October 03, 2015

Mont Blanc Paraglide

Looking down at the Mer de Glace and the south side of the Chamonix Aiguilles.

Flying from the summit of Mont Blanc is something I've wanted to do since I got in to the sport. Although the feat has been done many times and is not technically difficult, it does require a bit of luck and good timing. Mont Blanc is closed for flying from July 1 - Sept 1 every year. The reason for this is because the local rescue group, the PGHM, does not want to have paragliders getting caught up in their helicopter during one of the numerous rescues that are performed during the summer months. So for an itinerant guide, this leaves a few days in June and September to accomplish the flight. After work, unsuitable conditions and sloth are accounted for, this leaves very few opportunities to fly from the summit of Mont Blanc.

On Friday, Sept 25, I found myself with an unexpected day off from work. The forecast was perfect for flying so I decided to head up the Aiguille de Midi for a flight. I hadn't flown the Valle Blanche for a few years and I was keen to make the flight. I set up for a south take-off  and decided to go for the very shallow launch with a super light tailwind. The consequences of blowing the launch were not serious so I went for it and... after skimming my belly an inch above the ground for a few meters, I eventually nosed into the snow and stopped abruptly. After cleaning the snow out of my eye balls, I waited a while to see what the wind would do. By 10:30 am, there was a light, consistent breeze out of the NE, so I set-up over the North Face of the Midi and launched. My goal was still to fly the south side though, so I hugged the mountain and was able to pass through a low point in the ridge - granting access to the Valle Blanche and the Mer de Glace. When I landed in the valley twenty minutes later, I was so stoked about the beautiful flight that I started thinking about Mont Blanc. My flight back to Canada was scheduled to leave in a day and half so I'd have to get up to a hut that afternoon and fly off the summit early the next morning. The thought of spending my last day in town casually drinking coffee and cragging was tempting, but I figured that there'd be plenty of cragging and coffee in Canada but not a lot of 3800 meter sled rides! So I packed up and took the bus to the telepherique, transferred to the train and made the  hour and a half hike up to the Tete Rousse Refuge. The next morning, I left the hut at 5:40 am and four hours and forty minutes later, I was standing on top on an impossibly perfect day for flying. My kit was quite light since I only carried some warm clothes, a light-weight axe, crampons, a light-weight glider (Gin Yeti 19 meter) and a light-weight harness (SUP Air Radicale). After some deliberation, I decided to leave the 1.2 kg reserve behind. In general, I fly with the reserve whenever feasible. However, there are times when I believe that  drawbacks of the extra-weight outweigh the added weight. At the end of the day, we all approach risk differently, and while some believe that they can manage risk away, I can't help but feel that luck plays a significant role in every story of success. 

I took off from the summit around 10:40 am. The wind was light out of the NE and I opted for a forward launch. Although it would have been nice to go with crampons on, I decided to remove them to have more options when landing in the valley. Of course, I managed to screw up the gopro and missed all the footage from the launch and upper mountain. 

The flight lasted about forty minutes and I landed in a field about three minutes from my apartment. I put the wing away, walked to the bakery, and enjoyed one last pain au chocolat and cafe allonge before heading home to pack for home. A+ Chamonix!

I spliced this video together from a south side flight the day before Mont Blanc and from the actual ascent.

The Chamonix Aiguilles as seen from the apartment.

Waiting for the train to Nid D'Aigle.

The Tramway de Mont Blanc.

Looking out at the Aravis from the Tete Rousse on Mont Blanc.

Evening light at the Tete Rousse.

The Bionassay.

The Gouter Route and Grand Couloir in evening light. If you look close, you can see the Gouter Hut in the center of the upper ridge.

The Tete Rousse Refuge.

The Gouter Refuge at 7:15 am.

Looking out at the Aiguille de Midi, Verte, Droites and Courtes.

I took this photo from the summit of Mont Blanc the previous year while guiding. Needless to say, I was jealous.

Flying the Valle Blanche the day before. I took this same route off Mont Blanc.

Looking over at the south side of the Chamonix Aiguilles.

My buddy Tim C took this photo one afternoon while playing around at the Brevent launch.

This video does a good job of capturing what it's like to fly beneath a few kilograms of nylon.

September 17, 2015

Climbing The Matterhorn - Hornli Ridge

Eric L. guiding the Hornli Ridge on the Matterhorn in late July, 2015.

Every summer, droves of people flock to the Alps hoping to climb the Hornli Ridge on the Matterhorn. The peak lies above Zermatt and is even more stunning in real life then it is in post cards and photos. In the 150 years since its first ascent, the mountain has lost some of its fearsome reputation and can now be ascended by any fit climber with a guide and a decent amount of rock climbing ability. That said, the route does present certain challenges and just because someone has bobbled their way up Mont Blanc or Mount Everest, that doesn't mean that they will crest the Matterhorn. Unlike other snow plods where you can sleep walk your way to the top, the Matterhorn does require a certain deftness of foot. The route is essentially 1200 meters of exposed, 4th class scrambling with the odd bit of low 5th class climbing. If you are reading this and you don't know what 4th class scrambling and 5th class climbing is, then you are probably not ready to climb the peak.  

On the Matterhorn, most guides will have a cut-off time to make the summit. In general, a good time from the Hornli hut to the top is between 3 - 4 hours. If  a client can't make it in 5 hours, I think that most guides will turn around. The reason for this is that the route up and down are exactly the same, but the journey down generally requires more focus and often takes as long or longer then the ascent. If someone makes the top with little energy left, the descent could take a very long time and become quite unnerving.

