Wednesday, August 26, 2020

August 2020 - a Great Summer in Kyushu

The COVID pandemic prevented us from traveling to Europe this year, so we made the best of it in our home area of Kyushu, Japan.  Far from being 'small', clearly, this is a place worth visiting by any XC pilot, with great route potential and first-rate scenery!

Here is a brief summary of my flights.

August 20th - a 40 km FAI triangle by tandem, before overdevelopment set in.

The track along the nortwest part of the outer Aso caldera.

Tandem happiness!

It's Tandemonium in Aso 😊

Better Together

Mt. Aso at its greenest.

August 19th - Yet another 100 km FAI

Once again taking advantage of conditions very similar to the previous flights.  This time, taking off and returning to Kabuto-iwa instead of Daikanbo, and making Futae-toge the first (westernmost) turnpoint.  I did this because the convergences were predicted to shift farther west than before, and the did, and it worked!

Today's Kuju

Lucky smoke showing convergence, not far from the eastern edge of the caldera.


Mt. Aso

August 18th
Not too bad. 40km triangle in fairly light (stable) conditions.  Very similar to the tandem flight a few days later.  When clouds did not pop up, it was too stable for a really big fight.

Leanne scratches for what she's worth in weak conditions along the caldera. 

XC in Aso at its best.

Aso scenery

Happy slope landings

August 17th - 108 km FAI, probably a Japan record. Less lift than the day before, some scratching to add interest.

Great forecast!

南小国と九重 Oguni town with Kuju Mtns in the background.

今日涌蓋山バイパス  Today I bypassed Mt. Waita, with better results.

九重  The Kuju group.

九重の北斜面を飛んだ Fumaroles on Kuju.

坊ガツル Bogatsuru basin in Kuju (there are hot springs!)

玉来ダム 工事中 Endless dam construction in Japan

祖母山  The Sobo Range; this summer was the first time I flew this far!

南阿蘇と逆転層から突き出ている雲仙岳 High above the inversion in the evening, showing South Aso and Mt. Unzen protruding in the far background.

阿蘇と根子岳  Aso and Nekodake in the center of the caldera

阿蘇と根子岳  Nekodake and Aso

帰りました!象ケ鼻  Back near the starting point at Zogahana, triangle closed!

August 16th  100 km FAI
ayvri video:

Takeoff: Daikanbo, Aso
Turnpoints: First Zogahana and back to Daikanbo, because it's hard to come back to Daikanbo in the evening.  Then, AUTOPOLIS racecourse in the NW, past the Kuju range in the  NE, and the Sobo Range in the SE.  Between Kuju and Sobo, and Sobo back to Aso, one rides the main convergence that forms in the afternoon on good days where the sea breezes meet over the center of Kyushu island.

ビッグフライトの天気・落ち着いた曙 Cloud sea in the bottom of the Aso caldera at dawn

朝のカルデラ  The caldera in the morning

ターンポイント1:オートポリス  Turnpoint 1: AUTOPOLIS

涌蓋山まで行った  Mt. Waita, turned out to be an uncesessary detour and I nearly got derailed by large patches of sink.

九重連山 Kuju Mtns.

九重から祖母までコンバージェンス The convergence stretching from Kuju to Sobo

根子岳と阿蘇 Nekodake and Aso

最後は火事  A fire while scratching at the end of the day.  In spite of trying to use it for lift, I couldn't quite close the course, coming up less than 400m short

August 15th

Today's XC (37km) turned out to be preparation for the three 100km triangles that followed.  Without clouds, it was too stable to sustain flight over the plateaus.

Spectacular Nekodake along XC from Daikanbo

Mt. Aso

Aug 14th -  A 35 km trek in the Central Kyushu Mountains
Relief from the summer heat can be found in the remote Central Mountains, with their highest peak, Mt. Kunimi, at 1738m.  Once the punishing climb from the deep valley is over, the trails along the ridgetops go up-and-down only slightly, making for easy walking among great scenery and a remoteness that are suprisingly atypical for Japan.

