None of us got much sleep the first night of the race. At the end of the first day I had started down what seemed like the most direct road towards TP 2. It was the way I had gone passing through scouting the route a couple weeks prior. When we had stopped the night before I had realized that the other pilots ahead of me had taken a parallel road that ran a little further away from the course line. I knew the road I had taken got very windy as it got closer to the turn point ahead some 15 miles ahead and I thought I had made a mistake. As you can imagine it can be hard to tell exactly which route will be quicker just looking at a map, especially comparing hiking trails to roads. With a good internet connection it’s easy to use a variety of map products to analyze routes based on their distance as well as elevation profiles but we didn’t have that luxury. Working with slow mobile data and offline map products I had decided to take a trail that cut diagonally over to the other road along a ridge. I figured the extra work of hiking up out of my valley would be worth it if I had a chance to take an early morning hopper flight. You can watch a live tracking replay of the race on the X-Pyr website. You can speed it up, zoom in or out, and swap map backgrounds but you’ll have to use a computer not a phone. Also be patient, it takes a minute or two to load.
As I got hiking in the dark that morning though a warm wind was already gusting down through the valley and chances of morning flying seemed unlikely. I sent Sam and Pavel ahead to where the ridge trail met the other road. By the time I got to the beginning of the trail, I was already feeling tired and second guessing my decision to hike a ridge with lots of up and down and no apparent chance of flying in the tree shaking wind. I quickly decided I’d stay on the lower roads and cut laterally away from the course line over to the other road right there. My preoccupation with following the leading athletes turned out to be a big mistake.
I spent at least an hour walking laterally to the course line before I got to the other road. I later realized that if I had continued down my original valley there was an efficient diagonal trail further up that would have cut over to the other road near the turnpoint without wasting altitude or miles. The wind blasted over the hills all morning. I was sore and tired from the day before but didn’t feel terrible. My right thigh hurt enough that I avoided running but it was mostly uphill anyway. Up ahead Sam and Pavel didn’t know I had switched course to hike the road since we hadn’t figured out how to make our cell phones work on the French networks. I was using my T-mobile American SIM card which worked fine but they had no service at all on the other end. I didn’t go hungry but would have preferred the van to be close for food and water. I wished I had my Delorme Inreach that sends text messages through the satellite network and works anywhere. Originally I thought an Inreach would be our main tracking device for the race and I was looking forward to it’s easy messaging capabilities but the race officials had decided to use an experimental live tracking prototype with no messaging capabilities. The prototypes turned out to be terribly unreliable and were a perennial frustration through the race. Although I could have carried the Inreach in addition, I didn’t want the extra weight.
When I finally got to Sam and Pavel the wind was still howling with no sign of letting up. The road was now steadily climbing up to the 6300 foot peak that was the second turnpoint of the race.. Pavel told me he’d heard the first 3 teams were stopped on top of TP 2 planning to wait there until the wind eased up. I let myself slow down even more as the wind didn’t seem to be abating any time soon.
Unfortunately not too long after that was when the leaders got in the air around noon began their first day of long flights that put them far ahead of me. With no mobile data we had no chance of keeping track of them on live tracking. I finally got to TP 2 and was in the air around 4:30 in windy but sane conditions.
The race officials at the turn point described other pilots getting high quickly but I struggled in broken lift working my way east, soaring the border crest, around ridge height. After a few miles I was able to get higher and push a little south into the wind in convergence. I was able to get to a valley where I had flown when scouting the course weeks earlier. The valley caught the south wind well and there was nice lift that got me high enough to get over a pass in the the north/south ridge that blocked my way.
On the other side, a long valley paralleled the course line. The mountains on the north side of the valley had good sun exposure and faced into the south wind so they had lots of thermals and made for easy flying. The only problem was that beyond the crest of these mountains was a French park with prohibited airspace above. Just flying a few meters into the airspace would mean a minimum 6 hour time penalty and going deeper would likely mean disqualification. I rarely flew anywhere I needed to worry about airspace and I was very nervous. My cell phone, a Samsung Galsxy S5 active, running the XC soar app was my only instrument. It used stored map files and the phone’s GPS to show me my position, as well as various information about vertical speed and ground speed. I could see the airspace and my position clearly on the map but I was still nervous. Every edition of the X-Alps or X-Pyr I’d followed had seen penalties and disqualifications for airspace violations and I didn’t want that to happen to me. I made good time along the ridge but as I came to the end of the valley the airspace blocked my way ahead and I had to land. The flying day was pretty much done anyway and I my legs felt a little fresher after some rest so I was happy walking through the beautiful mountain meadows and lakes. Not far ahead of me a north/south highway cut through the mountains and just beyond it was TP 3, Anayet. I was finally out of the low forested mountains and now in the high terrain where rocky peaks jutted above large alpine meadows. To the south of me a high continuous rocky barrier ridge ran east/west parallel to the course line. On the other side of it were the hot dry hills of northern Spain. To the north of me tall rocky peaks ridges stretched into France where the climate was wetter and cooler. The valleys were deeper and narrower here, especially at the rare gaps where they ran through the barrier ridge.
