Well we’re getting close to race time here in Spain. My support crew has shown up and I’m riding in a van instead of walking with a pack so I’m going to try to get another blog post up. I haven’t had any spectacular long flights which is a bit disappointing but I’ve laid eyes on most of the route and I’m feeling pretty well prepared….. That was a couple days before the 2016 X-pyr when I started this post. It’s now a couple weeks since I switched out of race mode and re-entered the real world as a normal person again. Racing is crazy, it’s intense, it’s challenging, but for me it’s amazing fun. I’ll have a full write up on the race soon. Until then here’s the story of my paragliding adventures exploring the Pyrenees Mountains in the two weeks leading up to the race.
When I left off on my last post I was hopping on a jet to the start point of the race, Hondarribia, to set out on foot and get to know the first half of the route. I had a little trouble getting over there, missing my flight out of Barcelona and rebooking for the next morning. I did get to wander around Barcelona and see some sights. After a quick stay in a hostel and a 5:00 AM wakeup I arrived at the little airport in San Sebastian just a couple miles from the beach where the race starts. I unfolded my trekking poles and walked through the still sleepy streets to the beach as the day was getting going. I could see the first turnpoint, Larun, sticking up above the green hills in the distance. It was around 9:00 AM and I headed back through town towards the mountain.
I was carrying a heavy 30 lb. pack with camping gear and food so I was moving a lot slower than I hoped to on race day. The race start at 11:00 so I thought that my slower pace would get me up to the mountain about the same time I’ll get there in the race. After a couple stops for coffee and a bit of exploring along the way it was getting late in the afternoon by the time I came up the final scramble to the peak. Even though the peak I was headed towards is less than 2000 ft there are still nice views on the way up of red tile-roofed towns dotting the coast where the green landscape met the blue Atlantic. The day had started off sunny but a solid blanket of low marine clouds had formed covering the peak of the mountain by that time. I popped out on the summit among clouds and tourists who had hiked up or taken the little cogwheel train to the top of the hill.
I wanted to make sure to get a flight off the hill so I hurried down to the north trying to get below the clouds. It took me quite a bit of walking to get to a good launch. I had to launch west into the wind and then fly further north to get around the end of the ridge before I could follow the course line to the southeast. I just had a quick ride down to land in a little cornfield next to a windey rural road. The roads were so narrow and busy I was soon cutting through farm fields which worked for a while but soon had me struggling through woods and brush, stuck on the wrong side of rivers and hills. I eventually managed to link up with one of the GR trails, they’re long distance trekking routes following roads and trails all across the Pyrenees. There are many trails over here but the GR trails are generally the best marked with little color coded paint marks on trees and rocks to keep you on track. I plodded into a campground in the little French village of Ainhoa around 8:00 quite tired. I put up my bivy sack and kicked back a little bit before going to bed.
The next day was cloudy with a chance of rain and not much chance of flying. I did a lot of scratching my head trying to figure out which of the curvey rolling roads and trails were the most efficient for making progress along the course line. I hiked a mix of road and trail. Late in the day I wanted to try a little flydown to Saint-Étienne-de-Baïgorry but as soon as my glider came out of the bag cloud base dropped, the valley below me disappeared, and it started to drizzle. That put me in a cross mood but the road got straighter once I had hiked down to the valley and I was able to make better time. By evening I was in the historic town of Saint-Jean-Pied de-Port. After hitting a grocery store I had a nice salad for dinner using the sidewalk tables of a closed restaurant to prepare my picnic. When I’m living out of a backpack I can’t carry fresh food so I make big salad dinners whenever I’m close to a store around Dinner time. A plastic tub of greens with a can of sardines in oil, olives with a little brine, and a mix of other vegetables makes a delicious on-the-go salad. I almost forgot my trekking poles leaving that spot but after a quick double back I made a couple more hours walking down a quiet little valley with forests and scattered farms. I rarely stay in hotels on these kind of trips but I was getting quite sore after all the miles of pounding down the road and so I took advantage of a reasonably priced spot that cropped up right as I was looking for a place to stop.
