First Flight in Fiesch

On Sunday I flew from Fiesch for the first time, attempting to fly XC as far along the valley as possible. I took the 8am train from Zurich with Tom, Oleg, Alex and Steve, which got us to the takeoff at about 12:30.

The forecast was for blue thermals all day, with an inversion at 3500m but warm air. Take-off had perfect conditions, a nice gentle breeze as the thermals bubbled up.

I turned left after take-off to where I had seen some gliders circling. There was some gentle lift, but nothing major, and I circled for a while before catching anything. The first thermal was pretty good, but I exited too early, and looked like I'd bottom out on some jagged avalanche protectors, so I headed back to the takeoff field. It turns out that there was a pretty solid lift area next to the cables, so I could have rescued it, but I hadn't seen any gliders take it. This was the thermal that most of the others got up to the ridge and escaped on.

I spent over an hour trying to escape the takeoff, and was getting a little frustrated, the thermals were quite weak, and I couldn't get up to the ridge, until a great one came, taking me up to 3200m and letting me cruise to Eggishorn, and then another strong thermal before jumping the valley.

The spines of the valley had some great lift, so I bounced along them towards the pass area. The lift became weaker the further I went, so I hypothesized that the Grimselsnake was washing over the ridge and suppressing the thermals. I headed back to reliable lift, and used it to take myself closer to the ridge. The higher thermals here were a lot nicer, although a little turbulent.

The terrain here was spectacular, ice fields and frozen lakes with cracks of azure blue. Circling above these frozen lakes with the rocky spines surrounding me felt epic. Behind me the Matterhorn peaked through the valley, I had passed the Finsteraarhorn, and ahead of me was the Grimselpass.

The pass area was the crux - I needed to be high enough to get over the Grimselsnake, and then the pass. I took a thermal up to around 3200m and was feeling some ridge lift, so I headed towards the Grimsel, but shortly after Sidelhorn the sink started in earnest. In retrospect I should have got more height before making the crossing, but I wasn't confident enough to linger above the snake so pushed on too quickly.

I crossed the Grimsel nicely, and kept on the south side of the pass, not wanting to be flushed towards Meiringen if I bombed out. I thought I could get to the lee of the ridge and regain height there. Sure enough there was a weak thermal there and I circled for a bit. I think my major failure here was to be too impatient, had I waited for a decent thermal, I could have limped back up the ridge. But it felt very tenuous, and I thought I'd explore and look for something better, so I crossed the rocks at Rhônegletscher hoping to get lift over the Belvedere, but there was a strong katabatic off the glacier and I got flushed down the road, coming in for a low landing in the valley only a few hundred meters below the col.

One of the interesting things that I experience was that over the course of my three and a half hours in the air, I completely lost track of scale. You become so used to looking at the ant-sized hotels that you forget how big they are. You don't feel high up any more, the distance shrinks. I felt like I could reach out and touch the glaciers, that I was a giant looking down on a model village. I could see climbers struggling up an icy ridge as I soared high above them. I felt the arrogance of an eagle, looking down on the scurrying of mice. Towards the end of the flight, when I was circling tight next to the cliffs of the Rhônegletscher, I couldn't tell what was bigger, the waterfall that spills from the ice, or the hairpins of the road winding up the pass.

I checked directions, and found that I'd missed the last Grimselbus, and so my options were hitchhiking back to Fiesch and taking the long Lötschpass train back, or to hike up to the col, hope there was a way to fly down towards Realp, and take the train from there. The Realp train runs until 9pm, so this felt like a better bet.

I took off shortly after Furka on a bit of a committing slope, and immediately felt the headwind coming up the valley. I was hoping to be able to follow the road down, but the wind made that impossible, so I glided down to a nice meadow shortly before the valley tightens, and hiked the rest of the way down to Realp, including some sketchy river crossings over the fast-melting ice bridges.