Sunday, August 21, 2011

First Timers in Para-dise

Well, it's about time I jot down some exploits and contribute to the virtual coffee table. Near the end of July, Jessika and I flew out of Chicago O'Hare, destined for Genève, and the beginning of a three week Europe tour. Her dad lives in Thonon-Les-Bains on the French side of Lac Leman, which is where we settled in for the first week of the journey. We were greeted warmly by Jessika's father, but coolly by the cloudy French weather. Luckily my father-in-law was keen to help me scout some “jumping off places” and do some translating.

My first lesson about mountain flying was that timing is everything. During the first few days of scouting we met several local pilots who told us, “yeah, it was good, but now the conditions are strange … don't fly now!” We also heard, “it'll be better tomorrow.” Kinda often. Jess shot off a text to Reaper, who informed us that we need to pay attention to when the sun is shining on the face of the launches we are scouting, and that there are morning sites and afternoon sites. The visualization of this clicked, and I knew that soon I would be airborne.

By this time my sister and brother-in-law arrived by train and said they would love to try a tandem. We figured if they were gonna shell out 100 Euro that it should be at a world class flying site, like Annecy.

We hit the road, making it to the main LZ around 4pm, and quickly scheduled them for the 6pm tandem tour. That left enough time for them accompany me to launch and see me off the hill. We arrive there just in time to witness a helicopter plucking an unfortunate pilot out of the trees. Undeterred, I pulled out my gear and jumped in the queue. My nerves were jumping as I felt the eyes and camcorders of more spectators than I'd ever seen on me and the other pilots waiting for a cycle. Luckily I soon felt the breeze I needed for a comfortable reverse inflation, and in a few steps I entered the cool French air and my first Euroflight … I was hooked!

Jess and I said goodbye to my sister and her husband, and were then joined by Mike (Sparky) and his girlfriend Marie, and also our buddy Harvey. The rest of the vacation became a balancing act between my desire to fly every day and the needs of my travel companions. Luckily though, Mike had recently acquired his P2, so I had backup! For Mike's first Euroflight, we drove 15 minutes south and 15 more minutes winding up Mt. Hermon, a very local site behind Thonon-Les-Bains. After receiving some friendly local advice and watching a few pilots launch, the two of us engaged in some thermal research. However, I was flying Jessika's extra small Sport 2 and sank out pretty quickly. Mike did better than me in my medium Ozone Rush, but we both landed out in opposite directions and tested our significant others' tracking abilities. Believe it or not, it was my first time landing out, which includes five years of skydiving. I landed in a farmer's field, and communicated my apologies as best I could; he didn't seem to mind.

The next day the decision was made to to drive to Salève, where I scored a flight and a top landing (although I landed deeper than I intended). The launch and landing options looked so beautiful that Jessika decided to attempt a sled ride. I was going to launch and land first, and assist her down by radio. Mike and Marie would then drive the car down and meet us at the LZ. However, we took too long to come to that decision, and the wind went catabatic while we were hooked in waiting for a cycle. An instructor there was still hucking his students off, but we decided to pack it up and fly another day.

For the next two days, flying was put on hold, as the group started to road trip through Switzerland. On the way, we literally missed the last flight of the day by five minutes, with another catabatic experience in Interlaken. Soon, though, we would forget this disappointment and enter a little known para-dise south of Salzburg called WerfenWeng, Austria. Yes … I said … WerfenWeng. WerfenWeng is home of the worlds largest ice caves, a gorgeous castle, and EPIC flying! A tram 1km from our bed and breakfast started running at 9:30am, and the clouds cleared by 10am. Watching the clouds clear, Mike and I now entered full selfish mode, and announced that we must fly while the conditions were good and light. Fortunately, we didn't need to hurt any feelings because the whole group was in the mood for a cable car ride and a view. We stepped up to the launch area, where Jessika decided it was time for me to support her while she got a flight in. Two local instructors were on the south launch standing by with students; they were waiting for conditions to strengthen and were happy to let Jess and Mike jump in front of them for sled rides. At this point, Mike pointed out the lack of wind and announced to the crowd … ”I've never launched forward!” Everyone got a good laugh, and a German instructor stepped up and helped Mike and then Jess safely into the air … it was Jessika's first solo flight in a year! Over the course of the next couple days I scored three flights at this site, including my first really successful thermaling experience. Everyone left Werfenwang with a smile and a temporarily slaked thirst for the para-normal day.

