I have been chasing the 200 km mark for the second season now. Last year I settled for a 193km FAI Triangle, it was a massive feat for me as a pilot at the time. I competed in the 15th World Paragliding Championships; since then I spend more time flying with Bruce Goldsmith, Ant Green and Tyr Goldsmith. I learned from all of them as much as I could. As the spring was approaching this time around, I was getting ready to go for it. It wasn’t without failure far from it. Not until I spoke with Adel Honti that I finally managed to do my very first+200 km flight.
Adel spoke a lot about the state of mind the mental game, the expectations of the flight, how to take it step by step and concentrate on the task at hand, not the goal line. This was a 3-hour conversation and a lot of note taking on my side. I would have not made this flight without her advice. A huge thank-you goes to Adel for the support. You can listen to her podcast with Gavin McClurg here.
I got to the site early, 8am I was there. The sky looked good but then around 9am I noticed that there was a large line of stratocumulus clouds that was forming in the direction that I was planning on flying. As the day progressed that line was moving in over the take-off.
By 10 am I also saw some nice Cumulus clouds towards South of my locations, the day was starting early and looked like it was going to be a strong one. But that line of clouds was just creeping in over my head. This made me nervous, I thought that I would not be able to take-off anytime soon and that this would ruin my chances of flying big distance.
I had a chance, or so I thought, to take off at around 11 am. I hesitated, the system was quite weak, and the clouds where moving in. They were covering the area, immediately North of my location, even if I would get the thermal in my current location and start my glide. Running into shadow at 11 am did not sound like a good plan to me. I thought that most likely I would end up landing out early.
I was practicing patient and decided not to go, this was painful. For the next hour I was doubting my decision, I was thinking – “You should have gone when you had the chance, buddy. You probably fucked this one up.” or “Man it’s all good, you’ll just take the day for what it is and enjoy the fact that you are out on top of a mountain instead being stuck inside of an office”.
Ready to Take Off
The wind picked up, gradually. Started off with some ground handling to see if the wind was willing to pick me of the ground. I was still under the shadow of the cloud, but it was getting clearer. I thought, I’ll run the ridge till I get some sunshine and then get a thermal. Still in doubt about my decision I took off.
The wind was strong enough to keep me up, so I just ran with it. Got to the first cliff with the sun shining on it and took it to cloud base, there was a short cloud street forming, I decided – Better connect to it and just dolphin fly it.
For the first two hours it was smooth sailing, wind was a bit on the strong side as I was approaching Saint-Vincent-les-Forts; other than that everything was going well, taking the thermals I was supposed to, doing good glides and making great decisions.
The Big Decision
Once I reached Lac de Serre Poncon things got tricky. It took me two hours to get there, I had to make my first serious decision of the flight. There are two most common ways to cross the lake while going towards North. One option (Option B), gliding towards the back, is the safer one, but it takes longer to get out of there and it is a detour. The second option (Option A) is to glide towards mountain in front; trick here is that if you get too low you get washed out and that is the end of your flight. I have done either way on previous flights. I have succeeded, and I have failed at it while taking Option A.
Wanted to take the fast way, as I felt like I am behind on time. It’s not like taking off by noon time is ideal for a big Cross-Country flight. So, I went with the Option A. I got up as high as the day allowed – 3314 m AMSL. This day I had lots of clouds to help my decisions, there where clouds right on the Southeast edge of the mountains in front. I trusted that I read the situation correct and just went with it.
Crossed over quite low, the glide was worse than expected. I was getting nervous. Thinking of aborting the plan. Trying to survive by jumping back last minute. I have done this before and ended up landing in the valley behind the ridge, it didn’t work out on that flight. This all made me quite nervous about the decision that I made and the situation I found myself.
Saw the cloud that was lingering over the ridge. I was closing in on the ridge, that was the trigger for the thermal, it had to work. Kept saying in my head – “It will work, there is cloud a new cloud, there is a trigger, sun is shining on it and the wind is most likely coming from West or South West on the ground”. All the indications were there, but I was still in doubt and frantically looking at the mountain behind and thinking “Should I jump back, or should I stay with the plan!?”
