Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Setting up camp in St. Hillaire

Tuesday, September 14th

Conditions were much better this morning, paragliding will definitely be on the program today. Deano and Gans had convinced me that it made more sense to camp up on top, in St. Hillaire as that was where most of the night time activities were taking place. I went to the campsite office to see if I could get a refund as I had prepaid for the week but the muscly late 40s woman, Isobel, explained that this camp ground was part of some French federation and therefore it had already been registered through them making a refund impossible. How daft. Sometimes it doesn’t pay to be an organized nice guy...

We hit a grocery store to stock up for the next five days and then journeyed up the mountain. We located a nice area in a big field not too far from the alternate takeoff and it was just five minutes walk to all of the action. Excellent.

Driving up to St. Hillaire:

Betty's spot for the week:

Our view of the upper ridge from the campsite:

So we set up camp and then wandered over to the main takeoff (the astro-turf one) to go flying. Just before launching, I saw a familiar face, it was Pete Michelmore, a guy who I’ve met a few times before both in Pemberton (in BC) where he has a home and I’ve visited his place in Oahu. He, his girlfriend Bonnie and another guy Larry were off to Interlaken for a day or two and then would return for the festival.

Deano ready to launch:

I took off after Gans and Deano and after about 10 minutes I was able to climb above the ridge. After boating around and gaining 300 meters over launch, I took a few pics of our campsite and then decided to try venturing north, in a direction that I hadn’t gone too far before. The sky was overcast and therefore the thermals were weak. There was one other PGer at the end of the first contiguous ridge but soon he left and headed back towards launch. I hopped over the first gap and recognized the snaking road that we had just taken up to St. Hillaire. The wind was from the north so I had to be wary of rotor as I crossed these gaps. I flew across another gap that had me parked once or twice in areas that turbulence could be present. I made sure that I had an escape route planned just in case. I spent a good 20 minutes or so ridge soaring back and forth above the trees, slowly gaining height. I never did make it to the top of the ridge though before deciding to cruise back towards the launch and landing zone. I didn’t fully expect to make it but not only did I get back to the area, I climbed a couple of hundred meters to get above the ridge and then top land so I had just a five minute walk back to hour and a half flight in marginal conditions...I’ll take that!

Looking down on launch:

Our campsite from the air (the white spot on the left is Betty):

Flying by a nice waterfall:

Looking at St. Hillaire:

Another paramotor pilot, Phil, and his wife Caroline arrived that evening from England in a nice little campervan (actually, not that little...I was slightly jealous, sorry Betty). We sat around chatting with a few drinks for the evening. There was a lot of paramotor shop talk which I wasn’t used to and I definitely learned a few things about that sport which surprisingly differs a fair bit to paragliding even though the only real difference is that you have a motor on your back.

What a view...

Gans, Deano and yours truly:

Gorgeous sunset:

Gans happy in his tent:

Too windy to fly...

Monday, September 13th

I did locate Alex and the others with him last night, towards the entrance to the campsite whereas I was right down near the end. I awoke to sunny skies but unfortunately accompanied by a strong northerly wind, so it didn’t look like it would be a fly day. After some breakfast I wandered down to see the other guys and they were just hanging out so I returned to Betty to do the same. Avi, one of the paramotoring students of Alex, came by and we chatted for a bit. He runs a paragliding school with his wife in India so he was adding paramotoring to the list of services they offer. Super nice guy and hopefully I’ll meet up with him in India.

Later the other guys decided to head up to St. Hillaire to see if they could do some kiting (where you have your paraglider above your head but your feet stay on the ground). I stayed at the campsite since I figured I’d be going up and down the mountain a lot in this upcoming week and I also thought that the wind would still be too strong up there. Instead I played a little Frisbee golf on a course I made up around where I was parked. The baskets were trees, electric boxes, planters etc. I hadn’t chucked around a Frisbee for a long time so it was nice to huck it again. Finished with a +2...not bad. Later Gans (one of the other Brits I met in June) showed up in a big white van with a guy named Deano. We chatted for a bit and later chucked around the Frisbee in the traditional style...but it being a disc of the golf variety one had to be careful how one caught it. Deano’s a very nice an interesting guy. He’s living in his big van and teaches paramotoring courses in a variety of places in Europe. Perhaps someday I’ll try this paramotoring thing...

