St Hil’Airtour 2011: Groundtouring and tree landing

Frustration on the Airtour as stability sets in and Charlie winds up in a tree…

Charlie flying from the Col de Aparitatz above Ugine

Charlie flying from the Col de Aparitatz above Ugine

After yesterday’s disappointing and frustrating day, I’d hoped today would be extra good. The morning was sunny and cloudless, except for the pileus hat on Mont Blanc, confirming the predicted strong northerly did exist.

Marcus dropped me at Col des Aravis at six, and even though I sincerely hope not to see it again this Airtour, having walked up to it three times already in the space of 24 hours, I couldn’t help admiring such a beautiful place, the tops of the  rock faces lit by the sun, and a deep blue sky all around.

The walk along the east side of the Aravis to the col above Ugine was gorgeous, possibly the highlight of the tour so far for me. Fantastic views, chamois and alpine flowers, warm sunshine whilst not too hot, and easy walking.

I caught up with Lucas and Ben, two lads I’d landed with in Thones. They’d spent the night on the plateau, having landed there yesterday, and were heading to the takeoff in the Col below Mt Charvin too. We enjoyed a coffee in the sun at the chalet on the col while they waited for their supporter to bring their flying clothes.

They’d been told it would be very stable today. There were cumulus in the Mont Blanc range by now, but nothing elsewhere. The lady from the chalet said it was unusual for there to be so little wind up there, but we didn’t worry, and made plans to fly towards Chambery on the east faces. Bob Drury phoned with some advice, and we were excited about what the day might have in store.

Benoit Pillias flying from the col above Ugine

Benoit Pillias flying from the col above Ugine

Then we noticed the windsock was indicating a northerly. We wanted to take off towards the south and fly the east faces, so we flew back down to the col from the slope above the chalet where we’d laid our wings out, and crossed to a different hill. Marcus was watching my track, and when my flight was so short presumed I must have landed in a tree or something. He tried calling, and when I didn’t answer (my phone was in my trouser pockets, in my rucksack and I couldn’t get to it quickly enough) he presumed I’d hit trees, and came up to the col to check. Must’ve been a premonition.

Four people had launched before I did, explored the east faces and found nothing, and all of them landed in Ugine below. It did indeed seem to be a stable day.

Lucas Chabert launching

Lucas Chabert launching

It seemed to be starting to work when I launched, and I climbed a bit on  the cliffs below. I went off exploring, wondering if there’d be convergence over the town where two valley flows join. At one point I was probably high enough to head off into the Albertville valley, which would have been a good idea in hindsight, but something compelled me to head back towards where the others were.

I’d got quite low before I realised that my shadow was going backwards over the wildly thrashing bushes, and I was back beyond the end of the landing field and over houses. The only other empty field that I could have tried to reverse into had a cable at the end of it, and seemed too risky an option, so I pushed on the speed bar and wobbled around, trying to get into the start of the field. I almost made it. I also came very close to landing on a roof. I got a very good look at the square black tiles before finally clearing the end of the roof and landing in a small space between the house and its back fence, missing an apple tree too. How lucky was that? Phew. The space was smaller than a glider though, so the wingtip had to dangle over the tree, which was momentarily helpful as it meant I wasn’t hooked back out through the front gate by the wind that was hoofing though, but it needed the help of two men and a ladder to extract it!

So that was a lesson learned, though one I should have already known. I thought because it had appeared to be so stable, and there was so little wind on launch, that the valley wind wouldn’t be too strong. But the Mont Blanc range was working, drawing in replacement air along all the valleys.

Luckily the glider and I were both totally undamaged, and the rest of the day was uneventful. In fact the rest of the day was just walking. And walking. And walking. Miles, on tarmac, but relatively flat, but it was so hot.

We’ve done half the distance between Albertville and where the road climbs to Val Pelouse, the next turnpoint. The Airtour stops at 4pm tomorrow. We hope to get the turnpoint and launch before the time is up, and then fly back to the finish at Lumbin. If we manage, we’ll have completed half the tour!

Tomorrow it’s supposed to be less stable, but you can have too much of a good thing, and they are forecasting thunderstorms in the Belledonne in the afternoon. We’ll see.

Read more of Charlie’s AirTour 2011 posts here

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