That evening though I didn’t have to worry about much. I had cell service to text Pavel my location and ask him to come out to meet me on the trail as I had to cover several miles before I got to the road. I used the app LocSMS a lot which sends a simple message with GPS coordinates and google maps link as a text message. It’s the simplest and most reliable way I’ve found to share location through cell networks. It requires only a couple touches of the phone screen and the message goes out as a text (aka SMS) which is more reliable than messages going through the data network. I would also snap screen shots of my map app OsmAnd with my navigation route highlighted to show where I was going and make sure my crew was on the same page. Similar to the blue line on google maps, Osmand would highlight the route I’d selected to follow in purple so it showed up clearly in the picture. Sometimes my crew could see where I was on the official live track website but poor data coverage and frequent flaws in the tracking system meant I didn’t want to rely on that.
The trail wound around canyons, undulating on the steep mountain side. It was quite technical, runners terminology for being very uneven with rocks, roots, and steep bits. This was a welcome break from flat hard pavement and I was enjoying running bits of it. There was no road through the way I’d flown so Sam and Pavel had been on a long drive far to the south around the barrier mountains. After a couple hours Pavel met me on the trail with food and water. He took all my non-mandatory gear and we headed down the trail into little ski town of Candanchu as Darkness fell. We made camp just past town and watched a full moon rise from behind Anayet, TP 3, a tall rocky haystack mountain just across the valley to the east.
The next morning at 5:00 Pavel and I set out from the van with everything we might need for a full day. I knew I’d be climbing up high to get within the 400 meter turn point radius and I might just stay up in those high peaks until the sun heated everything up enough to start thermal flying. The darkness soon turned to dawn as we climbed up through wild flowers and happy cows jangling their bells as they grazed the high meadows. We climbed up past waterfalls following a trail up a steep rocky face and then I just had to scramble up a little scree slope to get within the cylinder and the turn point was in the bag. Now I had to decide where I was going to try to fly next. Basically my options were to wait in that area until thermals started working and try to make my main flight of the day from there, or fly down immediately to get in better position and hike up on mountains further south for my main flight.
I had been thinking about this spot a lot because when I’d flown from next to TP 3 before the race I’d had a tough time getting anywhere even with a couple flights. With the prevailing south wind the turn point was in the lee of the wall-like barrier ridge to the south. Flying in the lee generally means sinky turbulent conditions and even if I managed to stay airborne the Monte Perdido park with forbidden airspace blocked the way on the leeward or north side of the ridge. With the strong south wind I expected by midday it would be really difficult to cross from the north side of the barrier ridge to the south and I didn’t want to get stuck there like I had before. With the wind still calm in the morning I was keen on the idea of taking a sled ride flight through one of the narrow gap valleys in the barrier ridge and walking around to start flying from a hill on the south side of it. The drawback to this was that I might not get up to a launch until midafternoon and miss out on a big chunk of the prime flying part of the day.
At the turn point Pavel headed down to the van and I climbed up to a good launch a short ways away. The air was almost calm but I knew the prevailing south wind would be blowing through soon enough. I didn’t know how long it would take me to hike up to a launch again on the south side of the barrier ridge but I went ahead and took the sledder, burning tons of elevation flying perpendicular to the course line, not even making miles towards the Mediterrian, but hopefully putting me in a better place for the prime flying time in the afternoon. It was a smooth and picturesque ride down. I found some tiny thermal bubbles on the north side of the barrier ridge where the morning sun was heating the rocks but nothing that seemed worth sticking around for. As I flew down the knife-cut valley through the barrier ridge I could see a large herd of sheep being moved down the road. I flew straight without even a turn to set up my landing in a small village field. I got packed up quick and started hustling down the road. I knew Pavel would still be hiking down to the van but I was prepared to walk by myself in the cool pretty morning.
It turned out Sam and Pavel got delayed by the sheep herd going down the road and I was almost to the next trail up before they got to me. I stepped into a café in the little village and ordered cappuccinos as they rolled up and we had a quick coffee and strategy break. Then it was off up another mountain with the heat of the day starting to kick in. As I expected the hike took a long time but we finally got above the tree line around 2:00 PM. I launched from the first field we came to and after getting blown around a bit in strong wind and weak thermals I found a climb strong enough to take me up to twelve thousand feet. My XCSoar flight instrument app was registering a 15 MPH southwest wind blowing me back towards the barrier wall and I was very glad to be on the upwind side of the ridge as I headed east.