The next morning I felt a bit refreshed but still sore from all the miles on pavement. I had thoughts of getting up at 5:30 and trying to make the second turnpoint, Orhi, by noon but as I’ve come to accept more and more, I need my rest when travelling self supported on foot. I finally had coffee and got moving a little after 9:00 heading up to the end of the little valley and returning to the game of finding my way through the maze of roads and trails that are woven through the low chaotically scattered little hills on the west end of the Pyrenees. Although I was hiking in the sun most of the day I didn’t see much opportunity to fly from the densly forested hills. I got in the air once but had a quick ride down to the fields below where a herd of curious cows greeted me.
It was around 4:00 PM by the time I was climbing Orhi and I was suddenly in cold damp cloud blowing over the ridge from the north. As I neared the peak though I popped out above the cloud and I could see there was a blanket of cloud stretching out to the north. It pushed up against the crest of the mountains, where I was, and the cloud disappeared as it cascaded down the south side of the mountains. I was worried it could be turbulent where the wind was spilling down over the mountains so I didn’t try to fly from the top and hiked down instead. I also wanted to stick to the course line which followed the crest east instead of dropping down into the valleys to the south. It was a shock hiking from the balmy sunshine on the peak down into the very windy cloud pouring over the crest. I had to move quickly to stay warm as I hiked into the night. I finally made it to the refuge I was heading to. I was hoping to find drinking water since I had been among livestock for a long time and hadn’t wanted to get water out of any little streams. The refuge was primitive but some through hikers who were already bedded down shared some of their filtered water with me so I could have a drink and brush my teeth before I passed out in my bivy. A water filter is one of the few things I wished I had with me on this trip.
The next morning I dragged myself out from under my dew wetted tarp and bivy. I got more filtered water from the hiking crew and headeded east along the GR trail that followed crest for around 4 hours. In late morning I left the trail to go up on a peak and try a flight. In the distance to the east I could see the larger rocky peaks where the Pyrenees turn into proper mountains. It seemed a little early but for good thermals but I figured I could make a little progress with a sledder and get closer to the more promising looking rock topped peaks for another flight right in the prime mid day window. I launched off a steep grassy slope without a clear plan in my mind where I would fly. I had my eye on a hill south of me that looked like it would offer good launches on it’s top but would have required a landing all the way in the bottom of the valley to access the trails up it. As I flew and didn’t find lift I made the decision in a moment to stick to the crest ridge and fly more easterly. That allowed me to land high and preserve my elevation although there were not such promising opportunities of launches in the hills in that direction. As I packed up some of the through hikers passed me reminding me that I hadn’t really gained any time over hiking. Flights like these help rest the legs though and give an opportunity to climb and gain some distance if the thermals are working early but it’s easy to lose time if I take too much time taking off or packing up after the flight.
I was down to less than half a day’s worth of food and there were no towns coming up along the logical hiking route. I stopped fill up on water in a refuge where the through hikers were having lunch and I found some uncooked pasta left on the shelf which I took for emergency rations. I never sky camp with a stove and I didn’t even have a pot to cook over a fire but I figured I could slowly chew the pasta if worst came to worst. I quickly set off again as it was near mid day and I needed to get to a launch before I lost too much of the prime part of the flying day. There were a lot of cumulous clouds in the sky and some were already getting quite big, threatening to turn into thunder storms. I hurried through the woods in welcome shade from the hot sun. After hiking a couple hours more hiking I was traversing near the top of a ridge and I came to a narrow band of grass and brush above me, between the trees below and cliffs above. I hadn’t anticipated this as a good launch because the maps showed the forest going right up to the cliffs but after a little scouting I found a promising launch with nice thermic wind blowing up the hill.
For those that don’t fly, we generally recognize thermals from the ground as a bubbley gusty wind that blows uphill and is cyclical in strength. This is because the sun heats everything up until the layer of air next to the hillside lifts up like a hot air balloon. It usually follows the terraine uphill causingthe cyclical wind where it flows. When it comes to a ridge top or peak it usually breaks free from the terraine and it streams upwards in more of a bubble or column than a layer. After a thermal lifts off, the place where it started is refilled with cooler air from below which isn’t as eager to rise until a few minutes later when the sun has heated it up and the process repeats. Often when we are standing on a hill thinking about flying we can tell if the thermals are strong enough for us to climb by how strong the gusts or cycles blow up hill each time the wind peaks.
