By Sebastien Rider
A few years ago I watched a fantastic You Tube video of some paragliding amongst the most magnificent rock towers. I would later realise I was watching flying the Dolomites, alpine peaks in Northern Italy renowned for their spectacular flying. At the time a trip there was something I could only dream of!
This year I thought I should try and go. Was I ready for such a place, one way to find out?!
I am always acutely aware I have a never-ending amount to learn in this sport. Out went an email to my flying buddies and a great team of pilots signed up. Adrian, Przemek, Jonni, and Graham were all keen and no strangers to flying in the mountains. All of us learned how to fly in the Highlands of Scotland, a baptism of fire, but after 5-6 years we were getting to grips with the terrain! Dave, a well experienced pilot form California also joined us along with Roland and Greg who were comparatively inexperienced. Notable missing pilots were ‘the adults', our coaches, particularly Bren Reid and David Thomson who both helped us all find our way with alpine and Highland cross country flying. So this time it was our turn to coach Greg and Roland, a weight on my mind, but if nothing else, there would be the evening flying.
After a long nights drive from Milan in the pouring rain we arrived to our Chalet in Canazei. And so it was time to look at the week’s forecast. It was terrible, either sunny with Foehn or raining! Out came the Lambrusco (lightly sparking red Italian wine) by the fire, but it did little to cheer us after the terrible news. We rustled up plans to escape to better weather, even as far as Saint André-les-Alpes in France, but chasing weather, when does that ever work? Our Highland experiences taught us something!
And so it was that we started the week walking or climbing. Adrian, Greg and I decided to pass one sunny Foehn day climbing an alpine route, the Fiames Arete, near Cortina. It was a late start (I had a long drive the night before for a pick up) but we topped out over the sparkling lights of Cortina as the sun set. An epic but it went rather smoothly...for the most part!
Despite the initial forecast, some flyable weather finally arrived so we did some extended top to bottoms dodging (sort of) some rain and cloud. It was great to start familiarising ourselves with the launch, landing field and imposing terrain. In the final four days, conditions really shaped up, typically strong (I guess normal for the Dolomites) but working very well with a base between 3000 - 3400m. Unlike the Highlands, there was thermal after thermal and they actually worked, so easy!
First on the to-do list was south west down the north side of the Fassa valley from Sassolungo towards Pozza di Fassa and almost back again. The next day, a similar trip but on the way back I had to land for a much needed pee and a pizza to settle the stomach (I sometimes get air sick). Peeing logistics were later sorted out and allowed for some more relaxing flights for the rest of the trip! Adrian was already on fire and via Colac went to the queen, the beautiful Marmolada; the biggest peak of the Dolomites (3343m). I went up again and headed straight for the Marmolada. After trying my best but failing to over fly the summit, I went back for a beautiful sunny evening flight taking in Sassolungo and the Sella towers. This evening flying close to the huge Dolomite rock faces was much more relaxing than the rowdy south side of the Marmolada earlier, which proved quite a handful! The others had good flights that day about the Col de Rodella and its peaks.
On the third good day I was keen to do Adrian's triangle. We headed further south to Moena and then east before aiming for the Marmolada to make the triangle bigger. There was a bit of a northerly met wind to start off with so the trip south was quite bumpy and difficult. Adrian, Graham, Dave and I all eventually made it down the Val di Fassa. After a couple of bomb outs, just Adrian and I remained to make our way back to the Marmolada. Unlike my first visit there the previous day, conditions were much smoother. There we were, flying above the summit of the Marmolada...truly amazing!
Apparently top landing the Marmolada is sometimes done by some who are stupid or audacious enough. Obviously there are several issues with top landing an alpine peak but...I could not resist. Conditions were light, I'm happy with nil wind launches, other pilots had landed, and the demons had decided, so I made my approach and landed! An easy touch down and I was on the top of Marmolada. Adrian quickly followed and with much laughter went one of the trips highlights. We had to take off in nil wind and 1ft of snow, which was no problem, well for us anyway. One pilot had to get helicoptered off that evening as he could not launch due to not being the sprightliest or skilled of pilots...oops! On the way back we bumped into Greg at the Marmolada, who at 30 hours or so hours of experience, was flying exceptionally well. Adrian and I then carried on to Piz Boè with the birds to fly over the Sella group...also amazing. This would have been my biggest triangle (around 50k) but unfortunately I had to land mid-flight...oh well! ;)
Having ‘done all’ in the vicinity, Adrian and I thought for our last day we should leave the main Dolomites flying area around the Val di Fassa. For some reason it is easy to get stuck in this area and not venture out. We had been near Cortina earlier in the week and thought we would go that direction and over some Lambrusco made some plans with XC planner.
So the next day it was straight on with the plan. After conditions started to look satisfactory, Adrian, Dave, Jonni, Graham and I headed east. The climb above the Belvedere was spicy and a bit nasty! We gained a bit of height and headed along the ridge for much nicer climbs but lots of cloud! Around the cloud we all split and Graham and Dave left us for their own triangles from the Marmolada, south, and back. Adrian and I decided to persevere through low cloud and a psychological crux to push on out of the area. I got stuck under cloud on the ridge east of Lago di Fedaia and could not get enough height for the next transition. Adrian pipes up on the radio “Seb where are you, I’m at 3200m and getting cold!” I moved, found a climb and off we went popping out of could several km apart! We re-joined at the next peak. We were out and climbing again, yeeee ha! We saw few other pilots and had new terrain to figure out, it felt amazing. We were sociable so wanted to try and get back to avoid any long retrieves. We had Cortina in sight just a glide away but we thought it may be a one-way ticket. We decided to fly north to head back to Col de Rodella north of the Sella Group via the Piz Cunturines (3064m). This proved quite tricky with some big glides via a small pimple that only just worked. We got separated trying to fly this last section. Eventually both of us made it back through the pass to the Col de Rodella for a top landing at the evening take off. We were elated to have pulled this off and flown it together, one of our nicest flights and a triangle just short of 50km. We then joined the rest of guys for some evening flying eventually encouraging Roland to base for a flight around Sassolungo and the evening ridge over the valley.
Altogether an amazing trip for us all. The area is complex, the climbs were rowdy at times, but we all managed well. It seems we were ready after all with each of us learning a lot. To date, due to its complexity and outstanding beauty, it is my favorite flying area (other than the Highlands of course!). We did well with conditions and got some great info beforehand. The launch at Col de Rodella can be a bit crazy due to being a meeting point of two valley winds. Ferocious dust devils can blow through so each day we took off early to try and avoid them. Early take offs did have their implications for subsequent XC flying but all a good learning experience. It is definitely a place for those with an understanding of mountain flying!
Thank you all that came, Bren for the encouraging texts, and Benjamin the French pilot who helped out with a cloudy launch one evening. Thank you to the patient females, Sofi, Lil and Alex for putting up with all the para-chat (“big thermal!”), but they did enjoy their tandem flights! This trip defiantly made up for a diabolical season in the Scotland. Now all fired up for next spring in the Highlands and next year’s alpine adventures. Good flying memories, we had an absolute blast! :)