I worked my way along the front of the barrier ridge until I came to the first major gap. I wasn’t far above mountain top height but the narrow valley floor was far far below me. I really didn’t want to sink out there since I figured the wind would be howling through the valley. I crossed the gap, getting down to ridge height and had to soar the rocky cliffs on the other side briefly before I hooked a thermal back up high again. I made quick progress over the next section of mountains but at the next valley near Broto I started having trouble. I had to start cutting south into the wind to go around the Monte Perdido airspace. I had made it through this stretch on a training flight without too much trouble but now things were not making sense. I flew over SW faces of smaller mountains where I thought thermals should be only to find sink. I was almost to the valley floor when I decided to fly out over a flat patch of dry burnt forest in the very bottom of a wide flat valley making a last chance effort to stay in the air. Valley floors usually don’t produce thermals but I was surprised to find a very light thermal which I followed, frisbeeing horizontally in the strong valley wind for quite a distance, up over a small hill, and then up the face of a larger hill. I was still climbing slowly up the hillside, half way back up to cloud base, when I decided to head to head back out over the valley under what I was pretty sure was a convergence cloud. Sure enough I hooked up with a strong climb under the cloud and was back up to chilly air at 12 thousand feet soon after.
I pushed on towards turn point 4 again but had the same experience of finding sink wherever I went. After fighting so hard to get back up I struggled to find another climb but it wasn’t happening. Only a few minutes after I was feeling chilled at altitude I was landing in a hay field in sweltering heat. I had spent almost 4 hours in the air with turnpoint 4 visible in the distance. It was a big disappointment because I was almost at the part of the route I knew best from the air. I had flown from TP 4 to TP 5 three times while training and I knew it was an easy run even late in the day. Had I just been able to stay in the air a little further I likely could have flown all the way to turnpoint 5 in France. Now I wouldn’t reach TP 4 until the next morning when it was forecasted to be raining. Fortunately in a race like this you can’t dwell on your mistakes too much because things like packing up quick and getting moving down the road need your attention. Sam and Pavel were there to take my extra gear and start feeding me almost as soon as I got up to the road. After a couple bottles of electrolytes and some food I felt like I was in pretty good shape so I told Sam and Pavel to go ahead take a swim in the river running next to us.
As I walked along though I started feeling a bit goofy, like I was drunk, and I wondered if I was getting too hot. I came to a place where the road took a wide bend away from the river and I decided I would shortcut across the gravel bars and I could take a dunk in the water on the way by. I threw off my pack and flopped down in a small creek which felt great but when I was putting my pack back on thinking everything seemed suddenly bright I realized I had lost my sunglasses in the water. I looked for them briefly before deciding keep going and get my spares from the van later. I thought maybe Pavel would have time to look for them though so I hung on a small tree, trying to break it as a marker. Pavel was just ahead at next bend in the road on his way back from a dunk in the main river. I told him about the glasses and drank some more water and then I realized my phone was missing from my pocket. That was real trouble as I had no backup so we hurried back together to look for it. Fortunately it was sitting right where it had fallen out of my pocket while I hanging on the tree. Now I knew I was a little off in my head so I made sure to drink extra water and soak my shirt at the van before I headed down the road again. The surrounding mountains didn’t look as good from the ground as they had from the air a couple weeks before the race but they were still spectacular.
Fortunately I didn’t do anything else weird as I plodded down the road. The mountains we passed by got smaller and the day finally started to cool as the sun got low in the sky. Pavel and Sam fed me enormous amounts of pasta and bottle after bottle of electrolyte drink. About a half hour from stop time Pavel and I both spotted a short cut on the map that we thought could get me to a camp ground right at stopping time. I had done 2 big hikes and lots of road miles but I was feeling pretty good and thought I could run the last half hour. As soon as I started running the outside of my right knee started hurting. It was IT band pain similar to what had been nagging me on the morning of day 2. It had gotten better but now was flaring up again. Even though I knew I should listen to my body and slow down I didn’t want to give up on staying in a comfy campground so I pushed on. The pain got worse though as my shortcut trail turned out to go through a hard core, Moab style, mountain bike park and I ran up and down ridiculously steep mountain bike features. I was limping by the time I finally got to the campground with only a minute to spare before stop time. I took some ibuprofen and drank a beer hoping it would help my muscles relax but I was worried for the next day. With good wifi we were able to see that we were holding solidly on to 5th place. A lot of competitors had been stuck in strong wind back at TP 2. A few were scattered behind us around TP 3, and the three leaders had again made big flights with Maurer pulling away, already within striking distance of the finish. We drank a quick toast to Pavel who had gotten news that a new baby niece had just joined his family and then we all crashed into a deep sleep.
Photo credit: Sam Thompson