Earlier this summer, I found myself on the Matterhorn with an extra guide and only one client. While the other guide roped the client to the summit, I had the opportunity to float around and capture most of the ascent with my camera. Here are some photos from the day.

This is what Uber looks like in Zermatt.

The new Hornli Hut with the Monte Rosa Massif in the background.

Not cheap, but very nice.

Early morning on the Hornli. Everyone leaves the Hut at 4 am so this must be after about 2 hours of climbing. 

Eric L wondering how to get around the hoards of people above.


Pulling on the boat ropes in the early morning sun.

This photo really shows the number of people on the route. Conditions were excellent and the hut was full. There were atleast 100 other climbers on the mountain this day. We managaed to get near the front of the pack and found ourselves alone for most of the descent.

Nearing the top on a rare day without crampons.

Summit Ridge after about 3.5 hours of climbing.

On the descent.

Back down and ready for the return trip to Chamonix.

But not before having a shandy on the deck of the Hornli.

May 27, 2015

Mt Athabasca Speed Ride and Canmore Paragliding

The Alpine Artist - Jason Kruk - visited the Rockies last week for recreational pursuits that included free flight. Here Jason is seen packing his wing in the shadow of the mobile mountain pad and Ha Ling. We flew the peak for three straight days before heading to the Columbia Icefields and Mt. Athabasca for a speed lap. 

Flying paragliders is a fickle sport and flying paragliders in the mountains even more so. Last week, the elements came together and Jason and I were lucky to find ourselves on the summit of Mt Athabasca (not something I always consider lucky) with clear skies and zero wind. I have guided Mt Athabasca countless times and have always dreamt of flying from the summit. Paragliding is many things to many people, but for me, one of it's greatest appeals is flying off  big mountains.

Until recently, paragliding was illegal in Jasper National Park. Now, thanks to the hard work of numerous individuals and HPAC, free flight has come of age in the park. We opted to bring our small speed wings and I flew a 12 metre Ozone Fazer while Jason used a 13 metre ITV Pil-Pit. The flight lasted a hair under four minutes from the summit to just above the road and I chose not to play the terrain in exchange for maximizing glide.

Flying from Mt. Athabasca was the realization of a dream. Just over two years ago, I crashed hard  and spent a long time trying to recover physically. Last week was the first time since the crash that I found myself in the air without being preoccupied about impacting the ground. For a while, I almost forgot that flying could be fun. 

A short clip from our flights off Ha-Ling and Mt. Athabasca. Much nicer in HD.

Nearing the top on a perfect day.

Mt Bryce from the summit.

Jason setting up with Mt. Columbia in the distance.

Immediately after launch messing with the go pro. What else is new? 

A quick fly-by of the north face before going on glide to the road.

April 08, 2015

Skiing The Gutandtight Couloir

The late, great Robson Gmoser skiing a run called Fearless in the Bugaboos circa 2012. We had just finished bombing the entrance slopes and decided that our work would not be complete without a sampling. Robson made a short video clip that day of our heli-bombing escapade and used a Butthole Surfers tune for the soundtrack. If anyone ever comes across that video, please let me know! Like many things with Robson, the only serious thing was not being overly serious  - like the time he brought me a thermos full of Bailey's at work, or flying around with our wings at work, or watching him recite The Wreck of the Julie Plante to a crowd of drunken professionals - there was no shortage to the hi-jinks. During the seasons that I got to work with Robson, I can't remember how many times I watched him diffuse stressful situations with a goofy joke and a laugh. You left the world too soon brother! But you left it a better place. Thanks for showing us the way. 

Not long after Robson's passing, a few of us found ourselves driving down the Icefields Parkway, looking for something to ski. The news and circumstances of Robson's death was front and center in all our minds. Afterall, if something like that could happen to Robson, it could just as well happen to us. We drove north of Bow Lake to have a look at the Peyto's Pipe line on Caldron Peak, but decided to back track to something that caught our attention on one of the great ski peaks of the Canadian Rockies - Bow Peak. 

Up into the white, searching for the access to the Gut (pronounced: goot) and Tight! Gery U photo.

Even if this couloir didn't continue higher up, it would still be a great piece of terrain on it's own with some of the finest quartzite walls imaginable. The entrance is just north of the classic Grand Daddy Couloir and the God Father feature, but a ways south of the F.O.D.

Bender coming out of the initial couloir and seeing that the line continues. Gery U Photo.

"A Gut (pronounced goot) Tight Fit. Afterall, that's what it's all about!" Herr Gutenteit. Gery U Photo.

As usual, nothing but laughs for Bubba - even when he is getting smashed by spindrift.

Isn't it just great how the exposure disappears when you're in the clouds. 

This picture doesn't do it justice, but the wallowing in this feature was some of the best I've seen. Gery U Photo.

The trenching shall continue until morale improves.

Atleast good wallowing often means good skiing!

A wintry feel to the day.

Turning in the middle section.

Gery about to enter the Gutentight.

Bender skiing the fan that is the trademark of all lines on Bow Peak. It's hard to say if someone has been up this feature before, but for us, the line will always be The Gutentight Couloir after our friend Robson.

January 2012 in Chalice Meadows with some of the Bugaboo crew (right  to left): Kobi, Helen, Lilla , Ella, Robson, Andrew.