Saturday, December 24, 2016

Meeting with the Mayor

The other day, I met with Mr. Nakamura, the mayor of Amakusa City (where I live).  I am seeking the city's support or endorsement, perhaps to become (something like) the Amakusa Outdoor Sports Ambassador.  I am doing this because although I have learned and done most of my flying here in Japan, I have no choice, based on my nationality, but to represent Canada in the X-Alps.  Not that I mind doing so, on the contrary, I am quite proud of being a Canadian, especially considering the current global geopolitical situation.  However, as a paraglider pilot I feel like I owe a lot to Japan and to all the local people who have generously helped me out and supported me over the past six years.  If I do manage to get some kind of official recognition (both from my city and my prefecture), I will be able to spread the good word about this beautiful corner of the world which I have made my own, especially through a world-class event like the X-Alps.  In that small way, I can hopefully return the favor by putting Amakusa on the world map.

Another reason for seeking this kind of endorsement is, of course, the financial support and sponsorship which I need quite badly.  The city and prefecture, of course, will not give me any money, but I am hoping that with some official recognition, I can seek sponsorship from local and other Japanese businesses and companies.  Without an official title, I am just another random foreigner that seems to have nothing to do with the place, so I am not likely to get too much attention.  Furthermore, seeking sponsorship in Canada will understandably also be difficult, as I have not lived there for 15 years and not flown there even once!  So, something creative needs to be done here!

Even before our meeting the mayor had carefully read some material and was interested in the X-Alps, asking some surprisingly detailed questions.  He also turned out to be very supportive of my idea.  With an OK from the mayor, we are ready to move forward with this idea.  But, keep in mind that in spite of the 'City' designation, Amakusa is a very rural place and this kind of thing is quite unprecedented here, whether it be for a foreigner or a native!  With some effort, let's hope that it comes to something.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Getting Ready For New Zealand - Weather Software

Only a few days before we leave for New Zealand!  Today I updated my own custom software which downloads global GFS model weather forecast data, calculates parameters relevant to soaring, and displays them in easily viewable form on a map.  From past experience, I trust the GFS model more than any other data.  The popular RASP forecasts show more detail but are actually nothing more than GFS data filled in with more detail based on a finer model mesh and slightly more detailed topography model.  I find I can fill in these local details, more or less, in my head. Thus, this very same graphs is likely what I will be using during the X-Alps as well.

Below is the current forecast for the 28th of December, our first full day in the Wanaka area of the South Island of NZ.  In the background of the weather data is this map:

The map shows coastlines of the sea and major lakes, roads, flying sites (red X's) and some location names in abbreviated form (QNT=Queenstown, WNK=Wanaka, COK=Mt. Cook, etc.).

Here is the surface wind forecast on the 28th, at 1300 Local Time:

The Wanaka area has light south winds (about 2 m/s).  Though the takeoffs face north, probably, it will be possible to fly due to local effect of the thermal blows.  Or, one can fly from the south-facing takeoffs in Queenstown.

Here is the sunshine percentage graph.  It's still a bit under development, so actually the magenta color, though it says 75%, actually shows full sun.  We can see that although Wanaka has sun, unfortunately there is a solid bank of cloud to the north.

Here is the inversion level (Planetary Boundary Layer Top) altitude (in 10's of meters).  This is around 2000m in the Wanaka and Queenstown area, but much lower to the north, again due to the clouds blocking the sun.  It increasingly looks like an out and return Wanaka to Queenstown flight is maybe the best one can do in these conditions.

And finally, the expected thermal updraft velocity (m/s).  Again, the effect of the cloud cover to the north is obvious.

BTW, about 320 different data parameters can be graphed with this software, from winds, tempereatures, humidities at many different altitude layers, to completely irrelevant things such as the temperature and moisture of the soil 30 cm under the surface!  But it's because it includes such factors, the GFS model is, in my opinion, the most robust and accurate of all global weather models, and most local ones too!

Well, anyway, this is a 5-day forecast, so it's still a toss-up, what will happen on that day.  This was just a test run to make sure my software works for NZ.  Now, onto sorting out the next few things for the trip, such as electronic maps, gear, and clothes!

Friday, December 16, 2016

Kankai Alps Trail Run

The so-called Kankai Alps are a ridge of rugged hills up to 500m high, stretching in a more-or-less straight line along the south-east coast of Amakusa Shimo Island.  A part of the Kyushu Nature Trail, a long-distance trekking route, runs along this crest and every spring Kami-Amakusa City organizes a 26 km trail run here.  As part of my training, I am going to take part in next year's edition of this event, and today seemed as good a day as any to give it a test run.

