The X-Alps were an incredible ride. It opened up another level in the world of paragliding for me. The people we met, the visions we shared, the stories we heard, the pain we endured, the situations we survived, the beauty we saw, the friendship we shared, the fights we fought, the lessons we learned. I can’t say I ever had such an intense and radical experience for such an extended period of time. More action than I anticipated packed into two months.
We started off as a team of three, meeting up in Salzburg to begin our training. Dave, Eric ‘Steiny’ and myself. It was a good decision by Dave to get another supporter on the team, you would loose a lot by giving all the workload to a single assistant. My initial slight reservation to have to deal with a third person in the team, fueled by some sort of pride, was immediately gone when I met Steiny. A very positive and also very modest person, a treat that is not often found in Californians, if I may say.
We had planned to follow the route of the race in it’s entirety. The athlete, Dave, would walk and fly the whole route, while the support team, Eric and me, would try to do the same, but alternating in driving the car along.
The start was tough. Basically we were trudging along in heavy spring rain for the very first ten days of the trip. At least we got a good glance at the route from the ground, which would prove valuable in the actual race. But it’s tough to keep spirits high, when what you came for is flying up in puffy clouds over the mountaintops and see cities from up there like it’s a busy ant hill, unworthy of us higher beings. This time we were the bugs, slithering along wet paved roads, wishing this misery would come to an end. After rain comes the sun, so the say. And she did come out. And she wouldn’t go away for quite a while actually. We all remember now what the summer 2015 had in store. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Just after the second turnpoint, the Kampenwand, the stratus clouds would part and heat up the land, providing stellar flying for days to come. The Bavarian Alps, for all of us new territory, even for me, were left behind quickly with some detours. First differences of opinions came to the surface on what route to take, especially when Dave and Dawn Westrum, Athlete Team USA3 which would team up with for while, took a different line towards the Zugspitze and downed in the Karwendel, while me and Eric took the magnificent convergence line that sets up so nicely at times in the Bavarian foothills, due to the Bavarian wind.
We didn’t think much of it at the time, since we had agreed on checking out different lines and routes for the sake of the team. It would turn out that in Dave’s point of view we had to be with him and working with him all the time. Well, I guess what we agreed on beforehand depends on who you ask, but it would turn out later to be a unresolved issue within the team.
The weather would get better and better. The flying was extraordinary at times. I had thought, that I know the alps quite well, but I came through parts I didn’t even know existed. Finally we were making progress, getting us excited for the race. Seeing the realistic possibilities in the sky and on the ground, checking out many launches and secret little paths through the southern alps.
We were in Italy and we had to indulge in pizza quite a lot, especially since Switzerland was looming ahead with grossly overpriced restaurants.
But just before we would make into Switzerland, the land of honey rivers coming down silver mountains, gold plastered roads and platinum plated doggie poo baggies we had an interesting ‘border’ encounter.
It promised to be a stellar flying day. We had teamed up again with Dawn and the four of us started flying together on passo di tonale. After the first transition we got heavily attacked by an eagle, something rather rare in the alps. Of course we tried to get away as fast as possible, obviously we were too close to a nest. But the damage was done. All the americans had holes in the harness and the wings. Eric got the most of it, with two basketball sized holes in his wing. Unfit to fly, his wing had to get professional repair in Switzerland.
So after making it into Switzerland over the Bernina Pass me and Dave continued traditional volbiv style without a support vehicle.
Stupidly we kind of forgot to bring proper food with us, which would prove painful on the next big day. With a dinner that consisted of a couple of nuts and a breakfast the next morning of three cookies for the two of us, the craving for pizza went to the next level.
And what a day it was. For me it was maybe even one of the best days I ever had flying in my home country. Flying from Switzerland back into Italy, toplanding on a pass that was also the border back into Switzerland and continuing for another 100 k along a route that I always wanted to fly, crossing the backbone of the alps, turning around to try and meet back up with the team. Though when I realised I couldn’t make it back to where they were by flying, I looked up a pizzeria close-by on my mobile phone and spiralled down to go crazy on the menu.
Next day i was done and volunteered to drive. Dave had an absolutely fantastic 100k flight through southern Switzerland into Italy and over the Simplon Pass which is rarely flown. We were pumped.
Now it was time for a dreaded part, the western part of the Wallis, the valley that is the mekka for XC flying. Though at the very western tip where the valley curves to the north to soon meet up with beautiful Lac Leman lies Martigny. And boy, you never seen valley winds if you haven’t been there on a beautiful summers day. Those trees must have strong roots I tell you that. And landing there in the middle of any good day… let’s say it frankly, would be suicide.
I told myself in the past that I just never would even think to fly there. But we were preparing for the X-Alps. Different Game.
When I launched it was late. I knew it was already too late to make it in time, but I still flew towards Martigny with Dave a couple k’s out front. The radio chatter was mainly Eric giving us wind speed updates on the ground while he was trucking towards that darn wind tunnel. And finally, with a slight tremor in his voice, he gave out the “yep guys, it’s blowing tough. 35+ down here going stronger.”. It wasn’t even noon yet. That was it. I didn’t hesitate and from an altitude of 3200 meters I pointed my glider towards the valley floor to sidehill land somewhere above the grapevines before things would go south.
