing and climbing. I almost lost it once or twice, but then widened my turn until I found myself climbing again.

By now, I’d completely disregarded any thoughts of flying back to the campsite, as the climb had taken me in completely the opposite direction – a much more interesting landscape of lakes and ridges as opposed to the town. As I left that climb, I headed back for a nearby ridge, with the vario springing to life as I approached.

I started looking for the bathing lake at Serres – free entry to pilots who land there after an XC! But I was getting tired, stunned at the flight I’d had so far, and didn’t have my swimming costume (why is *this* the day I choose not to wear my bikini under my flying stuff?). So when the climb I was in got stronger at the top of the rigde, I decided my concentration wasn’t enough for it and headed for the road.

Looking back to take-off
Looking back to take-off from my landing field (grinning)

Torn between two possible thermal triggers, I ended up gliding straight between them, round a knoll and in to land right next to the road just a couple of kilometres short of Serres. I was chuckling as I landed and grinning from ear to ear as I packed away.

The whole flight was topped off by getting a lift with the first car that passed – a girl still buzzing from her first tandem flight at the weekend – who went out of her way to drop me all the way back to the campsite, where Becky handed me beer, and a nice Frenchman gave us fresh cherries 🙂

Thanks to Marianne and the guys at Allez-up for getting us up the mountain (twice) and the tips on take-off – wouldn’t have done it without you!

Beautiful, beautiful Annecy

Posted by Jenni

It was a good job we had something to drag us away from Annecy, otherwise we may never have left. Last time I was there, I fell in love with the place.

I love the atmosphere. It’s all about enjoying life and enjoying the outdoors, particularly staying with Joan and Irwyn at the lovely Maison du Moulin. People are friendly and want to talk and give advice. In the flying community, everyone looks out for each other. You can hitch around the place with ease and meet interesting people – often who will go miles out of their way to get you back to your car! The pace of life is perfect. The days are so long that you can take it easy. For flying, this means you can choose the flights and conditions you want – not like in England where you have to seize a small flyable window because you don’t know when the next one will be. And if it isn’t flyable, there are 101 other things to do with the day!

I still feel like I learn something on every flight here. My flights from Marlens and Plan Fait in particular gave me the chance to work on thermalling in quite tricky conditions – mapping the edges of the lift, planning where I’m going to want to turn before I get there, speeding up and slowing down the rate of my turn to make the most of the lift (yup – definitely still working on that one), watching the other gliders in the thermal to work out how and why they are getting more or less height out of it, when it’s more efficient to circle in lift and when it’s better to fly figures of eight and the concentration involved in keeping the turn on – particularly keeping my weight into the turn – when the thermal is trying to spit me out.

Another thing Annecy seems to help me do, more than most other places I’ve flown, is setting and achieving goals. Flying home from Semnoz in completely different conditions to the last time I’d flown it was a real buzz. But not quite so exciting as getting onto and climbing up Tournettes for the first time – such an amazingly beautiful awe-inspiring piece of rock – and I was only one of three pilots there.

I also decided to attempt to glide back to the Plan Fait landing field across the lake from Rocs des boeufs. This was a special moment as it was something I hadn’t thought of doing before. So I set off, continually assessing my height and glide. After a while, I wasn’t 100% confident I had the height to make it, so decided to turn back and landed in the field I’d already picked out as my back-up option. Good decision making is essential for good flying and I was very happy to have made both the decision to go for a challenging glide and the decision to abort in favour of a sate landing when the conditions were a little uncertain – ready to come bad and do it next time with a bit more height and a slightly better line.

Now I have a list of goals for different days and take offs and conditions. As well as coming back to do the glide to Plan Fait, I’m trying to do all the bits of the grand tour du lac separately, before putting them all together as one long flight. I want to get onto Parmelon – another stunning rock face. I have a couple of places to try and get to when I’m sat on top of roc des boeufs wondering where to go next. I want to experience an evening restitution flight. And even when there’s no lift to stay up in, I can practice my spirals, wingovers and getting the best glide from my glider in different conditions.

And even the “unsuccessful” flights teach you, as I proved with a bad landing at the foot of Entrevernes – where I got a collapse as I was making my final turn into wind and ended up swinging round into the ground. So from this I learnt not to fixate on a spot at the cost of setting up my approach nice and early – the official landing field was surrounded by other lovely fields – and also how early I need to set up my approach. While I may be able to turn in late doing a nil wind landing at Caburn in England, I won’t always get away with the same thing in a potentially thermic field in France. I also learnt to *always* counter the collapse immediately. I didn’t do this, probably because it was turning me the way I wanted to go, with the alternative being a cross wind or slightly down wind landing. But it was an uncontrolled turn, and when I tried to stop it, that fact sunk in – too late. A controlled downwind landing would have been better than any uncontrolled landing. And then finally, I didn’t even thing about doing a PLF as I came in – so that’s something I need to practice. But I walked away with just a mildly twisted knee (which has stopped me doing very little) and a slightly stiff shoulder (now better), when it could have been a broken leg, so I considered myself lucky and just tried to absorb the lessons.

So, away from Annecy, feeling happy and with some amazing flights under my belt. But probably only for a few days – it certainly won’t be long before I’m back to play in my favourite playground in Europe