St. Andres les Alpes – Failed Vol Bivy

Before Covid 19 …

The plans were made back in 2019. My paragliding buddy of 20 years, Dangerous Dave, and I were planning a two-week flying and camping (vol bivouac or vol biv for short) holiday starting from Nice, France and going as far North and East as possible through the alps.

I had spent months mapping out possible routes to fly as safely as possible and setting waypoints for places high up on the mountains where we could land close to water – which is one of the biggest restrictions of vol biv flying. You must manage your equipment weight very carefully. You can’t carry much in your paragliding harness and if you are too heavy for your wing’s safety margins, then you risk serious and dynamic collapses in turbulent air which can make recovery difficult if not impossible. For those interested, here is how I divided up my weight:

Item

Weight (Kg)

Weight (lbs)

Flight – paraglider, harness, reserve parachute

7.95

17.49

Sleep – sleeping bag, tent, sleeping mat

2.66

5.85

Clothing

1.83

4.03

Cooking – pot, stove, fuel

0.84

1.85

Electronics – phone, flight instrument, external battery

1.91

4.2

Miscellaneous – 1st aid kit, hiking poles, repair kit, important papers

1.83

4.03

Food – mostly oatmeal, ramen noodles, breakfast bars, mini-tortillas

3.28

7.22

Water

3

6.6

Total

23.3

51.27

My total weight came to just over 23 kg (51 lbs) including my harness, wing, and reserve parachute (8 kg total (17.5 lbs)).

This is where the Six Moon Design (SMD) Haven Tarp and Haven NetTent shine. As far as comfort, room, ease of set up and light to carry bivouac gear SMD answers all my needs.

In the past I have used SMD’s Lunar Solo SE which is an EXCELLENT single man tent with nice vestibule space. I will continue to use the Lunar Solo for short quick packs and 2-4-day vol bivs. But when I want comfort on a longer trip and room to keep my glider and full kit dry inside with me, then I go for the Haven and Haven NetTent combo

What I particularly like about the Haven is that you can set up the Haven tarp in about 3 minutes and then, if needed, you can work under the tarp to set up the net tent and keep your equipment dry if you’re setting up in the rain.

Purists who do vol bivouac, only hike or fly. But I am not a purist and happily took the train from Nice, France to St. Andres les Alpes where I planned to start my trip. I took a small train into the mountains through steep gorges with a mountain river running through it. It was a beautiful 3-hour trip.

Dangerous Dave had to backout at the last minute because the UK changed its guidelines requiring 2 weeks isolation upon entry into the U.K. from France. He couldn’t miss work. But for me, working from home, this was not an issue.

Day 1

I arrived at St. Andres les Alpes and stayed at Camping Municipal Les Iscles. I intended to stay 2 nights there before beginning my vol bivouac trip. I wanted to do a “test” flight with all my equipment to be sure I had the balance correct and the weight well distributed.

Day 2

I caught a lift to take off with the local paragliding school. When I got there, just before noon, most of the pilots had already taken off and conditions were getting very strong. Paragliders have a very limited air speed and can only take off when conditions are just right. I took off in 20+ mph winds and was thankful for the extra weight of all my gear so that I had extra speed to penetrate forward rather than be blown back into the trees.

Conditions continued to be strong throughout the day, but I had a beautiful 27 km flight.

Day 3 The next day over developed. In other words, the weather was too strong to fly safely. My planned route would have been around 1200 km (over 745 miles) over the two weeks. In the end, due to a family emergency, I booked a return flight home and returned to the U.K. the next day. I’m disappointed of course, but my family is my priority. And I still have the well laid plans for next year! Here’s hoping. Thanks to Six Moon Designs for the Haven Tarp and Haven NetTent.

Vol Bivouac; Chamonix to Doussard

Chamonix to Doussard

1-4 July 2019

Day 1

After arriving in Chamonix and setting up camp in Camping Glacier d’Argentière there was a huge rain and wind storm that shattered lots of trees in the area and blew me and my tent down. Thankfully it wasn’t torn. I laid it out on the next day to dry while I went for a local fly – Plan Prax to Sallenches landing in the valley (33.4 km). The wind is always strong in this valley and a lot of pilots land by Lac de Passy (then go for a swim). I had a collapse low down as I came in to land. I recovered but came in fast and hard on my butt. It tore my harness (which only had my sleeping bag and clothes as back protection). I don’t advise landing here, I’ve done it several times over 3 years of flying in the Chamonix area and it’s always strong and rough. I have since been told that with the strong valley winds, it is safer to land in the Plaine Joux landing fields further East in the valley after the wind has split in 3 directions.

Approaching Pointe de Plate above the Servoz

Day 2

I started in Chamonix again and flew from Plan Prax to Sallenches, this time making the crossing and landing above Sallenches (23.8 km). I had intended to land higher up and camp close to Refuge Restaurant de Mayères, but I could see rain ahead of me on the Aravis as I made the Sallenches valley crossing. So, I made a quick landing (again on my butt further tearing my harness). I couldn’t find the Refuge de Mayères on Google Maps but found Refuge de Doran on the back side of Les Quatre Tetes. So, I hiked up and around to it.

