Thursday, 30 July 2009

Verbier Summits Alpine Adventure: Part 1

Being half way between an Undergrad and that shuffle towards (or at least a slight step around) the real world when I start a PhD I thought now was a good opportunity of taking a gap month. I am signed up for an intensive 4 week paragliding course with Verbier-Summits out in Verbier in the Swiss Alpes, I also have the Cotic Simple with me to explore the fantastic trials potential the Alpes always has on offer.

Day 1:

First off the accommodation here is total luxury, not the usual 10 sweaty men shoe horned into a single room that I have come to expect from alpine adventures. The Chalet is fantastic it has great views loads of room to sit around and chill out and an amazing chef Nat who has been conjuring up some outstanding food.

Day 1 was ground school, Marcus and Reeve were instructing us out on the baby slope to explain the basics of the kit and get us momentarily off the ground. This turned out to be a solid day of lumping gear up a hill as we made small runs inflating the glider legging it and pulling in some brake to generate the lift required to leave our legs momentarily dangling uselessly in mid air. I ended up with a couple of nice moments properly off the ground. Martin and Aiden also started the course with me, me and Aiden have had no previous experience on a glider, luckily we all got to grips with it pretty quickly as the first serious flight was planned for day 2.

The bike came out in the evening, Verbier has so much potential. Here are a few shots of some lines right outside the chalet. Having not done trials or really much street riding in about 5 years my timing and precision are disgustingly out but the raw power and concepts have not deteriorated too badly. The next few weeks should be a sharp re-learning curve as my ability catches up with the ideas and lines I know I used to be able to hit!

Day 2:

Leaving the chalet early we were driven to the top of the mountain for a brutal initiation into the world of paragliding. The launch site was Les Ruinettes at an altitude of 2170m, the proposed landing site was at Champsec at the bottom of the valley and at an altitude of just 930m. Serious nerves were building on the way up and whilst setting up the canopy.

The first experience of real flight was remarkably fast and graceful, my first flight was with Mike on the tandem. A paraglider smoothly lifts you into the air in a far more sedate fashion than with a kite. Kites rip you from the ground with brutal acceleration, this was a far more relaxing experience that is until the ground drops rapidly away and all that is left is to trust the laws of physics keeping the canopy in the air and Mikes skills as a pilot. The tandem initiation was both good and bad, with nothing to do on the take off there was nothing to distract the mind and I really did feel very exposed and scared by the situation. Once given the controls I was more relaxed, it was a totally amazing experience. As Mike said at the bottom "oh god we have a giggler!" Mike put me through a few semi stalls and some dives, the forces going through your body are phenomenal, it is like a roller coaster, super intense but completely dependent on the will of the pilot.

The afternoon took me to my first solo flight, again from Les Ruinettes. This was a totally different build up. The experience was much like the start of a race there was all the anticipation and fear that comes before the clock counts down but once the call was made to go all fears were suppressed and moved to the back of my mind as I got on my race face. The launch and flight were all carried out with that blind focus and complete concentration that blocks all other thoughts. It was actually a very relaxing experience and in some ways a bit of an anticlimax. I was expecting a massive buzz but as a first initiation goes it was far tamer than my initial experiences kiting and maybe even surfing. The landing itself was stunning, I landed on the valley floor with the sun going down and have to say was very mellowed out by the experience. In a similar way to surfing there was none of the crazy over energetic buzz that you get from a nuts day on the bike instead this really subdued chilled out and relaxed mindset was created by the flight.

Day 3:

We managed two top to bottoms. The first was from the highest take off used by the boys at an altitude 2400m. The views from here are absolutely epic. The launch looks straight down the valley and tapers off really quickly requiring full commitment to leave the ground safely. A set of high tension power lines lie below the take off so getting it right really did feel very critical. The launch went well and we were starting to really explore how to control the glider. The gliders are incredibly responsive just by leaning. Hanging out the side of the harness despite being incredibly unnerving produced some really nice turns. 2nd flight of the day we were exploring stalling the glider and letting it surge in front accelerating us forward in the process. This felt amazing and as the tasks were becoming more dynamic the whole flying experience was surprisingly becoming far less daunting.

We went up the hill to watch Mike take a young kid for a tandem flight and it was amazing, he took off and flew straight into lift shooting up above us and cruising the ridge for ages, the sky was really hazy and the blurred peaks in the distance was totally stunning. The evening was finished off with Raclette, a traditional Swiss dish of melted cheese potatoes meat and gherkins. The cheese was melted by an open fire, by far the best Raclette I have had.

Day 4:

Flying from Croix de Coer in the morning we had to pull "Big-Ears" which requires deliberately collapsing the tips of the glider to increase the sink rate if you need to get out of the sky in a hurry. Apparently this also increases the pressure in the cells of the glider making it more stable but it felt decidedly dodgy!! The afternoon was spent with a few lectures on meteorology and a quick blast on the bike. Pedaling out of the garage as the guys loaded up the van my chain fell off sending me over the bars, a typical totally embarrassing crash! Found some cool rocks though and got a nice touch hop line nailed, confidence in my slow bike handling skills is slowly starting to get back towards where it should be.

Photos by Simon Vacher


Anonymous said...

Amazing riding on that Cotic Simple. I see you are riding a small, how tall are you Robbie? Thanks, Jason.

Robbie Rickman said...

I am quite a lanky 6"3, For me and the type of riding I am into the small is a really nice fit. Personally I think the small has a nice long reach and is a great compromise between stability and flickability. My point of comparison however comes from riding DJ/Freeride hardtails which are generally too cramped for me. For pure xc type riding then the riding position does become a little hardwork however this is more than made up for when the terrain gets interesting!