As the last day of the X-Pyr dawned I was feeling good. I was on pace to make it to the Cadi mountains nice and early which I hoped would put me in prime position for flying. As the dawn light brightened into day, I cut across dewy farm fields and then through the town of Seu de Urgel in the middle of the valley. There were scattered clouds after the thunderstorms the night before and the sun shone through them beautifully as I climbed up through the gently sloping fields towards the base of the Cadi. As the slopes got steeper I short cut switch backs in the road walking through pine forests. Near the top or the ridge we left the van and Sam and Pavel hiked with me on foot with camera gear and non mandatory equipment.
We came out of the forests and as we walked through rocky meadows we could see a mostly clear sky with a few clusters of dark clouds in the distance. A solid north wind was blowing which made the ideal launch to the North an easy option. The mountains sloped up steeply on the south side but dropped away in crumbling white rocky cliffs on the north side. I wasted little time getting ready and with a push from Pavel into the strong wind I was plucked up into the lift band of the cliffs and hurrying to the east along the ridge.
The day was quite unstable and I was keeping an eye on dark clouds nearby that were threatening rain but they never amounted to much. At first I was working to stay out of the clouds that were forming just above the cliffs but then a few miles down the ridge I started to sink out crossing a gap in the terrain. I quickly landed just above tree line to avoid the risk of sinking out all the way to the valley floor. This wasn’t ideal but only a minor setback and after a beautiful hour hiking back up near the top of the ridge I was airborne and finding easy climbs as I headed east quickly closing in on the turnpoint.
Turnpoint 6 was near the the bottom of the valley on the south side of the Cadi mountains so I planned to cross the Cadi ridge a couple miles before I got to the turnpoint and use my altitude to glide the last bit to the east. I topped out a climb and headed over the ridge into what I knew would be turbulent lee side conditions but with a moderate north wind in that area I didn’t expect anything too crazy.
Conditions indeed weren’t too bad as I descended below ridge height into the valley but as I got lower, around halfway to the valley floor it started getting really nasty and I was taking a lot of collapses. I tried crossing the valley and flying the northern windward faces of the smaller mountains there and it was a little better. I passed south of the town of Baga working east and the turnpoint came in view. As I started to make the little crossing over the valley back to the turnpoint on the north side I could see trees bending below me and I realized that I was descending into an increasingly strong northwest wind pouring down the floor of the valley. I remembered a really scary day training for the race nearby where foehn effect winds had developed in the afternoon of a north wind day and I had battled through extremely turbulent air to finally land in a blasting down-valley wind.
Things were happening fast now and I observed a couple things. First the turnpoint was on one of many little spines that ran down from the large mountains to the north. It was in a bit of a hole and it looked like a horrible spot for rotor coming from the other little spines upwind, to the northwest in the valley. I also expected to experience stronger and stronger wind almost to the ground based on my other experience and I was already parked when I turned into the wind. Downwind of the turnpoint there was nothing but trees and a narrow valley with high tension power lines. If I tried to back it into the turnpoint but got blown downwind it looked very ugly. At that point there was a nice large flat field in the very bottom of the valley just upwind and back to the south where I’d just flown from. It was a few hundred feet lower than the turnpoint and so my decision was to try to use the extra altitude to get back to the field and hope that the wind which was aligned with very bottom of the valley was less turbulent than the air flowing over the ridges upwind of the turnpoint.
I turned away from the turnpoint and pushed my speed bar as much as I could facing into the wind and crabbing back to the center of the valley. I was taking collapses every few seconds though and I was having a hard time staying on the bar. The field was still upwind of me by a couple hundred feet as I sank to about the same 200 foot height above the trees that I had to clear to make the field. For a few moments I was able to stay on the speed bar, the wing stayed open, and it looked like I would make the field. Then about 50 feet above the trees I took another big deflation that set me back and sealed my fate with trees. As the trees loomed up at me I decided I would rather go into them with my reserve deployed to help keep me from falling through the branches to impact the ground.
