Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Chamonix 2004: A Paragliding Pilgrimage

We're back! Ten pilots from Oahu flew their hearts out in the French Alps for two weeks, and lived to tell the tale: four long days of traveling, ten gorgeous blue sky days packed with good flying, and three rainy days to relax. The first rainy day didn't come until we had been completely spoiled and exhausted by seven perfect weather days in a row, flying (and drinking) full time without a break. At that point we were relieved to finally take a breath and call home, do some laundry, check e-mail at the internet cafe, or just take a nap. I got back three weeks ago, a few days before most of the others, and it's taken me a while to recover from the twelve hours of time difference and to organize my thoughts and pictures into a story. Of course, this is just my version of some of the events that stand out -- I know there are a lot of other stories and points of view, so I hope my fellow travelers will take some time to share their perspectives on the trip. For myself, I know I've written quite a bit here: I just turned on the tap and this is what came pouring out of my besotted brain. To sort out my bleary recollections, I'm dividing my account of this epic adventure into five parts.

Part I: (Mis)Planning the Pilgrimage

On one hand, the story of this trip reads like a catalog of minor disasters, disappointments, and disagreements: starting with poor coordination and last-minute changes in our plans, continuing with airline engine trouble and missed connections, lost luggage, and apartment reservation snafus; followed by the daily struggle to get a recalcitrant and confused crew organized for flying and day trips, bickering among friends and spouses, an untold number of blown launches and landings in front of a large and disdainful international audience, scary tree crashes, frustrating extended sled rides, lousy or skipped meals, migraine headaches, bad colds, appliances from hell, sabotaged e-mail accounts, ruined radios, faulty cameras; and finally as we were leaving France, briefly stranding one of our crew at the border checkpoint on a cold grim morning before the sun was even up. It's a wonder we're still speaking to each other!

On the other hand, the trip was a resounding success in so many ways: we spent two weeks in one of the most breathtakingly beautiful locations on earth, and we were blessed with postcard-perfect weather for most of it; conditions were ideal for a gentle introduction to alpine flying; we all accomplished numerous great flights at unfamiliar sites, without injury (well, maybe our egos were bruised); we did more thermal flying in two weeks than we normally do in a year; and we learned to appreciate many aspects of the local culture -- especially the language, the breads and cheeses, and not least of all the many fine examples of world class brewing and viticulture. We met some very interesting French people, among them some really great pilots. And finally, we learned a lot about how to get along with each other during the many days we spent together.

So maybe it's because I'm just so darn cheerful, or maybe it's just because I was pleasantly buzzed for the entire trip, but I have to say that the more positive assessment definitely prevails in my mind. Seriously, it's mostly because of the great group of pilots who were able to help each other laugh through the low points, and to share the high points with style. I hope my fellow travelers will agree. Despite the difficulties inherent in traveling and flying new places, I think we have really raised the bar for epic flying vacations.

For anyone that somehow missed the long wind-up to this trip: this is the trip that was originally conceived by Ray (not Brazilian Ray, the other one) as a way for Oahu pilots to get together and fly in Europe without having to pay guiding fees: the idea was to hook up with Chris (aka Mad Dog) during his annual paragliding pilgrimage to Chamonix, the place where he first learned to fly, and just pick his brain for free. For his part, Chris did seem amenable to helping us out. He usually tries to go to Chamonix in September, after the low season for tourists begins and prices reach their lowest, but before the cable car summer shift ends and they close for maintenance. This time of year is also known for its good weather and mellower thermal conditions.

I was reluctant to consider this trip at first, for three reasons: first, because the idea of flying in the Alps was scary to me; second, because I knew I couldn't afford it; and third, because my wing seemed too old and tired for strong Alpine conditions. Or at least too dirty to fly in front of those stylish European pilots. But Crazy Ray's enthusiasm convinced me to ignore all of these worries and just go for it. I don't know exactly when I decided that I was really going. In fact, shortly before the trip began, Dorothy told me that she couldn't remember actually ever having said she thought it would be okay for me to consider going. Frankly, I couldn't remember getting her approval either -- it wasn't deliberate, but maybe I had just started off making tentative plans in hopes that she'd eventually acquiesce. The final obstacle was replacing my old wing: I knew an expense like this would double the cost of the trip, but I went ahead and just put it on my credit card.

As the summer went by, six pilots made plans to join Chris: Ray, me, Quentin, Don (and Yolie), June and Bob. At that point, the size of the group began to worry him - he didn't want to be embarrassed by a large group of tropical tree-landers following him around -- he said something about leaving to go fly the Pyrenees instead. What he didn't know was that Ken had told me he and Charlie were considering meeting up with us while we were there, which would bring the Oahu total to nine pilots.

Then, at the last possible minute, an unexpected and ironic switch in personnel: Ray cancelled his travel plans due to conflicts, and Pete announced his plans to join our crusade (probably because he couldn't bear the thought of hearing our great stories about flying in Europe without him). Now I was even more worried that Chris would follow through on his threats to bail out and head South on us. The tenth Oahu pilot was Jeff, Doug's most recent former student: I didn't find out until we were already in Chamonix that he would be there on his honeymoon and looking for some flying as well.

Even though Chris had advised us to wait until we got to Chamonix to find a place to stay, I had been worried about finding decent lodging for such a big group in an appropriate location. Chris had told me about the area where he likes to stay, near the Brevent lift station. So before we left I spent days of painstaking research, finally finding and reserving a very nice place in a good location for the five pilots who would be arriving first and were traveling without spouses. Don did some research too and found some good options for him and Yolie but didn't reserve anything ahead of time.

Part II: The Hawaii Tippling Team

It was a great pleasure and privilege, not to mention quite educational and entertaining, to spend this much intensive time with my local drinking buddies, most of whom I normally see a few hours a week at most. I didn't realize how much this trip would stretch the limits of my previous experience with bottled beverages.

