Chamonix Speed Flying 2016

In the autumn of 2016, I made a quick decision to head out to the Alps in order to have a week of flying, and possibly some climbing. I didn’t have a defined scope, but I just made sure I had booked the essentials (flights, transfers and accommodation), and then wrote the all-important kit list. The list started simply with my flying gear which in essence is they clothes you’re wearing, plus a wing, harness and helmet; with a reserve chute and Go-Pro as optional extras. The tricky part is getting the correct climbing gear sorted, as this tends to be heavy and sharp; possibly the two worst combinations when considering air travel. I had an idea that I might solo Mont Blanc, or at least do something from the Aiguille du Midi, so I packed the bare minimum for fast and light alpine travel, and then revelled in my ‘last minute but entirely prepared’ state. I had booked flights, transfers and accommodation about 2 weeks prior to travelling and then was packed a week before the trip, something which I am happy to say is one of my most proud moments of the entire trip.

Since I was travelling from Aberdeen, I drove to Earlswood in Redhill and parked my van on the quietest road I could find, and then walked 2 minutes to the train station which saved around £100 in airport parking fees. Easily my second most proud moment of the trip.

The French town of Chamonix was my destination of choice. I’ve been to Chamonix a number of times now, and each time re-fall in love with the place. One time I envisage buying a chalet and living in the town centre above the patisserie, whilst the next, I opt for a chalet in the beautiful hamlet of Servoz, out of the hustle and bustle of the town, but located in some of the Alps most perfect terrain. What Chamonix and the surrounding area have in abundance is accessibility to adventure. If you ski, board, fly, dive, climb, canyon, kayak or even like to shop in exclusive stores, Chamonix has you covered.

The main attraction for me is the lift access, of which Chamonix has plenty of, both in summer and winter. I chose to go during the last week of ‘summer’ according to the lift office, and so had access to all the lifts required for flying around the valley. I went to Chamonix with the ultimate goal of getting in as much flying as possible, to increase my airtime and spend as much time with feet off the ground as possible; anything extra would be a bonus.

The main flying area is from the Plan Praz lift, and during the course of my 6 day stay, I spent 90% of my time there, doing 7 or 8 x 30 minute flights each day. Despite being on a 14m mini-wing, I was comfortably soaring with bigger guys on 28m wings, and then getting down in around 10 minutes of continual spiralling when the thermals really picked up.

After 3 days of continual launching, flying and running back to the lift, I was getting a taste for something more. The conditions in the valley were not at all conducive for climbing, with Ueli Steck who was also in the valley not keen on heading into unstable snow conditions. The main culprit of this was the extreme heat. For the entire week I was in the valley, it didn’t rain once, and furthermore, there was only sun and 30 degree heat for the entire week. This was September which clearly is not meant to be the hottest month of the year, but by some miracle I timed my trip just right – flying into Geneva in a rain storm and then flying back out a week later just as the next storm arrived.

So climbing Mont Blanc wasn’t on, but on day 4, I decided to try to take a flight from the Grand Montets. I took the early bus up to Argentière, and then took the lift to the top station of the Grand Montets. I was travelling alone, so when I stood at the top station feeling slightly light headed from the sudden change in altitude, I started to get that ‘is this really a good idea?’ feeling. I had no one with me for encouragement, and this would be by far the highest launch I’d ever made at 3275m. There was no wind which was the main cause of my concern, meaning I’d have to run further and faster, across a crevassed glacier, in order to take off. Just as I was psyching myself up to head down to the launch area, I saw someone standing next to a big bag which could only be concealing a paraglider. Eric, a French pilot and camera man had come up for his first flight of the day, and immediately saw me with my wing and came to say hello. This proved to be a perfect unscheduled meeting, since Eric gave me a 30 minute lecture on the current katabatic breeze and then showed me to a narrow and secluded launch zone, where after watching Eric take off, I followed suit and spent a good 40 minutes circling the cliffs of the Grand Montets.

After this chance encounter with Eric, I headed back to Chamonix for some more flying from the lower but significantly warmer climes of Plan Praz, when I meet another familiar face. Scott Becker, a fellow speedflyer from Edinburgh had coincidentally booked the same week of holiday, to do exactly the same trip; flying from Plan Praz with ambitions of Mont Blanc. As fate would have it, Scott’s flying partner sustained an injury so Scott was also thinking up a plan of flying from something a little higher than Plan Praz. If it couldn’t be Mont Blanc, then the Aiguille du Midi is the next best thing, at least in Chamonix.

The Aiguille du Midi is a towering piece of rock standing at around 3800m, yet easily reached by cable car from the valley. We immediately agreed this could be our crowning glory of the holiday, so we set off early, getting one of the first lifts, and then descending the famed Midi Arête. From there, we found ourselves a nice launch zone, and waited for the wind to build just a little, whilst simultaneously witnessing a near death experience as a local instructor was almost catapulted over the edge of the North Face of the Midi when his student decided to stop running immediately prior to the 1000m vertical drop.

This was an event Scott and I certainly didn’t want to see when we were about to make the same run over the long drop ourselves.

After some deep concentration, we lay out our wings, and with a quick run through a checklist of buckles and risers, we ran off the edge quite literally.

There are no words to describe this launch; by far my highest, most technically difficult and outright scary to date. So instead, I have provided a short video edit, in an effort to show what no words ever could.