Last 5am alarm-call, last switching on of trackers and GPS. My feet suffered a bit from smacking along tarmac for hours yesterday afternoon, and it’s the first day I’ve had to walk on blisters. Lucky me – most people have had to deal with that since the beginning. It’s a slippery slope, too. Once they start, they just get worse. A few people have dropped out because of it, and I don’t know how the X-Alps people manage two weeks like it.
I’d arranged to meet Benoit and Lucas at six, on the road between St Hélène-sur-Isere and Aiton, where we’d left off. We’d planned to take the scenic route across the hills, passing some other flying sites but knowing that in the Vallée des Huiles they don’t work well for cross country, especially not in the morning, and we’d have to push on to Val Pelouse before launching.
Given my slightly painful feet, and lack of a 1:25,000 map of the area, I decided I’d separate from them and stick to the road. Harder on the feet from a pounding point of view, but less stony, and although less pleasant, much easier to move fast on, and we had to get a move on if we were to make the turnpoint, which was still 43km and 1,700 vertical metres away, by 4pm.
I didn’t feel I was going that well, but Marcus said I looked like I was “motoring” on the tracker. Must have been because it was straight, flat roads, so despite sore feet I was getting there. Marcus met me in La Chaz for a much-needed stop after five hours of non-stop walking. Val Pelouse still towered above us, it was stinking hot and I was knackered, and at that point I really didn’t think I was going to make it. I even entertained the possibility of giving up.
While Marcus made me a coffee I sat on a chair by the car, ate a sandwich and chatted to a friend on the phone, drank lots of water, and felt a load better. Changing shoes was an absolute gem – I’d still been wearing the pair that I’d made the blisters in, and putting the other ones on was fantastic.
All of a sudden I had new energy. I charged on up the road that wound up to the old ski station, constantly being passed by cars and the paraglider navettes that were steaming up and down the hill for a mountain festival. I was offered lifts several times. It still seemed possible that I could do it, but it would be close and I was going to have to walk to the actual turnpoint which was a col 300m above the takeoff, because the forecast instability wasn’t apparent, and all the gliders we could see were just ploufing to the landing field.
The road wound on and on and on. The psychology of endurance-type events is really interesting. A rest and a chat had pulled me back from the point of giving up earlier, and I’d actually felt really good again. Then suddenly I let it get the better of me. After the La Chaz stop, I’d met Marcus again after a further hour-and-a-half of walking, at which point he thought it would be only another 5km to the top. Fantastic! The last nine had seemed to pass quite easily, and I could definitely do another five. Just when I thought I had done those five, and so must be almost at the top, I rounded a bend to be confronted by a sign that said, “Val Pelouse, 5km”. I was gutted, and suddenly went from fine, to totally knackered. I tried to pretend to myself that it meant there were 5km of pistes at Val Pelouse, but really there are none any more! You can’t blag yourself very easily. I was suddenly hot, demotivated and tired, and it was really game-over for me. If it hadn’t been the last day, and only an hour or two to go, I’m sure it would not have had the same effect. The psychological side of things is so important. I reckon if you can work out how to control that, you’d be well on the way to being good at endurance challenges.
From there on in I got slower and slower. Marcus came back to walk the last couple of kilometres towards Val Pelouse itself with me, but time was running out. I stopped at a loop in the road where it was nearest to the turnpoint, still 800m away on the GPS, and sat down on a log. And that was it, Airtour over.
Marcus offered to drive me to the launch so that I could at least fly down to the landing field. I’d already been past the baking hot, shadeless field, several hours before, and found an air-conditioned car and the chance to sit down more enticing. So Marcus pulled a beer out of his rucksack and handed it to me. It went down very well!
Meanwhile, Antoine Girard was touching down in Lumbin landing field, at about five to four, having completed the whole course just in the nick of time. He was the undisputed winner of the Team 5 paraglider, and Jerome Canaud second, only 11km from goal. Thereafter there was some dispute. Max Jeanpierre and Arnaud Baumy had covered the same distance, but Max had still been in the air at four, when we were supposed to have landed. The rule was only declared by text that afternoon though, and was then withdrawn and reinstated in two further texts, so airborne pilots could be excused from not having known the rule. In the end they were declared joint third.
Gabriel and Aude were the top tandem team, 11th overall (actual placing is provisional) having had a great flight up the Grand Replomb today. I was also given a prize for top girl, rather generous as I was the only girl and therefore also the last, at 16th overall.
Sup’Air laid on an aperitif and everyone said their goodbyes and dispersed. During the six days I’ve walked with and got to know some really nice people, and shared a meal with or spent a few minutes on takeoff with even more. It was a really friendly event, well-organised, with very few obvious teething troubles. Prevol are intending to run the Airtour again next year, and I expect it will be very popular. It’s a great way for pilots who love the concept of the X-Alps but are not elite pilots, to try it out.
Would I do it again? I reckon. It was intense and exhausting, but that’s part of its appeal and what I expected. It was also six days of being in beautiful surroundings, in all weathers, with great people. I’ve come away realising the Alps are a full-on place to fly though, and I need more flying experience in them.
Marcus was a fantastic assistant, and he and the other assistants had equally long and sometimes frustrating days, driving around chasing us, organising all the food, finding campsites or other accommodation and setting up and removing camp. He’s brilliant at the technology side of things, and took care of all of the battery charging and changing, extracting information and tracklogs from the GPS and sending it to the organisers when we were supposed to. He was also great at watching the live tracking and knowing where I was and how to get to me. Next year maybe he should fly it and I could assist, though I’d have to work hard at all of those things first!
Finally, the one top tip I’d say for anyone about to do a similar thing for the first time, is take more than one pair of shoes, and definitely one should be waterproof and robust. I spent at least two whole days with wet feet – even when it wasn’t raining. Those pretty alpine meadows can soak your feet in an instant, and there are lots of cows in the Alps, and rutted, muddy, cow-patty ground to squelch through. But it’s a blast. You’ll love it – do it!