An alpine traverse
Posted on August 06 2019
The plan was simple: Traverse the length of the Alps, From Nice on the Mediterranean coast to Slovenia, and fly as much of the route as possible. With no fixed route and a 3-week time window for a solo, self contained adventure across a 1000km line...
I had flown most of the French and some of the Swiss sections before, but none of the Italian or Austrian parts of this route. However, I was keen to link it all together and complete the full length of the Alps in one epic journey.
My most limiting factor was time. With only three weeks, my priority was to always utilise a decent launch on flyable days to maximise the flying potential. I embraced the cable car nearly as much as I did the French boulangerie for breakfast. I was also happy to hitch or catch transport to get to my next launch each afternoon or morning if need be. I didn’t feel the need to be purist and avoid all transport, the endless hike with a big pack is fine when the weather is great and you’re not doing much hiking, but a killer on average flying days when you are stuck on foot. I wasn’t aiming to hike the Alps, but to fly them.
Researching my trip over a number of months i found only a couple of accounts of similar trips so i’ve put this trip report together to hopefully help anyone wanting to do something similar. To that end i haven’t written a day by day report but rather written of a couple of the more memorable days that were representative of the overall trip and written about the general philosophy and planning for this kind of flying adventure. I flew a lightweight en-C, an Alpina 3 which is a lower aspect wing that i normally fly day to day so something that i felt i could be well on top of when conditions get real. I run Planet Paragliding so putting the right gear together was fairly straight forward but the route planning, and navigation was something that took more research, and continued on a daily, almost hourly basis during the trip. I opted for the mid June to Mid July window to hopefully avoid the spring storms and also the late summer stability. So June 13 saw me lugging my pack out of the Nice airport and heading for the coatal hills that overlook the Mediteranean coast.
Day 3 Ancelle to Crolle France
I scoffed down my daily morning pain au chocolat in Ancelle village with some mates from home that had found me the afternoon before. Then we promptly packed and slogged up a steep one-hour hike directly from our camp that had us laying out at 1500m with a good forecast. Clouds and a tailwind promised progress as I bid farewell to the lads at 3000m and made my way around the western side of the Ecrins across repetitive cross valleys that gave long transitions. The jagged peaks were working well as I skirted around Grenoble airspace, I had hoped to reach the base of St Hillaire for the next morning’s launch, but overshadowing and rapidly developing storm cells had me landing after about 85km. I started the long hike down off the shallow foothills through hiking trails and roads to Crolles in the valley, not far from St Hillaire. By this time, thunderstorms were raging all around, and I was cowering in bus stops and under shop awnings, completely drenched. This was the most difficult night’s accommodation of my whole trip, ironically surrounded by civilisation. I was stuck after dark in a developed area with no open space, no camp grounds and the few hotels booked out, and with hammering storms. Eventually, I found a park with a picnic shelter and bivvied at 11pm after a massive 14-hour day since leaving camp in Ancelle at 9am, but I’d covered over 100km, so day 3 was one to remember.
My afternoons were spent endlessly navigating, every day, figuring out where my next launch should be since most of the lower slopes are fully forested. The ‘Meteo Parapente’ app is a brilliant weather forecasting tool for flying, the Garmin hiking app was invaluable for finding trails up the forested slopes and the FFVL Spotair app showed known launches and live wind readings from every weather station in Europe. Between these, and general mapping apps, my research each afternoon and evening was constant, figuring out where to head, where next to launch, how to get there and where to stay. Sometimes i just plain failed and slept in a park shelter…
Day 11 Crans Montana to Andermatt Switzerland
Due to the high stability, it was imperative to launch late and as high as possible, so I headed for the Crans Montana ski resort above Sion. A night in the village and an hour hike in the morning to a cable car to 2200m was a good start. Two more hours of hiking got me to 2900m and a better chance to climb out above the valley haze. It was a lot of effort to get to launch, but I was rewarded with a stonking climb to 3600m with a couple of gliders for company and the Rhone valley was my highway. Tailwind glides had me sailing over the mighty Fiesch glacier as the peaks rise to the 4000m mark and the snowy ridges made for stunning scenery. The climbs were dropping to 3000m as I pushed east until the Furka pass got in the way. At 2500m it is a major hurdle in the middle of Switzerland and blocked my path. So I landed at its base and caught a train under the pass to Andermatt for a late camp, and a great pizza with a fine Belgian ale to savour a most memorable lap down the snow shrouded Rhone Valley.
My flying kit was reasonably light with the basics of glider, harness, reserve and pack weighing 9kg, including my Ozone Alpina and Ozium harness. All additional flying items added about 3kg. The rest of my gear – my camp kit, clothes, food, stove, repair and first aid, power and chargers were all as light as possible but still about 18kg all up, which came to 22kg when fully loaded with food and water for several days. That’s nearly a third of my body weight, so hiking was slow, but easier than I’d thought, once I embraced the plod, one foot after the other.