After several days of driving and city touring, which included a reunion for Jessika with her mom's side of the family in Budapest, we found ourselves back at the base of the Rhone-Alpes. We took the Gondola up to Plan Praz and walked onto the south slope around 11:15. After asking advice of the local flyers and standing in line behind a half-dozen tandem pilots, Mike and I were finally up. I pulled up Jessika's Sport 2 behind me and was finally off the hill into the late morning air. Flying an extra small wing, I sunk out pretty fast again, but thoroughly enjoyed every bit of that sled ride. Mike, on the other hand, was able to extend his flight in the morning thermals, landing long after my feet touched the ground. I felt serene and content as I packed my gear, acutely aware of how lucky I was to experience such a beautiful place from that perspective.

We met our friends for lunch, and then somehow convinced them to tag along as we checked out one last site – Plaine Joux. Again, we discussed which of us three pilots would fly our two sets of gear. I really really REALLY wanted to fly, but would of course yield to Jess if she decided to go for it. I held my poker face long enough for her to notice that the air was active in the afternoon heat. She eventually decided that conditions were too turbulent for her bump tolerance. I tried to reduce my smile slightly as I again hooked into her Sport 2 and followed some tandems out along the ridge. Once more I was awestruck by the beauty of the mountains above and the valley below. I had eyes on Mike as well, and we followed the tandems' line over some hillside houses. Not wanting to make our friends regret their generosity, I started to glide out for a landing; however, there were already several wings in front of me setting up their final approach. Therefore, I decided to go back to the ridge, where to my relief there was plenty of thermic activity … enough to keep me up even in that extra small wing. I thermaled back and forth over the trees until our friends had reached the valley floor in the car, and then glided out for one last Euroflight touchdown.

Plaine Joux was the the last site I flew in Europe. Jess and I split from our friends, who went to Ireland, and we took the wings with us to Spain. During one lunch on the Mediterranean coast I met some pilots who offered to let us follow them inland to their local mountain site. However, when I looked at Jessika, her eyes said, “if you drag me up one more freakin' mountain, you'll regret it!” I then remembered the wise words of Alex concerning the balance of flying and family. “Matt, you've got to consider your LONG TERM happiness.” So I thanked the Spanish pilots but let them know I would be going to the beach with my wife instead.

Throughout this trip the lessons, experiences, and advice of the Oahu paragliding community were fresh on my mind. It was a welcome challenge to apply what I had learned to a new place. The number one piece of advice I used was … talk to the locals. I was amazed at how helpful the pilots were at all of the sites we visited. It gave me a new perspective towards how to treat those who visit Oahu and need a ride or a site intro. I was also struck by how naturally Mike, Jess, and I looked out for each other. Jessika, especially, was diligent at double checking our gear. She also helped us lay out, clear lines, or reset our wings for each launch. On this trip we couldn't simply follow Reaper's call concerning the conditions that day; the call was ours to make, and we made each one together.

Thanks to all who helped prepare us for that responsibility. Reading Mad Dog's posts, it's easy to see that this experience barely scratched the surface of Rhone-Alpes flying potential. I hope we'll be back soon with some monkeys in our corner to fly higher and farther. Thanks for reading!



Alex said...

Great story and video, Matt! Thanks for sharing your adventures with us. I look forward to more stories from you, now that you've broken the ice! I wonder if the Annecy day with the helicopter rescue was the same day that Mad Dog was there to witness a helicopter rescue there.

Thom said...

Good Job Matt,
I surely miss Annecy. I only took ride up and over the lake to land at the LZ.

Plaine Joux is another favorite with a bar on launch as well as in the LZ. My first XC was from Chamonix to Plaine Joux with Ike, Mad Dog and Frosty. I will never forget the feeling of top landing there and having une tasse du vin I am sure that is spelled wrong.

Wow, Jess didn't want to fly here but she will go off the ALPS !!? I am offended, it must be our nice clean launches hehehehe.

Hope to here about some Spain flights. Mad Dog is out from posting so we are relying on you.

Good Flying

Kevin said...

Thanks for the post Matt. Great video too. Exciting to hear about all these great Euro flights. Awesome man.