To begin with, it took us forty hours of hard core traveling and drinking to get to Chamonix, starting with the inaugural beer I had with Quentin in Honolulu before we took off. Cheers, buddy! Then after spending a scheduled nine hour layover in Minneapolis, styled out in a luxurious crash pad courtesy of Bob, followed by a very interesting unscheduled 7 hour layover in Amsterdam, we arrived late at night in Geneva. We were late by about half a day. Thankfully, Pete was there to pick us up and drive us to Chamonix in the van that Don and Yolie had rented for the group.

Since no one else knew the details of the arrangements for the apartment, and we were delayed until the evening and out of communication, Pete had taken it upon himself to find and rent us an apartment for the week, before he picked us up that night. We appreciated his resourcefulness, even though it left us in a difficult situation with the owner of our original place. I knew that the guy had driven five hours from his home to get our place ready, and then he had waited all day for us because of our flight delays. So Pete and I went over to meet with him that same night, to try and explain why we weren't going to stay there. It was a very awkward position to be in, and I was feeling pretty miserable about it. A few days later, Bob came up with the excellent solution of taking up a small collection among ourselves to offer the guy as a gesture of apology for his trouble, which if nothing else made me feel a lot better about the whole debacle. I think the guy was slightly mollified as well.

But the location of the place Pete found for us turned out to be very convenient anyway, right next to where Chris and Don were staying -- we certainly made the best of it. It was a bit cheaper too. There were some minor problems with the amenities: there was no shower curtain, so Bob took it upon himself to fashion one out of several AFNOR-certified garbage bags; our washer/dryer was possessed by an evil spirit, unmoved by any of our sacrificial offerings; and finally, none of the settings on our oven performed more than a clever simulation of heating, as we found out in our epic experiment with a local specialty, La Tartiflette. And speaking of simulation, Bob also managed to set up an ingenious harness simulator on our balcony using the ladder from Quentin's bunk bed and some straps.

Another minor disaster greeted our arrival in Geneva: Bob's wing had somehow been misrouted. Bob and I drove back to Geneva to get it the next morning, and had quite a stressful adventure on the way back when we almost ran out of gas, trying to find a gas station that was open on a Sunday in some tiny little alpine villages. We ended up at an automated station with no attendant, only to find that the snobby French machines refused to recognize our nice shiny American credit cards. Finally, after employing our very limited French to beg several fellow motorists to help us, a nice French lady took pity on us, and she let us pay her in cash in exchange for putting our gas on her respectable French credit card.

Chris and Jeanine had arrived in the morning before the rest of us, and I was relieved to find out that Chris was actually very pleased to have us all coming to fly with him after all, despite our large numbers. A few days later, Ken and Charlie showed up at a hotel across town, increasing the Oahu team to an epic nine members. After a full week of really epic flying and drinking, Pete and Quentin and Ken and Charlie all took off for other places in Europe, leaving me and Bob and June alone in our large unit for the second week. Don and Chris remained in their separate units with their spouses. Poor June came down with a bad cold along the way, and wasn't able to participate in all our activities fully, but I think the rest of us really came together and made an effort to imbibe her share. And we found that there's nothing like an impromptu barbershop medley to inspire sick people to get out and fly.

Don was definitely the prankster of our group. I wish I could remember all the funny stuff he did. One of his best ideas was a radio prank he pulled on Chris after the long drive to Annecy one day. Pete had left us a few days before, along with Quentin and Ken and Charlie, but Pete had said he might be coming back through town at some point on his way out of Europe. We didn’t think that was too likely, since we knew how Pete’s plans change every minute. So here we are driving around in Annecy, with Don in the back of the van, and Chris in the front, separated by a middle seat that held me and lots of gear. There were a lot of separate conversations going on. Suddenly we hear an unexpected voice on the radio out of the blue: “Hey Mad Dog, Reaper.” Chris picks up his radio:

- Pete? Is that you?
- Yeah, man. Bzzt. I’m here in Annecy.
- Where are you? Your voice sounds kind of strange.
- Oh, I’m bzzt girls bzzt drunk bzzt and bzzt.
- Pete, the signal is bad, but your voice is really wierd. Is it really you?
- Yes bzzt I have a little bzzt cold.
- Well, if it's really you, what was your nickname before Hawaii?
- Chickenbone, of course! Bzzt.
- Hey, it really is you! So what are you doing in Annecy?
- Bzzt see you guys bzzt Chamonix bzzt.

And Chris says: “Wow! Did you hear that, everyone? Reaper’s back! He sure sounded strange though. Wonder where he is? I couldn’t understand what he was saying, the transmission was terrible.” At this point the whole rest of the van was trying not to explode with hysterical laughter. Later Jeanine gives him a hard time when he realizes it had been Don impersonating Pete. He said normally he wouldn’t have fallen for such a stunt but maybe he’d been kind of tipsy. But the joke was on everyone at the end of the day. After a long day flying in Annecy, we’re driving back into Chamonix, and just as we’re pulling into town, a radio once again crackles to life: “Mad Dog, Reaper.” Chris rolls his eyes, looks around, and says, "Okay, knock if off, guys." But this time it wasn't Don on the radio: to everyone's surprise, it was actually Pete – he’d managed to find his way back to spend a couple more days with us before heading off to Canada.

Here's another team-building exercise I remember vividly: after Bob had struggled for a week or so trying to get his Road Runner web-mail service to work at the CyBar, the nearby internet cafe and bar, he broke down and accepted my offer to perform some computer wizardry to resolve his e-mail problems. At first everyone was impressed when I managed to configure a copy of Outlook Express to download his messages so he could view them. I was kind of surprised that he had so many - like 400 or so. What an important guy! What I didn't realize was that Bob always leaves all his messages in his inbox on the Road Runner server, and my solution had moved all his many months of stored messages from the server to the CyBar computer.

