Day 6 started off wet and showery as I headed east along the main road from Vielha. Juraj the Slovakian athlete who had passed me the previous afternoon was only a little bit ahead of me and we soon were walking together sharing out experiences of the race. Company was a welcome break from the often solitary racing we’d been doing. It’s hard to keep up on what other athletes are doing when you’re racing and we were each very interested to hear how the other person had managed to get through the challenges of the course so far.
It was a fun relaxed morning of social hiking. The showers diminished as we gradually climbed following the main road towards a 6000′ pass. There was a 3000′ descent on the other side of the pass and we were both very hopeful that we could fly down and save our battered legs the punishing descent on the pavement.
The forecast called for showers all day and we weren’t hopeful about XC flying but we both picked up the pace as we approached the pass with high overcast skies and scattered low cumulus clouds. Up until that point there hadn’t been any thunder with the showers but as we arrived at the pass some distant thunder rumbled.
The wind was from behind us, so we when we got to the pass we hiked up to the side of the pass where we would take off towards the direction we had come from, and then quickly make a u-turn to fly downwind through the pass. Juraj got up and ready a little quicker than me and as he took off thunder rumbled closer. I didn’t really pause as got my gear ready and launched just after Juraj making one of my riskiest decisions in the race.
We shot through the pass with a solid tail wind and the terrain dropped away below us in a narrow V valley with no landing options for the first couple miles. We were no sooner through the pass than thunder boomed close and heavy hail started to pour down. I pushed my speed bar to avoid deep stall with all the hail falling on my wing and braced for turbulence. Juraj and I flew close together as the wet hail drenched us. We flew to the outside of the bends of the valley finding, less sink where the river of air sloshed up the terrain.
Miraculously we didn’t find significant turbulence and the lightning never got too close to us. We had enough glide to reach the end of the narrow valley where it opened up to a wide valley with many farm fields. I was worried about gust fronts all the way until I was on the ground but there wasn’t anything but a steady down valley breeze when I landed and packed up. I imagine if there was a gust front it might have been in front of us since we were in the thick of the precipitation most of the flight.
We caught up with out support crews as well as some rather incredulous race officials under the shelter of a gas station a couple miles down the road. After a change into dry cloths we kept on trucking down the road towards Llavorsi. Not long after that the sun was out and the sky looked quite promising for flying although it still showed signs of overdevelopment. We weren’t near an easy launch. I had struggled with flying in that area before the race, most notably lightly spraining my ankle in a funky side hill landing where my wing collapsed as I neared the ground. We also had a major route decision ahead if we were staying on the ground.
The closer launch for the next morning was to the south at the ski area on the peak of Torreta de L’Orri above the town of Sort. It offered clear slopes for take off in any direction and was nice and high, around 7000′. I was concerned that it was too close and I would waste several hours waiting to fly the next morning if I headed there that afternoon. It was also a bit off the courseline which was another waste of walking from my perspective. The problem was that beyond it there were few launch options in the heavily forrested low hills that dropped into the valley where the town of la Seu d’Urgell was situated. The next good looking launch option was the start to the East-West running ridge of the Cadi mountain range. I calculated the distance to the Cadi on my navigation app and after some simple math figured I would have to run a lot to make it to there in time to fly the next day. My legs were feeling a little better but I wasn’t sure they would hold up to that much of a push and if I went too slow I knew I might not make it to a take off until after the best part of the flying day.
Juraj and I both decided it wasn’t worth hiking up to try to fly that afternoon since it looked like the overdevelopment would be back soon. Juraj headed south for the closer take off option while I sat and pondered my choices. I really wanted to push for the farther launch on the Cadi but I knew that if I was too slow Juraj could take off when the thermals turned on mid day and pass me while I was still crossing the valley bottom by la Seu d’Urgell on foot. Trying to make strategy decisions like this is one of the most stressful parts of hike and fly racing. A good decision can put you far ahead or a mistake can leave you way behind. After an emotional internal struggle I decided I wanted to gamble on getting to the Cadi the next morning and we were back in action moving down the road. Pavel and Sam would follow me a little while in the van but since there was no road following my trail route they would have to go back and make a large detour before reconnecting with me on the other side.
I was soon off the paved road I had been on all day and heading up into the mountains. The soft uneven trail was a relief for my legs and the gradual incline was perfect for low impact running. The thunderstorms did indeed come back but on the ground they were perfect for keeping me cool. The trails were easy to follow and passed through forerests and centuries old abandoned villages with only the stone walls standing to mark forgotten civilization. The showers abated as I crested the ridge and began to descend towards la Seu d’Urgell. I briefly pondered attempting to fly down a couple times but I was on pace to make it to the Cadi the next morning and while flying down could save time it could also slow me down significantly if I attempted a launch but had to pack my gear back up again.
Sam and Pavel eventually connected with me after a couple misses as I took short cut trails down between road switch backs. I devoured food continuously as the skies cleared a bit and the setting sun illuminated the mamatus of a departing thundercloud above the Cadi mountains across the valley. I was happy that my body was feeling good after an afternoon on trail and I was on pace to make it to my launch the next day which I had originally marked with a waypoint titled “pipe dream launch” that afternoon. As darkness fell I made my way down the narrow side valley nearing the main valley before we stopped at the mandatory 10:30 cut off time. After a quick shower was slightly delayed by running out of water in the camp shower, I got a water bottle rinse and was headed to bed. Tomorrow was the last day of the race and I was eager to make a strong finish.
Photo credit: Sam Thompson