I launched and found a nice climb above my ridge. I also found strong SW wind that was pushing me off the course line I wanted to follow to the ESE. I was quite concerned about thundercloud development too. I pushed southward into the wind as it looked like the first move to position myself to play the cross country paragliding game of hopscotch where I would try to get from one promising, sunny, windward, south mountain face to another without losing all my altitude and landing on the glides in between. I made my first jump but found strong turbulence and sink as I was arriving at the place I hoped to find thermals. It was also in the shade which usually shuts down thermals until the sun comes back to continue heating the terrain and hence the air flowing over it.
The mountain below me was grassy so I landed quickly on the slope before I wasted any more altitude flying back and forth looking for lift that probably wasn’t there in the shade. I packed up quickly started hiking up the mountain. If thermals are light it’s generally always better to be higher on a slope as thermals start out as small slow trickles of warm air going up the hillside but they join together and pick up speed as they form a larger flow, much like small streams come together into a fast flowing river. As I hiked I got to observe the wind and clouds and I felt that I was actually in a pretty good spot so around a half an hour later when I had gained a bit of elevation and the sun was back out I relaunched.
In the air I had an easy time climbing quite high and headed east where there was a large North/South running rocky crest blocking my way. I climbed higher and hopped over a pass between two craggy peaks. On the other side the crest of mountains that form the Spainish/French stretched east along my route so I had an easy path of thermal generating peaks to follow. I was nice and high and the flying was easy. The mountains there are made of a rich dark red rock and the views with high alpine lakes and meadows were spectacular. As I got to the end of the valley and neared turn point 3 I flew over a French park that had controlled airspace we had to be careful of in the race. We weren’t supposed to fly below 1000 meters above the terrain which was tricky because the park included peaks and deep valleys. I didn’t have the airspace files available at that point so I flew over the park staying as high as I could. During the race I couldn’t take a risk like that as an airspace violation often means disqualification.
On the other side of the park is a ski town called Candanchu. It sits at a pass above a narrow valley that leads out to the Spanish lowlands through a small gap in the long straight rocky range that runs parallel to the course line. This barrier ridge that the Spanish lowlands to the south from the high mountains to the north before and after turnpoint 3. I could see the familiar cloud layer from the French air to the north was getting high enough to just reach the pass and start flowing over. After seeing how windy it was where that air layer was flowing over the crest around turnpoint 2 the day before I didn’t want to go down in the valley to the south, downwind of the pass. I could see where the turnpoint was not far away across the valley but it had clouds that looked like they could start raining and thundering at any minute over it. I could have tried to land high on a mountain slope to wait for the clouds to clear out around the turn point if I had wanted to go for the most aggressive race strategy but I wasn’t racing yet. My mind was on my empty food bag and I didn’t want to have a dinner of uncooked pasta. I took an easy landing in the ski area parking lot and minutes later I was having coffee and a hot meal while checking facebook at a nice restaurant as the clouds spilled over the pass and blocked out the sun. After that I stocked back up to 2 days’ worth of food at the grocery store down the street and started walking again.
It was a quick hike down into the valley and then up the other side to start up the mountain whose peak was TP3, Anayet. I hiked until I was quite high, first on trail, then through brambles and finally over high meadows where a large herd of horses was grazing. At dark made camp on a rare flat spot in the steep grassy slopes. I didn’t do a good job setting up my tarp tent that night and it blew off during a light shower. It was more annoying than disastrous but I didn’t get great sleep. On this sky camping trip I didn’t carry a sleeping bag and just stuffed my glider in my bivy sack most nights for warmth. I would use my padding from my harness for a pillow. I had downsized from a full to a 2/3 length neo air sleeping pad to save 4 oz. but I’m not sure that was a good idea. My full sleeping pad is very comfortable and I could never quite make the small pad work well.
The next morning I did get to sleep in a little. I was already near the tops of the mountain and I had grassy slopes going in most directions so lots of launch options were close. I didn’t actually get within the 400 meter GPS cylinder that defined TP3 but I was close enough to get a good look at how the terrain lay. I launched before noon hoping that some of the tall south facing slopes would already have some light thermals. I think the prevailing SW winds were already having an effect because although my launch was in fairly calm conditions I quickly found sinky bumpy conditions probably caused by the SW wind coming over the rocky barrier ridge to the south of me. I quickly lost elevation although I was able to push a little ESE along the course line before landing. I was in a high valley running parallel to the course but it was also directly in the lee side of the barrier ridge. I hiked for a couple hours until that valley ended at a saddle between two round grassy knolls. On the other side of the saddle the terrain sloped down to the next north-sout valley a few miles away that led to the next break in the barrier ridge.
