Saturday, September 23, 2023

Chamonix 2023: Beer and Beignets


There are few places on the planet as amenable to paragliding as Chamonix France. Where else can stay in the midst of a vibrant classic true Alpine town, within a ten minute walk to various lifts ready to whisk you to launch and three minutes walk back to town from the LZ.

My first pilgrimage there was in 2002 as a fairly inexperienced pilot. What I lacked in flying skills, I made up for in balls. Now, twenty something years later, my skills are still pretty good, but have to fight ball shrinkage, or maybe it is just droopage!

Over the ensuing years, there have been lots of flyers from Hawaii in Chamonix, with an equal number of epic tales of awesomeness and terror to be shared over drinks and food with friends each day.

This year we had a crew of eight from Hawaii: Don and Yolie, JK, his wife Laura, sister Jane and Maui friend Suzy, Kim and I rounded out the bunch.

Checking the weather the week earlier, it was looking to be stormy and rainy, but by the time we got there it was a beautiful windless blue sky, with a few well placed cloud pops marking lift for the entire time. In fact from past trips there I knew the basics of flying there. Plan Praz launch from morning to early afternoon, Plan de l'Aigille launch for late afternoon soaring. Savoie LZ preferred until the later afternoon valley winds arrive, the land at the main LZ. Maybe a run down to Plaine Joux for an afternoon flight. But, this year things were different, from sunup to sundown people were launching, flying and landing everywhere. 

The first full day there I decided to go up with everyone to the top of the Aiguille du Midi. At12,000ft. and with a cable car to whisk you up there minutes it is an iconic and classic Chamonix must do. JK and Don were itching to fly so they opted out to head up the Brevant to get into the air. I brought my glider up and thought if I had the balls to walk across the icy rock and snow to launch, I would give it a go. The reality was that I would launch from the mid station on the way down.

Up on top it was perfectly clear, Switzerland to the east, Italy just to the south.. We were up there in shorts and t-shirts, crazy. In my twenty years going there the glaciers have really taken a beating, instead of the Valle Blanche and the Mer de Glace' being bright white, they are often grey and brown and sometimes hard to distinguish if it is rock or ice. Photos can't do it justice, but it is epic in scope.

Last we heard Don and JK top landed at Plan Praz to take a break after a couple hours flying around the valley. We all headed down to the mid lift station, Plan de l'Aiguille, with me looking to get into the air. Arriving at launch, I see an orange and grey glider soaring out in front of launch, I keep an eye on it as I want to see how the conditions are.

As I am setting up, Yolie gets on the radio and discovers that Don and JK relaunched, crossed the valley and that is Don we have been watching buzzing around 100' over this launch. The crowd bursts into to cheers seeing the guys we are looking for high on this mountain launch are right here, really a special moment. Tons of photos and radio chatter later, I finally get in the air for a flight as JK benches up for a tour of the Midi side of the valley.

JK is always a hard charger on a paraglider, our chief motivator and asset on this trip. Don is not far behind, he is no slacker under a paraglider, even though ironically that is his nickname, 'Slacker'.

The next day on launch, the favored plan is to fly to Plaine Joux, topland for lunch, relaunch and climb out to fly back to Chamonix. It seemed reasonable enough, I don't think any of us have ever done the return flight before. After a nice climb under and even nicer cloud at the end of the ridge, we took a leisurely glide over to Plaine Joux. Don and JK got up nicely and it might have a great day to head over to the Aravis and on to Annecy. But we followed the plan, I toplanded first with a landing on the sweet carpet among all the layed out gliders. I spun my glider at about 5' to avoid stepping on a glider, to a few sneers from those nearby. 

On the matter of flying styles, JK flies way closer to terrain than I do. In a place like Chamonix with light wind and light lift it pays off. I see JK and the tandems right up the rocks climbing away, I somehow acquired a slight aversion to that. Later in the day, back near the Midi, JK reported flying near terrain when a lift or powerline appeared directly in front of him. He pulled an instant spin/misty turn to evade the wire. Like SIV in action and flew away.