Gans making a catch:

Deano chucking:

That night, after some dinner, we all ventured down to hang out with the other guys for a few drinks. There was a gorgeous 1/3 of a yellow moon hanging low in the sky and it seemed as though the wind was weakening so hopefully tomorrow we’ll fly.

Back to St. Hillaire

Sunday, September 12th

I awoke early, well early for me, not having worked for six was 7:45am! I got on the road a little after 9 and planned to head for Laragne, a place I had visited with the Brits back at the end of June where I flew my longest cross country flight so far of the summer. Sadly I arrived just five minutes too late as I saw the navette (shuttle van) pass by me as I entered town. I continued on to the campsite but there was no one else heading up to launch. It was noticeably quieter here than in June. I weighed my options and decided to press on the two hour drive to St. Hillaire as one can take the funiculaire to get up to launch so being solo wouldn’t be an issue. The weather was similar to the last couple of days in St. Andre so I definitely wanted to get into the air.

The drive was quite pleasant, although Miss SatNav did take me on one or two interesting routes. Arriving near the landing zone, I checked out the parking for the funiculaire but it was full so I pressed on the 7-800 meters to the LZ. Before I even stopped, Alex waved at the site of Betty and me pulling in. We shook hands and I met Nick, a Brit who just did a paramotoring course with Alex in the past week in Organya, Spain. We decided to head up to launch in Betty. I dropped the guys with their wings at a restaurant while I parked near the launch. I made a quick baguette sandwich (gosh I love French bread!) and headed to the big astro-turfed take-off.

A rocky canyon en route to Digne Les Bains:

Looking towards the Sisteron fortress (that I visited back in June):

Gorgeous mountain views

SatNav special:

The wind was blowing a bit over the back (not good to launch in) so I sat for a bit to watch the wings in the air and the few that were setup on launch ready to go. The puffy yet dark cumulus clouds eventually let the sun poke through and some thermic cycles began to puff through. A few solo and a few tandems took off so I tried my luck but botched my forward launch with the wing fading off to the left. I got ready again and on my next attempt the wing was above my head but I didn’t feel any loading (it wasn’t trying to lift me off my feet) so I decided to abort as it’s a bit of a drop after the astro-turf. It turned out to be fortunate that I didn’t take off on my third attempt as my iPod had fallen out of my flight deck and a nice old man returned it to me...that would have fallen nicely into the” bad things” category. I finally flew into the air, probably close to 35 minutes after setting up and I received a bit of an applause from the 60 some people hanging out watching. Hmm...maybe I should do some botched attempts all the time as no one else I saw launch got an applause!

I climbed in a thermal filled with wings, both paragliders and hang gliders, above me. Eventually I decided to head south along the ridge although it had been shaded for quite some time and I didn’t expect to find lift there...and I didn’t. I returned to the launch area, about 200 meters below the ridgeline and fought for a good 20-25 minutes, got up to 85 meters below but then faded again. The sun was starting to descend in the sky and this east facing ridge just wasn’t getting the thermal heat it needed to take me up. I did a big spiral over the landing zone (trying to get rid of some of the Dune de Pyla sand in my wing) and then was happy when I spot landed on the center dot. I packed up and then walked to the funiculaire as I didn’t see Betty in the parking lot and Nick’s car was gone so I assumed that Betty was still up top.

The funiculaire ride, my first time on it, was pretty cool. A bit slow but faster than when we hiked up in June. I was amazed looking at all of the stairs that we had climbed, especially through the tunnel where low voltage lines were giving us the occasional buzzing sensation.

