Some Summer Flying
Last Sunday I flew at Rigi with some friends. A lot of them had flown there the day before, so I was confident that it would work, so I took off at Staffelhöhe and was easily able to soar and catch thermal bubbles rising up the northern facing cliffs. The north wind was pretty pronounced, which would reinforce the valley wind that headed into the high alps with north overpressure driving foehn south of the main chain.
I took off early, Tom and Oleg were waiting for some friends, so I felt no rush to press on, and soared in the gaggle, enjoying the view and playing with my 360 camera. The Alpine Schwingerfest was taking place below, and it was fun to watch the wrestling in the three sand rings from the sky.
After a bit, I thought I would head along to the antenna, and was joined by a stream of wings. Base was low, so wisps of cloud circled the peak, but there was plenty of space to fly around. After some more sightseeing, people started making the crossing to Wildspitz, so after hearing the others had launched, I made the crossing, and started soaring up the west face of Gnipen.
It was pretty bumpy, some sort of lee, combined with spiky thermals, so after I got enough height, I popped over to the north slopes and soared up with a bubble, and got above the peak. There wasn't much room below the clouds, so I went off on glide towards the Mythen. I needed to stop and pick up some height on the slopes half way, and was fairly low before I managed to catch a really small bubble that got me back up near base, then headed to Kleiner Mythen where I could soar up again.
I planned to soar up the north face of Grosser Mythen, but when I got there it was really bumpy and I thought I was potentially in the lee of Kleiner Mythen, so I continued on to Rotenflüh where I caught some more height.
In retrospect, I should have paused here, recovered my mental energy, and waited for the others who were a few thermals behind, but the climbs seemed to be getting weaker the further west I went, and it was clouding over, so I felt like pushing on. I climbed with a bubble from Rotenflüh easterly, and started sinking near the pass, which was pretty close and didn't have a fantastic landing. I started psyching myself out, and had to focus to make it to a climb near a good rock.
It was over two hours at this point, and I realise that one of the signs of fatigue for me, is that I don't deal with fear as well, and let it rush some of my decisions. If I had taken some time at Rotenflüh to recover, and taken some of the stress off, I could have probably come up with some better plans.
The wind was complicated - the north wind was overpowered with a valley wind from the west, but I also had easterly valley wind ahead of me, and despite all of this, there was no convergence lift. It was an invisible maze, and I couldn't work it out.
I decided to push on to the east, hoping to pop over towards Hoch Ybrig where I know the valley a bit, but as I worked down the valley, the sunlit faces were dissapointingly sinky, and the valley wind from the east became strong.
I got low over Oberiberg, and decided to call it a day, landing in a field that was only slightly in the lee. The others were all still happily soaring with the north wind towards Fronalpstock, and I realised my route planning hadn't been great.
On the other hand, it had been a beautiful flight, and I'd learned some lessons, so perfect to land safe near a bus stop and take the long trip home.
The north wind was forecast to persist for the next week, and someone in our paragliding chat mentioned that it was a decent prospect for a Jungfraujoch launch on Wednesday. I headed up to the Oberland on Tuesday for a preparation flight.
Despite the north wind, I decided to take of at First, because it's one of the most convenient takeoffs and is sheltered enough to handle quite a lot of north wind before showing the lee.
Base was again pretty low, and I took off and headed straight to some messy thermals up to base. From here I would normally head towards Faulhorn, but some gliders were climbing ahead of me. If I went to Faulhorn I would be in the cloud and potentially in the lee, but if I got low here, there was the valley wind to contend with. Luckily the climb worked and I was able to hop along the lee side of the ridge towards Schynige Platte, where, having topped up on height, I could pop over the ridge.
I considered hitting the reliable cliff at Darligrat, but I had enough height to overfly the Wilderswil airspace, and try soaring the cliffs at Schwarzhöhe, and after this worked, to make my way up to Bällehöchst. It was beautiful soaring around up there beside the tortured cliffs.
From here I had to decide where to go next, and this was where I made my mistake - I thought that the lift would continue to work on the next ridge towards the Lobhornhütte, and I'd be able to transition out of the wind into leeside thermals.
When I got there though, I was in strong sink, and I headed towards the valley hoping to avoid it, but it only increased. I was clearly in some sort of lee vortex from the valley wind, and I was dropping like a stone. I thought with the valley wind I could make Lauterbrunnen with no problems, but not with 5m/s sink!
