Exploring the Mountains of Spain and France, getting ready for the X-pyr

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Well I am 3 weeks into my travels through the Pyrenees Mountains and I’m finally taking a breather to update my blog here. It turns out it’s hard to keep up with blogging while traveling. As most of you know I’m getting ready for the X-pyr race. It’s a paragliding and hiking competition to see who  will be the fastest to hike and fly the 296 mile course zig zaging the length of Pyrenees mountains traveling only by foot or by paraglider. At www.x-pyr.com you can see the route and you can also find lots of other information like athlete blogs and videos. This is my first time in the Pyrenees and my firs hike-and-fly competition so I’m spending a month here before the race starts to get to know the mountains. I’ve spend a good chunk of time each of the last 3 summers in the Alps, doing support in a similar race, the Redbull X-alps, as well as flying and exploring on my own but there’s plenty new to learn here.

The first 2 weeks of the trip I traveled with John, a paragliding friend from Seattle who generously volunteered to drive for me and help me fly along the route of the race. John picked me up in Barcelona and after a little bit of stress navigating the city things got off to a great start. We drove north made a quick stop to see the race finish point on the coast before heading a hour inland to meet our airbnb hostess and well known free flight pilot Judith Mole. Our stay with her in Castellfollit de la Roca was a wonderful way to start off the trip. Juith’s house is a beautifully renovated historic building facing an old narrow town street on one side and looking straight down basalt cliffs into a small valley on the other side. The whole village is perched on a pie shaped triangle of high ground with buildings all along the tops of sheer cliffs that drop away into the valley below. We shared stories of flying and travels over dinner. Judith was very helpful with all kinds of information from local sights to flying all across the Pyrenees. I’d highly recommend anyone traveling through the area make a point of stopping in this magical spot and staying a day or 3. 

The next day we went to fly a near by site called El Mont. There was unseasonal rain in the forecast and lots of clouds were forming as I hiked up the mountain. John got a ride up and was in the air before I got to the top. I had a nice little warm up XC flight heading north towards the course line of the race making about 10 miles. I had to dodge around one overdeveloping cloud that dropped a couple hail balls on me before I got clear of it. The lower mountains in that area were mostly covered in dense forest an not the friendliest to fly over. I landed as my path took me towards higher mountains and darker clouds. I had a chance to hike and jog along the road for a couple hours before John and Judith tracked me down picked me up.

John and I headed to Berga next. It’s near the Bergueda turnpoint of the race. For those of you unfamiliar with how the route works in a race like the X-pyr there are turnpoints that define the course line. They are usually set 25-50 miles apart. We athletes have to pass through the turnpoints which are defined by gps and verified by our tracking instruments. When I refer to the course line I’m generally talking about the straight line betweetn the turnpoint however we are free to choose out own route depending on weather conditions and the time of day we’re passing through a particular area. A lot of important strategy goes into choosing exactly where to go betweeen the turnpoints. At any rate when scouting the course going to the turnpoints makes the most sense since that’s a place you know you will pass through for sure. I managed t hike up past the turnpoint and after a difficult launch I had a sledder back down to the town below.

The next day was rainy so I started organizing my maps collection and other gear. I didn’t fly that day but I was getting tired of being cooped up in a hotel so I got John to drive me a little ways north to where  trekking route headed up to the Cadí mountain range just west of the Bergueda turnpoint. I had my camping and flying gear an planned to hike, spend the night in the mountains and then fly the next day. I was a little chilly camped out but everything else went according to plan.

The next morning I hiked for a couple hours until I got to a good launch and I got in the air a little after noon. The Cadí are a long even rocky ridge running east and west. I followed the ridge briefly flying on the north side in a moderate north wind before working my way out over the lower hills to the north and making a crossing over the valley to the base of the larger mountains to the north that led to Andorra. I made the crossing with a bit of height but after losing a couple weak climbs I couldn’t connect with anything so I landed in a high pasture with the plan to hike further up and take off again.

