Wednesday, August 14, 2019

A Box of Jewels

Where does the desire to fly big mountains come from? I thought a lot about this as I planned for several years to fly some of the largest of the Alps. While the Écrins mountains of the southern alps are less in height than a few well-known Alps to the north—Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn, Monte Rosa—they are the largest cluster of high peaks in the Alps. 21 peaks rise at least 3500 meters (11,500 ft) in an area about half that of Oahu. The word Écrins means a box in which you store precious jewels, and the mountains in that cluster both form the geological box and are the bijoux within. Their glaciated and sharp summits, and their plunging deep valleys from which they rise nearly two vertical miles, drew me to them from my first glance twenty years ago. They also are a sanctuary for compelling high-mountain wildlife I have wanted to encounter, including the giant Gypaète Barbu, the beautiful and endangered bone-marrow eating vultures known to knock chamois off their cliffside perches to make bones available when they find none lying about for the taking.

My first sight of these icy peaks sparkling high to the north of the mostly rolling and hot lands of the Provence left me breathless. Over the years since, including one failed attempt to fly there dashed by bad weather with Alex Colby and Pete Reagan a couple summers ago (a trip consoled by epic conditions we found in the high Pyrenées), I felt a compulsion to try again to soar among them. Some spectacular scenery can be found posted on YouTube where paragliders roam among the high peaks, but these flights are not common, and it is not complicated to understand why even X-Alps pilots stay away when they fly between Grenoble and Monte Viso. For one, paragliding in the high country within the national park that protects the Écrins is only open in July through September so that the vultures can raise and fledge their young in the spring when conditions are strong and the possibilities of very high paragliding flights would be greater. For another, this is highly technical flying, as I had the pleasure to learn this month.

Before leaving for a few weeks in France, ten days dedicated to flying in Écrins, I contacted one local pilot on the French paragliding team who tried to dissuade me, and said he would (reluctantly) guide for many hundreds of euros a day, beyond my budget and testing my resolve: should I really be flying where the sky gods say no or want to pick my bones like the vultures? Pete Reagan and I decided to hold his offer in our back pocket and learn, instead, from other locals (including the birds) after our arrival in Briançon to see what they could teach us. At the launch in nearby Vallouise several human pilots told us how to find the first few thermals off the launch above town at Puy Aillaud, warned us that we should watch for the dangerous west wind that was expected to creep in during the afternoons that week, and (wrongly, it seems) admonished us not to launch after noon. The main launch used to fly in Écrins is situated at 1650m (5400 ft; 1800 ft over the town) and the nearest tall mountain, Mont Pelvoux which was our target to summit, is 3946m (12,946 ft). One valley beyond Pelvoux lies the Barre des Écrins (4103m or 13,461 ft), the highest of the bunch.

Our first flight found us quickly at the top of the stack of about 30 about 5,000 ft. This certainly raised our confidence in our abilities in these very punchy conditions, but it also meant that there were no locals to show us the way, despite our having launched later than them. Pete and I both got to 12,000 ft which gave us a magic perch to view the mountains over and behind launch, but it was still not easy to figure out how to transit. Jetlagged and emotionally overcome by the extraordinary beauty of rock and ice, as well as our first glimpses of several huge vultures flying around us, we landed exhausted after a couple hours. We were elated and puzzled. We could get up, but how to get over?

We had three more flying days during the time we were there due to some intervening bad weather conditions (a cycle typical for the Alps). Each flight taught us more, and on all but the last day we inadvertently outflew all the locals and had the high altitudes terrifyingly alone to ourselves. Before talking about our strategy, it is useful to share what the air felt like in the high zones. Thermals were sometimes strangely weak (< 1 m/s) and sparse while some, nearby their gentler cousins, were extremely strong and turbulent. I can take little credit, but some 5 and 7 m/s thermals found me. Correlating these with the steep rocky terrain below to locate their source was very difficult and I found myself exploring places I would have otherwise avoided to search for lift. It was clear that we would have to use various peaks to work our way to the high country. But without a good mental map of the lift sources, which ones would get us towards Pelvoux?

On the third day, tossing lots of caution to the winds, I dove from my high of 11,000 ft towards Pelvoux about five km distant. Perhaps, I didn’t throw all my caution: I aimed for a spot that appeared to leave me a way out of the range through a canyon draining the great glacier on Barre. While I frightened a herd of chamois, saw some mountain goats, and a couple of great vultures, I found few vario beeps. I searched close to a rocky cliff that towered thousands of feet above me, but at 8500 ft and in strong sink (perhaps from the glacier above?) I nervously felt I had to ditch out through the canyon. I managed to then fly about seven km, finding enough lift down low to make the Vallouise LZ after choosing a dozen alternative places in which I expected I would have to land. I don’t think I’ve ever flung myself into the unknown as I did that flight. I was strangely calm, focused, and disappointed that nothing got me to my goal.

That night over dinner, Pete and I spread the topo maps across the table and tried to figure out what we needed to do. Pete is an accomplished mountain climber and he and I have flown together for 28 years; we knew some things about mountains but not enough about these. I knew from the day’s experience that we had to get more than 11,000 ft to go to the deeper ranges. But we weren’t going to get it flying from La Blanche which was the 9,700 ft crest at the very top of the mountain nestling the launch below, and where we had managed to climb 12,000 ft only on our first day. We searched for an intermediate point that looked like it could collect lift from a number of sides south and east, and found one—Pointe Guyard at 11,350 ft—which would require we fly further to the west, over a gap that likely meant we couldn’t return to the south side if it didn’t produce. From there, we reasoned, with enough altitude (at least 12,000 ft), we could make the long flight towards Pelvoux, ending up higher along the mountain’s steep southern flanks and deeper to the west than I had been that afternoon. This was farther away from escape but gave more time to look for lift and with enough height, still permit the practiced exit through the canyon. We talked this through until the local wine dimmed our focus, and we slept hoping the forecast would hold.

