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

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Tandemonium - 2 weeks of tandem hike-and-fly in the Alps

We're about to embark upon yet another exciting adventure!  Four days from now, Leanne and I will already be on some high grassy slope poising together for a long flight in one of our favorite playgrounds: the European Alps.  This year we have planned a hike-and-fly, cross country expedition by tandem paraglider - inspired partly by the Red Bull XAlps (of course), but also by only a small handful of tandem teams in whose footsteps we shall follow.  One can even think of it as a kind of pioneering expedition!

Our main goal will be to do as many quality, long-distance XC flights as possible.  An ambitious goal will be a total of 1000 kilometers flown.  We will try to do the journey vol-biv style as much as possible, but given that we only have two weeks available, we will give priority to flying over trekking and on occasion will not hesitate to use public transportation if it increases our chances of an epic flight.  Other than that we will be completely unsupported, taking opportunities as they come and hopefully having a good time along the way.

A tentative route (780 km)
Our new wing is a Niviuk Takoo4 custom-made for us with lightweight materials.  It weighs in at 5.2 kg, and actually packs quite nicely into the compression bag I actually used during the X-Alps!   Niviuk was kind enough to sponsor us here, and we are very grateful to them.  A dozen or so test-flights at our home area has us fully familiarized with this user-friendly glider.  I am pleased to see we have plenty of airspeed at our disposal; giving up the speed bar had been one of my worries about XC tandeming in the Alps.  A motley melange of other semi-lightweight gear, some of it recycled from last year's X-Alps, will fill out our kit.  It shouldn't be too heavy for us to do some major trekking, if required.

The lighweight custom Niviuk Takoo4 (5.2 kg)
To lighten our load, we will try to carry the minimum of everything, including just enough electronics to be making daily updates online with photos and videos of our journey.  Monitoring the links from my HP  should be enough to keep you fully up to date. We will also carry a SPOT tracker, so you will be able to essentially live-track us with 5-minute updates while airborne.  If grounded, to conserve battery power, we will only send our position occasionally.

That about sums it up!  Now, let the adventure begin!

Friday, August 10, 2018


Shane Tighe takes the win of the paraglider race
A couple of weeks ago, I took part in the 7th edition of the AmaxaX-Athlon (, a multi-outdoor-sports race situated here in my home area of Amakusa, Kumamoto, Japan.  Loosely based on the famous Red Bull Dolomitenmann, the X-Athlon takes place in a rural south-west corner of Japan, and is definitely the biggest, if not the only, race of its kind in the country.  Accordingly, many participants from major Japanese cities such as Tokyo, Osaka, Kobe, and Nagoya use a mid-summer long weekend to journey to Amakusa and enjoy this special event.  This year, about 140 athletes, supported by more than 200 volunteers and blessed with ideal (if a little hot) weather, made the Amaxa X-Athlon 2018 another edition to remember.

SUP athletes make an energetic start
The competition features five outdoor sports: sea kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, mountain biking, trail running, and paragliding.  The location, Kuratake Town in the Amakusa Islands, offers an environment well-suited for all of these sports.  Participants are welcome to race in virtually any combination of disciplines, but of course, the Full-Entry category (Sea kayak or SUP, then MTB, trail run and paraglider) is cream of the top.  This year 13 male and 3 female athletes, as well as 7 relay-style teams, competed in this category.  I was also one of them.

Seconds before race start
Disclaimer:  the location of this race is not entirely an accident.  It's a race originally conceived by myself , my wife Leanne, and Urakawa-san, our Japanese friend.  So, we are also race staff; in fact, I am actually the Race Director.  If you think that is a conflict of interest, come and see the race (or better yet, race with us) next year!

Leanne and Shane at the goal
This year we were lucky enough to be joined by the young and up-and-coming Australian paraglider and adventure athlete Shane Tighe.  Shane was one of my main supporters in the Red Bull X-Alps 2017, and plans to be my official supporter in 2019 (if I get selected!).  He has spent much of the past year paragliding in places like the Alps and Nepal, and his cross-country technique has taken a quantum leap forward in that very short time.  His top-notch performance in the this year's X-Athlon is therefore no accident.

Kayaks and SUPs jostle for position leaving the beach
The race itself starts at 7:00 AM at a place called Ebisu Beach, with a sea leg: sea kayaks and SUPs compete simultaneously along a 8.4km looping course, circumnavigating several uninhabited islands offshore.  Race rules say that athletes must pass several checkpoints on the way to goal, but other route choices are up to them and all kinds of clever shortcuts (as well as mistakes) are possible. Experienced racers may also take advantage of locally strong tidal currents along the way.   Kayaks are generally faster than SUPs, but this seems to be compensated by the top-notch condition of the Japanese SUP athletes. In fact, only a small handful of kayaks are able to get away from the frenetic SUPers. 