Day 14 Davos Switzerland to Merano Italy
A day in Davos spent waiting out the strong north Föhn wind finally brought a day of high base, light winds and hot temps. I was getting jumpy, my three week window was sailing by and I had to make good use of the two day weather window. The area east of Davos is a collection of different valley systems with tricky navigation, so I studied the next 100km beforehand, plotting a route through the peaks and valleys, so I could remember it in the air.
The Morning shaped up as expected with a great climb out and a clean crossing over the snow covered Fluela pass towards the Italian border. I managed to remember my navigation as I approach the corner boundaries of 3 countries. I had a choice to make on the fly to either head left to Austria to tighter valleys or to a Italy with a clearer ridge but with a 40km long valley of constant apple orchards. In the end the desire for a good pizza won out and I chucked a right and braved the valley of the eternal orchard. The high ground worked well, I managed to stay high and put in a memorable 115km flight until the valley wind at Merano reached up and grabbed me. The valley was still chock full of apple orchards, so I landed a little way up the slope, which, as luck would have it, had a pub directly across from my landing. One quick pub tag beer, and I headed down to the village of Parcines across the valley for a fine Italian pizza in a lovely open air Italian piazza and a camp under a random apple tree at the base of the gondola for tomorrows flight.
One of the keys to vol biv flying for me is staying in the air. You want to fly efficiently of course but time in the air is worth so much more than speed in the air. An hour flying is worth roughly a day of hiking so staying alive in the air is pivotal. Likewise if you get stuck then landing high gives you some options, landing low kind of resets the process and locks in a big hike before you can make decent k’s again. Having said that, later in the day there is probably a lot more mileage to be gained by flying on to the valley and maximizing the day and the distance. That late day buoyancy can hang around so more often than not I pushed on for maximum distance and only landed high if it was a difficult day.
Day 20 Obertilliach to Kameritsch Austria
Another southerly forecast came for the day, blowing across the main valley, but the sky was sunny and warm. With two days and some 90km remaining I was feeling the time pressure, and the day delivered in ways I never expect. It gave me highs and lows that perhaps summed up my whole trip. After a late start to the day from the 2000m launch, the southerly made for slower going but good climbs to good clouds, albeit long glides between climbs. A few locals joined me over launch, so I had air buddies which was rare for my trip generally. Only at St Andrés and Chamonix had I had company, otherwise it was lonely skies and mostly solo hikes, so some flying buddies were welcome. Before the Laas pass, after only 30km, we suddenly all struggled – climbs got sketchy, the clouds dissipated into a blue hole and the easterly valley wind again attacked us. Desperate not to lose a decent position, I opted to land high in a logging clearing to hike back up. I felt completely disappointed to be honest to be on the deck so early. Austrian hills are dotted with hiking huts and the one I landed near suddenly produced a bloke who came out yelling and waving his arms. I feared the worst until I realised he was super happy to see me as he herded me back to the hut where he introduced me to his five buddies around a picnic table. They produced a cask of wine from their hand carved fountain and insisted on handing me a beer and lunch. I had an amazing meal of cured meats, smoked fish, and fresh veggies, all of which came from their property and hunting trips. A jovial hour with my new buddies lifted my spirits before I had to leave to head up the slope behind the hut for a 2 hour hike through the tree line to the top of the hill.
I re-launched late from 2400m into a now smooth southerly and surfed the ridges for 40km to salvage the day. I landed at the last possible launch site at the end of the ridge at Kameritsch after a most surprising day that eeked out 80km before my last day into Villach. I camped under a tree next to my last launch site with a view to the Slovenian border atop the opposite ridge and ate everything I had left in the food bag.
After my last flight punching into wind I hiked to the Slovenia border in the strengthening southerly for a symbolic photo. I returned to a mountain top café, had a beer overlooking Villach and reflected on the 1000km trip as a whole. Some stunning flights, some disappointing flights, relentless hiking and navigation, and some great people along the way. France was a satisfying success crossing it in five days and five flights, but Switzerland and Italy proved a mixed bag – although producing my longest two flights, they also harboured the challenges of windy and stormy days that slowed my progress. Commitment to relentlessly keep moving by any means and always being on a launch to fly every flyable day was key to getting through the length of the Alps in the three weeks I had available.
Overall I flew about 35 hours, and hiked about 50. Of the 21 days, I flew 15 with 6 lost to rain or high winds. A number of days were just short hops when storms were threatening or I was punching a headwind. I didn’t keep precise figures but I estimate I managed to fly about 700km, hiked less than 100km and probably got transport for about 200km with a number of short hitches and a couple of bus or train rides to get to each launch. Overall it was a most enjoyable and satisfying journey, and the solitude afforded by a solo journey is something you need to embrace, but I enjoyed. It allows from a stronger connection with the hills and valleys in which you travel.
Nice - Col de Bleyne – St Andrés – Ancelle – Allevard – Col de Aravis – Chamonix – Loriaz – Crans Montana – Disentis – Davos – Merano – Kronplatz – Sesto – Obertilliach – Kameritsch – Villach
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