I’m going to hell for my carbon footprint, of that I am sure. After our two days in Bassano and more rain in the forecast Bruce and I broke 8 straight nights of culinary extraordinaire at the Abbazia and headed for the Dolomites. Figured we might as well take some walks if we couldn’t fly.
But then after a night in the hard rain and a few belts of scotch and an excellent Italian meal ala chef Bruce I got an email from our roomate back in Sun Valley, Gerry Moffatt that he had a Middle Fork River permit, launching on Friday. Back in my river days, which ended abruptly after a long string of first descents and too much class VI (ie “unrunable”) rivers in Central America back in 1998 had me talking a little too directly with the guy upstairs (and we don’t talk often) I pretty much spent most waking hours running whitewater. I hadn’t been in a kayak for 14 years, but the Middle Fork of the Salmon has always been high on the list. It was Wednesday early evening. I jumped in the driver’s seat and Bruce fired up Google to figure out logistics and we drove to Bolzano. If I caught the last train I’d have 6 hours of trains to Milan, an overnight at the airport, then a string of flights back to Boise to arrive with 4 hours to pack for the river. I figured if I made the train it would be a sign that I should go. I made it literally as it was pulling out of the station, one second later and I wouldn’t have gone.
After 6 days on the river, which was more glorious than I could have imagined I opened up the dweeb machine, a device that had been thankfully missing from my life for a week and immediately saw an email from Bruce. The subject line said “Hammertag”.
Which can be translated as: GET BACK TO EUROPE. While I’d been on the river Bruce had seen a huge change in the Euro weather, which had been dismal all spring, and he’d already put up the biggest flight of his life, the much revered 200FAI triangle (his was actually 209). Hammertag literally means “Hammer Day”, which is very special for pilots. Means you can put down the Hammer and fly fast and far. I have a pretty cruisy deal with United, so I hastily packed my flying gear again and headed for Boise, and another long string of flights.
24 hours later I stumbled off the plane in Geneva, limped onto the train to Verbier, waggered off the train two hours later and met Bruce near the station. I threw my gear into our friends Mike and Stu’s Verbier Summits school van and headed to launch with their group of students, who were near the end of a two-week paragliding course. On the way up, one of the students asked “so how long can you guys stay up there for…like an hour or something?” Well…not exactly. This would be the warm-up day for what was now no longer Hammertag in Switzerland, but still a very good day tomorrow. The winds were relatively strong from the SW, especially high and we needed to be positioned near Fiesch tomorrow, so our plan was to do a little distance in the Verbier valley, then keep our heads low and lob off the back into the Rhone and cruise down the Rhone as far as we could go, staying away from the big mountains.
About 5 and half hours after launch we were screaming downwind at nearly 70 kilometers an hour over the town of Brig, just a few clicks short of Fiesh, which would be a chocolate score of 100km’s- not bad for a late launch and my blendered brain that had no idea what time zone it was inhabiting. The valley narrows up here and I paused for a bit thinking the wind might be a bit scary but then pushed on. Bruce was somewhere just behind me, and I hadn’t heard anything on the radio…
Then it got pretty wild. I had no idea where the wind was coming from, but it was certainly unkind. Thankfully the Icepeak prefers to stay inflated and we danced through relatively unscathed, but that tell-tale that I know I’m stressed, when I lean forward out of my harness and start shoving my shoulders between my risers to keep them from twisting was my sign that it was time to be on the ground. But then as I headed to Fiesch the Grimsel wind hit me like a wall, that awful little snake that she is. So I crabbed against it for awhile, got over Fiesch but tired of combat flying and ran off downwind to a big field near the train tracks with a lot less rotor and came in with no problems. A short train ride and Bruce and I were back in Visp and together with the Niviuk mobile once again, plotting our big day tomorrow. Well, he was plotting, I just passed out.
The next morning the sky looked promising but the forecast was calling for moderately strong SW winds. To the east of us was most certainly Hammertag, but it was too late to make a move so we thought…let’s just fly there! We sketched out a one-way route through the Furka pass all the way to Innsbruck, Austria. If we got there it would be a stellar 265 kilometers. On the tram that morning were three Red Bull X-alps pilots, including fellow American and first time X-Alper, Stephan Hasse. They also planned to skip over the Furka so we’d have some fun company in the air.