When Bob was done reading his mail, I thoughtfully deleted all traces of the account and the messages from Bob's CyBar station, permanently, to protect the big guy's privacy. Only after I pressed the delete key did I start to think that maybe I had made a mistake. Yes, my wizardry turned out to be the blackest sort of magic, a real hex. But when I meekly admitted to Bob that, gee, perhaps I had just deleted all of his e-mail archives forever, he picked me up and threw me out the window of the CyBar, into the icy water of the river. No, actually he was upset but strangely calm -- and he told me he definitely wouldn't be needing my help with his e-mail in the future. Still, I felt terrible and very embarrassed about the whole thing. I also kept a wary eye on him whenever we were out walking near the river.

Another time we unwittingly abused good old Bob was on our way out of town on our last day in France. After we got ourselves up at 3:30 am, Don drove us all to Geneva. We were running late to make our flight, but we hoped we would just make it. We weren’t sure if we really had time, but we stopped on the way at the border control station, to hand in our duty forms for our new gear. The nice guy at the paragliding shop had not charged us the VAT tax, and these forms would ensure that he didn’t have to pay it himself. We gave Bob the forms and our passports, and we tried to turn around to find a place to park for a minute. But we got confused and ended up with a police car urging us to keep going, pushing us back onto the highway back into France.

Now poor Bob was stranded in the cold and dark waiting for us outside the border station – and he had our passports. And we were going to be even later for our flight! We took our first exit, which unfortunately put us on a different highway headed somewhere else. Uh oh. It wasn’t looking good. But somehow Don managed to make a few clever moves to get us turned back around, and we made it back to the border to pick Bob up again. He said the customs lady was as grim as could be, and had insisted on seeing all the gear. So we dragged all our gear into the little booth, and started to open up our painstakingly stuffed backpacks, but she finally broke down and stamped our papers. We finally got to the airport just in time. Lucky for us, Geneva is a pretty small airport and we didn’t need a lot of time to get through security and customs and onto the flight.

Part III: The French Alps

For me, one of the most remarkable aspects of the Chamonix trip was just spending time in a world class resort town in the French Alps: seeing the incredible alpine landscape for the first time, observing the French people and their ubiquitous dogs, trying to speak and understand the language (of the people, not the dogs), eating fabulous bread, alpine cheeses and salamis -- and of course, drinking vast quantities of really excellent (but inexpensive) wine and beer. We found we could buy very tasty bottles of Bordeaux and Cote du Rhone and other great wines for only 2 or 3 euros, and we sometimes splurged on some really fancy ones for just a bit more. We also discovered some very tasty French beers that surprised us: my favorite was the Pelforth Brune, a delicious sweet dark English-style brown ale that is tragically not available anywhere in this country. I wish I had thought to bring some back with me!', 'I arrived in town at night, so it wasn't until the next morning that I was struck by my first sight of the valley. The Chamonix valley is so deep, and the rocky snow-topped peaks surrounding it are so steep and high -- they look like they're going to just tip over into the valley at any moment. At night we would often mistake the lights on the highest cable car stations for stars.

Of course, the pride of Chamonix is Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Europe at 4808 meters, towering brilliant and white over the valley and peeking down into our apartments to greet us each morning as the sun rose behind it. On some light wind mornings, we would squint to see miniscule specks of color circling over the summit at first light, barely visible from so far below: paraglider pilots who had made the grueling all-night icy ascent from the last cable station to the top of the massif, so they could launch at daybreak and soar the summit before starting a long cross country trip. More on this later! Also amazing to see were the numerous glaciers hanging down into the Chamonix valley from the Mont Blanc massif. It’s not hard to imagine why this place is known for it’s extreme skiing and mountain climbing.


The old section of town near our place was quaint and beautiful: a maze of cobblestone streets winding between old classy French hotels and apartment buildings, crammed with brasseries and shops catering to the tourists. Many of the sidewalks are slabs of ancient granite. On the walk up the hillside to our apartment, and elsewhere around the residential areas of the village, we saw gorgeous picturesquechalets and alpine lodges made of enormous beams of wood, topped with roofs of impossibly thick slate slabs. Our apartment was located pretty high up on the North side of the valley, with a nice wraparound balcony that gave us unobstructed views of the town below and across to the ridge on the South side, including Mont Blanc.

The town of Chamonix is bisected by the strange and beautiful river Arve. It is a rushing torrent of limestone-tinted glacier runoff, penned into a huge granite-lined chute to run narrow but deep right through the middle of town. It is spanned by a variety of quaint bridges, for foot and road and rail traffic. I was constantly taken aback at the opacity of the river's creamy light green color against the dark grey granite bed. It was like frothy light green milk. This river continues out to the plains at the mouth of the Chamonix valley, where we often flew in the afternoons, and the pace of the rapids slows down to a more relaxed burble, but still just as opaque and limestone green.

Part IV: Flight Log

I should admit that for me, the idea of flying in the Alps has always been at the same time appealing and terrifying. I know it's widely considered the birthplace of paragliding, and paragliding still seems to flourish there like a brand new fad. But I also know a lot of better pilots than I have perished there, and that the conditions can be very strong and treacherous. Thankfully, September lived up to its reputation for mellow conditions, compared to the stronger thermic days of spring and summer. It turned out to be a perfect introduction to alpine flying for a meek tropical pilot like me. I've annotated my flight log according to my beer-fogged recollections three weeks later:

Day One: Sunday, September 5

Bob and I missed the first flight of the trip, since we went back to Geneva to get Bob's wing, and got sort of lost and stressed out coming back as we almost ran out of gas. We didn't realize then that, according to Don at least, that first flight would prove to have been by far the easiest ascent to cloudbase on the whole trip! So anyway we made it back for the second flight of the day.