I drove Betty down and headed to the campsite. Alex and the others weren’t there so I just parked Betty in a good spot and now I’m typing to ya. Another good day Wandergliding.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Ground hog day at St. Andre

Saturday, September 11th

Ground hog day...I took the shuttle bus up to launch and being the weekend, there were at least 10-20 more pilots today than yesterday...still not bad. Just a week ago they had the British Nationals here with 150 competitors...that’s mayhem. I chose to wait for the conditions to develop and was in the last 5-7 to launch. Still there were no cumulus clouds in the sky even though it was 1:30pm. I headed further north than I have before here on this flight. I didn’t quite get as high as I did yesterday but flew much further. I made it at least 15 kilometers north of launch but only made it about 7 back. I got flushed down at the end but was lucky that an older couple, the guy being a paraglider pilot, stopped to give me a lift. I rapidly packed up my wing and was gratefully saved from a 14 km walk back! Another good day in St. Andre!

The pilots on launch:

About to take off:

Looking towards St. Andre:

Comfortable in flight:

Checking the flight deck:

Gotta love the view:

Flying with a yellow glider...working together trying to scratch up the "Cheval Blanc" (White Horse):

Getting high above the mountains:

Happy after a safe landing...even though I may have a 15 km walk back to camp:

Flying St. Andre les Alpes again

Friday, September 10th

I headed to the landing zone around 10:30 to see about catching a ride up to launch. It was a beautiful blue sky day so I was hopeful for the day’s flying. I hung out near the shuttle area for only about 10 minutes when a couple of guys verbally advertised that they had one seat available in their car. I snagged it immediately. Max was from Marseille while the driver, Gus, was originally from New Zealand. Nice guys...and thanks for the lift.

There were a number of pilots on launch when we arrived, at least 40. Some students were taking off but there wasn’t enough development yet to warrant taking off. In the process of putting on my long johns, I busted the slider part of the zipper for one of my pants/shorts legs. Damn. I just left my other pair, the ones with the nasty ink stain, with Christophe as I had worn those throughout the replacement of the engine and figured he might want them to work in. I just had this pair and a pair of quick dry pants (which are my formal gear don’t you know). I spent 20 minutes trying in vain to fix them and in the end I broke out the duct tape to try and hold the right pant leg up. By the time I got my wing ready, everyone had taken off! No worries, the conditions still looked good. The wind was pretty strong for takeoff but I adjusted correctly and once the wing was inflated I took one step and was in the air.

On launch:

A future pilot:

The busy launch:

I headed south, towards the closer end of the ridge. I figured that the sun has been baking the south side and with the north wind there should be a convergence of lift. I was correct. I gained 300+ meters quickly. There was another PGer close by and he was more around the corner of the ridge, the side facing town. He was climbing faster than I was so I ventured over there...bad idea. He left before I got there and I found out why, big sink. I turned back to head around the corner to launch but got hammered with strong headwinds and I continued to go down. I eeked around the corner at launch height, having lost all that I had gained, but soon found more lift. I then found a boomer of a thermal and climbed 800 meters above the launch.

Earlier I had noticed that many gliders had headed north but now not as many were to be seen and they were all quite low so I decided to head east to a mountain with some antennas on it that I had flown around back in June. I arrived high enough to run up a spine but was wary of possible rotor (turbulent flow from the wind flowing over the top from the other side). Soon I found myself in one of the strongest, yet relatively stable, thermals I’ve ever been in. I saw 8 meters/second up on my vario for a brief second and sustained 7.4 m/s for at least 3 seconds...that’s an elevator into the sky! A cumulus cloud was forming above this column of rising air and I made sure that I was near the side of it as I rose to its base. I noticed a couple of sailplanes way below me but as I decided to head south to a long ridge that borders the east side of town the gliders were banking steeply and were already at my, I have to do that someday! (technically I’ve done one acrobatic flight in a sailplane...but I mean do it as a pastime).

In flight:

I lost a lot of height after cruising to the long ridge. There were 3 other paragliders struggling below me. I got half way to this tower on a bare mountaintop that I had hoped to ridge but it didn’t look like it was going to happen so I turned and headed for the landing zone next to the campsite. Sweet flight...shorter than expected but surprisingly lifty. With the 7.4 m/s up and gaining 1250 meters above can’t complain about September flying here!