Aug. 12-13  Iriki, Kagoshima Prefecture
This little area is actually well worth a visit, with great scenery, XC potential, and a touch of the subtropical southern atmosphere.  It has been revived recently by local fliers who are encouraging visitors to come an fly, free of charge!
An out-and return flight (about 25km) to the coastal Satsuma-Sendai city and back.  The area's location near the west coast.   Only 35km to the NE is the prime XC launch Uono, from where it is possible to cross clear to the other side of Kyushu.  The right conditions may be a bit difficult to come by, but a record-breaking Kyushu crossing flight is possible from here!

The active volcano Sakurajima in the background.

Satsuma-Sendai city with the East China Sea beyond.

Iriki is located on a small extinct volcano, complete with a crater lake.  Beyond is the route toward Uono...

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Tandemonium 2018 Trip Report

My partner Leanne and I spent two weeks hiking and tandem flying around the Alps in mid-August 2018; our first tandem vol-biv style adventure.  Here is a report of the trip.

Day One

We arrived at the Malpensa Airport in Milano in the morning hours on the 13th, and having checked the weather forecasts we decided to head to southern France and begin our X-Alps vol-biv at St-Andre-les-Alpes, strategically a great starting point.  However, we soon discovered the only train we could take to Nice to make our connection and arrive at St. Andre on the same day, was already sold out.  After some head-scratching, we decided to head to Grasse, a town near Nice but much closer to the mountains, and start hiking from there.  After a long but comfortable train ride we found ourselves at the Grasse train station just as it was getting dark.

Day Two

We immediately began hiking toward Gourdon, from where we hoped to fly the next day in the direction of St. Andre, and having camped along the way, made it to Gourdon early the next morning.  As the day developed, we realized the conditions were weak and cloud base was very low: the surrounding peaks of about 1300m above sea level were often in the fog.  We dutifully flew but after scratching around the cliffs, never getting high enough to escape, we actually ended up at the bomb-out.  Packing up and re-climbing the mountain in the mid-day heat, we saw that the clouds had thickened and their bases were basically only a few dozen meters above the launch.  Giving up on any XC flying, we continued hiking across the dry and scenic Caussols plateau.  Short on food and water, we were glad to find a fountain at the tiny Caussols village, but as luck would have it the only shop selling any kind of food was closed for the day.  Hiking on, we noticed black clouds rapidly gathering overhead, and heard the sound of distant thunder; checking the radar revealed a massive line of thunderstorms moving in rapidly from the north.  Col de Bleyne, our potential launch for the next day, was still about 20 km away and it looked we were going to get soaked in the next few minutes, so we decided to start hitchhiking.  The very first car picked us up and although it was not on his way, the driver took us through the heavy rain showers all the way into the town of Thorenc, located just under the Col.  Having few other options, we walked into an open car garage to escape from the torrential downpour.

Expecting the owners of the garage to be miffed to find two bums occupying it, we were nervous when a car pulled in, but Giles and Danielle turned out to be beautiful, kind people.  We were summarily invited for dinner and to spend the night at their luxurious summer house.  Next day, after a delicious breakfast, Danielle drove us up to the col where only a short uphill walk remained to gain the launch.

Day Three

Local flyers gathered and a very friendly atmosphere prevailed, everyone expecting a big day and telling us we will have no trouble flying to St. Andre.  The sky was crystal clear but I worried about a forecasted headwind.  And indeed, the usual thermal cycles failed to arrive on time.  Eventually everyone took off late in a pretty tricky side wind, and once airborne, it was obvious that the wind aloft was not allowing thermals to form fully.  We got over 2000m once or twice but it was not nearly enough to escape the confines of the initial mountain.  After 2 1/2 hour of flying, conditions worsened further and we landed only a kilometer or two from the launch point.  It was a little disappointing, but at the same time a good opportunity to practice flying the tandem in adverse conditions, so I felt happy with the day.  We began to hitch again toward St. Andre and soon some of the other pilots picked us up on their way home.  When we reached the main highway hitching became and easy task and by late afternoon we found ourselves at St-Andre-les-Alpes.  We restocked on food and water, met up with friends David and
Nicoletta, spending a happy evening eating pizza and drinking beer.