We all launched from Planpraz, which would turn out to be our normal morning and midday launch site. To get there, we would walk up a hundred meters to the Brevent lift and then ride the cable car up to a point midway up the ridge, at about 2000 meters. From the station, we would walk up past the restaurant and then make a choice between the two huge, smooth and grassy launch areas, depending on the wind direction. The launches were often crowded with pilots, tandems and students and visitors like us.

For this late morning flight, we used the spot that faces up valley. I launched later in the sequence of Oahu pilots, and by the time I got up it was clear that the house thermal over the top of the cable car station was working. I managed to crank up in that thermal fairly quickly, reaching cloudbase without a lot of effort, directly over the launch plateau but a ways out from the ridge. I guess Don was right about this day. The view was incredible and the ease of ascending was almost scary.


As I reached cloudbase, I got spooked by my approach to the clouds (as usual) and left the lift early. I know the 1st rule of XC flying is never to leave lift, but I have to admit: I actually leave lift quite often. I saw Chris up as high as me but a lot closer to the ridge, and he pointed out the Gran Bornand peak visible behind the ridge. Then he left the launch ridge to head towards the Flegere cable station up the valley. I headed that way as well, keeping farther away from the ridge, and after milking some lift from a few more thermals on the way over, I managed to get established below him over the Flegere station. But I didn’t ever feel like I was getting high enough above the terrain to be comfortable, so before too long I left Chris and headed back to the launch ridge where we had started.


Chris came back later, and actually ended up landing just before me in the LZ closest to our apartment, the Clos du Savoy field. It is a huge field surrounded by trees and buildings, with some bunny hill ski lifts running through it. After watching Chris set up and land, I came down intending to follow his example. But somehow I misjudged the approach and came in too far downwind, an error I've made a few times before here at home. As I struggled upwind I found massive sink over the buildings and trees, and my alternative landing options began to rapidly diminish. I was jamming my feet on my speed bar to try and get through the sink quicker, and at the last second I thought I could still make it to the LZ by squeaking between two tall spindly pine trees into the field. So I held my course, and held my breath too, to make myself super skinny.

But I was tragically deceiving myself. The lines on both sides of me snagged the trees, arresting my forward motion three or four stories up between two spindly trees. As Chris watched, I flared to stall the glider into the treetops, and then I came crashing down through the branches as my glider settled down into the tallest branches. Chris said he thought I was going to die right there. But thanks to the branches, the glider in the treetops, and my boots and back protection, I somehow managed to land softly enough not to be injured. It was kind of a miracle, I guess. The other miracle, according to Chris, was that there was only one other pilot in the LZ at the time, a French dude who just looked at Chris and rolled his eyes. Chris told me he shrugged in agreement!

But I wasn't out of the trees yet. I ended up ripping a stabilo line as I yanked my glider down. I was afraid I'd be out of commission until I could find a replacement, but Chris showed me how to tie it back together and I only lost an inch or so. This would turn out to be the worst, but only the first, of many incidents where my ego would take a sound beating: but nothing that couldn't be salved by a frosty cold beverage.

Day Two: Monday, September 6

Launched from Planpraz again. Chris blasted straight to cloudbase again, as he would on every day we flew with him, even when no one else could. He was often the first person to stay up on a given day, before all the tandem and local and visiting pilots. And I managed to get up high over launch again myself, although we didn’t go anywhere up or down valley. I remember leaving the lift again on this day, as I got spooked being higher than other folks in my particular thermal for any length of time. My main concern today was the landing, which was at least on the ground and in the LZ this time, although I came in too fast and mistimed my flare -- I could see I would have to get used to the light wind landings.

Later, after some frosty refreshments, we rode the Aiguille du Midi cable car on the other side of the valley up to the midway point on that ridge, and tried the Plan du l'Aiguille launch, this one at about 2300 meters. This launch is supposed to be good in the afternoon after this side of the valley heats up. Another huge beautiful grassy launch. But there was almost no one else there on this day. I don’t think it’s nearly as popular as the other side where we flew most often. Anyway, we launched, and didn’t find much lift, so we all headed straight over to the nearby Bosson glacier to take a close-up peek before we turned back and headed towards the LZ. I enjoyed another mostly uneventful landing. Then back to the apartments for some refreshing cold beverages.

Day Three: Tuesday, September 7

Launched Planpraz in the morning again. This time I wore Bob’s new helmet cam, at his request. I hoped I would get a good high thermic flight for the camera. And I told Bob I hoped I’d get to do some turning in thermals with other people: I wanted to record the incredibly cool perspective you get when you and another pilot are both cranked over into a hard turn in the same thermal, staring at each other, the other pilot and glider apparently suspended unmoving across from you, while the background spins and drops away. So I launched with high hopes.

And after what seemed like an eternity working in thermals that were somewhat lighter that the previous days, I did finally manage to get up over launch, and then up to cloudbase, making many well-documented turns in thermals with Don, Quentin and Chris. I only regret I was concentrating so hard on the flying that I didn’t manage to utter a sound for the audio portion. Oh well. Maybe I can do some voice overs later. After we got to cloudbase (although I’m sure I left the lift before the others), I followed Chris and Quentin towards Flegere and the back of the valley. I worked a few thermals there but once again didn’t find any that were as good as over our launch plateau. I headed back soon after and landed, exhausted. Time for some nice cold drinks back at the apartments.