I launched at the saddle but not surprisingly found things turbulent and difficult in the lee of the high barrier ridge to the south. After a short flight and some hiking I flew down into the next valley and started hiking south out the gap in the ridge. The flying looked nice for continuing on the other side of the valley on the north side of the ridge but the Monte Perdido National park was up ahead with forbidden airspace above it so it blocked the flying in that direction. I hadn’t made it very far that day in spite of being in big mountains with relatively good weather. I was definitely frustrated as I hiked down the road. The fact that turn point 3 was on the north side of the barrier made it kind of a trap since the wind usually comes from the SW. Fortunately I was able to use this experience to avoid getting stuck back there in the actual race. As I hiked down the valley though I got treated to a couple special sights. People first drove a heard of at least 100 horses past me and then what must have been at least 500 sheep and goats. They stopped traffic on large sections of the road with police, and herdsman working together to direct the animals and cars. All the high meadows seem to have some animals grazing in these mountains and their bells make a lovely symphony wherever you go.
I hiked through a pretty little town of Biescas where the valley opened up once it got past the gap in the barrier ridge. I stopped for groceries and beer to drown my sorrows and continued a little further to a campground I had spotted on my maps. I got a slow start the next morning which was not aided by camp restaurant opening late for coffee. The grind of self-supported hiking day after day was taking it’s toll on me and I had to have 3 little coffees before I started plodding up the hill towards the peak I hoped to launch from to the north. I had noticed that the roads led where I wanted to go for a while but there weren’t any roads or trails on my map going to the actual peak I wanted to launch from. I followed the roads as they zig zagged for a while but eventually I started bush whacking up the hillside. Unfortunately there wasn’t much grass and I was pushing through the prickliest evergreen shrubs and low brush for quite a while. My shins weren’t bleeding too much but they were raw and painfully scratched by the time I got to open forest and then finally grass as I neared the peak. There was very little wind as I got to the peak and found that although it was a decent shape for launching it was covered in nettles. I was encouraged to see a sail plane come by and climb a bit over my spot as I arrived and I trampled down the nettles and started laying out my glider.
It was already well in to the prime part of the day for flying, around 3:00 PM by the time I go the glider layed out but there was just no wind and although I tried to launch in the calm air I couldn’t get airborne. I sweated and cursed as more sail planes seemed to find thermals right above me. Finally I hiked down hill a little bit and got airborne in a tiny puff of wind. Once I was airborne the flying was nice. I was flying the lower forest and grass covered ridges and peaks to the south of the big rocky barrier ridge now. Once I climbed up over the terrain I found a solid south wind again and I was glad not to be stick on the downwind side of the ridge. I had to veer further south, a bit off the course line to avoid the Monte Perdido Park airspace but I managed to find climbs consistently over the lower, mostly forest covered hills. The geology of the mountains here is amazing and just west of the town of Aínsa I enjoyed flying low over the top of Mt Olarallo whose bent layers of rock look like a giant jelly roll that was ripped in 2 pieces for a river to flow through.
I had been able to see the familiar shape of Pena Montenesa, TP 4, for quite some time and it was getting close now. Just before the turnpoint there is a wide valley to cross and I didn’t have quite enough height to find a climb on the other side so I landed in old terraced fields. An old man working in his garden in one of the fields pointed me to the path to the road and I stopped at a fountain to hydrate and stock up on water in the hot afternoon. I was pretty much at the foot of Pena Montenesa and I had reached familiar territory. While flying earlier in the trip I had flown from the Castejon de Sos to Pena Montenesa and then on to Mt. Cicere TP 5 in France twice. I was worn out from hiking and I decided I was ready for a break. Although it was already past 7:00 and Castejon was quite a few miles ahead of me, I called up our Airbnb hosts from when John and I stayed there to see if I could stay with them that night. I got ahold of them and they said it was fine to stay that night even if I got in late. I started running down the road with my thumb out flashing my and a big smile at every car that passed. I knew it was a long shot to hitch all the way to Castejon but I was going to give it a try and after 3 rides from wonderful friendly locals and a couple hours of running down the road between I got dropped off at the bar where my hosts Diego and Rebeca were winding down there day. After a couple beers and some dinner I crashed hard, happy to be in a comfortable bed and finally able to relax.