Day Four

 In the morning we hiked up the mountain with David leading the way along a very comfortable trail.  Clouds lingered in the middle layers, remnants of yesterday's development cycle, but around noon they dissolved and finally conditions looked top-notch for a big flight.  Taking off with the main gaggle, we began making headway along the classic route north toward St. Vincent.  At first the lift was weak and we very nearly bombed just before the Cheval Blanc.  Re-climbing, we took an alternative route, bypassing the Cheval altogether, and soon we were established over the high ground between the Cheval and the Tete d'Estrop.  Only one or two other gliders seemed to have made it this far, as most of the gaggle headed south from the Cheval (probably an easier choice, but we had an agenda!).
Around the Dourmillouse it was rough as usual, and crossing to the Morgon over the lake, it was hard to regain cloudbase, leaving us scratching desparately in very turbulent air along the north wall of the Ubaye canyon.  Finally a very intense thermal propelled us over the mountaintops and we were on our way toward Guillestre and Briancon.  This part was pretty uneventful but approaching Briancon, showers ahead blocked further progress.  With storm development in progress, the valley wind was accordingly strong and we had to make some quick decisions about where to land safely.  It turned out to be a great flight of over 100 km, and with rain threatening we hitched our way a few km to the Briancon campground.

Day Five

Next morning dawned partly cloudy but the forecast was for immediate over-development.  We hiked to the Prorel cable car, and as the weather still seemed OK, rode it to the summit.  However, even as we unfolded the glider, the weather around us was already deteriorating.  By the time we were airborne, everything was in the shade.  From the high launch point, a sleddy ride took us half-way to the Italian border.  Looking at the weather forecast again, it seemed that the same pattern would continue here for the better part of the week, so we decided to move to a different part of the Alps.  Accordingly we walked and hitched across the border, and took the train from Oulx to Bassano in north-eastern Italy, where the weather forecast was at least a little drier.

Day Six

 In Bassano we met up with our good friend and local flying guru Francesco, who gave us a ride to the launch.  We took to the air, aiming eastwards toward Slovenia, but once again found headwind and bombed near the Piave valley.  Hitching back to Bassano and getting another ride from Francesco, we re-flew, but it was already mid-afternoon and we did not expect much.  But in fact, with the sun in the west, the obstacles we previously encountered turned out to be thermal sources and even the east wind seemed subdued.  We easily crossed the Piave valley and when we arrived at the next obstacle, a deep gap and a jog in the mountain range near Vittorio Veneto, although it was already past 5 pm, gentle thermals were working in the right places and we were able to reach cloudbase, glide over the difficult ground and use the glass-off conditions to effect a very long final glide all the way into the town of Aviano, a total distance of more 70 km flown in an afternoon.  Although we didn't know it yet, this flight also began the 7 days of unsupported vol-biv adventure that turned out to be the core part of this expedition.

Day Seven

 We ate a big dinner in town and camped just outside of it.  Next morning, we climbed the mountain overlooking the town and took off around 11 am.  Flying conditions were ideal and we quickly progressed along the ridges over the busy flying area of Meduno.  A little later we crossed the immense gravel beds of the Tagliamento River and flew over the city of Gemona, encountering a few other gliders along the classic out-and-return route from Slovenia.  Indeed, soon after we crossed the border into Slovenia ourselves and were on the way toward Tolmin when a storm developed very suddenly, dead ahead.  Making a quick U-turn, we top-landed on Stol, saving ourselves a mammoth hike-up the next day.  Near the Stol launch, we met a posse of Slovak pilots who had hiked up but were now stranded by the storm.  We were out of food but some reconnaissance revealed a farm nearby where we bought beer and copious amounts of local cheese that served as dinner.  We slept in our tent whereas the Slovaks went hardcore and slept wrapped in their gliders.

