Adventure in the Auvergne with a wee snag.
by Dave Harvey, Instructor at Albatross Paragliding
The third day of the Albatross Paragliding mountain flying trip was promising great things: a light northeast wind at altitude, a good lapse rate, and we were venturing into the big mountains – a grassy ridge highly recommended by the locals called Puy de la Tache (1632m), on the shoulder of the highest mountain in the Massif Central, the Puy de Sancy (1885m).
We’d spent the previous day at a smaller site to the east called St Sandoux – the thermals were rough and few in number, but this had not stopped RJ Macaulay from flying from there to Puy de Sancy, and then back to our holiday home to the south. We felt Puy de la Tache was a good starting point for us mere sky-mortals to attempt a similar flight.
We parked in the Col de la Croix Morand (1403m) and began the twenty minute hike to launch. A 5 to 10mph wind was blowing through the col – significant, but not unmanageable. The sun was hot, even at 10:30am in September. We zig zagged up the path, admiring the widening views. At the top we found more than we’d bargained for: a steep takeoff in front of a spine-back ridge, with a 10 to 15mph breeze. The low air timers retreated to the bottom landing to practice ground handling, whilst the more experienced in the group took our time assessing the conditions: quite windy for a mountain flying, but the upwind topography was smooth, and maybe we were experiencing a local venturi effect, being right next to the Col. I prepared my wing for takeoff with extra care, knowing that here, inflation equals immediate launch. I was glad to be on my trusty Senso Sport, a low B rated wing I’ve been flying for several years. I waited for a lull, teased my wing up, and boom, straight into decent lift. RJ, Simon Rand, Derek Luffman and Ralph Mason soon joined me. The ridge continued south, with higher and higher peaks, but also some potentially more challenging upwind terrain, with the Puy de Surains 200m lower and in front, possibly giving us rotor. We explored gingerly, and found that the lift was patchy, sometimes strong and a bit sharp edged, but there appeared to be no rotor. RJ was like an excited dog, shooting off in front of us on his higher aspect wing, and then exploring to either side of our take off. My main focus was leaving: but with a strong-ish wind over a spine back ridge, I wanted to be in a convincing climb before committing.
After two hours of trying, I was ready to give up. I sloped landed numerous times – a luxury for a mountain site. Eventually I found myself half way down the ridge, sweaty and bothered, too low to make it to the bottom landing. I decided to wait for a thermal, regain just enough altitude for a glide to the bottom, and call it a day. But the day was teasing me – after a 10 minute wait a more convincing thermic breeze came through and whisked me quickly up to the Puy de l’Angle (1738m), the highest and most southerly peak in the ridge. Ralph and Derek joined me, and we discussed on the radio whether to make a break for it. We were only a hundred feet or so above the ridge. “Just a bit more height” I told myself. But the thermals were not cooperating. After half an hour of struggling to maintain height above the ridge, and both Ralph and I slope landing near the top, we found a flaky climb that got us to 200ft above the top. The day was calming down, the wind seemed weaker, and the thermals much less sharp edged than earlier. “Let’s go” I announced on the radio. Ralph was a hundred foot above me, and needed no further encouragement. Derek was barely above ridge height, but he’s not the sort of pilot to let minor details like lack of altitude stand in his way.
We flew WSW into the next valley, the spa town of Le Mont Dore beneath us. At least Derek would find a bar if he bombed out, having previously made us laugh by complaining that the whole region was “sh*t and remote”. All day I’d been watching paragliders pinging off a rock called the Capucin just the other side of Mont Dore, and now I was pinning my hopes on it still working. It had wind, sun, and steepness in its favour. The glide down the lee side was not turbulent, but neither was it lifty. We arrived at the Capucin at ridge height (1420m), into scratchy lift. I started doing lazy circles, as my vario gently beeped to indicate weak lift, and then clicked to indicate very weak lift that was less than needed to make me go up. We spent an age trying to find a meaningful climb, Ralph just above me, Derek struggling below. Finally I found a more consistent 0.5 m/s climb, and began to work it as we drifted into the next valley. I looked ahead and began to have second thoughts – it was a shallow valley and entirely tree covered. I’d need a lot more altitude to be able to cross it whilst maintaining sensible landing options. “No good” I radioed Ralph. He seemed to be content, being a bit higher than me, but I pushed upwind again and then had to decide which way to turn: left down the valley, or right, up the valley. Derek was struggling a bit to my right, so I thought I’d fly left down the valley – taking advantage of the gentle down-slope to fly over more potential thermal sources, including the town centre of Le Mont Dore. A few minutes patience was rewarded: at last, a smooth and consistent 2 m/s climb! I cranked my glider hard and Ralph flew over to join me. Poor Derek was still hanging on beneath the Capucin, too low to make it over to us.
The climb got smoother and wider as it took us up, and my circles got lazier. I could core the thermal with weight shift alone – no fighting with turbulence, no need to bank hard. What a gift! The view became more impressive, I could see the multiple sharp rocky ridges emanating from the Puy de Sancy like a giant squid’s tentacles, but they seemed less threatening now I was higher than them and in silky smooth air. Our hunch about the stronger, rougher air near Puy de la Tache being a local effect was correct – or maybe the passage of time was helping us, with turbulence everywhere decreasing as the day slackened off?
