My First Bivouac, 2003

David Ashcroft - 18/01/2006

Flying is an adventure in itself, but heading for forty I wanted to try vol bivouacking. I’d flown in the Alps on a number of holidays and had been influenced from XC magazine and also Chris Scammell’s exploits. Chris took the whole Alps on, but I just wanted a week’s adventure. If the weather turned out to be fantastic, then by the end of a week I’d be sick of flying; and if it was to rain all week, I’d be wishing I was home. I hadn’t been intending to fly with anyone else, there again, I hadn’t dismissed the idea either. There were pros and cons with flying with another pilot: Safety and company vs. ‘waiting on each other to get up’ handicap.

On the 7th June 2003 I took my 29 kg bag from Liverpool to Geneva and caught a bus to Chamonix (Flyers Lodge). The next morning, Sunday, I got a lift into town, bought two butane gas cylinders and a little water, and took an early lift up to Brevent. As I carefully packed my harness, the take-off became alive with French pilots. To my surprise, who should appear, but Mr Scammell and a 9 strong posse on a ‘Magic Flying Bus’ holiday. It felt like a summer’s day in the Lakes! Once the local pilots showed us it was definitely working, we took-off and one by one and headed for the house thermal. Ten minutes later a few of us were up in the white stuff and heading over the back on a glide for the giant cliffs set above the Plaine-Joux take-off. Just one look at this extensive southeast facing massif and you are automatically elevated back up to 8000ft. It was nearly midday and I had next to make the main valley crossing to the chain of mountains called the Aravis. Knowing I could find more height before the transition, I turned back to find an area that was working better. After letting a cloud suck me in for additional height I made the long glide west to the lowest exposed cliffs on the other side where a lone Gradient Aspen was maintaining height. I took his place to scratch for a while, but the fear of carrying my baggage encouraged me to work at every metre. Shortly after, whilst checking out if it would work better on some scree, I accidentally touched down and landed! Fortunately I could walk off the scree and onto an ideal grassy slope. As I laid out to take off again ‘Rod the Vet’ flew past on his Pro-Design Effect - the last company I would have today. After gaining little height in an erratic thermal, I headed south over an impressive water fall and towards cliffs not in shadow from the clouds. Some sunshine, a drink and Lucazade tablets cheered me up no end, and I relaxed again as the day’s journey looked easier and more promising.

From here on I flew south hardly having to stop for lift, but always 2000ft below the ridge! My progress slowed down at times as I started to feel the effects of the southerly winds that were forecast, particularly so when passing outcrops and over saddles. Here the air was messy and unpleasant. I eventually got to cloud base and followed the ridge until crossing the from La Clusaz pass. When I re-joined the Aravis ridge run I made a mistake of flying on the East side again, where the clouds were more prevalent. This turned out to be sort of lee side too. Dooh! I was in mucky air again, and still couldn’t climb up to the ridge. Fortunately, a couple of kilometres later, a sunny plateau produced a welcome thermal that lifted me above the ridge and I sailed over onto the west side. Immediately below me was a field of green grass set aside the ridge. I had held a preconception of such an idyllic camp site on the side of a mountain, and this spot was like a magnet to me. Although it was only 2pm, having had to work for my passage I was relieved to touch down on Mt. Charvin at 6500ft and call it a day.

One important rule, firmly planted in my head, was not to go down. Twenty nine kgs of baggage to carry while searching for a suitable take off would not be much fun. For the rest of that afternoon sail planes passed to and fro making me question my decision to have landed so early.
The tent I had eventually chosen to buy, and still question my choice, was a GoLight Cave 2. Although two skinned, it only weighed 1.2 kg. Ok, so this was without any poles! The Cave is designed to use your walking sticks or anything else at hand. I had decided not to carry any poles, and take a chance on finding sticks near where I’d landed.

Having walked down a thousand feet to pick up some sticks from the tree line, I decided to return to my camp following a different route along the steep rolling bedding plains of the exposed rock face. It got a bit dodgy in places, and it wasn’t long before I was regretting having not returned back up the hill the way I had come down. The climb off was a proper climb – it occurred to me how ironic it would be to fall to my death climbing on a paragliding holiday. But I kept hold of those sticks. With the palaver of getting back to camp, I hadn’t returned with any water, and reverted to melting the snow on the stove. Chilli con carne*. Cloud base came down to my altitude, and the night was breezy and cool.

In the morning, I sat on the edge of the world with coffee and rich tea biscuits, and mused at the view and for any signs of life far below. On this short holiday, with no one to talk to but myself (and he was a bit of a bore at times), I enjoyed the brief meetings I did have. But by late morning foreigners where creeping up ‘my mountain’, disturbing my wilderness illusion.