The 4th of August did not start out as expected. No one was getting up at the usual time we had launched that week. It was nearly noon before even a solo pilot escaped the house thermal which always seemed capped at a few hundred feet above launch. Pete and I both depressingly thought we were unlikely to do much with the conditions, but I launched and turning (safely) to the inside of the gaggle hung onto a thin but strong core to a thousand over, then flew back against the mountainside to find another. Five minutes later, Pete began his climb up. This time a few other pilots were climbing with us. At 10,000 ft, a few of these flew in the direction we had earlier planned to go, but only one did well. Watching them at least gave me useful information on what not to do and where not to search for lift. One pilot on a Supair Wild was headed toward Pointe Guyarde where I hoped to be, and I flew to join him, but once again I found myself 1000 ft over him. I felt no gloating about being above him. Each time this happened, I felt the acute loss of local knowledge. I was up there with Pete’s and my plan, thirty years of paragliding experience, but having never flown anything this large and committing, I was just literally winging it. Fitting the adage, I have never been a particularly bold pilot as I have become, perhaps causatively, an old one. I felt alone up there and dramatically hoped I had what it would take to make this work and not get hurt.

At 12,000 ft which had taken 40 minutes or so to achieve, and now over Pointe Guyard that we had marked on the map, I decided to break for Pelvoux, and I radioed that intention to Pete. He was still climbing, but he was able to see me disappear over the back and fly into the distance, and he followed 5 minutes later. This time after crossing the gap I found weak lift near Pelvoux and stuck to it tenaciously, flying figure eights very close to the cliffs, counting beeps under a beautiful hanging glacier. All of a sudden, my Explorer rattled its lightweight fabric and I felt a slingshot heave me upwards. Pete had caught up and grabbed the other edge of this thermal and turning on opposite sides allowed us both to quickly visualize the size and location of the powerful core. We began the climb of a lifetime, 10,000 ft to 14,000 ft and a dance with a forming cloud in a rocket-like couple of minutes. I was nervous in that climb. Climbing that fast near rock and glaciers was frightening, not knowing if the increasing turbulence I felt would overcome my efforts at wing maintenance was worrying, wondering if the tip collapses that were getting harder to prevent meant I was unable to assess the risk I was in left the taste of dread in my mouth, expecting the west wind and even worse turbulence above Pelvoux left me tense. But, then, in the freezing air, finally seeing the peaks and glaciers below, I felt like I was listening to a beautiful musical crescendo that had reached its climax and I let go of the fears. I well remember the flying that three of us had done in the Pyrenées two years before as some of the most magnificent flying of my career. This matched it in grandeur, but bested it in the technique it demanded and the risks it exposed. I have lived and flown many summers in the French alps, learning a lot about alpine thermals, but this was a quick lesson in bigger, more, harder: this was quantity that had shifted quality. Everything felt new. Tears froze on my face, spilled not just because it was winter up there and my eyes stung. This flight showed me what I could but didn’t know I could do, something that resonated emotionally. I had at hand at least one answer to the question of why I held this passion for flying the high mountains.

I wish the good weather had held for more flying in les Écrins. Each day I gained confidence and learned what felt to be entire courses in paragliding (including a little SIV). With what I think I now know, on a similar day I would try to push beyond the Pelvoux summit or one of the western peaks (Pic sans nom, Ailefroide) that link with Pelvoux into a long ridge, flying towards Barre and searching the south face of that great mountain for a strong and sustaining thermal. That would involve flying another several kilometers deeper into the park over yet another deep valley. There is an escape from there through a different canyon or possibly to the west if sustaining lift can’t be found, but at high enough altitudes it appears reasonable that one would make it to safety.

The day before Pete left France, we flew Annecy with difficult, narrow, broken, and fairly punchy thermals, and we were only among a handful in the typically large Hadj of paragliding pilgrims that succeeded in summiting La Tournette, the high peak that sits to the southeast of the lake. That was a hard climb that took two attempts. I have flown in Annecy for many years and La Tournette has always been a prize for me: a lovely and worthy accomplishment, a jewel of a flight. But after Pelvoux, La Tournette seemed atypically small; indeed, we summited and were whited-out at an altitude only a little more than half way to Pelvoux’s summit. What an amazing change in perspective the short time in the Écrins had brought.

This unedited video, shot by Pete, gives a taste of what it was like to climb over Pelvoux. It begins as he leaves Pointe Guyarde while I am in the far distance. Mont Blanc, Monte Viso, Monte Rosa and the Matterhorn can be seen on the horizon.


Alex said...

Jon, thanks for sharing this crazy adventure with us! I remember our last trip there vividly. After meeting the first marmots I've ever seen in the park below, we hiked up in the rain to eat lunch at the refuge up there, hoping for better weather that never materialized. You and Pete have my deepest admiration for going back and making it work this time. So cool to hear how you guys had to figure out the lines on your own. Using topo maps! That is old school. I'm happy for the experience I had at two very different competitions this summer, but I am sorry not to have been up there with you above Pelvoux! Pete is characteristically calm and silent on his video, but we all know I would have recorded my screams of joyous panic for posterity: "Oh man! Pete and Jon are somewhere deep behind me. Don't go there! It's Italy back there! Don't do it!!"

firedave2 said...

Awesome tale Jon. It sounds like an epic adventure. Pete rocking it balls to the wind only adds to it. Old guys rule.


Geronimo John said...

Outstanding post. Loved the video. Thank you for taking the time to share your adventure.