Trans Alps by Paraglider

Paragliders are relatively slow aircraft and in common with other forms of glider their motive power is solely provided by gravity. Hi-tech design enables this non-reinforced wing to control its rate of descent so effectively that it generates a sustained glide. Starting from a high place the paraglider will eventually reach low ground some distance away from its launch point. To complete a cross country flight that is achieved over a large number of successive glides the pilot must master the search for thermals since they enable the glider and its pilot to “climb” in real terms. Once a thermal is found it must be ridden to a higher altitude before the pilot glides away on another thermal hunt fully determined to avoid a premature out-landing. A landing that would lead once more to the strenuous bit of physically climbing another mountain on foot.

Thermals are generated by the Sun’s thermo-dynamics heating the earth’s surface which in turn heats the air above it. Eventually sufficient air becomes heated to the point it becomes unstable and lifts-off from the dry ground through the surrounding air - a fresh baked thermal is born. Once penetrated by a paraglider this rising air completely offsets the glide’s continued descent and promotes a nett height gain. So long as the pilot continues to navigate their paraglider within the thermal, normally achieved by turning in circles in exactly the same manner as an eagle or buzzard, they will continue to climb gaining more precious altitude. The length of the potential flying day is ultimately determined by the amount of time the Sun can continue to heat the ground to that critical temperature at which thermals are caused to trigger. Days therefore with thick and total cloud cover do not conventionally bode well for cross country flight and those with rain or snow are a total loss for the paraglider pilot.

Good cross country flying days stem from those where a number of critical ingredients all dovetail together. Chris and Steve will look for a day on which the air is slightly unstable and wanting to rise from ground - though too much instability could cause the air to form a storm. A day in which the air is basically dry and free from too much early cloud cover allowing the Sun plenty of scope to do its work. Overnight temperatures should have also fallen to quite low temperature with an expected high temperature the coming day should ensure that cloudbase is high and well clear of the mountain tops. This is especially critical in the Alps to avoid long detours around major massifs or getting trapped within a deep and cavernous Alpine valley system. Since paragliding pilots must maintain ground visibility, cloudbase is as high as they are allowed to climb. Remaining clear of cloud is a solid plan in the Alps since there will likely be some very serious pieces of rock architecture lurking within that grey-white wreathed shroud. Good flying days will allow Chris and Steve to progress their journey by fifty to eighty kilometres after three or four flying hours. To complete their journey they will need between twenty and twenty-five “good flying days”! They have made an undertaking that once the journey is underway their only means of travel to progress their journey is either on foot or by paraglider. Consequently at the end of each flying day they have to pay particular attention to their choice of any potential landing zone since it should be or very close to the next day’s launch site. The “LZ” should also make a reasonable bivvy spot by providing the basic amenities of fresh water and seclusion.

Home during this unsupported expedition is anywhere Chris and Steve choose to make it. Be that their own bivvy bags, a shepherd’s hut or a hunter’s cabin whose locations are usually always be found high on an Alp. Besides their complete paragliding rig each and every piece of personal outdoor equipment must also be carried either on their backs or aboard their paragliders. Their targeted “pay-load” is expected to be between 27 and 30 kilograms. In an effort to save some weight and still retain some travel flexibility only three or four days food and cooking fuel will be carried during each major leg on their journey. This will need to be replenished by forays into local towns, villages or farms enroute at the end of a leg. Shelter and entertainment will also be sought on the valley floor during storms and extended periods of unflyable weather.