A superb tour of the Ecrins by paraglider over four days and three high mountain bivouacs with Tim Pentreath. The plan was I would start in St Andre taking off from Chalvet. Tim was to start in Bristol flying to Nice and with the aid of Marcus was hoping to start at Col de Bleyne. We would meet up in the air somewhere on the Dormilouse ridge and head north... It was a very loose plan!
Pas de Galebre at the start of the Dormilouse ridge
Col du Barle - We just made it over
Looking North into the Ecrins
Camp One - above Orcieres
Vielle Chailol (Mordor)
Sanctuaire de Notre-Dame la Salette (The Shire)
Over the col in the background to land on the Massif du Taillefer
Glad we landed - overdevelopment to the north.
Camp two - Lac Fourchu, Massif du Taillefer
Quite a bit of humidty in the morning day 3
The route south to Briancon
A-M-A-Zing views over Les Aiguilles d’Arves
Big cloud development on the Ecrins to our right.
Hitch to Col d Izzoard
Tricky day four take off!
Day four early landing for me and a long hitch home, here on Col de Vars!
Day 1 St Andre/ Col de Bleyne to Orcieres (116/ 124km) Bivi on south facing slopes of the ski resort. Tracks here.
Day 2 Orcieres to Taillefer (60/ 61km) Stopped early due to overdevelopment and found the most amazing bivi spot on a beautiful plateau of small tarns. Tracks here.
Day 3 Taillefer to Briancon (65km) Stopped early due to excessive lift ...everywhere! Hitch the last section and bivi on top of the Col d'Izoard. Tracks here.
Day 4 Col d' Izoard to St Andre (124km) for Tim and not very far for me (17km)! Tracks here.
The Long Story
Day 1 - Miraculously we managed to meet up on the Dormilouse ridge! Great conditions so we pushed on to Pic Morgan and made the long glide over the lake (Serre Poncon) to the flanks of Pic de Pied Brun quite late (16.30). We arrived low and both found it tricky finding the climb in the cross slope winds but we climbed out but only to about ridge height. Pushed further north then West. Over the radio we discussed landing and biving in a high bowl...I thought that was the plan but then hear a windy "I'm going for it" from Tim. Going for what I think? Oh over the col he means, well he's low and I'm lower but holding my breath and squeezing my buttocks I just about managed to follow with about 50m over the ground. It worked out all well because on the other side we both ended up in a perfect climb lifting us up to the high point if the day (3500m) at 1830 in the evening. There were lots of options from here but it felt too late to go for our original destination of Le Vieux Chaillol so we landed high on the south facing slopes of the Orcieres ski resort. A comfy bivi spot but despite all the recent rain no water around so we made do melting snow for a coffee as we chat about the days highs and lows.
Day 2 - Forecast looking bad to the north so we binned the Annecy ideas but thought we might be able to do the Col Agnel triangle. So today that meant heading northwest grabbing a turnpoint (mont Grun de Maurice) then back tracking across the Ecrin to Col Agnel on the Italian border. Slow start to the day, watched some pilots take off from the ski lift which gave us enough confidence to start. Tricky working the lift but finally we got the climb and made our first transition North to Aiguille de Cedera. A sail plane was struggling well below us but this big rocky mass of slabs and pinacles was working. It was a bit feisty and kept imagining which pinnacle I was going to hook myself up on! Not helpful! We climbed out and pushed west into wind to Le Vieux Chaillol, a big snow covered mountain mass. We were high but it was still rough. I took a big asymmetric collapse but at least it cleared a stone from my wing that had been annoying me!
Strangely an unknown voice came over our radio channel " Guys I guess you have seen the overdevelopment to the east" Was that you Tim asks, nope not me I reply. Anyway whoever he was it prompted a mid air update on our plans. East looks crazy, lets keep going northwest. So we did and we left the snow high mountains and were rapidly over short grazed green hills. It was like leaving Mordor and arriving in the shire in one glide.
We pushed north hopping small valleys and ridges. Grenoble came into view in the distance, "Hey were really making progress!" I thought. A decision point on the route we chose the high mountain ridge to the north, with big clouds not that high above it. We were climbing back into the big mountains, patches of snow on the ground and we are funnelled into high corrie with not a lot of lift or sun. Faced with sliding back down the slope we had just come up or pushing on I took a sneaky low glide over the col, which was fine, called Tim over and we were then suddenly confronted again with the sudden contrast of high snow covered mountains to green grass covered pastures. Here the Taillefer plateau is sprinkled with little tarns, looked like a perfect bivi spot, the route ahead to the north was a monster bank of thunder clouds so we happily decided to end the day early and dropped into our lakeside property...for the night. It was great decision because a few hours later we we sheltering from the thunder in our cheap tents hoping chinese stitching would hold and the hail wouldn’t go clear through the lightweight fabric!
The Taillefer was paradise...apart from the pesky mozzies! Tim took a morning dip in the lake, I choose not to be dinner for hundreds of blood sucking insects. The nights heavy rain has made the ground sodden and low clouds are kicking off the mountains as soon as the sun is up. Were unsure if it will be good enough for a flight? We check the weather and decide to keep out of the big mountains the best option and plan to try and get to the Col d'Izoard, south of Briancon. We walk about an hour to a south-east facing slope opposite Alpes d'Huez. If we could across the valley and take the high route we might be alright. We wait for a long time for the moisture to burn off and decent thermals to start. A shepherd wanders by but he seems to have lost his sheep. As we wait the winds change...over the back now...and clouds shade things out..we seem to have lost our lift so wait a bit more. Later bit of sunshine on the slope below is enough to change things and take off is easier than expected, We scratch over a little knoll in the side valley until a decent climb gives us enough height to cross to Alpes d'Huez. We arrive in a leeside climb, its great to see the famous tour de France climb from the air. Tim gets the perfect climb, I drift more slowly over the town but soon we are both high and heading to the top of the ski resort where mountain bikers are falling from their steads as they try to go down the still snow covered downhill routes!