On the kayak course
Determined to conserve my energy for the latter part of the race, I strapped on a heart rate meter and resolved not to exceed 150 bpm while paddling.  This is more easily said than done, as it is very tempting to chase the faster athletes.  I sneak in a shortcut just after the start, and only one kayaker seems to follow me.  Soon it is obvious he is going to pass me, and I am surprised to see it is a 65 year-old repeat athlete known for his rigorous training regimen (he later told me he paddled over 700 km in preparation).  One other ace kayaker is already way out in front, so I find myself established firmly in 3rd place.  Several strong athletes are not far behind me but surprisingly, they are not catching up, so I focus on keeping pace and finishing the kayak race in under an hour with lots of extra energy left.

Kayak finish: one down, three to go
The next discipline is MTB (mountain bike).  The mass start is at 8:00 AM, but as I am a full-entry athlete, I can start as soon as I arrive at the kayak goal.  A couple of minutes for equipment change and re-hydration, and I am off.  The 20-km course features a steady climb for 10 km on a twisty mountain road, followed by a steep descent which includes a technical single-track and a narrow and dangerous concrete-paved speed section.  I settle into the rhythm of climbing the hill, knowing it will take about an hour.  Several ace athletes who had started a few minutes behind me catch up and pass, but I am quite happy with my pace.  It is important to conserve energy for the trail run, but I push a little harder than I did on the kayak.  On the downhill I push it a little but do not take undue risks.  I know am not within medal standing in MTB, but being 8th on the climb and 4th on the descent is respectable.  A curiosity in this part of the race is an inconspicuous, slow-climbing athlete who then made a lightning-quick descent.  Nearly a minute ahead of the next contender, he earns the prestigious "Dust Devil Award".

Speeding to the MTB finish line
Next comes the trail run, and it is my nemesis.  After two-and-a-half hours of hard exertion in the 30+ degree heat, this 5.5 km run-up from the beach to the paraglider launch is not to be taken lightly.  Indeed, while I had felt good on the bike, as I tread upon the village's hot sidewalks my legs feel rather leaden.  But the real worry are the cramps, which tend to attack me mid-course to the point where in past races I was nearly defeated by them.  To alleviate these I carry a can of Japanese spray-on potion called "Salonpas" that works well if used correctly.  My pace is now seems limited by the heat and my heavy legs; I seem to slowly shuffle forward, but a glance at my heart rate shows it is already maxed out.  I expect some relief at the 3 km mark where the route finally leaves the hot pavement and enters the thickly forested mountain and welcome shade takes the edge off the heat. Here the uphill climbing begins in earnest - good for me since I am a lot better at it than running.  But just here, my hamstrings are suddenly quite ready to cramp.  I spray on a modicum of the magic potion and proceed cautiously, lifting my legs awkwardly over obstacles and not bending the knees which would surely make my muscles seize up.

Trail run mass start at 9 AM
Many other runners have mass-started some 15 minutes before me, while I was still on the MTB course. Now I begin to catch the slower ones as they struggle on the steep uphill trail.  But, a slightly faster athlete catches up to me; looking at his number tag I realize he is also a full-entry racer!  So for the first time in my X-Athlon racing career, I am passed by another full-entry athlete.  This floods me with motivation and endorphins, curing my exhaustion as well as the cramps.  Determined not to let this young, fit athlete open up a big gap, I pick up the pace, passing other climbers one after another.  In the end, although my performance on the flat part of the course was truly pathetic, 16th place for the climb (where all but two of the athletes ahead of me were fresh off the start) is not bad at all.

On the punishing 'trail run' climb
The race timer stops at the trail run's goal line.  Unlike the Dolomitenmann, the X-Athlon paraglider race is not timed; instead, one collects pylons (up to 18 of them) by overflying specified coordinates. In addition, if one makes it back to the official goal at the beach, there is a chance to score up to 3 more points by hitting a target accurately.  The total paraglider score is then subtracted from the race time as a percentage.  A perfect score of 21 points had never been achieved so far in the history of the race.  Today, the conditions seem difficult but possible for collecting all the pylons.  But to do so, one must negotiate a long transition over a flat, wide valley, collect pylons over a remote mountain ridge on the other side, then re-cross the valley again without sinking out. With today's relatively low cloud base and weak lift, the chances of doing this are marginal.  At the paraglider launch, the racer who just passed me  quizzes me on local flying knowledge.  I tell him all I know, taking into account the expected conditions as well.  I fly here about 260 days a year, whereas this is his first time, so it is only sportsmanlike to reduce my home advantage.  Even so, he is only 2 paragliding points ahead of me.  To win, he will have to maintain this advantage tenaciously!

