Trans Alpine Vol Bivouac Expedition - The Journey

In April of this year, British pilot Chris Scammell took a break from teaching paragliding in the Lake District to try his hand at vol-bivouacing. Two months and 850km later he had traversed almost the entire length of the Alps. This is his account of a particularly memorable couple of days towards the end of the voyage.

‘Come on you useless get’ I shouted at myself. I was going down and my spirit was sinking as quickly as my glider. I had taken off less than 20 minutes earlier at 1800m into what had the appearance of superb soaring conditions, yet I now found myself just 150m above the valley floor.

It was crucial that I didn’t bomb out. I had just crossed over into Austria from Switzerland after five weeks of vol-bivouacing and I was starting to run out of steam. I had set off from Greolieres in the south of France on April 20th with the objective of getting as far as I could in 2 months. I had learned that success depended entirely on g ·iving my all during the brief periods of good weather. Sitting in my tent for days on end in the rain was only made bearable if I felt that I had made the most of flyable conditions, and today was forecast to be last of a current spell of settled weather. Over the previous five days I had worn myself out dashing up (and occasionally down) the mountains of Eastern Switzerland with my 22kg pack. I desperately wanted to land near a town today so that I could have a hot shower, eat real food and find a book to read when tent-bound. The previous day had been particularly exhausting as I shall now explain.

The day started at five a.m. when I struck camp high on an Alpine pasture and set off to negotiate the Schweizertor pass, a ‘footpath’ that connects Switzerland to Austria over a 2100m pass. I could not fly over the pass due to the wind direction.
I arrived on top of the pass at 10am, shaking and pale, having negotiated a respectable alpine mixed climb in shorts, t- Øshirt and flying boots, whilst carrying a very large pack that constantly threatened to pull me into the abyss. Using my hands as ice axes and kicking steps for my feet, I had traversed a 45 degree patch of old snow that lay on an unstable scree ledge, halfway up a 300m cliff. It felt like the North face of the Eiger to me. The snow was spattered with small rocks that had fallen from above and my numb hands bled as I jabbed them in to make handholds. The patch of snow was the last left on the ledge and I was fearful that my kicking would encourage it to join the rest that I could see had avalanched into the valley below.

After a breakfast of bread and chocolate on top of the pass, I climbed up a little further on easier ground to find a take off. After a hairy launch in tricky conditions I whistled down the valley, low over glacial moraine, landing on a westerly slope that I hoped would allow a relaxing evening flight later that day. I was in Austria at last and delighted.

After a sweaty 500m slog to the top, I sat and waited. As the sun inched round into the west, the only sound to break the vast silence was the occasional whistle of a marmot and the croak of an alpine chough. I dozed off.
By five o’clock the sun was smack on my mountain and I launched into a smooth 5-up thermal that took me to 2400m. I could now see over the back, east along my proposed route and that’s when I really started to wish that I had a map of Austria (I hadn’t yet had a chance to buy one). The valley over the back forked into two and it wasn’t obvious, as I had assumed it would be, which one to follow. I decided to make the 12km glide across to the ridge that divided the two valleys and re-assess from there. Arriving just below the top after a wonderfully bouyant glide across the valley, the air became very choppy and I hit heavy sink. I wasn’t going to have a choice which side of the ridge to pass. I was forced to land high on the south side of the ridge, narrowly avoiding a chalet as made a downwind landing in a small pasture 250m below the top. I searched for a path that would take me back to the top of the ridge. There wasn’t one. On very weary legs I set off up through the steep forest, so steep that I was often reduced to all fours, in search of the summit clearing that I had spotted from the air. By 7pm I was on top of the ridge and cooling off in a stiff NW wind. No wonder that it had seemed a little bouncy on the South face. I sat on top, drunk with exhaustion, wondering what to do next.
Unable to fly down and unwilling to walk the 1000m down into the valley in search of a map and food, I pitched the tent, washed in a snow melt pool and sat in my sleeping bag, watching the sunset and listening to yodel music on my radio. Hunger and aching legs made for a poor night’s sleep.