For me, a smooth thermal is the most relaxing part of an XC flight – it’s on the transition that I’m most alert, as I don’t know where my next climb is coming from. So I decided this was the ideal moment to empty my bladder. But for some reason, I found I couldn’t “let go”. I couldn’t tell whether it was the psychological barrier of potty training, or some hidden tension. “Stop being silly Dave!” I told myself. This was possibly the nicest thermal I’ve ever been in, combined with the best view. Just relax and do a wee! I saw a couple of drips come out the wee tube. I wiggled in my harness, I tensed and relaxed my abdomen, nothing seemed to work. With each turn I climbed higher, the view was more dreamlike, and a dull throbbing pain grew in my lower belly. I put both controls in one hand and felt the wee tube – it wasn’t kinked, I wasn’t sitting on it. What could be the problem? The pain got worse – it felt half way between a hernia and a kidney stone. I breathed through it, whilst checking my abdomen for unusual lumps. Ralph had pushed on by this time, having thermalled much more efficiently than me. I saw that Derek had landed at Mont Dore. I was still over a forest, but high enough I felt I could almost make it home in one glide. So onwards I pushed, over the ski resort of Chastreix, convulsing. It felt like I was giving birth to a dagger. Time to get down! But just my luck, there was gentle lift everywhere! Every time I encountered the smallest bit of turbulence, my sphincter tensed, and the stabbing pain got worse. I picked out a major road below the ski resort, and pushed on bar to get out of the lift. But just as I was thinking I’d never felt pain so bad before, it grew worse, and I was starting to hyperventilate, still thousands of feet above ground level.
I decided to take things in hand. I couldn’t wait until landing. I let go of the controls, removed my gloves, undid my belt and pushed my trousers halfway down (without undoing my harness of course). Finally, I could feel what the problem was: the wee tube is attached via a sort of condom type sheath with a self adhesive surface on the inside. I had snagged the end of the tube a few times on launch and when slope landing, and this must have caused the sheath to pull down a little, allowing the sticky part of the sheath to stick to itself, blocking my flow and blowing my bladder up like a balloon. I pulled apart the stuck together bit, and whoosh, a torrent of urine came out as I groaned with relief.
And now there was no time to pull my trousers up, I was low and on the lee side, the turbulence was back, and I was determined to fly home. Every time my vario beeped I got excited, only to realise it was just turbulence. The lack of significant lift turned out to be not much of a problem – as the ground kept sloping away, and I was maintaining about 1000ft above the ground. Ralph was a tiny speck way in front and above me.
I zoomed in on my GPS, and got excited to see that I was flying over the village where we were staying! But as I looked down, I couldn’t recognise anything – it’s really hard to match what you see from the roadside to what things look like from the air. I knew our house was on the far side of the village, but where? I kept following the waypoint, until I finally saw it slightly beyond gliding distance. The trees had started thrashing about in the wind beneath me – no time for heroics, let’s have a safe landing a few minutes’ from walk from goal: I picked some higher ground, as far as possible from tree-rotor, and landed by some curious cows. I pulled my trousers up, and went to enjoy a well earned beer with Ralph. A wonderful flight, but for the wee snag!
Advice for making the most of the mountains
In our experience the biggest obstacle to making the most of a trip to the mountains is ground handling. Many mountain launches are challenging: narrow, steep, and/or surrounded by rocks or trees. With well practiced ground handling, this is no problem. Without, even if you manage to get safely airborne the chances are your nerves will be wrecked and you’ll be heading straight to the bottom landing. So how do you know whether your ground handling skills are up to the mark? See if you can tick off the following:
– Nil wind forward launches should be routine. Next time the wind dies at your local hill, lay out a piece of rope as an imaginary cliff edge, and see how close to it you can lay out your wing, and still be airborne by the time you pass it.
– Try the following exercises in a fresh wind:
- practice getting it wrong: pull up your wing too fast, or too slow, or way off to one side and then still try to get it steady above your head.
- With the wing over your head, try touching one wing tip to the ground, and then bringing it back over your head.
Tips for successful in-flight urination
As the old saying goes, proper planning and preparation prevents piss poor performance, literally. In-flight urination is important, not just so you can relax and concentrate, also because the alternative is to avoid drinking, and dehydration impairs your brain.
Ladies tend to use incontinence pads. A popular choice for males is the Coloplast Conveen – it’s like a self adhesive condom with a hole at the end, which attaches to a tube running down your leg. It’s important to get the right diameter model – Coloplast offer free samples to try out (www.coloplast.co.uk/conveen-optima-en-gb.aspx).
- Put on your sheath carefully, ensuring your willy goes all the way to the end.
- Try weeing before you take off
- Avoid snags by attaching the tube to your inside leg with surgical tape
- ensuring the end of the tube exits to the outside of your foot (away from the other foot).
- Consider passing the tube through your laces to make sure it stays put.
- If you sense a blockage, don’t wait until the pain gets to 11/10, sort it out straight away!
Why fly in the Massif Central?
The best things are often overlooked. The Alps have epic scenery and massive top to bottom elevations, accompanied by complex meteorology and valley wind systems that can make them difficult for the average visiting pilot. The Massif Central is an older mountain range – generally less steep sided and lower altitude. It’s also smaller, which means that you’re not committed to flying the high mountains – on windy days you have a vast choice of lower sites. Finally, you’ll escape the crowds – no queuing on launch, and you’re far less likely to be fighting over the thermals.
Our pick of the sites
There are dozens of flying sites in the area to explore. Our recommendations:
Puy de Dome – mountain railway makes for easy trips back up the mountain – although it can be crowded at the weekends.
Puy de la Tache – a slope-landable playground making it easier to get away.
Dienne – Embec launch is the best, wide open launches and the biggest ever bottom landing.
St Sandoux – often soarable in the late afternoons.
A full list of the vast range of sites is published each year in the Auvergne Vol Libre guide (in French) available at https://drive.google.com/file/d/1YTyHhXmCAq-wt8phes-G-nDR3fWbVLl4/view