Landing in the rain
Refuge de Doran
It was only 3.93 miles (6.32 km) to Refuge de Doran with an elevation climb of 655 metres, but it was quite steep at the end. Thankfully it was lightly raining and kept me cool.
I had a bowl of soup and a chunk of cheese at the refuge as well as a beer and set my tent up by a chapel on the hill above the refuge.
Camping beneath the cross at the chapel by Refuge de Doran

Day 3

The next day I had to climb the ridge on the back side of Les Quatre Tetes, probably less than a mile and 309 m to reach a good launch. Les Quatre was in cloud and so I couldn’t get above it and had to fly along the ridge until I could sneak over the Col de Niard between Tardevant and Croisé Baulet.

Day 3 Launch, looking at Les Quatre Tetes before it became covered in cloud.
Flying along the ridge approaching Col de Niard
I quickly sank out after going through the col and had to land after only a 12.3 km flight.

The winds were W to WNW all week and so I was flying the lee side of the Aravis chain which wasn’t a problem as the winds were fairly light between 1 – 3,000 ft. But the cloud base didn’t get above the Aravis until after I landed.

After landing I walked 3 km to Le Mègevan Chambres et table d’Hôtes et Camping where I had a beer, a nice shower and a flat place to pitch my tent.

Le Mègevan Chambres et table d'Hôtes et Camping
I’m convinced that you can “Vol Visa” your way through the Alps without a tent and sleeping bag.

Day 4

The next day I had a 5 km walk to the Col de Aravis where I hoped to be able to fly from the Western side of the col. This was a fairly gentle walk along a well gravelled road with only 155 m climb at the end to get up to the col.

I saw paragliders launching from the South Eastern edge of the Aravis, above the col, but none of them were staying up, and I couldn’t see exactly where they were launching from until I had passed under them and had already gotten into the col.

Arriving at the Col des Aravis after a hot climb.
It had been a hot few days (just after the X-Alps heat wave) and I was a bit discouraged. I contacted my friends who were flying in Annecy. They offered me a place to stay with them in Doussard before we all went down to the BGD weightless competition.

When I got to the Western opening of the col, there was no place to launch so I hitched a lift thinking of going to Doussard. Thankfully though, my lift was only going as far as La Clusaz. When I got out of the car I looked up, and there was a chair lift going back up the mountain in the direction of the Col de Aravis from which I had just come. At the top of the chair lift there were a dozen or more paragliders skying out and cruising the whole chain de Aravis! I immediately got on the chair lift and went up.

I launched at 16:00 and immediately thermalled up to 3000 m (the Aiguilla de Borderan (above La Clusaz) is at 2492 m). The whole chain of the Aravis was open to me. I debated whether to fly North to the Northern end of the Aravis before turning South again to see how far I could go before the day shut down, but my friends were expecting me and I didn’t want to get stuck someplace where I couldn’t get in contact with them. So I flew South.

I crossed over the col and headed down the Aravis and then West towards Montagne de Sulens where there was a large cloud that I thought I could climb out on and then get over La Tournette and land in the main landing field at Doussard. But it was after 17:00 and it wasn’t working, at least for me, and I was in the lee of de Sulens. So I went on full bar and glided around the Southern end of Crêt des Mouches, landing just short of Doussard – 27.5 km.

I called my buddies and they came and picked me up. So that was the end of my 1st multi-night vol biv. It was an amazing experience and I can’t wait to do it again.

Day Walking Flying
Day 1 33.4
Day 2 6.32 23.8
Day 3 4.3 12.3
Day 4 5.0 27.5
Subtotals 15.62 97.0
Total 112.7

Flying the Dolomites

8 – 9 Oct. 2018

With just a few days of free time available after a conference in Germany, myself and 2 paragliding buddies drove from Munich to Trentino-South Tyrol, beneath Torri del Sella in Italy. This was after the height of the paragliding season in the Dolomites and we had the place to ourselves.

My two friends slept in their cars, but I set up my trusty Six Moon Design Lunar Solo SE. I slept warm and snug two full nights with below freezing temperatures above 2200 m. I woke up in the mornings with ice on the inside and outside of my tent. Loved it.

We woke up each morning to a stunning sunrise with the sun shining on the towers of rock all around us and the clouds below us filling the valleys.

As the sun warmed up the air and dried off my tent the clouds rose and enveloped us.

After breakfast we climbed to launch …

Laid out our wings …

… and waited for the thermals, then launched.

Flying in the Dolomites is full on, even after the main flying season is over and the air is cooling. The thermals were still strong and conditions challenging.

The sunsets were as fantastic as the sunrises.

I I will definitely be returning to fly the Dolomites and fly & camp (vol bivouac) with my Six Moons Design Lunar Solo SE.

 BSEL

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