So yesterday had been testing, but waking to clear skies, right next to a launch site, felt like just rewards. By 10.am the sky looked perfect for a big flight but I decided to wait until midday before launching, to be assured of getting up and away. By 11.30 though, the sky was building rapidly and I opted to launch before it overdeveloped. Unfortunately, the NW wind was pushing a cloud street out into the valley, blocking the sun from my south facing slope. The thermals that had been pumping up steadily from 9.30am were starting to wane and I decided I’d better get off quickly. I launched into a light breeze and went straight down. Luckily there was a pasture 100m below that allowed me to slope land. ‘That was a stupid thing to do’ I told myself. ‘Wait until the face is back in sunshine you donut head’, and so I trudged back to take off with the glider over my shoulder. Half an hour later and conditions hadn’t changed, The whole region was basking in gorgeous sunshine, except my mountain. The cloud street didn’t look like it would shift. Encouraged by a sailplane circling above me though, I took off again and after a single bleep from the vario, sank like a brick back into the same pasture.
I lost my rag. Ranting wildly, I tore off the many layers that I was wearing to keep me warm at cloudbase and hurled my helmet into the distance. After I had calmed down, I packed up the glider and slogged back up the hill for a third attempt. There was not a breath on top. Time for a re-think, I needed a plan. There were obviously great thermals everywhere except on my mountain. I decided that I would have to take a chance and go on a glide to a hillside in the sun. This meant committing to one of the two valleys either side of my ridge.
With nothing else to go on, I chose the one with the best looking flying terrain, the valley over the back, and turned around to lay out on the north side of the ridge. Studying the valley, I realised that once in it, there were no further launch sites. It was steep fores St and steep rock. If I went down I’d either have to walk back up to this launch ( a 20km walk around the mountain) or walk over a 1500m pass to St Anton, if indeed this valley led to St Anton ( I was now becoming more convinced that it did.). Luckily there was just enough space between the trees to launch off the north side, and this I did, with hopes pinned on getting up on the south face opposite.
Twenty minutes later and 1200m lower, I am back where I started this account, 150m above the valley floor and shouting with frustration. ‘Come on you useless get’. Despite being in bright sun and having cumulus above it, the other side of the valley didn’t seem to be working either. I had lost all my hard won height.
In a last ditch effort to stay up before committing to a landing, I made a hasty decision to edge the glider into a tight tree lined gully, low on the mountain side. I expected to find some turbulence there due to the valley wi Ond and so it was with some trepidation that I approached it. I scraped over the tree tops and entered the gully. Immediately the air felt more promising. I wasn’t yet going up but I felt that it was worth further exploration. Committing myself fully, I flew into the back of the gully and was rewarded with a bleep from the vario. Concentrating hard and flying very close in, I slowed the glider down to make the most of the light lift. The gully was tight and I had to fly a precise figure of eight to avoid catching the sides with my wing-tip. Before long I had gained 200m and the initially broken lift became more consistent. The gully steepened here into a near vertical eroded cliff face. The few trees that clung to life there were half uprooted, leaning out at odd angles and seemingly only one rainstorm from the valley bottom. Where the face steepened, the lift grew stronger and smoother. My vario’ now bleeped confidently, telling me that I was wrising at 5m/s. Hearing the rattle of falling rocks, I looked around to see three chamois bounding recklessly down the improbable slope. I must have scared them with my sudden appearance.
Finding the core of the thermal, I whipped the glider around in a tight 360 . It had to be tight or I’d have flown straight into the cliff. As it was it brought me too close for comfort and I swore at myself for taking unnecessary risks. Earlier on in the trip I had scared myself, suffering a full collapse of the wing in a very similar situation in the Chartreuse. I recovered the wing in time but promised myself that I would learn a lesson from it.

Instead of further 360’s then, I slowed the glider down as much as I dared and made gentle turns to stay within the rising air close to the face. It felt like being in one of those glass elevators on the outside of a building. I watched the cl tiff face slide by as my climb rate increased to 10m/s.The thermal was soon in full flood and I had no intention of relaxing my grip on it. Too much depended on it. Within a moment I was back at 2000m and climbing at an exhilarating rate. I hardly dared look around lest I should lose my concentration and the thermal with it. At around 2500m the mountainside suddenly vanished and I burst out of the valley like a missile, exploding out into the open skies above the mountaintops. My feeling of elation was unsurpassed in my 12 year flying career, Cinderella would go to the ball after all. For a further 1000m I wheeled upward like a spark from a bonfire, the vario’ against the stops at 16m/s, until, at 3450m, I approached cloudbase and had to leave the lift to avoid entering cloud. ‘You beauty’ I screamed as the frustrations of the morning were released. Relaxing for a moment I s took in the panoramic view. To the west I could see my route through Eastern Switzerland of the previous week, rank upon rank of snow capped mountains receded to the horizon. To the north I could make out the plains of Germany basking in the sun and to the east lay St Anton and the Inn valley that I must follow for 100km. I took a few photos then quickly reviewing the sky, pushed out on the accelerator towards the pass.
As it turned out I flew over St Anton at cloudbase and, after a couple more low saves, landed near Imst for a flight of 72km. I was delighted. I had landed just 2km from a campsite and by 6pm I was drinking a beer by the campsite pool, reliving the previous 48hrs in my head and smiling to myself.

Glider Pro- Design Effect
Total distance 850km
Distance flown 605km
No’ of flights 12
Total airtime 29.5 hrs