The next day I made another flight into France past turn point 5. Ironically this was one of the parts of the race route I had the most practice flying but I ended up walking the whole thing in the race. At least I got to see the beautiful area both ways. There was a chance of thunder storms forecasted in the late afternoon but I got a quick start and made the now familiar run from the high peaks of Cotiella, over the beautiful blue lakes in the high rocky border country, to the Cicere turn point above Bagnères-de-Luchon. I wanted to focus on how to get out of the turn point area where the lift often isn’t as good on the cooler wetter French side of the mountains. I made it a little past the turn point and when I couldn’t find a climb I landed high in the meadows, packed up and started hiking east hoping to find a launch and better flying conditions soon. Unfortunately it started raining and soon the cloud and rain was so thick there was no visibility to fly down so I had a long hike down to Luchon. I had some of my stuff back in Castejon at Diego and Rebeca’s but fortunately I had my camping gear with me. I tried to hitch back towards Castejon but soon the rain was pouring with thunder every few seconds and I eventually walked to the other end of town to spend a wet night in a camp ground.
The next morning I got an early start hitch hiking and after 4 rides and quite a bit of waiting finally got back to my Airbnb room. The prime start time for XC flying was already past so I chilled out for the afternoon. That night I managed to run non-stop from town up to the Piedras Blancas launch, around 4500 feet of elevation gain. I did it in about 2 hours which I felt was quite an accomplishment before taking a relaxing sledder down to land in a field 2 minutes away from my apartment. The next day I took some more time to relax. I wrote a blog post, enjoyed the weekly open air market in town, and did laundry. I visited with Marcello, an instructor from Chili working the northern summer in Castejon. He planted the seeds of sky camping adventures in Chili in my mind. We’ll see if I can swing a trip down there this winter.
With my batteries somewhat recharged I headed out to continue my cross country journey the next morning. Since I had already been into France from Castejon several times my plan was to cut to the east or turnpoint 5 where the course line crosses the high mountains from Spain back into France. I felt route options in the long stretch between TPs 5 and 6 would be one of the important route choices of the race. The Aiguestortes I Estany de Sant Maurici national park sits right on the course line with forbidden airspaceabove so we had to go around either to the north or the south. I had a good flight but couldn’t quite make it around to the north side of the park. I had a tense and turbulent landing next to a lake at the west edge of the park. Fortunately there was a refuge right above my landing spot and I hiked up to have a coffee while I decided where I’d go that night and the next day.
With rain forecasted the next day I decided to hike straight through the high granite peaks of the park. It wasn’t a likely route I’d take during the race but it promised to be scenic and seemed like the best way to get down the course line on foot. I made another refuge by nightfall. It was full but they made me an extra bed on the ground floor after all the other hikers were headed up to the second floor bunk rooms. There are a lot of nice full service refuges in the pyrenees and this was a classic one. It’s basically a large cabin with bunks up in the second story and an open dining layout on the first floor. They have a big kitchen where they make dinner and breakfast for anyone who wants to pay the extra few euros. This one was accessible by gravel road but used solar panels for off-the-grid electricity. I enjoyed a good night sleep before the rain of the next day.
It was good that there was no chance of flying the next morning because I spent the first half of the day backtracking looking for my sllicone nylaon tarp/poncho that I had dropped along the trail the day before. Luckily my searching paid off and I connected with some hikers who had picked it up. Once I had it back I trekked on towards Espot on the other side of the park. I got to town around dinner time, stocked up on food, had a salad, and headed down the road to a camp ground.
Past Espot was wide deep valley and I hoped to cross it and find a launch on the other side by mid day. I I wanted take a sledder across the valley since I was starting the day quite high in the hills looking straight down into the valley. I found a little grassy area that had too many shrubs in it but after a fair bit of work uprooting the little line snagging bushes I thought I had enough space cleared to launch from if a solid cycle came up the hill. Unfortunately there was never any wind blowing uphill even though the morning sun should have been heating things up on the east facing slope. I tried launching a few times but it just wasn’t happening so I started hiking down into the valley frustrated that I’d wasted a couple hours and would be arriving to the other side late for prime launching time.