Changeover between disciplines
I take some time to change my sweat-soaked clothes and to hydrate, and since other gliders are already taking off and soaring away, I promptly set up my gear and get airborne.  The air race is all over the place: some high-aspect gliders are soaring over the mountaintops, even at cloud base, whereas many of the lower-rated wings are going straight down, not even reaching the beach.  I gradually gain some altitude and slowly and gingerly begin ticking off the easier pylons, taking care not to get low.  I am joined on the radio by Shane, who has reached the trail run goal and taken off about 20 minutes after me.  I find a good thermal, get high and strike out for a few harder pylons out along the flats.  Shane follows my lead.  Halfway through yet another excursion, with all but two pylons on this side already collected, I suddenly realize it makes sense to risk it and cross all the way to the other mountain range.  I make a low save there and proceed to take five more pylons.  Shane makes the crossing too and we cooperate to take the final and hardest pylon on this side, getting low but finding a climb just in time.  By now several other gliders have also crossed over but they are having great difficulty staying up.  Shane and I part ways, taking different routes back toward the main mountain and the beach.  An unusual convergence forms over the sea coast and is discovered by Shane who glides on right over the beach, tagging his final pylon 2 km beyond and returning to goal with height to spare.  I spend 20 minutes scratching the mountain before I am able to do the same.  As it turns out, we both tread on the 20-cm inverted flower pot that marks the target center, earning ourselves perfect scores of 21 points each.  But because Shane's flight took less time, he takes first place in the paraglider category.

Shane on course to win the paraglider race
Several more pilots get respectable scores, though no one else is able to tag all 18 pylons.  In fact, the scores seem evenly distributed between full and no points, showing that the race conditions were in fact ideal.  My main rival ends up with 10 points, a nice score but not enough to stay in first place.  Shane's great flight bumps him up to 3rd place in the full entry category; sharing the podium with him twice shows that we are a great team ready to tackle the Red Bull X-Alps 2019 head on!

It was a really fun race for me, maybe the best one yet!  But I am even happier as an organizer, that the whole, complicated event went off rather smoothly from start to finish.  Considering that 350 people are involved, the organizers are all volunteers, and that the success of the race depends critically on their coordinated work and movement, I think it is amazing that it all works out every time.  We organizers work for half the year to put this event together, and we are very proud of it!  W
And, we hope to see you too at the starting line next year!

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Super Condition in Central Kyushu

The weather forecast looked promising for north-central Kyushu, with a large calm spot forming in the upper layers, likely to be the result of meeting convergences that were not resolved in these GFS model data.  Combined with a high inversion layer at 2400m with an almost equally high cloudbase (graph not shown), it seemed clear we should go to Aso for Sunday and take advantage.

And indeed, the forecast matched expectations.  Quite unusually for this area, calm average winds allowed free travel over a 60x60 km area (at least), as long as one could find and follow the various convergence lines.  Away from the convergences, and/or down low, rather stable and windy conditions prevailed.  Thus, gliders taking off from the usual Daikanbo launch had trouble getting up and were even bombing to the base of the caldera.

I chose the Kabutoiwa launch, where the rim is south-east facing and works much better in the morning.  Taking off at 11am into a lot of lift already, I quickly went about 10km southwest to Futae pass and back, then crossed the wide 'bay' in the crater rim eastwards to Daikanbo, where I worked hard to break 1800m, the usual minimum altitude which allows movement.  It wasn't working so I crept back west toward Kabuto, this time forced low and scratching along the the rim of the bay.  A convergence emerged ahead over Kabuto, stretching north-east from there, so I took some risk of bombing out, which duly paid off and I was now near 2000m over Kabuto.  Things looked easy and it was still early so I detoured for another out and return to Futae, regained the convergence and set off north-eastward.  The convergence curved gently to the east and led me straight to the Kuju range.  I noticed there was quite a lot of north wind originating from the basins to the north and the distant sea, brewing up a cloud bank over the range.  I proceeded just along the southern end of this bank, just south of the convergence proper so as to avoid flying in the clouds.  After traversing the whole range I  reached sink at the east end of Kuju.   Eeasterly seabreezes were in evidence.