In the afternoon, we went to a new site: Plaine Joux. This was the site Jon had told us was one of his favorites. It is only about 15 minutes drive from Chamonix at the mouth of the valley, where it opens up to a big plain surrounded by more distant ranges. It’s supposed to be a good afternoon site. The launch is a drive up, on a gorgeous treed plateau below sheer rocky cliffs often surrounded by wispy clouds. Today they were surrounded by a huge grey mass of clouds. But we saw some pilots up near the clouds along those peaks, and we got pretty excited.

The launch was incredible – an enormous facility with parking lots, bathrooms, two paragliding shops, a huge field for setting up, and a large manicured gravel launch, fenced off so spectators wouldn’t bother the pilots. This place was crowded with spectators and pilots alike. We launched into good cycles and managed to get up above launch for quite a while, although we never could quite get up high enough to make the jump over the plateau to the back. Quentin ended up top landing to drive the van down, even though we’d been told people don’t do that at this site. Of course that’s all you need to tell Quentin if you want him to try something.

After quite a while working to stay up, as the sun sank lower in the sky, the rest of us finally started to sink out and began flying down the plateau towards the LZ, located at the beginning of the open part of the plains. Suddenly we noticed that we were no longer descending – we started to feel gentle and smooth lift no matter which way we turned. I was very confused and actually a bit spooked by this. I like to understand where my lift is coming from, and this was quite mysterious and disconcerting. Then I happened to look up and saw two or three incredibly tiny and high specks of color up near the sun in my view: they were gliders, impossibly high, barely visible.

Oh my god – now I knew: this mysterious lift would suck me up to Mars like those guys! I pulled big ears, but I was still going up. Then I did a little spiral dive and managed to descend, but as soon as I stopped I went shooting up again. Then after a whole series of small spirals, I finally managed to get close enough to the LZ that I wasn’t rising anymore. It’s still quite buoyant but I’m descending, which felt more normal. I land, with great relief. I think I kissed the ground.


Shortly afterwards the other guys land, and then they’re all saying something about an epic glass-off (or restitution as the French call it), a phenomenon mountain pilots are familiar with, where the vegetation in a valley releases all the stored up heat of the day in a long drawn out buoyant exhalation. I’m skeptical – I’ve never heard of a strong glass-off that sucks you to Mars like those specks I saw. But everyone laughed at my fearfulness and said it was definitely a glass-off. I guess it was. We finally figured out that those little specks had launched from Mont Blanc earlier, which explains why they were so high. As we sat at the great little bar right next to the LZ, we saw one of them land just at sunset, and he walked by us with his ice pick and climbing gear.

Day Four: Wednesday, September 8

On this day Pete had arranged with a local paraglider pilot and mountain guide, Eric, to take us up to the top of the Aiguille du Midi cable car and launch from the snowy shoulder of Mont Blanc, at 3842 meters, just as Jon had done in the epic flight he recorded for our web site last year. We had to rent crampons from the mountaineering shop the night before, because there would be some steep and difficult sections of ice to traverse to reach the place where we’ll launch. I had to rent boots too, because my lame boots wouldn’t even hold the crampons. The shop guys didn’t think too much of our chances.

Another voice of dissent was Yolie's: she had been up to the top of the cable car the day before, and happened to notice a couple of maniacs launching from up there in the snow. she got it on her video camera, and when she showed it to us later that day, we could hear her voice on the video saying "no...oh no...god no...this is what NOT to do." Don found out that she meant that very literally, and she meant him in particular. I think he should win the gracious husband award for acceding to her wishes on this one, staying behind while the rest of us went up the next day to try it for ourselves. I have to admit that I thought her footage combined with that horrified voice-over were pretty spooky - it didn't help me feel any more confident about this crazy idea.

From Jon’s account, I knew this would be a high altitude launch in the snow, soaring over glaciers and through canyons, to come out high over the Chamonix valley. I was a bit worried about our attempt though, because we were going to start at midday, instead of the morning conditions that Jon had said were required. What did this mean? Maybe we were going to be riding crazy high altitude thermals up into the stratosphere, or to Mars. I didn’t really understand what we were getting ourselves into. I asked Eric about it and he didn’t seem to understand my question, or I didn’t understand the answer.

But everyone else was feeling positive. I figured I could always back out at the last minute. The only worry we had was about which side of the slope we’d have to use for our launch – apparently the North slope faces into the valley, over a sheer icy drop, and some people have died trying to launch there, while the South slope faces away from the valley and is more forgiving. We didn’t know which we would use until we got up there and Eric could assess the conditions. As we rode the cable car up with Eric, I found myself thinking very seriously about riding it right back down after we got up there.


Then as we got off the car, and made our way through the tunnel cut through the glacial ice, with our massive backpacks, we got strange looks and whispers from the tourists and mountain trekkers. Emerging onto a little fenced off ledge outside the tunnel, we got a good view of the mountains around us, and we could see that we were really up on the snowy pinnacle of the world, above the clouds. Eric took us in two separate groups, roping one group together and leading us down the steepest part of the ridge, before returning for the next group. Eric said that if Bob happened to fall off the narrow ridge on either side, then everyone else should immediately jump the other way to balance it out.

Once we got to the launch area, we were relieved to hear Eric say he thought we could use the South slope, facing away from the Chamonix valley and into the Vallee Blanche, because the wind from the valley wasn’t so strong that we’d be affected by any rotor turbulence from behind us. This slope had a nice gentle incline with plenty of room to run. Maybe we’d survive this after all. Quentin laid his glider out in the snow first, and did a great forward launch into the cold still air, quickly disappearing around a rocky spire in the distance. Chris went next, and repeated the excellent launch and disappearing act.


Then it was my turn. I really don’t have a lot of experience with forward launches, but I figured I could do one in a pinch. Well, I was wrong: I totally blew my first attempt, running too fast and tripping, sprawling face first in the snow with my glide fluttering down to cover me. I was exhausted from the adrenaline and mortified. But I gathered myself up and laid my glider out again right away, somehow managing to make it work the second time and getting airborne.