Now it was time to enter France, to do the last stretch of our journey towards a bath in the ocean. Eric and Dave would hike together to the magnificent Col de Balme, a well known hike and fly spot for the PG community in Chamonix, while I drove around the mountains to meet up with the fellas again.
Again, the pace was getting slower now. It was getting difficult to do distance. Reaching Annecy, the last turnpoint of the race, was mainly done on foot, as cloudbase was very low and thermal activity very poor.
But finally we stood on the mighty launch of Planfait, very well known within the community. Here we met up with Team New Zealand and Belgium to share beta on the route and do some flying together. We took a day off to finally do some laundry and clean the team mobile out. And we even found some time to do some gentle ridge soaring in the beautiful arena above the turquoise lake of Annecy.
Weather was looking promising at least for the next day, apart from being really stable down lower. So our three teams joined together in the morning to tackle a nice launch above Planfait, where a lot of the local early birds take their mini wings for early morning rides.
It seemed we had a lot to prove to each other, we were basically running up that steep approach. Clearly, no one wanted to show weakness and prove the relative fitness of each team. But on top, stinking of testosteron, we realised that it was all in vain, apart from being a really good workout. We could see the ultra stable layer down low and had to wait for the sun to come around. Nick Neynens although had different plans and went exploring another launch. A trademark of the charismatic kiwi is to be extremely self sufficient. The rest of us chilled lazily on launch until we couldn’t take it any longer. Eric was send out to glide to the other side of the lake, to mark thermals for us. But boy, got he trapped in that stability down low. The rest of managed to climb out a little above launch which was important in this case to arrive above the inversion after the transition of the lake. And yes, we just made it. The flying got extraordinary, true Annecy style… for a while. The stability caught us again trying to do the massive transition of the big gap east of Chambéry.
After making it to the landing zone of the famed St.Hilaire du Touvet, we shared beers with an old friend who was living at the LZ in his bus to write science fiction novels. The characters this sport attracts. Just great.
Again the forecast for the following days wasn’t the best, but nothing like walking ten solid days in the torrential downpour of Austria. A memory still plaguing our dreams at night.
Me and Dave took the more adventurous approach to St. Hilaire Takeoff. The quite steep and actually closed off via ferrata. I have to admit, I even got quite pumped climbing those at times nearly overhanging steps.
While Dave tried to make distance towards the sea, me and Eric opted for a chill classic St.Hilaire out and return along the beautiful limestone cliffs that form between Chambery and Grenoble. This would make it much easier to retrieve the car too.
This was the point where Eric sadly left our team to take some time for himself. Initially he thought he would join the team later before the race would start, but it would turn out that the fences wouldn’t be mend by the time the 5th of july arrived. Something i absolutely understood and still it made me sad to have good ol’ Eric not with us anymore.
But that left me as the single supporter of Dave. Something i knew i could pull off, but not without channeling serious multitasking powers and facing terrible sleep deprivation which would lead to very serious and dangerous situations later on. But again I’m way ahead of myself.
The next couple of days were mainly done on the ground, so that left me sitting in the car most of the time. Which actually wasn’t that bad, since I had to catch up with the newest Game of Thrones episodes anyway.
We started to come close to Barcelonnette, home of one the french competitors, Nelson de Freyman. Supporter of Antoine Girard in the last edition and a local for this interesting part of the route, we hope he could provide us with valuable information for this region and maybe even a shower. We got more than that. His mother made some sort of casserole with duck, which i still dream of to this day and will have to tell my grandchildren about.
Nelson and his supporter came with us to a launch from where we hoped to jump over Col de la Bonnette or at least land close to it. But overdevelopment shut us down quite fast.
While Dave started walking towards the Col, which is the highest paved pass in the alps, so naturally you’d rather want to fly it instead puffing uphill for an eternity, me and Nelson looked for a different solution, because the day wasn’t finished yet in his opinion. Frantically we searched for another launch not far off the valley floor, he was sure that we could still fly a considerable distance today or at least make it over the pass by flying. And he was right. As soon as Dave arrived, the valley wind had just started kicking in and pushed all the thermals basically straight towards. Within what felt like five minutes we were flying together over Col de la Bonnette, a magnificent and stunning arena, from where it’s only downhill to the sea, our goal a mere stone’s throw away.
But in between laid the most dangerous part of the entire route. A v-cut valley with steep forested and slopes and cliffs on each side and a horrendous howling valley wind down low that just waits to munch on some flimsy paragliding material and spit you out with a rats nest over your head while a bowling river waits down below to embrace you with its deadly cold arms.
I happily flew back to get the van in Barcelonnette while leaving Dave to battle it out down there in that no-fly zone.
We met up later somewhere in that canyon about 40k away from the sea. He had landed somewhere up high far away from the clutches of the valley wind in a small shitty patch. One of those landings he loves so much. But it took him two hours sliding down through thick thorn bushes to meet up with me. He was kind of in a sorry state, blood streaks on his arms and legs, but still happy to have survived this nightmare and to be so close to our goal.
And the next day by 3 pm it was time to soak our feet in salty water.