My first grab at my reserve handle was a bit half hearted as the reality of throwing my reserve was just congealing in my brain. I missed the handle on that first grab but came back with full intent a fraction of a second later, extracted the reserve, and threw it behind me in one smooth motion. My Skyman Ultracross reserve opened very quickly because I barely had time to start to cover my face after the throw, before the trees rushing at me changed to gently rising up around me as the reserve stopped my forward speed with a firm tug and gently lowered me into the branches.
Both the wing and the parachute caught a lot of branches and I came to a very gentle and peaceful stop hanging over the ravine at the edge of my intended LZ. Although the ravine dropped away a good 10 feet below me I was actually so close to the edge of the field that I was able to swing myself over to the lip of the ravine, get my feet on the ground, and unclip my carabiners from the glider. I pushed my check in OK button on my tracker and called Pavel who was still catching up in the van. My racing mind calmed to normal speed and I smiled and snapped a selfie of my first reserve ride.
The race crew who had been waiting at the turnpoint found me around 15 minutes later. From their perspective they couldn’t see into the bottom of the valley so they only saw me disappear into the the bottom of the valley with my wing barely staying open. They were overjoyed to see that I was in one piece and after relieved hugs I was back on the phone with Pavel helping him find his way into the field.
I had a spare set of light paragliding gear in the van and I called the race organizer Inigo hoping I could leave my wing in the tree and continue racing with the spare kit of gear. He told me I couldn’t switch gear in this circumstance and I would have to get the gear out of the tree to continue racing. Fortunately Pavel is an expert rock climber and he had his harness and gear there in the van. Once one of the race crew borrowed a saw from a neighboring house Pavel climbed up the tree, securing himself with slings and started cutting branches until with wing and reserve were on the ground in a wad of lines, fabric, and sticks. Everybody pitched in and everything was untangled and back in my backpack pretty quickly thereafter. The race was just about over, ending that evening, but I wanted to at least make the turnpoint.
The sun was almost setting when I hiked up the gravel road, through the old stone walls and cow fields, to where the turnpoint signboard was waiting. I signed in and wound down the intense day as I walked back down the hill to the town. Pavel told me everybody had basically quit racing. He’s hear from Juraij that the higher launch he’d headed for had been in cloud all morning and by the time it cleared off it was obviously too windy to fly and Juraij was far behind us. Pavel wanted to head for the coast since we were still a long drive from the La Port de la Selva where award ceremony would be the next day. I had switched out of race mode when I wasn’t sure if I’d even be able to get my wing out of the tree and so even though I didn’t want to quit racing altogether I decided we should sit down and have a restaurant dinner.
What none of us realized was that Spanish athlete Jose Ignacio Arevalo Guede, who had been a ways ahead of me for quite some time, was only a few courseline miles ahead of me. He had hiked up high in the mountains to the north of the turnpoint that morning but he hadn’t flown, maybe because he knew better than me how the foehn effect winds would develop. I’ll never know for sure, but I bet if I would have pushed my legs into a finish line sprint that afternoon I could have run down the road in the valley faster than Jose would have been able to hike in the mountains and I might have been able to pass him and sneak into 4th place. As it was I enjoyed my dinner, beers,and a last few miles of hiking down the road to the campground where we would spend the night. Most of all I was grateful to have made it through my first race and my first reserve ride healthy and happy in a solid 5th place finish.
The next day we gathered in the windy beach town of La Port de la Selva for the awards ceremony. Apparently Chrigel Maurer and Aaron Durogatti had found the town boring as they had left instead of waiting for the rest of us stragglers to finish the race and show up. Most pilots were there however to take a dip in the ocean and enjoy the hot sun on our tired bodies. At the ceremony we recounted our hardships as well as our triumphs and paid our thanks to Inigo for the countless hours he spends organizing the amazing event. By late afternoon I was fading and I stumbled into a hotel room where the buzzing memories of the past few days faded into a long dreamless 16 hour sleep.
It’s taken me about a year and a half to finish out telling this story here for my blog. Even after competing in the longer Red Bull X-Alps last summer I still marvel at all the intense experiences of that journey through the Pyrenees in 2016. Hike and fly paraglider racing is a truly amazing game to play. I’ll be back in X-Pyr 2018 this June!
Photo credit: Sam Thompson