At 1pm I carefully laid out my canopy over the many summer flowers that covered the short grassy bowl to the west side of the ridge. No sooner had I taken off I found myself scratching my balls off on a cliff face just above the valley floor. After managing to maintain for a while, I was relieved to thermal slowly to 6000ft, but then slide down the west face again, and then had to pull it off a second time. I wasted no time and got onto the main ridge line as quick as I could. From here on I stayed above or near to the top of every hill or ridge. I took on two wide transitions crossing the N508 and a minor road, past Albertville to my left. And nearly as far as Les Châtelard before doing a ‘u’ turn west and then north towards Lac Annecy and more familiar territory. I took a direct route above the Mantigne du Charbon taking a moment to relieve myself. (An often messy operation that always brings on the thermals). Returning back to a thermal I’d blundered through, I cranked it up to 10.5 k and set sail over the South end of the lake, and on towards the Col de la Forclas take off. It was wonderful to be flying amongst paragliders and hangliders again. It was 4pm and conditions were really good. I new exactly where I wanted to camp, and worked my way back onto the high plateau cut into the West face of Mount Tornette. It was about 5pm when I landed, having had some difficulty getting down for a change. As I wrapped up, some walkers were departing from the refuge and a couple of mad Frenchmen were completing an epic climb up the limestone massif above me. That evening a group of friendly Ibis (horned mountain goats) pottered about. I pitched the tent between the locked refuge and a post, and settled down to watch a splendid sunset over Annecy. Pasta Carvanara ***.

The next day I had a lot of time to kill until the sun came round to my side of the mountain. Stupidly I hadn’t considered this delay. I read my boring book about Charles Darwin, listened to my mp3, shaved, washed, and ate half of an instant potato hot pot**. Eventually, nearly 3pm, a glider popped up above Col de la Forclaz, so I ‘laid out’ ready. The options for take off were more limited than I had appreciated. With no wind to inflate the canopy, and a sheer cliff immediately in front of me, I went only when I felt that reassuring tension in the risers. Minutes later a pokey little thermal found me and I was off over the Dents de Lanfon. A father and son dual shared a thermal with me. I hadn’t a clue where they had come from, no one else was this high. We spiralled opposite each other both enjoying the friendly interaction while taking pictures, and then went in opposite directions. As the sky was soon milking over, I had to get a move on. The highlight of the day was being joined by a white tailed eagle high above the Tete du Parmelan. Half an hour later and I was very low and desperate to exit a forested hanging valley before I became a decoration. I only got as far a Thone today, and a little disappointed caught the bus up to Grand-Bornand to camp for the night. After beer and Entrecotes de Boeuf au blue d’auverge**** I was cheered up a bit and waddled of the camp site and facilities.

A friend of the family called in to meet me for a late breakfast and kindly drive me as far as he could up to the Grand-Bornand take-off. Although it was an easy path up, my luggage literally hammered it home why I shouldn’t bottom land on this holiday. With the exception of the 1.2kg tent, I refused to spend loads of money to save a couple of kgs here and there. But did I want to? Of course.

Take off was so cool. Having told a ‘dual’ couple I was going to Chamonix, I immediately hooked into an elevator none stop to cloud base and headed east. The Aravis was producing the goods and there seemed no crux’s but to jump east over the motorway at Sallanches. Having lost height in the crossing I entered a moderate valley wind from my left. The sun bathed white cliffs I’d put money on to give me a boost hadn’t a chance to nurture any warm pockets of air. Fleeing down wind, I checked out the far lip of a large bowl and maintained just level with the top of the tree line with dynamic lift alone. After a time consuming game of snakes and ladders in the trees, I climbed high enough to move back up into the bowl and then hesitantly forwards to a serious looking cliff face. Although I knew the lift would be there, and probably strong, when the canopy lunged forward toward the rock massif, I was already close enough. As I cork screwed upwards very fast, I battled between my fear of collapsing out of the lift or hitting the vertical rock face. There hadn’t been a smoother ride option outside this core, but it took me straight to cloud base at 10.5 grand, and without slowing down much. Cold and damp from sweat I wrapped up as best as I could and relaxed back into cloud hopping routine. I followed the clouds towards Chamonix leaning forward out of my armchair watching tiny specks that were paragliders going nowhere in front of the Plane-Joux take-off. Although it was late, the clouds looked as if they would carry me North another hour, and in retrospect I wish I had been a bit more adventurous and forged on into Switzerland. Instead I checked out Lac d’Anterne, a crater just below snow line at 6800ft, which had caught my eye when I had flown from Chamonix on Sunday. I fumbled with my phone to text my whereabouts before big earing off the height and landing on the flat green basin next to the lake.

