With the wind and rain rattling my window panes, I’ve been reminiscing over some of my favourite flights from last year. One August day in particular came to mind when some friends and I explored a new site (for us), launching from Les Grands Montets glacier at 3,200m – an awe-inspiring 2,000m above chamonix valley floor beneath us.
We’d headed up there in the morning for a bit of glacier training and acclimatisation for higher mountain exploits, but had taken our wings on the off-chance it came good in the afternoon.
Katleen Loots from Belgium remembers the flight well:
“I must say it was one of the most impressive flights, or THE most impressive, with the view over the high snowy Alps.
“The take-off was a bit stressful, it being my first on glacier. But the conditions were good, light headwind and clear view. We thermalled up Les Drus, almost to the top, we couldn’t really get higher! I remember looking at these rocks/mountains and thinking: “f**k, people actually climb this!!!” It was really tempting to go and explore a bit further into the Vallée Blanche (I had never seen it before!) but due to the airspace restrictions we were limited.
“Too soon clouds were coming in quickly and the valley wind was taking up so we had to fly into the valley to go and land. I was super psyched after that flight!”
Gavin Jillings was also in the area that day. He and two friends had started off in Nice a week earlier to fly from St Andre to Annecy. After a few frustrating days with more time spent on the road than in the air (including one epic 200km hitchhike!) they eventually arrived in Annecy:
“We performed our normal Annecy ritual which is breakfast, swim in lake, watching the many gliders already flying to work out our strategy for the day. It looked good, at last some good flying conditions!
“Arriving by navette we quickly made ready and headed skywards. It had been a while since I had seen the teeth up close but today I soared up the west side and beyond, out climbing a sailplane and everyone else in the vicinity. I started my crossing in clear air to the other side of the lake.
“I noticed a Golden Eagle below me, circling upwards. My helmet camera was running and on one turn, he seemed to be wingtip to wingtip with me, a magical moment which I won’t forget quickly. It was a great flight which did a lot to make up for the previous days disappointments.”
Colin Downer and Darren Graves had decided on coming to Annecy on impulse. When conditions in the north of France had turned wet, they just kept on driving south:
Colin: “To be honest the decision to go to Annecy was very last minute, we had planned a weekend in Normandy but as normal the weather turned on us last minute so rather than cancel we decided to head for Annecy a place we all know and enjoy flying. Although it is a long drive it’s not so bad if you change drivers every couple of hours and in the end it turned out to be a good choice with a couple of really good flights, first at Marlens in the morning followed by the Petit Tour in the afternoon. With good height gains above the Roc des Boeufs, it was easy to make it back to take off before landing at Dousarrd for a few beers then back to Maison du Moulin for a BBQ and catch up with old friends – a great way to spend a weekend.”
Darren added: “We looked at the whole of the UK and northern Europe and to be honest Annecy had the best chances of flying. My overall experience of the Alps is just that, there is more consistency. The flying that weekend was amazing!”
While none of these flights were epic in terms of distance, they were all very special in their own way. From my experience, flights like these are one of August’s treats in the northern French Alps. People sometimes ask me: “What do you do in Annecy August? Isn’t it a bit too stable?”
At first, I thought maybe I was just lucky with the weather. My first season there, I’d learnt loads and just flown my first XC. Nothing really changed in August – I was thermalling at Les Saisies, flying the Aravis mountain chain for the first time, learning how to fly patiently and break through inversions and stretching my previous XCs down into the Bauges.
Now I understand a bit more, so when people ask me that question now, I tend to reply: “Too stable for what?”
It’s true that it does get more stable later in the summer as the air warms up, as it does everywhere – that’s basic meteorology. So if you want to fly big XC distance in ideal conditions, you’d probably be better off further south or into the big mountains.
But these people, like others who regularly fly in and around Annecy regularly, were after something a bit different. They wanted a bit of adventure, a chance to learn, or even just some nice airtime followed by a swim in the lake. They’re not afraid to explore a bit to fly somewhere new or find a higher take-off site that starts them off above the valley inversion.
And August is generally the month people manage to top land Mont Blanc at 4,800m, which demands a certain amount of thermal activity – so there’s obviously something happening in the area!
Photographs by Katleen Loots, Dan Horeman, Gavin Jillings and Jenni Fleming