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.
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.
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!
Pictures thanks to Becca Sullivan