Day Eight

 The morning of Day 8, just for fun, we hiked to the summit of Stol instead of using the launch proper.  We decided we would make Triglav our goal that day.  Flying east toward Krn, however, did not work and we returned all the way to Stol, losing about an hour in the race against the clouds.  Turning north this time, we were soon against the spectacular high limestone plateaus or Kanin, from where cloudbase became accessible.  Crossing the Socha valley we found ourselves among the giant limestone cliffs of Jalovec and Mangart.  Topping out here, finally Triglav seemed within reach, and we set off eastward along the main ridge toward it.  Another glider appeared ahead of us and we followed him, but somehow I became confused by his maneuvering and before we knew it, we were flushed down by powerful downdrafts into steep, unfriendly canyons directly under the west face of Triglav.  We watched wistfully as the other glider, having stayed on the north and windward side of the ridge, ticked Triglav and got out of there.  In the meanwhile we were stuck among unsteady pockets of lift, rotors really, within the mean and turbulent downdrafts in the complex cirque.  Clouds darkened overhead and I really thought we had had it; we could have landed in the bottom of the valley but there was really no way to go anywhere else from there, even the next day.  Finally and miraculously, the sky cleared for about 20 minutes, which caused the main rotor in the canyon, where we were hanging on in desperation, to explode into the most powerful and rough thermal of the whole trip.  As we were catapulted out of the mountain's grip at 8-10 vertical m/s, I had my hands full keeping the glider open overhead while Leanne, in front of me, kept moaning and wailing about how she could not open her eyes.  Finally at cloudbase, we saw that Triglav now had a proper shower approaching it from the northeast, so we cut our losses and booted it out of there.  Overflying Mangart again in the early evening, we made a long final glide across the border into Italy, then Austria, landing in the bottom of the Gail valley near the Pressegger Lake. We had a wienerschnitzel dinner at a highway stop, walked a ways and camped at the foot of the next strategic mountain.
Day Nine

Day 9.  The morning's climb of more than 1500 vertical meters was the biggest and physically most tiring of the whole trip. Once again we ran out of water, but fortunately found a water trough for cows fed by a pipe from which came a trickle of spring water.  It took time to fill the water bottle and we were exhausted anyway, so by the time we reached the steep, grassy launch above, the thermal day was already in full swing.  We were yanked violently upwards as soon as I pulled the A-risers on launch.  The air was rough, but the lift was strong and reliable and we soon found ourselves cruising over the beautiful Weissensee Lake, the famous flying area of Emberger Alm, and the city of Lienz, home of the famous Dolomitenmann adventure race.  After this things got trickier and besides, dark clouds were threatening.  We flew as far as we could along the Puster valley, making it just over the Italian border at Innichen, where we top-landed on a grassy ridge at 2150 m and set up camp.  We were rewarded with a beautiful sunset rainbow, a view of the Dolomites including the Tre Cime di Lavaredo, and heavy rain-showers that lasted until midnight.  We discovered to our dismay that our tent actually leaked water in heavy rain.  During the early morning hours the sky cleared and it became quite cold; we had to unpack the glider and unfurl it over us.  I was surprised how warm the resulting paraglider duvet turned out to be.

Day Ten

 Morning of Day 10 dawned brilliant and clear as usual, and before long all our things were dry, while our powerful solar cell recharged all our electronics.  I discovered an unlimited supply of blueberries nearby.  After launching, things went well for a while but as we approached Bruneck, the valley air became more and more stable.  Struggling to stay up, and gliding through two perfectly good-looking trigger points without finding so much as a twitch of rising air, we eventually went down in the bottom of the Antholz valley which extends north from the Pustertal.  Before landing we spied a farm on a steep grassy slope a little higher, so we hastily packed and hiked up.  Able to restock with food and beverages at the farm, we recruited three excited kids to help us launch from the steep incline.  Without their help, the glider would have slid downhill.  I thought that our chances of getting away from here were about 50/50, but after some difficult scratching we were able to clear the treeline and soon reached cloudbase at 3000m.  The peaks here were even higher than this, their summits hidden in the clouds.  Back down-valley a nasty black cloud already threatened, so when I spied a window between two of the peaks and the cloud ceiling, leading west and seemingly toward the sun (Antholzer Scharte, 2814 m), I did not hesitate and punched though, even though I didn't exactly know where it led.  We quickly found ourselves over bare rocks and a glacier, driven down by a cold, catabatic wind.  For a minute it looked like we would be landing on the moraines, but soon the sinking tailwind subsided and we entered the friendlier airflow of the new valley.  But, clouds were now gathering here too, and the high pass out of this valley was shaded and utterly inaccessible.  We spied a hut on some steep grassy some ways underneath the pass, and bee-lined it there to a rather hard slope-landing.  At the hut, of course, we found a full selection of delicious food and drink, and even an offer to spend the night for free.  Who could resist?