Glide went down from 6:1 to 5:1 to 4:1 and stopped dropping at 3.2:1… By now it was panic in my head. Calling myself in lots of names… till I heard that sweet sound that only a vario singing the melody of your soul makes. The sound of lift. I could not be happier, it worked!! Oh, sweet happiness.
Moral charged up 100%
All the sudden I felt like I am a rock-star that no one ever sees or notices (as you fly on your own and nobody sees these heroic moments of your flight). I didn’t care, my moral was through the roof, I was on fire, things were going according to the plan now! This is where I thought for the first time that I actually, maybe, possibly would/could make this flight happen. I was the most ‘confident’ pilot ever!
Next, a few hours went by with me making grand decisions and doing good lines. No mistakes were made, and I was clocking ~30 km/h average speed, even took some selfies of myself and the wing.
The Peeing incident
By the time I reached the turn-point at 112 km from the take-off it was 4 hours in the sky. I needed to pee, badly. This really messed up my flow. I wanted to get to the big crossing in order to do my stand up while flying peeing – an advanced move that is not for faint-hearted.
Because of this, my mind went on a small vacation and I was listening to my bladder instead. I skipped a perfectly nice 2.5 – 3 m/s thermal (see picture – A) to rush forward, only to find myself in a lee side (see picture – B). I needed to pee! Instead I got to into a fight with a rotary, lee side thermal that only wanted to kill me, we were not friends to say the least. There was absolutely no intention from the lee side monster in lifting me up to the cloud base.
Then I decided that it is a great idea to leave low to the next mountain while try to pee and do a smooth glide, as I needed to save altitude. I managed the peeing part, but not the smooth glide part. After emptying my bladder over a nice mountain forest, my mind decided to return. I quickly realized that this is not ideal and that I might be washed out in another lee side. So, I decided to return (see picture above – C) to the mountain and use the calm lift on the edge of it and climb out higher before crossing. I lost 30 minutes. I was furious!!
Dropped out of my flow and was really mentally kicking myself. I couldn’t believe how stupid I was. It took me good 10-20 minutes to calm down and start getting back to the flow.
Be a Bad-Ass, Rock-Star Pilot
After a while I gathered myself and started to fly good again, it was late now. I thought to myself, I fucked it… First, I started late and now I lost valuable time by being an idiot. I had two options left. One would be to accept the defeat and just slowly cruise into misery of not making it back to the car. Or be a bad-ass pilot that takes all the best decisions and makes it to the car.
Needless to say, without really believing it myself. Even though I decided being the bad-ass pilot that makes it back to the car is the way to go. Fake it, till you make it – they say. I made up my mind and got to it. Was time to eat some more food. Had some liquid in me, turned on the camera and stepped on the glide bar (speed bar, but glide bar sounds cooler). I was set to go.
Second Big Decision
I was doing good once again, good decisions, nice climbs. I was back in my flow just cruising back with good speed and mind. The next big decision of the flight was how am I going to cross it back over the lake. It is a huge crossing and not easy to do especially with 20 – 25 km/h cross winds. As I saw it, I had two choices here. Option A was to cross directly South East, this is a very long glide and most likely I would end up landing out, only if there would be a thermal on the way or really good glide. Option B – I did it a few days ago, when I was doing my 174 km flight from Chabre take-off, took the Option B and landed out. I was hesitant, even if I would manage the glide with Option B, it is more difficult flight at this late hour to get back to Saint Andre Les Alpes.
Once again I decided to go for the longer glide. I saw some clouds near the lake, I climbed up to 3600 meters and hid in the harness as much as possible to optimize the glide. Right above the lake I felt weak lift and decided to turn. Probably stayed in it longer than I should, as I was drifting with it towards a cliff that probably was working better.
Having a weak lift is better than no lift.
Figured that staying in a lighter lift that eventually will get stronger is a better idea at 6 pm than jumping low to the cliff in hopes for stronger lift. It also might happen that I jump in bad cycle and that there is no lift for a while and I would end up scratching the cliff to make it to top. Basically, I decided that having a weak lift is better than no lift.
I got high up and decided to go on the glide.