As I hiked up the other side it didn’t look like the thermals were getting going. There were no clouds and the air was remarkably still. Depending on the atmospheric profile, or stability, thermals can start early or late in the day. Unstable air usually makes for thermals by late morning and strong thermals by mid day. A stable atmosphere can mean thermals don’t start working until the afternoon or not at all. This day was definitely stable. I hiked up past a mostly abandoned village of old stone buildings and tried to launch from a small grassy area in old terraced pastures. The wind wasn’t strong enough to get launched from the flat little spot and after a few tries I had to stop and cool down under a tree. I wear a down jacket for flying since it’s chilly or downright cold up by the clouds if the flying allows me to get that high. The problem is that wearing warm cloths while trying to launch from a hot hillside is miserable especially if I have to make multiple tries. I decided that the wind was just too weak for that spot, packed up, and found a better spot with a larger, steeper grassy slope up the mountain a ways.
I got in the air but found small turbulent thermals that were too small to climb in. I seemed to be in the lee of the mountain with north wind pushing down through the valley. I moved south a little and tried again to work small trashy thermals for a couple minutes. I was up in a steep rock little side valley that was mostly forested with a few little hay fields around a village. I started working my way out of the valley with landing on my mind but found even more turbulence. Worried that I might find stronger wind and more turbulence as I got closer to the main valley I turned back to land in one of the little hay fields. As I turned back into the wind to land, still about 20’ in the air I took another collapse and dropped towards the field. I only had time to get my feet under me and momentarily wonder how hard I’d hit the ground. I don’t think I even got my feet out of my pod and unfortunately I didn’t do a good PLF. Somehow I landed with most of my weight on my right foot, my right knee might have been locked, I’m not sure. The impact wasn’t terribly severe but my right ankle took a hard painful hit. I sat for a couple minutes waiting to see how bad it hurt as the adrenaline wore off and then limped over to the shade. It didn’t seem to be broken but it was definitely mildly sprained, not at all what I wanted to be dealing with a week before the race. I gingerly limped down the hill and hitched hiked down to the town of Llavorsi where I set up shop in a camp ground and waited to see how my foot would look the next day.
The next morning I deceided I definitely didn’t want to do any hiking. I sat around the camp ground. The Tour de France was coming through town mid day so the road was closed but after that cleared out I caught a bus south to Lleida and started making my way back to Castellfollit de la Roca where I was going to pick up my stored gear and meet up with my race support crew. Over the next few days I studied maps, made last minute modifications to my pack and organized gear. My supporter Pavel arrived from Czech Republic and we started to organize all the gear in his van. Next we picked up my friend Sam who was coming over to film and photograph the race. I got one more little flight in from TP 6 before we had to go back to Barcelona to get one of Sam’s suitcases that Air Canada had brought over a day late. Then we headed west towards the start of the race. We went up to the Port Ainé ski area on the way but there was strong north wind and I didn’t want to try flying in it after multiple bad experiences in north wind in that area. The next day we got to old fortress city of Hondarribia, got settled into a camp ground, and started into the pre-race briefings and meetings.
I had managed to fly or walk most of the course line except for the last bit around TP 7 and 8. There were tons of things I wished I had been able to take more time to organize, study and prepare but I had gotten over 30 hours of flying in all around the Pyrenees as well as seeing a lot of the mountains on foot from trails running through the peaks. Although my longest flight was a zig zagging 90 km and over 6 hours long, I hadn’t managed any flights with more than 50 km or so of course line progress. I thought that if I could keep my flying a that level I’d have a good shot at being in the top 50% but I figured I’d have to make some longer flights to place high in the rankings. Overall the month getting ready for the race had been a great experience. From touring with my friend John to camping and flying along the first half of the course, to meeting up with my crew it was a great adventure. All the people I met along the way were wonderful, helpful, and friendly. I’d had a few scary moments and pushed myself flying in windier conditions that I was used to, but I knew this would be part of flying here. I’d also been blown away by the spectacular scenery on a daily basis. I was thrilled to have the privilege of race with the best pilots in the world through these windy, challenging, beautiful, Pyreneese Mountains.