We all topland Plaine Joux and enjoy beignets, cheese and a single beer each. We relaunch and climb out for an easy flight back to Chamonix. JK keeps going for a tour of the Mt. Blanc side of the valley.

Folding up post flight in the LZ, I meet a local PG pilot and glaciologist. He tells me how he spent the day soaring up all the valley's glaciers and contour flying down, with five cameras attached to his harness recording an up close inspection of all the glaciers. He had to land because his batteries ran out. A super interesting guy, he was catching the first lift up the Midi and climbing halfway up Mt. Blanc to launch and do it again the next morning.

He was also a bit of an expert in climate change. Explaining how global warming keeps making the flying better, but the glaciers are disappearing fast. I told him how I could see the difference in the glaciers compared to the past. Apparently, as the glaciers melt all the sand trapped in the ice gets concentrated, combined with the soot from the forest fires and the sand blowing in from the Sahara, cause the darkening of the surface, which only accelerates the melting. Just looking up from town, all those bright white glaciers like the Bossons, are now concrete gray and sparse. The average temperature on the summit of Mt. Blanc has been 5 degrees Celsius, 40 degrees Farenheit, hard to accumulate snow at that temperature. Sad to see!

We spend the night at a great sushi restaurant in town with the whole crew including an old surf buddy of mine, who has discovered mountaineering and is in Chamonix for three months.

The girls have decided that they want in on the action and three of them sign up for tandems. We decide on a valley tour, but not until we all get in the air together, all six of us. Nine if you count the girl's tandem pilots. A pretty cool scene everyone flying together, Jane, Suzy and Laura. JK even cruises alongside Laura for a couples cruise. Another great moment!

Don, JK and I head out on a tour of the valley, cruising in light lift up close to the glaciers hanging on the Mt. Blanc side is just a magical experience. Vast in size, but welcoming smooth air to watch the show. I have never been a camera guy while flying and I wasn't one that day, but some of the epic views while flying with friends are etched into my brain permanently.

Don's hands get cold and he toplands, I landed at the LZ, and JK is headed over to land next to Don. Since this is my last day here and it is Chamonix, I can just walk to the lift and be on launch with them in 15 minutes.

Apparently, base jumping has been banned for a bit in Chamonix, until they figure out what to do. Don is sitting on Plan Praz launch and sees four people and one tandem setting up on the deserted launch. Two normal on the tandem and two attached by ropes hanging off the sides to base jump, they were a little concerned about Don watching. Don has the video of the action somewhere.

In the LZ after, feeling satisfied with the days flying, I strike up a conversation with another local, who just finished up flying a tour du Mt. Blanc. That is a hundred kilometer clockwise circumnavigation of Mt. Blanc, lots of epic peaks, through three countries. France, Switzerland, Italy and finally back to France. Oh, and it is his second day doing it. Blown away by what is going on around us.

JK, always planning, strikes up a conversation about tomorrow's conditions and the chances of a flight from Chamonix to Annecy. The guy says good, and the entourage is scheduled to drive to Annecy, so a built in retrieve. The seed is planted, JK floats it by me and it is so tempting an epic XC. But I promised Kim that we would leave for St. Tropez in the morning, and there was about zero chance she could drive and navigate the rental car through the hundred traffic circles to arrive in Annecy. Nonetheless, I was glued to Livetrack to monitor JK's progress to Annecy all day. He ended up landing out, somewhere near Grand Bornand and not making it to Annecy. I never got a debrief from him, so maybe he will share it here.

The Annecy crowd was meeting Patrick, Marcel and their better halves. While we roamed the Cote de Azur, even meeting up with world sailor and former PG adventurer Quentin down in Antibes.

In the end, it seemed everyone had a great time, Kim even asked to go to Chamonix next year! Join us!

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