Meeting a pilot
I have never met a pilot on a glide that heads the opposite direction and that would be at the same altitude than I was. This was quite cool, I waved, and the pilot waved back, this was really sweet, got me all emotionally boosted and I was ready for the last leg of the day.
Connecting to the ‘Highway Ridge’
Now this ridge is known to be the Highway for a reason, you just push your bar out and cruise along the side of it for about 30 km straight without a turn. I have done this ridge quite a few times and it always just work. Now I just felt like I would be resting for the next 30 km and catching up for lost time. Yeah, right! Not today.
The wind was more South down low, I fully expected it to be more SW. With SW or W wind this ridge works great, not so much with the S. While I was on the sunny part of it everything was great. Then I got to a shadow and a place where the mountain doesn’t really face South much, I got pinned down with 25 km winds. I barely made it out.
I was really in a bad spot. Everything was mostly in the shadow. I got as low as about some 50 cm above the ground, I released the speed bar to swing up in order to clear the ridge. A proper middle of nowhere that would take me all night to get out. Or if I could, I would try to re-launch someplace. Now I was concerned of me walking out of this place, not so much saving the flight anymore.
Just as I crossed over I got very weak lift, all 0.1-0.2 m/s and only partly, one part of the circle was going down other up, I made maybe a meter per every two three turns. Once again, better weak lift than no lift, I kept repeating this to myself. While doing so I also know that this will not last especially if the sun does not come out. I was frantically looking for options. I needed to figure out where to head next.
Getting out of there
Once I gain about 10-15 meters I decided I would go towards west, as there was a small mountain that was facing the wind and had a little sun on it. I didn’t know that it even had a nice cliff in front of it as I was approaching it from downwind side. Boy! Was I happy to hear the vario beep!? Made sure this one goes all the way to the cloud base, I was high once more.
I went on the glide, connected with a perfect ridge that was just into wind and in sun, I didn’t even need to turn it, went up with a speed of 1.5–2 m/s and I was on my final stretch, next 10 km or so was supper smooth, I had switched gears by now. Flying slow and calm as efficient as possible, no more rush, milk the day. Every meter counted to get back to the car.
The Last 15km and the Magical cliff
Once I got to the South point of the Mountain near Thorame-Basse I went on the glide, the wind at the top of this mountain was coming from North I was getting 1:50 glide, I was super excited. ‘Yeah, buddy you are home free now baby!!” – happily congratulated myself. By now I cracked the 200 mark and I was all happy about it. It was already reaching 8pm and I had some 10 km to go.
As I was getting lower I encounter the good old SWW wind that was blowing down in the valley at the bashing 25-35 km/h. That is not the head/cross wind you want on your final glide in the early night, when thermals are super hard to come by. I had one move to make, the Sun was almost gone but it was still shining on this cliff that was facing NW, the wind was hitting it as well. I once more changed my plan and moved away from the course line.
Had to ditch towards East to connected with the Sunny Cliff (see picture). I was a happy camper! “Yeah, buddy! Aren’t you a lucky bastard!?” – once more congratulating myself. There I was getting a bit too excited I think. Managed to make a mistake that, I think, I never have done before. While turning in the weak lift of the ridge, I circled into the lee side and couldn’t get back out in front. Losing all the altitude I have been saving up. I couldn’t believe how stupid a mistake I just made.
“Well you just fucked it, didn’t you!?” – Angrily I asked myself. I decided at the same time, that I only have one real option which is to run downwind through the lee side and connect with the next mountain, that was all in shadow. It was further East and further away from where I was heading. The winds where still blowing 25-30 km/h, I figured that the ridge will have to keep me up. There even were some landing options.
Sure enough the ridge worked magically!! I followed it South as I saw that there is this just perfect bowl-like ridge. On top of it the mountain was facing West. The mountains opposite of it open just enough for the evening Sun to hit the face. What an absolutely stunning find.
I worked that lift till I felt like I had enough to glide over to the next ridge. While gliding over I hit a conversion line that kept me going up. I connected with the next ridge with plenty of altitude to spare. I used it to extend my triangle for a couple of kilometres more before I turned back and headed for the landing.
*See the details of the flight on XContest