Arrived Paris two weeks ago with Nate Scales, my Sun Valley flying buddy with huge plans of massive triangles in the Alps. Spring flying in Europe is spicy, strong and when you get the days completely RAD, but the days don’t come often. Patience is the key. My flying partner Bruce Marks arrived in the middle of April, got three back to back days of 8 hours+ in the air in the Wallis area (Fiesch, Riederalp, Zermatt, etc.) but since then it’s been…challenging.
We began with a train ride to Montpellier, in the south of France to meet up with Antoine Laurens, who had kindly been keeping the Niviuk mobile under roof at his parents house in Rodez, a gorgeous countryside eden replete with goats and green as far as they eye can see. Nate and I had a super fun flight in Millau, the local tandem-heavy site near the coast, got the mobile all fixed up for travel and headed north to Annecy, where it looked like we had a couple decent days to try to attempt something.
Our second flight in Europe was pretty special. Nate hadn’t had a chance to fly the famous Annecy back in 2007 when he competed in the Red Bull X-Alps, arguable the world’s most physical race. This year was a legend season for snow in the Alps and I’d never seen the mountains near the lake so white in May. Europe’s tallest mountain, Mt Blanc was calling us, but heavy cirrus kept us working south towards Grenoble then back north again to the lake to bag the triangle. It wasn’t a huge flight at 103 km as we battled a lot of head wind, but god it was awesome. No complaints.
Nate and I paid a visit to our good friend Gavin and Victoria, who have a “chalet” on the lake to wait out some bad weather and managed to get in a couple short flights off Col de Forclaz, the main launch in Annecy between bouts of rain. After hiking up for flight number two, there were some nutters setting up for a couple tandem wingsuit drops, so I grabbed the Niviuk Zion and hucked off with one of them to try to grab some shots. Didn’t get great shots, but pretty fun to watch him rocket by.
Figuring out weather is not my forte in the Alps, and as the weather pattern looked pretty complicated it was time for a call to Bruce Marks, who was UN-patiently waiting in Fiesch and Fanas and knows and follows the flying weather as well as anyone. And he’s fu%$#%#@ hungry! This dude wants big flights and works harder than anyone I know at getting them. Where to go? All of Europe looked pretty grim, but it seemed Annecy was probably the best. So I hopped in Gav’s Ferrari, dropped Nate off for an afternoon soaring session and ripped down to Geneva to pick Bruce up. Life can be very trying.
The next day we took off from Marlens, a morning site to the south of Lake Annecy facing SE for a hopeful run to St Hilaire and beyond. Heavy cirrus was again our curse and getting out proved super hard. Bruce got flushed and very uncharacteristically had to land and eventually Nate and I got out via the south end of the Aravis chain and started bucking a headwind wind south. By the time we got in the vicinity of Chambery the glide to the St Hilaire ridge was impossible against the wind, so we backtracked looking for a climb and ran into Bruce again, who had relaunched and flown fast to catch us up. Where to go? South was impossible, but maybe we could glide the valley to the south of Albertville and run south on the west facing ridge?
We all made the glide, got the best climb of the day in unseasonably stable conditions but couldn’t make anything of it. Soon we were all on the ground, looking up at a promising sky. Too early?
Yes, too early. Caught a rad series of hitches to St Hilaire where we all astonishingly met up just in time for a couple bottles of wine and a glorious french meal and a sound sleep, hoping for a big day. But again our mistake was too early. I am the first to admit to punching off too quickly- nearly all the time. I want long days and big miles. GO! But XCSkies showed zero XC potential and stable air. Better to wait, let the air cook a bit. But this was May! No way could it be stable in May! Alas getting out was a complete shit fight. So I punched off. There’s no where more beautiful to fly so again no complaints, but after two hours of trying and still being at the same altitude surfing the walls of St Hilaire dangerously close, I was getting quite bored, risking too for too little. What the hell?
Finally I hooked a decent thermal into catcher’s mit terrain that I’d tried unsuccessfully for two hours and got up high, but only to find horrible lee side dirty air that I had no idea what to do with except run. So I ran. Eventually I was with Bruce and Nate again in better air on the lower cliffs, at exactly the altitude of launch. Bitchin’. Where to go? Again we made the call to cross the valley and try the western facing slopes and bigger mountains. But again- too early. On the deck in the heat, pissed off, looking at a promising sky. But no one went anywhere that day, so maybe we did ok?
The next week’s forecast was pretty miserable. Rain and more rain. Nate only had a few days left, so we opped for a run to mighty Chamonix to at least get in a hike and take in the sights. Dropped Nate off in Martigny where he could get a train back to Geneva to grab his flight and Bruce and I carried on to Fiesch, where the forecast was for continued yuck. I quickly got the mobile stuck in the mud at the campground, which is hosted by the most awfullest swiss beast of nastiness you’ve ever met. I can’t understand anything she says, so I wasn’t too offended, but as awful as Swiss German is, I could tell she wasn’t impressed.
We sat in the rain for the last three days, Bruce and I. Drinking way too much scotch, playing too much chess, cursing the weather, and cursing the abysmal swiss food. What is it with them? Fonfuckingdue! On a good day in Fiesch there will be 150 pilots on launch. Bruce has flown a lot here, I’ve flown enough to know that when you are the only ones on launch, it’s a good sign that you shouldn’t be. Well today we were. On arrival it was snowing. Not super hard, but SNOWING. The wind was cross and from the wrong direction. The clouds were all wrong. WARNING! Not a single place open, no place to kill the time and have a coffee. But we waited, hoping for a change. Eventually it came, a smidgeon of sun which immediately fired a sequence of thermals and the snow stopped falling. An hour later we were on the deck 30 km up the valley towards the Furka after a rather fun ride downwind but nowhere to go. As I was packing up my wing near a train station a guy stopped who was clearly a pilot and asked where I’d come from. “Riederalp” I said.
“Riederalp! In this wind? It is dangerous! Where are you from? This is your first time flying here?”
“No, I’ve flown here quite a bit before. I’m from Idaho.”
“But you are the only one, no one is flying here and that is bad!”
“Actually there is one more, he’s up the valley. His name is Bruce.”