I hiked north and west climbing towards the large mountains of Andorra until I reached the north south running valley of La Seu de Urgel. I had been following fairly close to the course line an since the sun was still fairly high in the sky I figured I would try to hop west across the valley and then work south towards the highway where John would pick me up. The air was funky even as I tried to kite my wing on the hillside which should have been my first sign something had changed. Once I launch I realized the light northerly wind I had been flying in earlier had been replaced by strong downslope north wind blowing over the high mountains. Everything was sinking and I ran downwind an across the valley in bumpy air. After I crossed the main north south valley I headed into a side valley to the west hoping it would be more protected from the strong north wind. As I got closer to the ground things got more turbulent as I started to encounter small violently turbulent thermals over the hillsides where I was thinking about trying to land. The landing options weren’t great in the nasty turbulence so I managed to connect with a thermal that took me up a couple thousand feet above the surrounding peaks and I ran further down wind hoping to find bigger fields and wider valleys to land in. A couple ridges south I was over the highway John and I were going to take to our next hotel. The conditions were still very nasty, I was still taking collapses and I could see trees waving in strong wind below. Although the highway was up near the top of a ridge I went for the biggest flattest field in the bottom of the V shaped valley. Fortunately things were relatively smooth as I landed between wind bent trees with no forward ground speed at all in the strong wind. After a bit of a struggle to communicate with poor cell phone coverage and confusing interfaces between texting and my delorme satellite communicator John and I managed to find each other an we headed off towards Vielha, a town I’ve passed through quite a few times now.

After a night in Vielha we made the quick drive over into France to check out the Ciciré turnpoint above Bagnére de Luchon. With the gondola not open John drove me up to the Super Bagnére ski area just below the turnpoint and I hiked to the turnpoint peak itself and took off for a nice little flight east. This time our communication was better and John was able to pull up and watch me land near the pass to the east on the way out of Luchon. We then made the long windy drive I’m now quite familiar with to Castejon de Sos in Spain.

We ended up staying most of the rest of our time in Castejon. It’s one of those wonerful little rural towns in a beautiful setting where paragliding is a big deal. They have 3 or 4 tandem and school operations so there are lots of vans and trucks going up the big mountain right behind town with a variety  of launch options. We had wonerful airbnb hosts Diego and Rebeca who shared thier 2 beroom apartment with us. They are spening the summer in Castejon so Diego can learn to paraglide and it was nice to have that in common. My first day flying there I headed north towards France in great looking conditions. I didn make it very far before I lost the lift and landed but I was still high in the mountains so I hiked back up to a peak and was able to get flying up at cloudbase soon.

Castejon sits a bit east of the section of the course line that runs from Peña Montañesa on the south side of the Pyrenees to the Ciceré turnpoint we had visited the day before. I thought I was heading for Ciceré as I crossed high snowy ridges and partially frozen irridescent blue lakes. It turned out I was actually quite lost, my glance at the map on my phone had told me I still had to fly north to get to France but what I didn’t realize was that I was heading for a more northerly stretch of the border to the east of the turnpoint. Navigation is obviously something I’ll have to put some time into before the race. I’ve been practicing using maps while in the air a lot more since then. At any rate I had a great flight. As the sun got lower in the sky I hopped east from ridge to ridge on the north side of the border crest. As the lift shut off in the dwindling sunlight I flew south into a high alpine calley towards the crest and landed above tree line among mountain azaleas, patches of melting snow, and waterfalls. Even though I was lost I knew I needed to get  back to the south side of the crest to follow the course line so I quickly packed up an started hiking up the steep valley hoping I might be able to fly down the other side of the crest before dark. 

After a beautiful hike up through the high alpine terrain with bigger and bigger residual snow patches I reached the crest just as the sun was setting. I couldn’t see the valley well that I was flying into but it looked like it had some fields within glide on my map so I launched with the red light of the setting sun lighting up my wing. As I flew out of the side canyon where I launched and over the main valley I could see there were indeed lots of small fields along the bottom of the valley. I flew to the furthest one I could reach and landed flying in over cows frolicking in the dusk. I had seen a refugio just down the road on my map so I went there only to find it closed. I had already let john know I wouldn’t be back that night as I was planning to camp. I had just set gotten set up to sleep on the deck of the refugio when the family that ran it arrived back from an evening in town. They let me in and I got to sleep inside after all. Even though I ended up realizing I’d been farther off course than I thought at first that was still a great day of getting into the hike-and-fly mindset. Using the paraglider in all parts of the day and all situations can get you a long ways even if no single flight is all that impressive.