The glide through the canyons was like being in another world. Floating through the abyss, silent and cold, the brilliant blue sky overhead, between distant rocky walls to each side, topped with snow, and a stunning aerial view of the Vallee Blanche and the Mer de Glace below. And the immensity of the space I was in was impossible to appreciate. My flight seemed to be in slow motion, taking forever to cross what seemed like short distances to my vision. I couldn’t tell how close I was to the walls of the canyons.

At one point I looked over my shoulder and saw Bob behind me, just coming into view after the first turn, but he looked impossibly small and far away. Eric had warned us not to waste our altitude, but to just glide all the way out to the Chamonix valley, because if we ended up having to set down on the Mer de Glace below, we’d find the incline was too shallow to be able to relaunch, and we’d have a very long walk ahead of us.


As I finally came out into the valley, about 15 minutes after launching, I could see Quentin high above me in a thermal on the shoulder of the ridge where we’d emerged, and Chris was about at my level but closer the ridge, scratching in light lift and thinking he was done for. I think Pete was up there too, having crossed over higher. I flew over to where Chris was struggling, and I watched him finally hook something and rise away, but I never could manage to get anything myself. I don’t think I really gave it my best effort anyway, since I was kind of exhausted from the adrenaline.

I remember Jon’s account of kissing the ground after he finished his flight last year – and I knew how he felt: I was ready for some smooching myself. I landed in the hot LZ, tired and relieved, took off the zillion layers of clothing I had worn, down to my shorts, and relaxed with Bob, waiting for the other guys, who landed a bit later. My flight from top to bottom was about 30 minutes – pretty long for a sled ride. We all felt very fortunate to have the chance to try this flight: later that day we drank many toasts to our good fortune!

Day Five: Thursday, September 9

Today we decided to go fly the sites at Lake Annecy. First we went to the site called Montmin, or Col du Forclaz. It was a gorgeous plateau over one end of the lake, with carpeting laid out to the edge of the launch, overlooking the azure water of the lake far below. It was crowded with pilots, but it was clear that no one was actually getting up at that point – they were just going for sled rides. But what a pretty ride – we were definitely up for it. We all launched off and sailed down over the lake, then landed in the huge LZ below the bottom of the lake, next to a little stand that sold beer.


We were sorry it was just a sledder but it was sure a nice place to be anyway. As we were relaxing and enjoying our refreshing cold beverages, I heard June say she saw people actually starting to get up over launch. One glance confirmed that she was pulling my leg. I could see the guys coming right down towards us. But then later someone says, look, they’re getting up at the other launch, at the middle of the lake. Sure enough -- turns out that’s what June had seen too.

So off we go to the other launch, called Planfait. Again, it’s totally crowded, but we find places and huck ourselves off into the colorful churning chaos of wings. The thermals are on the light side and not that easy to work here, especially with the air so crowded, but we manage to get up and mostly stay above launch, trying to hook a good one that will get us up and over the plateau to the ridge behind to soar the rocky spires called the Dents de Lanfon (Teeth of Lanfon).

Chris gets high enough to go around the corner to where some guys are struggling to ride a ridge up higher, and he catches a good thermal and gets up, announcing his progress on the radio, inviting us to join him. The rest of us try the same thing many times over the course of our flight, but only Quentin and Pete manage to make it work and they follow Chris up to the teeth.

Chris keeps telling us on the radio that he’s up on the teeth, and asking if anyone else is coming. It’s not like we weren’t trying. Man it was crowded in the air over the launch plateau, like bumper cars, but even when you got up a bit higher it never really was enough to follow Chris to the teeth. Eventually we landed at the huge long strip of a landing zone, setting up like fighter jets on a carrier with a zillion other pilots coming in at the same time. Pete descended from the teeth to join us as well. We get some beers from the bar next to the LZ here, and we hear Chris telling us again, he’s up on the teeth. Don pulls out his radio, and says:

- Hey, Mad Dog, are you up on the teeth?
- Yes, I am. It’s great!
- So you mean, you made it up to the teeth?
- Yes, I’m up on the teeth.
- Does that mean you’re up there, soaring at the teeth, right now?
- Yes, I just told you, I’m up here at the teeth.
- So you’re really up at the teeth, then?

Finally Chris goes quiet, as it sinks in through his euphoria that maybe Don is giving him a hard time. I was cracking up. But Chris has the last laugh: Quentin decides he’s had enough of the teeth and heads out to cross the lake, over the castle in the middle, arriving on the ridge at the other side to soar for a while, and Chris follows him. After we heard they’d landed, we drove all the way around the lake to find them at a little bar right next to where they had landed. Later Chris explains that it’s always been his dream to get up on those teeth, and he’s tried it many times over the years, finally succeeding today.

Day Six: Friday, September 10

Launching Planpraz again. Today the conditions are a little strange, and the wind is not coming up the launch area quite as nicely as the other days. It’s kind of light, really. It’s still totally crowded though. But all our guys manage to do nice forward launches and they get off. For some reason I’m taking my time so I’m last to set up – maybe because I dreaded doing a forwad and I was hoping the wind would pick up so I could do a reverse. Then the wind starts cycling downslope. Ugh. Now I’m really in trouble. I see some guys wait until the streamers stop blowing down – as soon as the streamers go slack, they rush off with perfect launches.

So finally I get the nerve to try an attempt. Whack. Total disaster, wing all over the place, no launch. More guys go off with nice forwards in no wind at all. I try again. Whack. Total disaster. I ended up trying like five times to get off. Finally, someone calls over and says the other launch is working better now. I follow the guys over and sure enough there’s enough wind for a reverse. Hallelujah! This I can do.