Day Eleven

Day 11 dawned more clear and beautiful than ever.  From the hut at 2100 m, it was relatively easy to climb just over the pass leading to the Ahrntal valley, but the slopes everywhere were too steep for launching. After some head scratching, a little ways above the pass, at 2700 m, we found a grassy terrace suitable for takeoff.  It was already working at 10 am; we launched easily and were soon soaring over one 3000 m peak after another.  But we ran out of ridge and it became necessary to cross the wide Ahrntal; we were high but we could see inversion layers stacked up in the valleys below.  Sure enough, after the crossing, although still high, we could not find lift.  We were obliged to slope land and hike back uphill past a couple of huts, where we also enjoyed some refreshments.  Launching from a blueberry patch in the cirque at 2200m, we still had quite a lot of trouble getting higher.  Finally, we reached the spectacular glaciated ridge of the Zillertal Alps which forms the border between Italy and Austria, and is in fact part of the main ridge of the Alps.  Flying at 3500m above the numerous high peaks and glaciers was my favorite part of the whole journey.  But again, as the afternoon progressed, overdevelpment began to threaten.  We had a pretty hard time crossing a key high col, the Eisbruggjoch at 2545 m, which had a nasty catabatic wind sweeping the slopes leading into it.  After getting flushed twice, we found a hidden leeside thermal which finally enabled the crossing.  Pushing further toward Sterzing and the Brenner Pass proved impossible, as a big storm cell was rapidly brewing exactly in that direction.  We turned tail down-valley, making stressfully slow progress (even with the trimmers all the way out) against the valley wind that was generated, no doubt, by the brewing storm behind us.  Safety in mind, we slope-landed at about 1300m on a steep grassy slope among the scattered highest houses of a village, and as soon as we set up the tent, it began to rain.

Day Twelve

The weather forecast on Day 12 looked grim, with early over-development.  Hoping to make something of it, we hiked uphill to almost 2000 m where we found a perfect, freshly mowed launch site, quite near to the well-known Pustertal launch at Gitchberg.  We waited for a little while for the thermals to pick up, but as soon as they did, the sky socked in completely and it began to rain nearby.  In haste, we launched into completely still air, gliding very smoothly down into the Pustertal village of St. Sigmund.  At least we escaped the rain shower which soon enveloped the mountain slopes we just left behind.  With the local weather forecast looking grim, and with only one full day left in our vacation, we decided to take the train to Ivrea in the Italian Piedmont, expecting to be able to fly at least the following morning.  And so here ended our 7-day unsupported vol-biv expedition.  I think it was an excellent adventure, and I am psyched to do something like it again!

Day Thirteen- Bonus Day

 We arrived in Ivrea just as night fell, enjoyed delicious pizza and wine in town,  and then walked about 7 km through the flat corn fields along the Dora Baltea river toward the foot of the Cavallaria mountain, getting devoured alive by hoards of aggressive mosquitoes.  During the night at the landing field, which is right in the mouth of the Aosta valley, severe catabatic winds blew.  And it's little wonder, since this unexpectedly long valley penetrates the mountains all the way to the Italian side of Mt. Blanc.
The friendly members of the flying club gave us a lift to the launch, and we spent the morning pleasantly boating around the local mountain, enjoying the mild conditions and the scenery.  Eventually, the sky socked in, and rather than walking the corn fields again, we got high and glided toward the city, landing at a sports park in surprising disturbed wind conditions.