After an hour and a half of pretty easy flying I was at the doorway to the Furka looking at a lot of snow, wondering how in the world we’d get over as base was not high. I made two solo attempts as I’d gotten a lucky early climb and was out in front of the others but didn’t get close and had to turn back to find lift. Then I tried it twice with a couple of the X-Alps dudes, but with the same result. When Bruce showed up we shouted at each other as he’d mistakenly turned the volume off on his radio and couldn’t receive me and decided we’d give up on the Furka and maybe get lucky and do a triangle in the Wallis (ie stay in Switzerland and along the Rhone). Thus far the SW winds hadn’t shown up…maybe the forecast was wrong.
So we headed back down the Rhone towards Martigny. The X-Alps guys stayed there and kept trying but we later found out they went nowhere. The base stayed annoyingly low but the climbs got better and we made good progress all the way to Leukerbad but then the wind hit, and it hit hard. What to do? I’d seen an awesome track log by Chrigel this spring that crossed over to Interlaken…maybe we could go downwind and lob over? Bruce and I were still having to shout to one another to communicate so we got in a thermal together and played “can you hear me????” for a few turns. “WHAT….DO….YOU……WANT…..TO……DO?”
“YOU HAVE TO GO POO?”
“NO…..WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO?”
“LET’S GO TO INTERLAKEN!!!!” I said.
I could hear him on the radio (he couldn’t hear me), and he replies “well that’s an interesting thought.”
So we turned and went deep into the Leukerbad valley looking for a climb out of the back. The photo above is the wall we were looking at. We needed 3200 meters to get across, and we had absolutely no idea what was on the other side. We only knew that the standard route across from the Rhone was not from Leukerbad, but from one valley to our East. But that option wasn’t on the table. Bruce found the lift first, I followed well later as I’d been searching around the corner, playing the windward / leeward game, yet another Nick Greece trick I’d picked up this year.
Eventually I caught up but couldn’t find the needed 200 meters to get to the top. I couldn’t see around the corner…Should I just go? Bruce was well over the top of the peak and radios that he’s going. “Skipper, I can see you. DO NOT GO from where you are, I repeat, DO NOT GO, it’s very flat terrain in front of you, you need the climb.”
So I went. Fuck it, I was tired of trying and I was high enough. I hoped.
Turns out I had plenty to work with and the wind at my back helped my glide. I could just make out the Interlaken valley about 40 kilmeters away. We still had plenty of daylight, plenty of time. Bruce was way up high over the terrain, I was down in the bouncy stuff, but soon enough we were back together just 10 kilometers from town, both lakes plainly in view. Bruce took an obvious route to windward, but I started getting an idea that I could extend this flight easily enough and possibly even circumnavigate the Eiger if I could just get back up on top of the main ridge above Grindelwald. As I couldn’t tell him my plan and he can’t see all that well:), pretty soon we were separated and he was telling me he was on the ground. As I soared along the gorgeous Interlaken lakes, I place I’d flown only a couple times back when I was a spring chicken pilot in the dying hours of the day in that magical mountain light I thought more than one time…this is the greatest thing we humans can do. FLY. I looked up at that marvelous wing above my head and said loudly, “thank you, thank you, thank you.” She’d carried me across some seriously wild terrain this year in Mexico, Colombia, and all over the Alps and yeah, we had plenty of work still to do, but she has my absolute respect and undying love.
Unfortunately I couldn’t gain the needed ridge to complete the circumnavigation, but the wind carried me easily along the north face of the valley ridge 30 kilometers towards Meiringen. Wildflowers, waterfalls, cliff faces, huge trees, green valleys, long lakes and some of the largest mountains in the world raced by in a way that not many people get to see and I found myself just fully absorbed and enjoying the ride.
I landed near the Meiringen train station, 168 kilometers from where we’d started. A few hours later I was enjoying a steak and a very large beer back in Visp and thinking…I might indeed be going to hell, but I’m sure having fun getting there.