Betty at the campsite


Thursday, September 9th

I arose a little before 8am and prepped Betty for the drive across the country. I hoped to make it to St. Andre Les Alpes, where I was back in June when I started my journey. I was planning to hit a few of the flying sites I’d really enjoyed before arriving back in St. Hillaire for the Coupe Icare, the biggest free flying festival in the world and one of the items on my “Must Do” list for Europe.

I enjoyed a light breakfast with Christophe, Virginie and Sasha. I bid the lovely adieu and can’t believe all that they did for me. Sasha, you are a lucky girl, you have a leg up in life with two parents like you have! Thanks for everything guys!

The first four hour leg of my trip was uneventful, which was fine by me. I even stopped Betty’s engine at pee breaks with no concern for her restarting, what a joy not having to be continually worried whether the car would start. I thought a lot about my father, but unlike some previous drives, I wasn’t dismayed or depressed by it. However, I’m still struggling to get past the actual death, being there and witnessing his last moments (although I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else) and the fact that he’s actually gone. I am struck by his comment about an hour before he died, “May 29th”, his recognition that this was the day of his death, which is the day after my mom’s birthday (who passed away, also from cancer, 18 years ago). Seeing someone, anyone, go through their final moments on this earth definitely makes one want to live every day to its fullest. I began to recount the summer, and apart from a few days here and there where I stayed somewhere for a while and had groundhog days, I could remember all of the places I had been and the adventures I’ve had this summer. I definitely couldn’t recall every day of a three month period when I was working my IT job....this is living.

An Ariane rocket near Toulouse:

Cruisin' in Betty:

I arrived at the city of Carcassonne. This name has a special meaning for myself and many of my friends back in Victoria. Nothing too serious. But it’s a board game, really a “tile” game, that we played on many occasions. I think none of us had heard of this French city until playing, and in fact many probably still hadn’t clued in that’s a real place. I was supposed to visit this place with my good friends Steve and Sheryl back in May but I missed our rendezvous when I had to return to Canada due to my father’s illness.

What a gorgeous castle:

It took me a bit of time and a few passes before I located the motorhome parking lot (yes, Betty’s height makes her challenging to get into some places). The walled town is quite impressive and your stereotypical castle. It was so formidable that it was never taken by force. I did a quick walk around the place; actually it took more than an hour. I loved the big stone walls with their crenulations (thanks for the word Kate!) full on with a grassy area that would have been the moat. I meandered along many of the streets within the outer perimeter walls and also ventured into the gorgeous abbey. I forewent the paid area of the inner sanctum of the castle as it was nearing 4pm and I still had close to 5 hours of driving to hit St. Andre.

Where are my teddys for Betty?

The front gate of Carcassonne:

Formidable walls:

Players of the game "Carcassonne" will understand this pic (yes that's me lying on the grass):

The drawbridge:

Crenallations (thanks for the word Kate!):

The entrance to the main castle:

The abbey:

Gorgeous stained glass in the abbey:

Outside the abbey:

Back on the road, I cruised past the cities of Montpellier and Nimes (by the way, did you know that jeans essentially originated from Nimes...the material that created this pant sensation originated from Nimes and in French that would mean they were “de Nimes”. This metamorphisized into “denim”...things that make you go “hmm” - thanks Virginie and Christophe for that tidbit). I arrived into St. Andre after dark, around 9:30pm. The campground gate should have been open until 10 but since it’s the shoulder season they must close early as I couldn’t get in. No worries, I know where I can park next to the landing zone. There was already another camper there so I wasn’t worried about crashing there for the night. A free night of camping, and I can do with any financial breaks I can get after all of my recent expenses. Betty had done well today....thanks again Christophe!