I could have easily returned but instead, remembering the northerlies on that side of the range, I set off bravely north-westward into an overcast no man's land, soon sinking below the height of the steaming volcanic peaks (at nearly 1800m, the highest in Kyushu).  But, as expected, I soon hit the north winds which allowed me to ridge-soar several steep mountain faces, and regain the convergenence line.  This was perhaps the most enjoyable part of the flight, adventurous and scenic.

The day's lift was maxing out and it was hard to see what to do next with clouds everywhere.  In retrospect I could have easily gone as far as the isolated Mt. Waita about 10km to the N but the extensive overcast meant I would have to trust the convergence and not get low.  I decided to follow my way back to Daikanbo.  The convergence hadn't moved so I had to bypass Daikanbo and end up at Kabuto yet again.  Had I gone straight to Daikanbo I would likely have been caught in strong southwesterly headwinds, but actually where I was the wind was easterly or nil.

From Kabuto the wind was west again and it was an easy downhill run to Daikanbo where I thought I would top-land and call it a day as it was getting quite late.  But, the famous 'afternoon glory' convergence line appeared only a little ways east, and it was too tempting to pass up.  As it turns out, two more gliders from Daikanbo hooked up with the convergence line and joined me on the out and return trip south to Aso's main summit Takadake. 

This was the first time ever anyone else ever rode this line, and the first time in my experience that it was both so conveniently located not too far to the east and also not too strong as to require great skill to ride safely.  We enjoyed the trip back and forth as if we had motors attached!

The active Aso crater was snoozing today, its smoke trailing alternately to the west or the east as the convergence line moved back and forth.  To the east, a large grass fire was burning, and the air was full of soot which got in our eyes.  The convergence line ended abruptly before the actual mountain, but I ventured to ridge soar the rocky ridges for a while before returning (much lower) to reconnect for the way back. 

All three gliders made it back to Daikanbo where we top-landed with smiles on our faces.  What a great day!

My XC distance froze at 87km as I ran out of turnpoints with this rambling flight, but the trip to Takadake resulted in a 66 km FAI triangle, worth a few more points on X-Contest.

This chart illustrates a common (but by no means fixed) upper convective layer convergence pattern (thick blue lines), and lower level winds (blue arrows) in the Aso-Kuju area.  My flight is superimposed in red for reference.  The convergences can of course appear, disappear, and move considerably; this is especially true for the 'afternoon glory' line with runs N-S from Kuju to Aso.  In fact, my track indicates that this time it was considerably further west than marked on the chart.

Flying on big islands such as Kyushu does have the advantage that winds from all directions may meet near the center of the island, creating these wonderful skyways.  It takes a variety of skills running them of course.  It is usually very important to stay high and monitor their movements, which may be sudden and unexpected.  Always try to stay on the side which has a higher cloud base (in this case, usually west and/or south of the lines), and be careful of the moist air sneaking underneath you and enveloping you in cloud suddenly.  If you see clouds forming on the clear side, hit the speed bar and head in that direction as quickly as possible, even and especially after you find yourself in fog, which almost certainly will happen in that situation.  Near the line itself expect very strong lift (10 m/s is common) and associated turbulence.  In fact, if it's rough you know you are in the right place! Keep in mind that on the moist side over-development may easily occur.  Don't take chances when the forecast shows unstable conditions.  Convergences peak in strength later than individual thermals, usually around 4 or 5 pm, and this is when the danger of sudden OD is greatest also.  When low and off the mark, always run downwind, whichever direction that may be.  In the case of the afternoon glory, which usually exists as a vertical wall all the way to the ground, if you find the sweet spot you can make an amazing low save from as little as 100m AGL, but it may be very rough!  Anyway, one could write a book about convergences.  This is just the tip of the iceberg!

Monday, April 16, 2018

Over the back, again

104km XC


Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Record Breaking Flight


 Mifune ICの近くにランディング、62kmXCになった。下りた場所で「ケン太郎」って言うファンに出会い、御船ICまで送ってくれた。リアンはずっと追いかけて、ICで待っていた。急いで帰って、仕事、ギリギリ間に合った!
最高の一日でした。サポートの二人、有難う! 南西の強風の使い方、やっと理解!(今まで倉岳のスロープでリッジフライトしかできないと思った。矢張りぱらの知識は邪魔になっていた。)

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

天草新記録、69km XC。初めて富岡まで!

天草新記録、69km XC。初めて富岡まで!





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...