The next morning I hiked east over the next ridge and launched into a promising looking valley. It turned out to be windier than I expected though and although I fought to get south closer to the course line or further east for a couple hours I ended up landing not far from where I’d taken off. Looking back I think I should have tried to follow my climbs higher even if it meant getting blown north away from the course line. What ended up happening was that I never got up out of the strong south valley wind and I just bounced around the same area for a couple of hours before landing.  I got in touch with John who headed out to retrieve me and I started jogging down to the highway to start hitchhiking to try to save him some driving time. I passed through pretty fields and old towns on the way but once I got to the highway it was hot and a long wait before anybody picked me up. None the less I ended up getting 3 short rides before I met John in Vielha and we made the windy hour and a half drive back to Castejon.

The next day I didn’t set out with grand ambitions for flying. I hung around launch an snapped photos of John. Eventually I decided I would try to fly backwards along the course line towards turnpoint 4, Peña Monteñsa. After crossing the valley to the west  of launch I had to be very patient working shredded wind blown thermals low on the eastern slopes of Sierra Vieja for quite some time before I got high enough to try for another jump to the large sprawling mountain Cotiella further west again. I arrived low after the crossing as well and had to fight the urge to give up and land as the lift was difficult to climb in, once again blown apart by the strong south valley wind coursing over the east facing slopes. I stayed in the air though and ever so slowly worked my way into the wind southward along the eastern slopes until I finally got to some terrain that was collecting the valley wind well enough to form some consolidated thermals and I was able to climb out over the rocky peak of the Cotiella. I could now see Peña Monteñsa which is the high point at the west end of a long snake-like front barrier ridge dividing the mountainous areas to the north from the foot hills and farm land to the south.

First I tried to fly straight towards the turnpoint but I hit sink. Then I tried to head straight into the wind towards the closest point in the ridge hoping to get over it to the sunny south faces. I didn’t have enough altitude though and I was soon stuck low in the valley between the ridge and Cotiella’s south slopes with limited landing options. Once again I had to resist the urge to call it a day and land. I worked very light lift for what seemed like forever before I climbed up Cotiella’s south faces and was once again up at cloud base. This time I headed out with enough altitude to make the front side of the ridge. There were indeed lots of thermals once I was out front and it was an easy run west to tag the turnpoint and then come back and get high to cross back over to Cotiella. It was getting later in the day but I had been eyeing the nice line of clouds set up over Cotiella and leading back over the higher peaks towards France. I decided to try to connect the turnpoints and I got up to cloud base around 12,000 feet and headed north. The crossing was quite easy with tall western mountain slopes kicking off consistent thermals. This time I knew where I was going. I flew over the Ciciré turn point and headed east to see if I could extend the flight a little farther. I soared up over the ridge east of Luchon in light glassy air an frisbeed along in the next valley a little ways.

My landing went embarrasingly poorly but it was good to see that I made the right decisions to deal with the situation after I screwed up the approach. The valley wind was blowing at a pretty good clip but as I dropped below tree line to land in the small field I had picked out it sudenly deminished and I was overshooting the field. A narrower field lay beyond so I stayed high to clear the fence but found myself getting bumped up by a bit of a thermal as the next field turned out to be downsloping and dropped away below me. Still over 10 feet in the air I started to try a bit of a S turn to lose altitude but the field was too narrow and my wint tip was dragging in the trees next to me. All in a second I decided this was one of those time flap or stall and drop in even though I was a little high. As I pulled in the brakes I leaned forward and got in a standing position to PLF or parachute landing fall, the technique of landing on your feet but with bent knees to intentionally fall and absorb a hard landing impact. I didn’t hit the ground that hard but I did a real PLF falling sideways onto my hip and back. I picked myself up and decided I was only lightly bruised and most importantly my feet and ankles were happy. I got in touch with John and we planned to try to meet again in Vielha. After I forded a small river with a strategically placed log to help me get across with dry feet I walked down through a little town and started hitch hiking on the highway.