After I land, I tell Bob what happened and he kindly offers to share with me his recent experiences learning to forward launch on Maui, and he gives me an excellent forward launch clinic right there in the Clos du Savoy LZ. I think I worked on them for like an hour, as Bob went back to the apartment and retrieved some cold refreshments for us.

After that I was exhausted, but I was beginning to see what was involved in a good forward launch. The main point is this: don’t run your butt off right away – instead, just take a single step, and as you do, use your forward position to pull the wing smoothly all the way up. Only then do you start running, slowing the wing down slightly to prevent it from overshooting, and releasing the brakes smoothly as you gain running speed.

Later, after some more refreshing beverages, we go to Plaine Joux again, hoping for another glass off. The other guys were hoping anyway, I still wasn’t sure I wanted one. I didn’t get to do a forward launch, because there was plenty of wind here. And it never glassed off, but we had a good afternoon of flying, getting up over launch in some nice thermals several times. After landing, we lounged in the LZ a while, then walked over to our favorite little bar at the LZ.

Day Seven: Saturday, September 11

Planpraz again. Today we had heard the wind might turn strong. But when we were there the wind on launch was light, and I did a good forward launch. Thanks, Bob! I managed to find a thermal and climb up over launch for a while, but I ended up flying out of the lift because I was worried about the possibility of rotor from the ridge tops, and the clouds seemed to be moving faster than usual.

As I approached the LZ I found some pretty well organized lift over the stadium in the middle of the valley – I often found myself working this thermal as I approached, thinking maybe I’d get an incredibly low save out of it, but it always just proved to be a brief detour on my way down. But it was kind of cool to find myself turning in light lift, pretty low right over the center of town. After landing we relaxed with some cold beverages.

For the afternoon flight, we went back to Plaine Joux – we were desperately searching for that glass off. This time we worked light lift for an hour but never managed to get much above launch at all. After landing, we relaxed in the LZ for a while, and then headed to the LZ bar to watch the last pilots make their landing approaches.

Day Eight: Sunday, September 12


Day Nine: Monday, September 13

The weather was still a bit unsettled, and we didn’t see any of the usual morning tandems floating down from Planpraz this morning, but later in the morning we finally saw some gliders in the air, so we rode up to check it out. Bob thought to ask a (cute girl) local pilot at the launch what she thought of the conditions. She said it had been too windy earlier, but now it was good, and it would probably get too windy again, so best not to get too far or too high.

Then I notice she’s flying a Kortel harness, which I’d heard great things about. Charlie on the Big Island said his flying has totally changed since he got one. I asked her how she liked it. She said it had totally changed her life since first trying one four years ago. Now she is on the French national paragliding team. Wow. She told me the designer, who also happens to be the current French national champion and leader of the French team, makes them in a shop in a nearby village. Wow again. Then she pulled out her cell phone and called him up to see if I could demo one that very afternoon, and told him I would be coming. Now I was speechless, but I somehow managed to ask her name – she said it was Caroline. Later I realized she wasn’t just a local pilot - I had been talking to Caroline Brille, the current French national women’s paragliding champion, and number three in the world.

After launching, I worked hard to find a good thermal but I never got above launch. Chris got up with his usual apparent ease, and this time he had a new partner for his little XC mission: June. He kept asking on the radio – is this June up here? Is June above me? What’s going on – does anyone know if June is up here above me? Finally Chris and June flew off up the valley towards Flegere. It was a great flight for both of them. This time we landed in the Bois du Bouchet LZ. This LZ is easier to approach, and it’s better that the other one when there’s any valley wind since it’s a flatter area with a cleaner fetch. Refreshment time!

Later we went to Plaine Joux but it had turned too windy. So we went to Denis Cortella's shop and tried the harness. We all tried it. Unfortunately he couldn’t let me demo it like I had wanted because it was already sold, so I guess we were lucky just to get to try it. Denis showed me all the adjustments and pointed out all the cool features. I really liked it. Denis said the shop in Annecy might have one I could try. After that we headed home and enjoyed some refreshing beverages before thinking about dinner.

Day Ten: Tuesday, September 14

Rain. We went to Annecy to shop for gear. Don wanted to buy a new harness, and Bob wanted a vario, and I wanted to try and demo the Kortel harness and maybe try on helmets, since I was borrowing Fireman Dave’s old helmet. As many people know, mine had been crushed by a Hobie cat months earlier in a tragic freak accident. Well, everyone ended up getting the goodies on their list. I was reluctant to get the harness because I was already in debt for my wing, and when I had mentioned to Dorothy that I might look for one, even though my current one was in great shape, she had explicitly asked me to please wait until later when we were in the black.

Don had started calling the Kortel harness a life-changing harness, since two different people had told me this harness had totally changed their flying after they began using it. He joked that it would definitely change my life if I bought it – I’d be living in a trailer and visiting my kids on the weekends. That didn’t help me make a decision. Unfortunately the shop owner was taking the harness to St. Hilaire for the Coupe Icare festival that day, so I couldn’t go out and test fly it. Plus it didn’t really seem flyable there that day anyway.

But I guess I must have seemed like a pretty desparate gear junkie: Don offered to loan me the money to avoid the credit card interest, and Bob even offered to help me make the purchase with a generous donation, just to put me out of my misery. So I took their offers, and I bought it -- and I got a helmet too. After flying the harness a few times, I’m really glad I got it. I’m not sure if my life is changing yet but I’m certainly open to the possibility. Thankfully, Dorothy was not too upset with me, but I know I’ve got my work cut out for me now to pay off all the goodies.