Progress is good. We are properly established in the valley heading to Briancon now. The ridge is spectacularly draped in clouds on its north side and sunshine to the south where we soar up higher than cloudbase accompanied by our Brocken spectre shadows. The views are enthralling even across the valley back into glaciers of the Ecrin. We pass the Col de Galibier, another big climb I have biked over. So easy to fly over! Briancon looks achievable especially in this tailwind...foolish thinking. Tims ahead but he doesnt seem to get a climb I expect him to get and soon we both find ourselves being flushed down over the Col de Lauteret and in strong cross slope winds it looks like we might both be on the ground soon. Its a bit of a battle soaring any rough windy slopes that protrude into the valley flow (which is going the wrong way!) We must hit some convergence soon I think but we continue to get flushed to Serre Chevalier. But then we finally meet the valley flow coming up from Briancon (going the correct way!) Lift improves so things seem better for a while. Lift improves a bit more. Tims higher and to my south. I ask him why he's spiralling down? He's not happy with the clouds to our south. They certainly are getting big again but this time we can't see how big as the base just spread out over the whole valley and soon I'm with Tim thinking this is getting way too lifty! We decide to land on the south side of Briancon and I struggle not to go up even under big ears and full speed bar as I glide over the old town! We land in the same field and talk excitedly about the flight of two halves but since rain is looming and we are back in the real world the wiser thing to do was to continue these conversations over a large pint of beer.
Refreshed, fed and watered we consider what to do. Sleep low, sleep high? We decide to try and hitch to Col d'Izoard for a better morning start but think its probably too late in the day for that. However two lovely lifts later from some friendly Frenchies and we are at the top of the col - perfect. Again no water about but the beer has hydrated us ... right!
The sky looked good but the winds were coming the wrong way up the Col than we expected (from the north). We visit the mountain restaurant below the col to see if we can get some water but feel obliged to have a coffee...and largest piece of Lemon Meringue pie you can imagine for breakfast! Winds a bit lighter but still from the north. We consider our take-off options. We pack up under the gaze of a group of students studying alpine flowers and then take a short but steep walk down then up a large scree. Tim inadvertently decides to try glissading down the slope on his arse and fortunately gets away with losing nothing more than the arse of his trousers! How quickly and simply a day could change for the worse. Its quite a struggle unpacking the kit and setting up for launch on the steep slope without any of it rolling back to the bottom. I launch first and am pleased to find it working. Tim follows but I can't figure out why hes messing with his harness so much but guess he just has another wardrobe malfunction!
I climb above the ridge and make good height. I head off over the back whilst Tim still works the take off hill but then find predicting where the winds are coming from tricky. I hit a lot of sink in the lee of the mountain and head into a large grassy bowl but nothing seems to work. Tims now high and heading over the top of me. I find a strong climb in a low buttress but I lose it quickly. It gives me enough height to get to a bowl Tims been soaring but I get there and spend an age just maintaining and never gaining. After some time as shadows flow across the slope even this fails me and I suggest to Tim he should push on. I move out into the main valley and after working a small rocky bluff hit a good strong climb. I get nicely back up to 2800m, excitedly radio to Tim, whos way ahead, I'm back in the game and then throw myself into a massive amount of sink just to start the whole low process again! Not for the fun of this I repeat the process again but keep losing the climb as it gets level with the ridges and in the lee of the westerly coming over the mountains. So I decide to try the now sunny opposite side of the valley but arrive low and in a strong valley flow so decide thats as far as I can get by wing today and land in fields before the Queryas gorge.
Tim fantastically makes it back to St Andre with 6 hours of challenging flying - that will have to be his story - and I was a little jealous - but happy that I made it back to St Andre too...with only 4 hours of hitching and some entertaining lifts with more lovely Frenchies!
The trip was just too good to have any disappointments. We could have hoped to have gone faster and further but I think, particularly on a vol biv you really are in it for the journey and despite the route not being anything like what we loosely planned this surpassed any of our expectations!
Kit Info for the nerdy!
No specialised vol biv kit for me - just using my regular glider. Pack weight with water came to 26kg which put me just overloaded on my wing
Wing; Mentor 4
Harness; Gin Genie Light
Tent; superb single skin light weight tent brought off the internet for about £70. See here. It won't last years but it kept the mozzies out and me and kit dry in a hail storm - so no complaints
Sleep mat: 3/4 length thermarest by Decathlon
Sleeping bag; Slept under the wing - toastie
Cooker; Compact gas cooker and 1 medium cannister, 1 pan, 1 cup
Lunch; Sandwich, trail bars, sweets
Dinner; Meals dried by Decathlon - good option, light, soak with hot water in the bag. no mess, no hassle and even tasty! Waffles
Walking poles - compact 3 fold 30cm packed length
Waterpouch 3 litres
Solar battery for recharging phone - Only helped for 2 days.
Spot GPS tracker
First Aid Kit, Tree Rescue Kit