We got back late and I was worn out the next day. We were getting close to the time when John would be returning the rental car and we would be parting ways. We had talked about pushing a little further west to Anayet, turnpoint 3 so I coul fly back towars Peña Monteñesa and Castejon from there but neither of us felt like taking that on in the morning. I had a bit of a rest day and caught up on internet stuff. We decided we’d head back by the Bergueda turnpiont and then spend a night with Judith before heading to Barcelona. From there John would head to Madrid and I would fly to Hondarribia where the race starts and begin exploring the beginning of the course vol biv style, on foot with everything I’d need in my backpack. The next day on the way to Bergueda we stopped an I flew for a while over the little village of Avallanet. It was just up the valley from where I’d had my scary windy landing a week before but this day the wind was south and not too strong. I almost rifted back with a thermal to go for a cross country flight a couple of times but the areas downwind of me to the north didn’t look very promising. They also looked remote and I didn’t want to create a complicated retrieve situation as we still had a ways to go to the town of Bagá where we were planning to stay near the turnpoint. After I landed we finished up the drive, got checked into a hotel and I took an evening hike up past the turnpoint. I climbed above the turnpoint scouting launch options but it turned out to be quite a bush whack getting to the top of peak St. Marc that sits directly behind the turnpoint. I’m still not sure if it was named after Marc Chirico but I in find any launch options before it got dark. After taking a few shortcuts on the way down that looked good on the map on my phone I was a bit scratched and covered in brambles. Fortunately the hotel bar was still open and John who had been watching my progress from my delorme satellite tracker updates had a cold beer waiting for me.

The next morning I finally got my racing gear all ready to try out. The smaller 7.5 lb. 22 square meter Omega Xalps M wing, and the 3 lb. Range Xalps harness with the 2.1 lb skyman reserve. Even though my pack was nice and light I didn’t climb much beyond the turnpoint which sits on a little plateau just above Guardiola de Bergueda. Launching from a hillside pasture just above the turnpoint I got up to the low cloudbase quickly. In the gear switch I had forgotten my velcro phone case that allows me to fly with my cell phone as my instrument running XC soar. With out a way to hold my phone in view an fly the glider I didn’t want to get too close to the clouds and risk getting sucked up into one without an instrument to guide me out. We’re not supposed to fly pargliders in clouds primarily for the collision hazard it poses to other aircraft. We all end up in a cloud at some time or other though and it’s not usually a big deal to fly to the nearest edge if you have some kind of compass or instrument that shows your direction of travel. Without an instrument it’s easy to start turning circles with out realizing it and this can lead to extended stays in the white room, not something I wanted to risk so I flew well below the clouds that day. Between that and feeling a little jittery getting used to the feel of the new gear I was soon on the ground 10 or so miles to the east. John picked me up, and had I not forgotten about leaving my cellphone on a roadside post until we were half a hour own the very windy road we would have made good time getting to Judiths.

As it was we still arrived in time for a nice evening of visiting. Politics got a lot of talk time as the results of the Brexit vote were still fresh and there was a lot to talk about with our diverse American and EU perspectives. I had to switch gears so to speak, or switch gear and pack up all but my very most essential things to go into vol biv mode. I decided I would take my home made pack for the next section of the trip. I really just made it for racing but it fit everything ok and at 13 oz it was a full pound lighter than the Kortel Kolibri pack that I have been using for the last year. We took in the twilight from the balcony atop the basalt cliffs watching swifts play and catch bugs in the evening air. We set our alarms for an early departure to beat monday morning traffic into Barcelona and hit the hay.

I’ve since been in self supported hike and fly mode checking the first half of the course over the last week. I hope to cover that in a post soon and also add some of the many awesome photos I have for this post. For now though, internent and computer constraints mean this is how this how this post is gonna be. I was trying to put links to different flights’ track logs on Leonardo and xccontest through out this post but that didn’t work very well. You’ll have to figure out which flights are which but most of what I talk about here is either on my leonardo account at http://www.paraglidingforum.com/leonardo/tracks/world/alltimes/brand:all,cat:,class:all,xctype:all,club:all,pilot:0_34906,takeoff:all or my xccontest ataccount at http://www.xcontest.org/world/en/pilots/detail:JesseW

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