Tandem Vol-biv Gear Guide

 Some interesting things are to be said about the equipment we chose for the trip.  Traveling vol-biv by tandem paraglider still seems to be a rather new thing, even in the Alps, and so we had little information to go on as to what gear is good for such a venture.  In the end, the gear we chose performed at least acceptably, with most items nicely performing the job they were designed for.  What really does stand out is, first of all, our most important item, the custom-made Niviuk Takoo 4 lightweight tandem glider (39 m2, 5.2kg). It performed superbly.  Even during our practice sessions in Japan we noticed that although it did not climb extremely well, it was very fast and had very good glide.  Gathering my expectations for the Alps, I did not mind sacrificing a little climbing power for the option to be able to stand up to such winds as one may occasionally find in the Alps (esp. the valleys).  One of my main worries was how to fly sans speed bar, which I have relied on so much when flying in the Alps, so I was actually relieved to see how speedy our Takoo 4 was, even at trim.  And how well it glides too!  You can do some serious valley crossing with this machine.  On the flip side of the coin, our landings were always quite exciting.  Especially the top-landings at altitude, where the glider naturally flies a bit faster still.  We did not manage many of the landings standing up (as you can see in the videos).  Of course, it's important to keep this in mind and avoid top-landings where coming in too hot could result in injury.
There are many other good points about the Takoo 4.  The manufacture of the glider is top-notch: the leading edge, for example, has a smooth, even shape with hardly any wrinkles in the fabric.  Kudos to Niviuk, since this is the very first one they manufactured with this fabric. No doubt, it is a factor that contributes to the excellent glide characteristics. Seen from a distance, our Takoo 4 cuts an elegant, sleek shape through the air.  The handling is reponsive, the wing is very stable and resistant to collapse, recovery from collapses is quick with very little residual pitch or roll, and launching is easier than many of my single gliders.  Bottom line: The Takoo 4 is very relaxing to fly in the Alps.  If need be, I can handle turbulence that I would find very uncomfortable on any of my single gliders. Anyway, the Takoo 4 is a major score for us; we already decided not to fly it too much to keep it in good condition for our trip to the Alps next year!

Other items that performed notably well are my Salomon Speed Cross 4 sneakers, but I already knew these were the best from the Red Bull X-Alps 2017.  Our new Black Diamond Distance Carbon FLZ Trekking Poles (adjustable 95-115 cm, lightest on market) were useful and did not seem fragile like some people have said.  Our Anker Power Port Solar charging system was very speedy given full sunshine.

1, 2 Skywalk backpack x2
3 Icaro helmet
4 Grivel climbing helmet
5 Plastic bag
6 Skywalk compression sack
7 Niviuk Takoo4 ultralight
8 Advance tandem harness (with mousse taken out to make room for gear)
9 Softspreaders, soft links, rescue parachute
Extra batteries for the headlamps and the vario
10 Ozone ozium harness (rescue parachute taken out)
Lightweight carabiners

1 Montbell tent
2 Silk sleeping bag liners x2
3 Thermarest x2
4 Life straw- water filter
5 Saw- compact and light, good for bush or tree landings
6 Vario- tweety
7 Vario- la Bibip
8 GPS-Garmin Etrex
9 Multi tool pocket knife
10 Spot-Satellite tracker
11 Dental floss - in case of tree landing
12 Petzl Zipka headlamps x2
13 Extra batteries for the headlamps and the vario
14 Crazy glue
15 XC pee, 
16 pee funnel custom made for Leanne
17 Repair kit for glider- spare lines, needles, tape
18 Paper towels
19 Sunscreen, soap

Electronic Gear

20 USB charger with European adapters x2
21 Extra GoPro battery
22 Batteries- lithium for GPS
23 Windmeter
24 Chapstick with sunblock
25 Ibuprofen tablets
26 GoPro lightweight selfie stick, GoPro6 (not pictured here)
27 USB-C x2
28 Lithium battery bank
29 Anker fold out solar cell
30 Alcohol flask
31 Sunglasses x2
32 Patagonia waist pouch small
33 Patagonia waist pouch large
34 Huawei cellphones x2
35 Money pouch x2
36 Leanne's toiletries- toothpaste, toothbrush, facial wipes, moisturising cream, sunscreen, lip cream

2 Niviuk down jacket x2
3 Montbell windshell
4 Montbell rain jacket
5 Rain poncho
6 Balaclava
7 Gloves
 8 Lightweight gloves (Leanne)
 9 Patagonia capilene long sleeve shirt
10 Arcteryx dress
11 Columbia pants
12 Patagonia leggings 
13 Patagonia underwear x2
14 North face- hat
15 Buff neck warmer
16 Patagonia leggings
17 Montbell shorts 
18 Montbell Merino wool undershirt
19 Montbell Team Canada X-Alps t-shirt
20 Salomon Calf compresser
21 Bandana
22-26 Socks x5
27 Salomon Speedcross4 running shoes
28 Hiking boots
29 Salomon gater shoe covers

Not pictured:
Black diamond lightweight trekking poles x2
Rick's Niviuk cap
Credit cards
Safety pins
150ml water bottle
50ml water bottle


What is in this blog?

Hi!  This will be a blog about my experience in preparing for and competing in the Red Bull X-Alps, IMHO, the coolest race in the world!  Wi...