This is an excellent trail run course, arguably Amakusa's best.  Most of the route follows a well-groomed trail, with a few km of paved road thrown in for good measure.  The views are great from the clifftops and the constant ups and downs, usually equipped with concrete-log stairs, add up to a sufficiently brutal 1800m of rise (and descent!).

Pictures are from 2 years ago, on a much nicer day!

The weather today was windy with low stratocumuli scudding along with the northwest wind, occasional showers, and temperatures in the single digits.  It even snowed once on the ridge top.  Not much else to do on a day like this but go for a long run!  In spite of significant effort the run took me 4h 16m at the end of which I could barely feel my legs.  I was a bit disappointed because I thought I could do it faster, but there can be no complaint from the point of fulfilling my exercise quota for the day!

A typical weekend

Last weekend, we left Amakusa as we usually do in search of good flying conditions around Kyushu.  Consulting a detailed weather forecast, on Sunday, Mt. Kirikabu in the north-east corner of Kyushu looked promising, whereas on Monday it looked like one could fly from the amazing caldera rim of Mt. Aso in central Kyushu.  So that was the plan.

Part of Leanne's track from Kirikabu (knob on right side).  We practiced various return routes from Haneyama (left side).

Mini-XC with Leanne.
Great scenery at sub-freezing 1700m!
Kirikabu turned out great, with unusually thermic conditions and a relatively high ceiling of 1700m.  Leanne suddenly expressed a desire to train for vol-biv for our upcoming NZ trip so we flew back and forth between Kirikabu and the higher ridgetop of Haneyama, 4km away.  In the end we did 3 laps.  It was fun!

Kirikabu is one of the best areas in Kyushu for wintertime conditions.

We spent a frosty night camping at Kirikabu and early in the morning found us standing on the caldera rim, admiring an excellent view of Mt. Aso.  But the sky was too cloudy and no wind was forthcoming.  The wind forecast looked better at our home area of Kuratake, so we began driving homeward.  Sure enough, Kuratake was on, with a typical tricky wind-shear situation:  there was just barely enough wind to make tricky ascent from launch, but a few hundred meters higher one had to be extremely careful not to be blown back.  We flew about an hour, until it started getting dark.

Monday morning at Aso.
Driving back to Amakusa: Mt. Unzen volcano beyond Shimabara Sound tidal flats.
Ridge/wave soaring at Kuratake.  It doesn't really look windy, does it.
For good measure and training, I ran the half-marathon from the base of Kuratake to our house.  The mostly flat course took me 2 hours and 48 seconds.  I thought I was going to make the 2 hour mark but it was difficult running in the dark and cold rain that began to fall.  Better luck next time!

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Kuratake Delivers

After seemingly months of weak conditions, what a refreshing, exciting day today.  A rather strong NW wind was blowing, and the air was chilled, with freezing temperatures at ceiling height (1400m).
The sea was still retaining some heat, and the chilly air made enough of a temperature difference that an enormous rotor was set up in the SE leeside (where our launch is).  Rather thick clouds from this circulation nearly obscured the sun, but it did not seem to matter: the sea was providing the energy today!  After some delicate maneuvering, I was able to work myself free of the leeside and dolphin the convergence line coming from Mt. Domeizan.  I was barely moving forward in the strong wind but not sinking either, and was able to make it all the way, setting up an eventual 17km triangle.  Combined with a 32min hikeup with the pack, and a final 15 minutes of playing around low in the gentle leeside, made for a very satisfying day!

X-Contest record of my flight

Initial trip to cloudbase.  At the inversion, it was rough enough to be exciting but not enough to be dangerous.  A perfect combination.  The transition from leeside was very smooth also.  There were considerable waves on the sea from the onshore wind which was opposite to the prevailing wind - a rare sight of the rotor extending all the way to the sea.

The northwest side of Kuratake, from Domeizan, looking downwind.

A little low on the return - picking up height at a very windy Kayatsumaru Viewpont.

Brocken - playing around at cloudbase.
Back in the leeside - time to start thinking about making it to work on time!