I pushed a lot of bar to try and get out of there, and ended up shooting towards Lauterbrunnen like a fighter jet. I needed to land before the heliport airspace, but at trim speed I made no progress into the valley wind, so I opted to land on a sloping field. When I landed I was initially annoyed with myself for my mistake, but then as I turned around to pack my wing, I realised I had landed with the picture postcard view of the Lauterbrunnen valley and everything was good. I was also exhausted, and I realised that my tiredness had again affected my decisions.
I got an early night, and obsessed over the weather forecasts for the next day. The low base worried me for Jungfraujoch. The forecast had cloud starting 11am, and I didn't want to be clouded in. The wind was also light, so not ideal for soaring. There were also some incredible flights from Niesen - if you took off before 11am, it looked like the south takeoff would work in the lee, and then it would be a highway all along the ridge. I set the alarm for early to make a final call in the morning.
The sky was cloudless blue the next morning, and one of the guys in our paragliding chat had got sick, leaving only one person committed for the Jungfraujoch launch. It felt like a better call to go join Andrea, the remaining pilot, rather than risk an early bombout at Niesen.
So I met Andrea at Terminal, before we took the tourist packed gondola and train up to launch. Our big packs drew attention on the train - one of our fellow passengers told us she would pray for us, with the distinct subtext that we were tempting fate. But the sky was still cloudless as we headed up, and everything felt good.
The toughest part of the trip seemed to be finding the way out of the visitor center at the top of the train - we took the wrong door out onto the glacier at the back, then the viewing platform, before finally finding the correct exit.
The takeoff is a scary one - you duck under the rope at the viewing area, and down onto a small flat patch. Snow drops off a gigantic cliff, and this day, it was slippy icy snow with very little traction. You get one attempt at a takeoff like this.
There was definitely some adrenaline, as we unpacked and prepared. I pulled the wing up to test inflate it, then lowered it, and steeled myself - then pull up, turn, and run off a cliff. The relief of the takeoff is immediately tempered by the focus on flying alongside the magnificent terrain.
As I expected, the wind wasn't strong enough to soar the face, so I took a few sightseeing passes, before heading west, skimming above the great fields of fractured ice and tumbling rock. I picked up a bit of lift near the Silberhornhutte and soared there to wait for Andrea to launch. It took a while, and by the time I saw the glider emerge he was lower, and headed towards Grindelwald. I had made a bit of height, so I headed for the crossing towards Mürren.
The south faces had warmed all morning, and despite the fact it wasn't midday yet, I could easily climb along the ridge towards Schilthorn, and eventually up above the peak. I was joined by a couple of gliders there, and they pressed on westwards, giving me a preview of the lift. The lift worked up to 3400m, way higher than was forecast, and more than enough to cross the passes towards Blümlisalphutte.
Here was my mistake for the day, although I didn't realise it for an hour. Instead of climbing as high as I could, I carried on at about 2900m. It seemed plenty, every ridge so far had worked, and the others were only a hundred meters above me. But when we got to the next ridge the difference was clear - the glider ahead of me was able to climb higher and head up to the peaks, whereas I was scratching. We had left the ridges that had had strong sun all morning, and now we were on north faces.
I was still unworried - I had a ton of height, and there were south faces ahead of me at Kandersteg. I took a lovely sightseeing glide down past the Oeschinensee and across the valley to some ideal looking slopes for lift where several other gliders had just taken off.
But it was a disaster - the lift was weak and patchy. I fought for half an hour and made no height. The valley wind must have been washing the lift away before it could develop. Eventually I gave up and headed down the valley to try and find a face I could soar up in the valley wind.
On the way down the valley I had a terrifying experience with some cables - most of the time the cables are clearly marked on the map, and easily spotted with plenty of space. There was one however that I couldn't see. I figured it must be lower than I thought, and turned to continue down the valley before seeing it above me to the right. I still had a bit of distance and it was no problem to fly around it, but it's so easy to miss cables like that. I scrutinized the map to confirm that there were no more cables like that further down the valley.
I finally managed to find a soarable face above the Blausee. It was slow scratchy progress, but eventually I managed to climb up to 2000m, before continuing down the valley - I made it to the ridge, but here there wasn't the lift I had expected, and I was forced to turn and scratch some more. After a while the wind weakened, and I started to sink down the face.
I was pretty exhausted. I was sweating with all the layers I had put on for the high flying, and the dehydration and fatigue were creeping up on me. I decided to fly into the valley and look for landing. There was one final easy thermal that I followed for a bit, but it would have meant being blown all the way back up the valley, and I was too tired for that, so I landed after a 4 hour flight, half of which was scratching.