Intending to find some sticks to erect my tent (yes, I should have bought the other tent) I left my gear and wandered off. The tree line was miles down the valley, and I became engrossed with the abundant whistling marmots. You could easily sneak up on them, or quietly wait near their hole for one to reappear. I took a video of this chap 20ft away, staring motionless at me for 3 minutes - a photo would have been no different! I returned, without sticks, along the lake side and ran up the shallows in a comical attempt to catch one of the many fish. I’m glad no one was watching this carry-on. The tributaries were half covered with snow and ice, and I had a cunning plan to carve a 5ft piece of ice and sit it on a rock to pitch my tent from. And so I did. It was only when observing a small pool of water on the rock did I go off the idea. It fell over later that night. I could have been the subject of a mysterious death puzzle.

At about 9 o’clock in the evening, while eating another dried food delight, I witnessed a strange sight. A chamois waded into the lake and swam quite adeptly most of the way across, and then turned 90 degrees to the opposite bank. This took about twenty minutes, and the water was freezing. He could have walked around the lake, and had been close to the bank when he turned!

The next morning I hiked the kilometre across deep solid snow up to a pass which was south facing on the other side. Having slept in my glider I wanted to stretch my lines, and reckoned it was too early to fly. Unfortunately the wind came over the pass from the north, and by the time I’d got ready it was set to stay and prevent me from taking off. I had two attempts when I thought the wind had lapsed, and two more facing into wind back towards the lake, planning to turn down wind if I got a little height. Defeated, I bundled up, and walked down the steep south track hoping to get out of the wind which I never did. I made one last, and dangerous, attempt to get off by standing on a bump so I could launch into wind (up hill), and with the canopy above my head, run to one side, and then turn and fly down hill. It almost worked too. But almost wasn’t enough, a big rock got in my flight path and I followed my canopy quite quickly down a stream which somebody more critical might have called a water fall. For a brief moment I thought I was safe, after all, I was on the ground, and stationary. But as I struggled to hold on to the very steep turf with the weight of the harness and belongings, I stared at the canopy to my right, cells steadily filling with water. I could see a couple of lines holding on to a sharp rock – and then they disappeared, and so did I. The fall wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Calling it a fall is probably inaccurate, more like the cartoon sketch of Wiley Coyote scratching down the rock face attached to an anvil. I could have made £250 if I hadn’t turned the video off when I’d ‘landed’ the first time. To add embarrassment to my misfortune, I landed on the path in front of two very concerned walkers.

The 29kg sack suddenly weighed a lot more as I walked off the hill to find a wind facing slope I could ground handle the wing dry. At least I was down to tree line now, and cut myself two sticks to be proud of. As I approached a tarn the heavens opened and some teenagers helped me quickly pitch my tent next to theirs and brewed me a cup of tea. I was told one of the lads had tried paragliding but felt air sick. He now base jumps instead! I felt a bit of an unsociable old timer sheltering in my tent reading, and listening to my mp3, but truthfully my poor knowledge of French kept me to myself.
After washing, I set off within reasonable time the next morning, wary of the north wind that blew down the valley yesterday. As I prepared to take-off, facing up the valley, I heard the crack of a base jumper’s chute opening near the base of the cliff towering above Plane-Joux. I watched for another, but I only spotted him when the canopy snapped open.

It was too early in the day to stay up, so I took a slow decent down to the Plane-Joux take-off, and enjoyed watching the schools come and go, and drinking coke. The bivouacking was over, but I had one last objective. Fly back to Chamonix this afternoon. At about 3pm the experienced pilots started to pop off the front, but it was still tough going even to stay level with take-off. I worked, and worked backwards over the trees in very weak lift behind the launch to reach the base of the massive cliffs. Did I say ‘you just had to look at these cliffs and you’d be elevated up to 8000ft’. Well not today. Eventually rising above the top, the thermal drifted away, telling me that I’d been flying in the lea of the cliffs. At cloud base I decided to leave and cross the valley to the totally forested conical hill east of St Gervais. This was working, and I shot up rapidly into the broken cloud base. Falling out of one of the thermals stalled and then collapsed the canopy. It was pretty old now, slightly porous, and stalling was no surprise anymore – hence the line stretching. I decided to change gliders once I’d got home, but didn’t speak aloud. Above Brevent take-off towered a cumulus nimbus preventing any flying on that range and changing my mind about landing in Chamonix. I spiralled down to Les Houches, rising every time I came out. I was concerned about valley winds, and scoured the valley floor for any signs. In the end, when I finally got down, the landing was uneventful. Glad to have finished the short adventure, I walked up to see if Dennis had any vacancies. We went to town for a meal out. The end.


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