Day Eleven: Wednesday, September 15


Day Twelve: Thursday, September 16

The wind was too strong and not a good direction for flying in Chamonix today. And it was cloudy and kind of grim looking. We didn’t really know where else to go, so we drove to Annecy just to go somewhere, on the off chance it might be flyable there. It turned out to be flyable, and not just that: it was strong and smooth, ridge lift just like in Hawaii. Incredible. Jeff Eggers had showed up the day before, and he had come with us to Annecy. While the rest of us were deciding if it was really any good, he jumped off and started having a great flight.

We all eventually followed him. I flew my new harness and unfortunately began to sink out while I was trying to adjust it. I should have got some height before I started to work on it, but I have to admit I was a bit scared of getting too high in the strong lift that day – also, the clouds were kind of low and scary. There were a zillion pilots up with us that day, more than any site on any day yet.

The wind at the LZ was quite gusty and strong, and I saw a lot of pilots were getting blown back into various fields near the LZ. After seeing that, I set up way ahead and backed in to my spot. I was amazed to see dozens of gliders actually kiting in a place I thought of as a light wind thermic site. The rest of the guys landed, and then we watched June get blown into a nearby field on her approach. Bob went to find her, and the rest of us enjoyed some cold refreshments. The little beer shack at the LZ was closed, but Bob had cleverly thought to bring some along from home.

Day Thirteen: Friday, September 17

We launched Planpraz again as the weather had totally cleared up. It was another beautiful blue sky day with light wind again, but it turned out to be a pretty stable day in terms of air pressure, and the thermals were very light and hard to get up in. Even so, after a long time groveling below launch, I surprised myself and managed to work one really great thermal almost to cloudbase. I saw that Chris had taken off down valley for a change, towards Les Houches, and I followed him over there. But as soon as I got near I realized he was low and starting to scramble back, since he hadn’t found any lift worth staying for. I turned around too and we both headed for the LZ.

After some refreshing drinks, we headed to Plaine Joux for our farewell flight. Maybe we’d get that glass off on our last day! But the conditions were really getting stable, and we ended up just scratching around in really light lift for a long farewell sledder. We didn’t waste much time at the bar this time because we wanted to get back into town for a last dinner with everyone.

Part V: Credits and Sponsors

This trip would never have happened for me without all the help and support I got from my family, and the encouragement of my friends, and the assistance of many helpful people in France. So who gets the credit for this trip? Pretty much everyone I can think of. But I'd like to offer the following people my most sincere gratitude (in no particular order):

Dorothy, far and away the most understanding and supportive spouse any paragliding junkie could ever hope to have, for letting me pursue my (other) passion halfway around the globe; and my wonderful kids and parents-in-law, for making this trip possible with their help and forbearance and patience. I'm definitely the luckiest guy I know.

Libba and David (my parents), for making a generous donation to my cause at the last minute, enough to cover my share of the rent, van and meals (but probably not for all the beer and wine -- that came from a special slosh fund). My parents were in Chamonix for their honeymoon in 1960, and they sent me the picture on the left, taken from the Aiguille cable car. Compare it with an aerial shot I took in 2004 as I looked for lift over the cable car line:


Jeanine and Yolie, traveling spouses, drivers, hikers and translators extraordinaire, for all their help and support.

Chris (Mad Dog), our defacto tour leader, for agreeing to let us barge in on his annual flying vacation. He really turned out to be a great and natural group leader. Thanks for not leaving us to go fly the Pyrenees, Mad Dog! You're my hero.

Ray, for thinking of doing this trip in the first place, even though in the end he couldn't arrange his schedule to allow it! Thanks for giving me the nudge to consider doing this, Ray! Come over and fly with us in Hawaii sometime, you crazy acro nut.

Don, for arranging an incredibly great deal on the nine-person Mercedes Van through Yolie's airline employment. It was an awesome and huge vehicle, and we needed every cubic inch of it. Also, Don graciously offered to loan me the money for my new harness and helmet, so I wouldn't have to add them to my already overloaded credit card.

Quentin, for letting me and June and Bob share the great deal on airfare he got from his Chinatown travel agent. And for numerous cold drinks and even a few cuban cigars along the way. Thanks again, Quentin.

Bob, our fearless videographer and documentary producer, for the zillion helpful things he did for all of us: booking and paying for our fabulous crash pad in Minneapolis, buying beer and chocolates for the group at every opportunity, making a shower curtain, installing a balcony-based simulator for harness adjustment, and even making a donation towards my new harness. Bob also gave me one heck of a great forward launch clinic in the Clos du Savoy LZ.

June, for putting up with me and Bob leading her through Amsterdam's red light district, and leaving her behind at the Amsterdam train station, and leaving the balcony doors open in Chamonix while she was trying to recover from her cold; and for letting us use her phone all the time, and for sharing her vegetables with us.

Pete, for graciously taking a back seat on this trip to Chris and our ambitions for a somewhat self-guided trip. Thanks for finding us a great place to stay when we were delayed and out of contact. And just for being your usual helpful self as we explored a bunch of new sites.

Jon, for loaning me all kinds of maps and GPS goodies, and giving me a lot of great advice for the trip.

Ken and Charlie and Jeff, for showing up to make the trip all that much more fun. Thanks for coming out to meet us, guys.

Dennis Trott of The Alpine Flying Centre, for all the free advice and encouragement. Dennis is a transplant from the UK, and runs a B&B and offers paragliding instruction, tandems and guiding. Jon recommended we contact him -- he's a super nice and helpful guy. He said we could call any day we were interested in his assessment of conditions. Even when we didn't get organized to call him, somehow we ended up seeing Dennis at just about every place we flew each day.

Eric Gramond of Kailash Adventure, for all his help and encouragement with our flight from the Aiguille du Midi, and his forbearance with my launching expertise.

The Pelforth Brewing Company, for brewing the elixir that sustained my spirits through all our adventures in France.

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