Some high tech windmill action on my way to St. Andre:

My final day with my great new friends

Wednesday, September 8th

Virginie was off early this morning for her swim test. After Christophe took Sasha to her daycare, we headed off to a building center about 10 km from his in Betty with him in his car. This was the big high speed test for Betty and what can I say, she excelled...or is it accelled? I cruised along behind Christophe in his white Doblo utility vehicle at 90 km/hr for a while, then the limit was up to 110...and then 130. I decided it was time to let the lady run...I passed him and put the pedal to the medal...or rusted remains thereof. I was up to 135 and didn’t feel like she was going to break apart and we weren’t contributing nearly as much to global warming as we had been for July and August...sweet! She’s passed the final test...yes, it’s been an expensive adventure with my campervan and as a friend of mine, Sika, put it, I should write a book called “A Betty-er Way to Europe”!

Back at Christophe’s house, after a pasta lunch (I’m still getting used to the big French lunches), I removed Betty’s front passenger wheel as it seemed it had a slow leak. We took it over to Philippe’s where, after Christophe finally removed the tire from the rim (it wasn’t his fault, the air compressor was set too low), I set about grinding off the rust. I swore that this was one of the tires that had this treatment already back in England but you gotta do what you gotta do. Philippe just got a new puppy (I guess he’s a hunter and his other dog’s too old for the hunt) and boy, what a cute and super curious little guy.

That evening we had a few drinks after dinner. I always loved Christophe’s when I would offer him a beer, wine or some other drink: “Allez!” (Let’s go!). He also made me chuckle when Virginie offered me a tea before going to bed and he upped the ante with an “Aberlour-tea” (a single malt scotch).

With the leak fixed, Betty is ready to rumble...I mean roll. I plan to head off tomorrow and give Christophe and Virginie their regular life back. I can`t imagine that when they stopped 11 days ago to help a stranded campervanner that he`d still be around at this point. What super kind people. I may have had misfortune with breaking down but I was also lucky to make some new great friends!

From this:

We went to this:

Thanks so much Christophe and Virginie!

The final touches on Betty

Tuesday, September 7th

Yesterday was a quiet day. Christophe ordered the pump for Betty and it wouldn’t arrive until today at 2pm. That wasn’t a bad thing as Christophe was taking care of Sasha today as usually Virginie’s parents took her on Mondays but they were away on vacation. I did some administrative type activities from blogging to washing some clothes. I helped Christophe with the moving some furniture (trying to pay back a little bit) and we had a nice dinner and early night.

Christophe feeding little Sasha:

Cute Sasha:

Where are my grapes?

We fetched the pump at 2pm and installed it (well, really Christophe put it in). Betty awoke right away. Having some juice flow into the engine was all she wanted. I think our patient’s going to make it! I took her for a spin around the neighbourhood and she ran great. I wasn’t being followed by a blue smoke ghost anymore! Philippe, the next door mechanic, was back from a car rally and he admired our work (well, really it was mostly Christophe’s). It looks like I have a working campervan again...just one more test, the highway...but that will have to wait until tomorrow.

The neighbor, Philippe's rally car:

Sasha and yours truly:

Little Sasha has changed since I’ve been here. When I first arrived she was walking, but seemed more happy to hold on to mom or dad’s hand or even furniture instead of going it alone. Now she was stumbling I mean walking around all on her own. Her parents have been trying to get her to say “Dave” too...and today, finally...she said it. Well technically it was “Day”...but I’ll take it. What a gorgeous little girl.

Little Sasha walking:

Virginie returned home from work in combat fatigues. She was required to fire a gun at a range as part of her enlistment rating. She did quite well, 18 out of 20. Tomorrow, early, she has to swim 100 meters and a few days later, a run. The French military don’t mess around....

Me with my new friends:

Ninie and Sasha...just after bath time:

That evening, after yet another nice dinner, Virginie, Christophe and I played a game of Yam, a close cousin of Yahtzee. After Christophe did a brief reconnaissance for their dice, I offered up the Garth specials...the inch high cardboard set of dice that Garth made for me in Slovenia (accompanied with the rolling tool of my colander of course). We had a rousing game but yours truly prevailed in the end...getting not one but two yams (I have to admit it’s more rewarding to yell out “Yahtzee” than “Yam” when you get five of a kind). Being a school night (“weekday”) for Virginie, I was surprised that she suggested a second game at 11:20 but Christophe convinced her we should all hit the sack...good call.
Hot Yam (Yahtzee) Action: