Red Bull X-Alps 2013. Imagine: a July day at 11am and you are standing on the take-off above Interlaken. The sun is shining and the clouds are touching the mountain tops. You would like to fly to the Matterhorn or even better, over Mt. Blanc to Grenoble. With your paraglider, either flying or hiking. Hiking means stress, it's strenuous – and seven times slower.
Text and photos: Chrigel Maurer
Flying cross-country, what does it mean to me? Have you ever asked yourself this question? Easy, just fly distance... But how? In my task on the 11th of July it wasn’t just a distance of 183 km. It was much more!
Because of my nickname the ‘Eagle from Adelboden’, I am always asked what my special tricks are: what do I do differently to my competitors? And to be honest, until now I didn’t have a clear answer (surely that can’t be it, I thought). Only now that I am trying to pass on my knowledge to others during coaching sessions and tandem flights, am I learning how I tick. So here are my thoughts on cross-country flying.
Using pictures to make decisions
The tension… how is the day going to pan out? The thermals? The wind? What route am I going to take? And where will I land? I don’t take these question too seriously. It is how it is and I try to be happy with what I get. Of course I am helped by my flying experience of 15 years and over 3000 flights and flying hours. I am also assisted by my thoroughly tested flying equipment as well as individually selected flying instruments.
Early in the morning I get a picture of how the day should progress with regard to the weather: that is a theoretical picture that I can store in the back of my mind. From the Internet I get a few written forecasts, some measured data or, during the X-Alps, even a few forecasts by phone. Using this theoretical picture, I select my take-off site and launch time. Even on the way to take-off, I am looking for clues about how the day actually is. Later when I am in the air I am mostly concerned with the conditions I am experiencing. Now I am forming an actual picture. The theoretical picture in my head can be helpful and sometimes it is important; but it no longer has a primary influence on my decision making.
On take-off I am already going through the details of my dream flight: the first thermals, key points, possible landing places. When the leg and chest straps are closed and I have the A risers in my hands, then I try to change to launch mode. Now there is no room in my head for anything other than a precise start sequence. I try to concentrate; focus my mind 100% to successfully – and safely! – take off. I observe what is happening on the take-off and decide for myself, where, for example, I will lay out my wing so I am not stressed or interrupted by other pilots.
After launch I change to climbing mode. Are there indicators of thermals? Other pilots? Birds? Clouds? Thermal triggers?... In this phase of the flight I am fully analysing the terrain, try to feel with my body and listen to the vario. First lift! Then I try to make a picture of the thermal bubbles (in this pan full of boiling water, which bubble is rising fastest?). After my first successful climb, I have time to let my thoughts focus elsewhere. Where can I fly next to find another thermal? Now I divide my attention: one part focuses on centring in the thermal, the other focuses on analysing the terrain, the weather… and enjoys the beauty of the landscape. When it looks like I can achieve Plan A, or if I reach cloudbase (unfortunately on the 11th July 2013, it was below the Niederhorn at 1.900m), I change to glide mode. My focus is now on choosing a good line and accelerating. I use all my concentration for observation – and this affects my gut feeling – so that
a) I don’t manoeuvre myself into a dangerous situation (do I have enough height to cross Lake Thun?),
b) I keep the wing open,
c) I can identify my line (where do I fly to?... right at the Niesen, left into the Kander valley?),
d) I fly at the optimum speed (trim speed, so that I arrive as high as possible) and
e) I can find the next thermal (on the 11th July I didn’t know if and where this would be).
And yes, if everything is ok then I can use the free headspace I have to put my plans into action...
I formulate my flight plan A and I decide on a plan B as soon as I am on take-off and I have formed my actual picture. Plan A: I will fly to the place where I am most likely to encounter a thermal (on the 11th July I saw a number of tandem pilots climbing steadily). I follow plan B if plan A doesn’t work (usually the landing field is plan K to O). There is always a spot, where a climb might be found. Use your imagination and see the air flow like water.
Thinking in plans helps me fly more focussed and exact but also less compromising and safer. If a plan works and I am climbing, I think about the next plan A… where I could expect the next thermal. As I climb I update my plans. The higher I climb, the better my glide angle, the more possibilities I have.
I crossed Lake Thun safely; the conditions were calm and easy to calculate. But at Frutigen I was low and my local knowledge – and plan C – were required (landing was plan D!). I became a little stressed. I didn’t want to hike. What do I do if my plan doesn’t work? Stay in a zero or fly somewhere else? I didn’t know. Generally, if I find myself in such a situation I try to delay this decision, to win time, to get more information to base my decision on. But there is no time for quiet study – help! I couldn’t go into climb mode – I was too distracted. It helped me to think about the deal I made with myself and this allowed me to switch Chrigel into climb mode - as if I was a computer.
When I managed to soar up low over the valley floor and later in the direction of the Kandersteg, the still low cloudbase gave me food for thought. How will I get into the Valais with these conditions? Thanks to my co-operation with the psychologist Thomas Theurillat (oneday.ch), my supporter, I remembered his warning: “Look back sometimes! How have you managed to get this far? Was it good? And what was your contribution?” Yes, intermediate goals, they work really well! Small, achievable and motivating goals. Most of my successful cross-country flights have followed this pattern. There are general parallels with other projects I do: plan A is the intermediate goal, if that doesn’t work, I move to plan B without hesitation and that becomes the new small goal on which I focus.
Risk it! But using your head and your heart
One thing in advance: I love risks in sport. Possible? Impossible? This supports the challenge effect which I find highly motivating. I avoid risks to my health in all circumstances. But note: I only risk something when the outcome is worth it. Or: if I want to go to the limit, I need to know exactly where it is. And: to reach my goals, sometimes I have to risk something; so I do it as consciously as possible.
On the 11th July it wasn’t predictable whether it was possible to cross from the Gastern valley via the Lötschenpass into the Valais, because cloudbase was only 2800m. This is a normal stressful situation for a paraglider pilot. So here is a motivating thought: my flying equipment is very light at only 8kg and on a lawn I can pack it in less than four minutes. I used this to trick my brain into ignoring thoughts of a stressful outlanding... I also thought about the advantages of landing – finally I could do something other than flying (I had already been in the air for five days, 30 hours and my boundless enthusiasm was satiated). With this attitude in the back of my mind, it was easier to gain height at the Doldenhorn; the crossing was very relaxed. And my new observations resulted in new possibilities. I developed a new plan A: to attempt to get high north of the Balmhorn – a new situation which I had never heard of. With north (tail) wind it was easy to cross the Lötschenpass – I still had 15 to 20 m clearance.
High, higher – cold
The Valais was good as usual; cloudbase rose in the mountains. In Zermatt the big decision… which route to choose to reach Mt. Blanc, the turnpoint which was still 65 km away. Back into the main Valais valley? Directly across the high glaciers towards the west? Or fly south first and then through the Aosta valley?
Climb high first. Get high, a) to have more possibilities, b) to gain more time and height to be able to collect more information and c) to be able to postpone the decision till later in the day. Cloudbase was just over 4000 m – what a day! But the mountains are higher. The possibilities were no better than three hours previously at the Kandersteg at 2800m. And it was so cold! At the take-off in Interlaken at 1300m it was a lot warmer, and as so often, my flight planning didn’t factor in getting such great altitude. Ok, I’ll make sure I take this into consideration next time (but I thought this 15 years ago, during my initial flights – some people just never learn...). So I just swung my arms to get some blood back into my fingers.
Close, closer – over and away
The decision to fly through the Aosta valley to the east side of the Mt. Blanc was made in conjunction with Thomas. On the telephone. Thomas was on the ground evaluating the private weather forecasts we were receiving from Meteo Schweiz. It was clear to us: by air, the route through the Aosta valley is much faster. But if I went down, getting to the west side of the Mt. Blanc is much more complicated.
The Teodul pass was ahead of me – east of turnpoint 7, the Matterhorn. It was looking good – I was gliding high over the Hörnli Hut with a light north/tail wind. As is so often the case with nature, I could feel the downwash of the cold eastern flank of the mountain and my glide got worse. Accelerate or not? I try it with my right leg, on the first step, so 60 percent speedbar. I check my groundspeed and my actual glide ratio. And then my gut feeling says – left leg and full speed ahead! The glide is optimised, because the sink is more than 3 m/s. Ooof, this is going to be close! Once at the Grat, I am still looking towards Italy, the glide gets better and I go back to trim speed and even use light brake pressure so that I arrive as high as possible with a tail wind. Done!
I cross the pass heading south with 5 meters to spare. The next 5 m/s climb is already being marked by a nice cloud. Now I am battling with tiredness and motivation. Climbs are getting increasingly weak; the day is nearly over. One more 0.5 m/s climb, another glide – and this after ten hours in the air. It is possible that these are the moments when my true determination shows through. I am aware that this is the moment where it is important to set myself new, small and motivating goals so that I get the extra decisive kilometres ahead of my competitors.
In Courmayeur the katabatic winds from the mountains meet in the valley; 30 km/h headwind and hardly any landing options. I assess this situation as dangerous. My ability to concentrate is no longer ideal. And this despite consuming 3 bars and 1.5 litres of water enriched with carbohydrates during the flight. It is clear that I can’t get up again. I switch to landing mode. In landing mode I want to identify risks, handle them appropriately and then have the safest landing possible. I achieve this and land in the high grass next to the main road. My equipment also assists me in this. I am happy I am not flying a top comp wing, but an Ozone LM5; a simple 3 liner which is easier to handle in difficult situations.
Go further with analysis
Land, pack; focus on everything you do. Then I think about the next step. I set myself new goals, with the assistance of my Garmin GPS calculations. By foot to the next village. Only when these goals are clarified, I go through the flight in my mind. How did it go? Was it good? How did I contribute to its success? But also: where were the difficult bits? What should I do differently tomorrow? I often make notes which I look at before the next flight, so that I can recapture my thoughts. The experiences during the flying day accompany me into my sleep. I always look forward to see what the next day might bring.
Self-check for positive experiences
- What is my daily flying goal? I find it easier to stay focussed and safe when I have a clearly defined goal.
- Is my flying goal realistic? Because my satisfaction is dependent on my expectations, I often set myself learning goals as well as performance targets.
- On launch: what can I do so that I can concentrate 100% on the take off run? Distance to other pilots, adapt the launch technique to my skills, wind situation, recognise risks, point of no return, etc.
- How am I feeling – honestly? The better I feel, the more safe I am and the more I can “risk”.
- Quite simply: what are my options?
- What is my gut feeling? What does my head say? Are my stomach muscles loose? No cramps in my hands?
Chrigel Maurer does XC and flying coaching and personal training. He delivers this in the Swiss Alps and offers this service in English as well as German. To make a booking, check out his web site at http://chrigelmaurer.ch/
Thomas Theurillat is a professional sports psychologist. You can find out more about his work at http://www.oneday.ch