Spiraling over Tanasoko village.
Nicely aligned for parking lot spot landing - lots of sea breeze!
Last 15 minutes of the flight, showing the excellent village thermal that comes to life under NW wind leeside convergence, and the Hayama thermal from the small terrace nearer the mountain.  I found both thermals at about 150m AGL.
The climb up is also shown in green.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

The X-Athlon MTB Course

Feeling leg muscle fatigue and fearing over-training, today we did a leisurely circuit of the Amakusa X-Athlon MTB course with a friend who is relatively new to MTB.  The X-Athlon is a race we organize here at Kuratake, Japan, every summer and includes sea-kayaking, SUP, MTB, trail running, and a paraglider pylon race. The MTB course is about 20 km long and includes 650 m of climbing and a single-track downhill we built ourselves.

Climbing up

Terumi practicing her technique

Leanne has it dialed
Yours truly
The downhill course was pretty worked-over by the ubiquitous wild boars, but still rideable.  It was a pleasure to come back here after not riding for a while.  But, our legs did not get as much rest as we thought they would today!

20 km Trail Run, Revisited

On the first day of December, we decided to revisit the nice 20 km trail run course we ran almost exactly a month ago, the day after I found out I was in the X-Alps.  While Leanne followed me on MTB last time, this time she ran a shorter variation of the course.  I could feel the after-effects of the two sprints up the mountain with backpack from the day before, but it was still a fun outing.  The varied scenery on this course really makes it interesting.  In this picture, I am passing a remote farmhouse located almost on top of the mountain.  People live in all kinds of crazy places around here!

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Two Hike and Fly Laps with Skywalk

Today, a work appointment in the morning and a cloudy, calm day did not give that much opportunity for either training or flying.  But since the next week is pretty much a write-off flying-wise, we decided to go to Kuratake for a lap of carry and fly.  With the super-light Skywalk Range X-Alps harness, and additional body weight loss due to continued training, I am now basically too light for any of my gliders.  I borrowed an XS size Skywalk Poison 3 (weight range to 90 kg) from a friend, which nicely matched the harness anyway!  With this setup, my pack weighed an X-Alps rated 9kg (harness with rescue parachute, glider, helmet, sweater, trekking poles, vario, radio, phone), and I was 87kg all-up, pretty much perfect!

Landing (dodging parked cars!) at the trailhead parking lot.
Starting out the first run up, I realized that if I hurry, I could actually complete two laps with about 5 minutes to spare to get home just in time for work.  The first lap took just over an hour: run up 27:36, about 10 minutes to set up, 10 minute flight, 15 minutes packing, leaving only 55 minutes for the second lap, giving me motivation to go extra hard on the uphill, finishing with a new record (with pack) at 27:18, 5 minutes setup, 10 minute flight, 10 minute packing.  Made it!

On the heart rate graph you can see I had to work a bit harder for the second lap, which was only 18 seconds faster, overcoming fatigue with a bit of extra motivation!

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Getting Organized: Mind Map

Garth recommended and organizational tool called SimpleMind, a free download for the smart phone.  It's very easy to use and in minutes I created a neat "mind map" of our upcoming adventure:

I've basically no idea how to use this yet but just looking at it seems pretty reassuring and calming!  There are many useful functions that I should read about and these mind maps can be apparently shared and worked on by the whole team.  Very cool!

Garth Camac is on board!

Amazing news: our good Australian friend Garth Camac has joined a team as a supporter of flight, gear repair, and overall logistics.  I think our chances of success in the X-Alps have just doubled!

Garth is a competition pilot, XC record holder, and a globe-trotting adventurer who is likely to be more qualified to compete in the X-Alps than myself!  He has offered his assistance out of his own great kindness and generosity.  He will be in the Alps months ahead of the race and gather invaluable information about the route, first-hand.  Additionally, his past military experience as a platoon leader in the Iraq War will bring the team together and keep it organized.  It's going to be so much fun doing this together!  Thank you Garth, and welcome to the X-Alps 2017 Team Canada!

Full Condition

green: hike up,  blue: flight
As forecast, a strongish NE wind was blowing across the mountain today.  Eager to train some, I hiked up to the launch (31:08, new record with pack), not sure whether I would fly or just stash the gear at the launch for tomorrow and hike down.  Observing the wind for a while I saw it was pretty strong but relatively steady in both direction and strength, which is unusual for a NE wind breaking over the ridge.  So I decided to fly down.

At around 10°C, today was one of the first cold days of the season, and the light was accordingly stark and beautiful.  I managed to stay up against the Yahazu ridge for a total flight time of 11 minutes. My vario would not turn on, so I spent this short while listening to the changing sound of the wind while actively piloting my Delta 2, a good choice for a day like today.

Landing was a little tricky with the surface wind blowing all over the place, but with many of the fields fallow at this time of year, there was enough room for a low-precision landing.  (The crops visible are lettuce.)

