11 June 2005

Le Mont-Blanc du Tacul

This time, Michael has chosen an outing a little more daring than the usual ones, we have to take along crampons and ice picks. EquipmentThere are only four of us meeting on this fine morning. The weather forecast leaves a little bit of doubt, but we reckon we have fair chances of flying. It's a fair drive to Chamonix, capital of climbing and mountain sports, and Alex takes advantage to catch-up on some sleep. As we arrive in Chamonix, there are already lots of people waiting in line to get to the cable car and we buy our tickets to join them in the queue. Cable-car ticket There is a big display of brand new and shiny equipment. We spot a group of paragliders not far ahead.
We don't have much to wait, the cars go up every twenty minutes, and we joined the line early enough. In the cable-car, we briefly switch our varios on, and we record speeds up to 8m/s.
We arrive at the first station, and get into the second cable car. The air feels colder already. As we arrive at the second cable car station and step onto the bridge leading to the tunnel, the wind hits us. It's going to be a cold climb, and we worry about being able to fly at all. Maybe the return tickets weren't such a bad deal after all...
While still at the cable car station, we take advantage of the best invention civilisation has produced and go to the public toilet. The single flight of stairs to get there hit me. What's the matter with me? I feel drunk, my head is spinning, I'm afraid I might throw up any minute. The ascent in the cable car was too fast, and I'm not used to this altitude.I join the others and we quickly put our crampons on our feet inside the tunnel. As we exit the tunnel, the gorgeous vista is breathtaking. This was well worth it.
There is a well thread path on the ridge that almost everybody has to take to get to the departure point, on the pass at the foot of "L'aiguille du Midi", the only two people that don't join the troup on the path are busy fitting their skis on.
So far, so good. We follow the path on the glacier, on the right is the "Refuge des Cosmiques", well known and highly frequented as it's only an hour or so from the terminal of the cable car.
We get to the foot of the first serious climb and tie ourselves up with the rope Michael brought with him. panoramic - TaculWe start with a slow, steady rythm, but I can feel the altitude is taking its toll on my performance. I have to concentrate on keeping my balance, as I've lost all sensation of direction. If I move my head up too fast to look at the sky, I fall backwards. This climb is going to be hard.
Thankfully, it's fairly short, as we only have 700m to ascend. DSCF0177
The weather is great, limpid blue skies, and we are in the lee of the mountain, so we don't feel any wind. The air is cold, probably between minus five and minus ten. We mark a few seconds pause at every change of direction on the slope, to step over the rope and glance at the surrounding vista. We've been admiring this group of mountains from a distance and it's great to see all the places we've been to all around us, stretching to the horizon.
As we near the top of the ridge, Michael switches the radio on. We get the wind conditions from stations hundreds of kilometers away. The ones close to us are all saying the wind is coming up and we've just crossed path with a group climbing down, that were carrying paragliding bags on their backs. This is not very good news.
We march on and finaly get to the top of the ridge. The cold wind hits us in the face. Ouch! panoramic - Mont Maudit The view is beautiful, with "Le Maudit" just ahead. We confer a short while and decide not to climb any higher: the wind will only be stronger higher up. We look for a place oriented into the wind with enough space to lay the wings. I'll be first, Michael and Olivia will take off next, and Alex will close the flight. I'm concentrating hard as I know I'm far from my normal state. The wind is very gusty, thrashing my wing a few times on the ground. Alex and Michael both help me to hold the wing in position on the ground. In a lull, I attempt to take off, but the air is too thin and I'm too exhausted to run fast enough in the snow to inflate my wing properly. We lay the canvas on the gound again. I'm going to wait for the right gust: not too strong that it tears the wing away out of control, but stong enough to inflate it positively. I take advantage of the wait to breathe deeply and drink in as much oxygen I can. Finaly, "my" gust starts, I can feel the air on my face. I time it and pull on the risers. I feel the wing coming up behind me, it's on top at last. I glance up very quickly while running downhill as fast as I can, lifting my feet awkwardly out of the snow. As the slope steepens I feel the wing lifting, we're airborne! The gust lifts me violently up, I gain about fifty meters in a few seconds. The plan is to move away from the face of the mountain as fast as possible, as I'm in a zone of rotors. The headwind is very strong, my progress over ground is very slow. I'm about a hundred meters away from "L'aiguille du Midi" and I see the crowd on the bridge. They cheer and I wave at them. I've taken my camera out, but as I switch it on, it shuts down immediately. The batteries can't take the cold. I'm now flying in laminar airflow and consider removing the batteries from the camera case to warm them in my mouth. I've already removed one glove, but I decide instead to put the whole camera under my shirt, I can't take the risk of loosing one battery.
This plan works: a few minutes later, the camera accepts to switch on, Mont BlancI turn off the LCD screen to save a bit of energy and manage to snap a few shots before I have to grab the controls to penetrate the inversion layer. In Flight - Mont BlancAs I fly lower, the air warms up, and I take in the vista of the valleys surrounding us. Straight ahead is "Le Désert de Platé" , panoramic - Desert de Platewhere we flew two week-ends ago. What a change in such a short time! The snow has almost disappeared. I look below me, and see a few gliders that have taken off at the first cable-car station, "Le Plan de l'Aiguille". They look very small. I look at their flight, so I can match my approach to theirs. It's the first time I land in Chamonix, and the description of the landing area Michael gave us gains by being complemented by direct observation of the local's manoeuvers.
After I'm confident that I'll get down safely, I go back to enjoying this flight, I'm still very high, probably 2000m above ground, making little headway into the wind. I move back to the side of the valley, expecting slower winds there, and I manage to go all the way to the Mont-Blanc tunnel entrance. Chamonix I turn around and immediately rush over the town. As I near the landing area, I can feel a lift area and take a few turns to regain some altitude.As I glance down, I see a few pilots doing their approach, the trees are shaking hard, the vally wind is pretty violent. I decide to end the flight before the conditions get much worse. A few S patterns bring me to the vertical of the landing terrain, and as I expected, the gradient in the last few meters accelerate me forward, a final resource brings me to a gentle stop, concluding a magnificent flight.
As I fold my wing, I see one, and then a second, wing high above l'aiguille du Midi. It's a relief to know that both Alex and Michael were able to take off.

Technical data: Flight duration 1:04, Take-off altitude: 4076m, Maximum altitude reached: 4100m, Total climb during flight: 615m, Max rate of climb: +3.8m/s, Max descent rate: -4.4m/s, Landing altitude: 1040m.


Post a Comment

<< Home