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 didnt 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 oclock 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 thats when I really
started to wish that I had a map of Austria (I hadnt yet had a
chance to buy one). The valley over the back forked into two and it
wasnt 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 wasnt 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 wasnt 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 nights
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 Id
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 hadnt changed, The whole region was basking in
gorgeous sunshine, except my mountain. The cloud street didnt
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 Id 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 didnt 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 wasnt 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
Finding the core of the thermal, I whipped the glider around in a tight
360 . It had to be tight or Id 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 360s 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
Glider Pro- Design Effect
Total distance 850km
Distance flown 605km
No of flights 12
Total airtime 29.5 hrs