In spite of the conditions I thought I was quite relaxed and had things under good control.  However, looking at my stats it was interesting to see two distinct peaks in my heart rate, both at around 130 bpm, one at takeoff, and one at landing!  I guess it was a little exciting after all!

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Weekend Marathon Trail Run

Calm and misty but not rainy weather was forecasted for last weekend, with no great flying possible, so we took time to revisit our favorite local mountain range, the Kyushu Central Mountains, about a 2 hour drive from our house.  Thrust up by the straight fault clearly visible on the right side of the image below, it's a 50 by 50 km area of extremely rugged mountains (Mt. Kunimi at 1738 m is the highest), with steep terrain everywhere, difficult to cross even by car, and to date, flown over by paraglider by yours truly only!  It's actually one of the remotest areas of all of Japan.

The tour: red course is mostly trail run (64 km, 3800m gain), yellow return course is mostly dirt road, 45 km, 1500m gain.
The 64km first day mostly follows the ridge tops after the initial climb up from the fault valley, eventually gaining 3800m, almost exactly the height of Mt. Fuji.  Leanne's course was a shorter variation at 37km and about 2000m gain, but she had to carry the pack with the camping gear.  Amazingly only one dirt road crosses the course, and it's almost entirely within virgin forest that's very rare in Japan; in fact the trail is very faint and difficult to follow, with a lot of deadfall and other obstacles. So in fact it was mostly not possible to run and I averaged only about 4.5 km/h in spite of giving it full effort.

Along the trail on Day 1.
We weren't sure we could actually make the whole course but we could communicate with ham radio transcievers (no cell coverage here!) and we arranged the logistics so that we would pass each other mid-way.  There were also various options for bailing out. But in fact, we both made our objectives, though our efforts stretched from dawn until 11:30pm.  (My day: 14h 30m, 5100 calories!)

The Shiiya Pass dirt road on the return trip.
After only chocolate bars and sausage for dinner and 6 hours of sleep, we began the slog back via the Shiiya Pass forest road, the only road that crosses this stretch of the range.  This time I carried the pack, which weighed about the same as a lightweight paragliding kit. 

These mountains are basically just heaps of earth and rubble, so landslides are extremely common and regularly render any road here impassable; only the Sisyphean efforts of hundreds of Japanese construction companies keep them from completely disappearing.  This slide was steep, fresh and loose, and actually pretty hazardous to cross even on foot.

Fearing more slides ahead we shortcut a section of the road, down a very steep ridge and eventually crossing a small clear river via a landslide control dam.  The freezing cold water felt so great for the feet, I had to go wading some more!

Finally back in civilization, the last 15 km to the car were on paved roads.  In spite of the previous day, we were able to walk an average of 5.5 km/h today, and were not really tired, just our feet hurt.  At the end of 110 km of trekking in 2 days, we relaxed at a local hot spring.

Whereas I only got one blister, Leanne's feet were pretty trashed.  This trip has shown us many lessons which will be valuable for the X-Alps.  For instance, it would have been great to have had a needle along for blister control - presumably, if treated early, they won't blow up so big!  Also, we should try those vaseline-like creams to see if they work.  

A more subtle lesson involved the power of concentration.  I find it very meditative to run or walk long distances, and so I don't notice things that might be important.  As an exercise, I tried to measure the time between kilometer markers on the forest road, but often missed the small signposts even though the GPS was counting the distance very nicely for me.  Zoned out, I would look at the screen only to see I'd already walked 1.5 km from the previous marker!  Of course it didn't matter today, but during the X-Alps paying close attention to accurate navigation is very important and besides, I'm sure there will be many other logistical things on my mind.  I must train to be able to walk and think at the same time!

26 km shuffle

This entry is a few days delayed due to IP problems...sorry.  Anyway, this was our training on Nov. 17th.

26 km running course (all pavement, with 280m elevation gain), Shinwa Town, Amakusa.
Strong north winds again made flying out of the question again on this otherwise nice day. Determined to practice the 'ultra-marathon shuffle', we set out on this longish course.

In the end we were able to run the entire loop with ease, at a controlled pace of 7:15 per kilometer (we were actually aiming for 7:30 or 8 km/h).  The whole run took 3h 09m, and apparently burned 1300 calories.

Much of the course is along the seaside, with pleasant views across the Hachiman Straits along the quiet, coastal road.

In the end, no sore muscles, no sore joints or feet.  Is it possible to run all day like this carrying a 10 kg backpack too?


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...