What's it like taking on the mountains with nothing but an aircraft that runs on air? Greg Hamerton attempts a solo traverse of the Pyrenees via paraglider and discovers the magnitude and magic of a road less travelled.
My XPYRience trip is a paragliding adventure in the Spanish Pyrenees, following the Xpyr course on a solo bivouac. The goal is to fly as far as possible during 21-26 June 2015, to explore the dramatic mountains, and to bring back some unforgettable memories.
Greg Hamerton is an instructor and Flybubble Team Pilot. He's been flying since 1992 and loves cross country flying. Having completed numerous volbiv adventures (fly, camp, fly) he is always looking for new routes that are committing but fun to do. The last time he flew in Spain was in a PWC in 1997, so he hopes that by now the fighting bull he met last time has been turned into beef.
OK, so here's the plan, Stan. Fly in to Bilbao (Spain), get a bus to the base of the first peak (La Rhune), and head off on a flying exploration along the XPYR course, a 450km adventure race held every other year (last one was 2014). Being on a solo unsupported volbiv means I can enjoy the adventure and let it unfold at its own pace. I'm in adventure mode, not race mode, so don't expect any marathon running on the live tracking. Competing on the route is a different gig, and hats off to all those who blazed the trail in 2014. I'm here to explore these mountains I've heard so much about.
I like camping, so I'm more likely to set up a scenic roost on some wild craggy peak than be punishing my feet along the rocky ridge line. As I see it, the only purpose of walking on a trip like this is to reach somewhere flyable.
Once I'm up a mountain, with my heavy bag, I'm terribly lazy. I'd rather not glide down to the valley just to make a few extra kilometres. Like most large birds, I'll wait for the thermals to come to me. But when the sky gives me the smallest hint of hope, I'll be off trying to fly as far as possible. Big distance has always been my goal. I just love it.
There's a popular hiking route in the vicinity of my flight path (GR11) which I've loaded onto the amazing (and free) Viewranger app, so on the ground I'll have topo mapping on my phone.
Because that's my sole mapping solution, I'm carrying a good sized battery pack for the phone. I bought a solar charging one, but I tested it and it was pathetic. I guess the large panel arrays work, but to do so they need to be aligned with the sun, and the hassle of trying to achieve that while on the move suggested to me that a simple powerbank was the way to go, which I can plug things into at night. To reduce weight and save time I'm not taking any charger plugs - I found previously that to get a charge point usually means sitting in a restaurant and wasting hiking/flying time. It would make sense on a longer trip.
I have a week: flying in on the 20th and out on 27th leaves six pure flying days. Given the limited time I have, I'll be happy to reach Castejon de Sos (turnpoint 4). The bit I can't plan for is the last day, getting out from somewhere in the Pyrenees to Barcelona where my flight departs. Hopefully I won't be stuck in some hamlet in Andorra, but will entertain my facebook friends, no doubt.
I've refined my bivi kit over the years, and for this one I'm taking a tent. I've done lots of sleeping in wings and bivi bags, and the tent is so much better it's worth the weight (FlyCreek UL1, 900g). It gives me a bug/critter/snake-proof sleeping space - being able to zip something up around oneself that still ventilates well makes for a good night's sleep. If it rains, I can still get dressed, pack up and start walking if I want to, or just sit tight - doing that in a bivi or wet glider is really terrible.
I don't use a sleeping bag, as the wing is a fantastic insulator when draped over your fully clothed body. I have a slim camping foam mattress, which doubles as back protection in the harness.
I'm using the Syride SYS'Nav v3, because it's the lightest full featured flight instrument. There's not much airspace to worry about in the Pyrenees and I've got a smartphone with XCsoar as a backup / reference unit.
My Kortel Kolibri harness is made for bivi flying, it's tougher than the lighter 'race' harnesses and has loads of packing space. It's a bit of a faff to set up and get into, but it is reasonably comfortable in the air even with a heavy load under the seat. I took the foam cushions out of it to make space for the mattress, clothes and food, which together with the water bag make a fairly good impact absorber.
Last trip I used Hanwag boots, this time I'm trying lighter Salomon goretex trail running shoes. I have to tape up my toes because they blister against the stiffened sides, but I've been unable to find alternatives that hold my feet well enough. Hopefully the toes won't blow up. Hopefully I fly most of the time ;-)
I usually fly a Niviuk Icepeak 6 (5.7kg). I was hoping to get the new superlight Omega Xalps from Advance (3.15kg) but it wasn't released in time so they've sent me a Iota instead. This lightens my pack by about 1kg and gives me stress free flying on a wing that is more tolerant of sketchy launch areas, tight landing spots, and big air. I love the handling of the Iota, and the performance is simply stunning for an XC wing (high EN B).
New for this trip is the tracker (Delorme Inreach SE) which is a major safety upgrade. Before, I was relying on a favourable alignment of the stars ;-) So if I have a real emergency I can summon the Spanish cavalry, and in the meantime you can follow along on the tracking page to see what it's like to take on the Pyrenees with nothing but an aircraft that runs on air.
And after listening to Steve Nash's excellent podcast on Judith Mole's site on his bivi trip here in 2012, I've got myself some pacerpoles. I've always considered poles to be extra hassle and unnecessary weight, but so many X-alpers swear by hiking poles I decided to give them a try. From my short trail tests they seem to provide a more stabilised walking rhythm which will conserve muscle in the long term.
Despite all the hours of optimising, trimming, removing things from bags, and cutting off the end of my toothbrush, the bag is a whopping 17.3 kg dry weight, so about 20kg on average with water. That is heavy, when I did the Alps last year with an Icepeak my kit was 17kg with water. This is mostly due to the remoteness of the Pyrenees which dictates added water, food supplies (4kg) and tracker. I haven't weighed the poles as their weight is mostly taken by the ground.
I'm taking much more food than I usually do, despite knowing that there's usually unexpected good fortune on any adventure. You can survive on very little food, but your speed and motivation goes down, and I would rather build my body during this trip than destroy my muscles. With the food, I don't have to waste flying time restocking or diverting to out of the way villages. If I come across a restaurant, I will surely load my plate with the best that Spain has to offer.
I've been watching the route (top left of map to bottom right) on xcskies.com and it seems to follow a regular pattern. There's a really difficult stable bit for the first 60km until turnpoint 2, Orhi. Then the lift above ground starts improving until by turnpoint 3 Collarada, the true Spanish conditions turn on. (In the picture above, purple is bad (no lift), blue mediocre, and green is good). The wind also seems to be stronger northerly for the first section, then weakens until it becomes a SSW flow that pulls in towards the main Pyrenean divide. I expect the heart of the Pyrenees to be plagued by thunderstorms in the afternoon, so I'll have to fly early or late. I love watching thunderstorms, but not from the air!
I will be getting abridged SMS weather reports daily from James Hope-Lang sent to my Delorme (so reception is never an issue). I'm holding thumbs for lots of flying weather.
I'll try my best to post updates on facebook during the trip, but reception is apparently extremely limited in the mountains. However, helpful suggestions and happy heckling is welcome in my absence.
See you on top of La Rhune...
Watch the progress on https://share.delorme.com/GregHamerton
Greg on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/greg.hamerton
XPYR previous edition: http://www.x-pyr.com/en/x-pyr/
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