Last day of the course and the Mistral is waning.
An ambitious plan – St.Vincent to St.Andre, conditions allowing.
I have not been an inch south of Dormillouse, so the flight plan briefing is a sort of Greek to me. The collection of town, valley, and peak names is lost in a Francophone alphabet soup. It becomes clear my plan is going to be simple, find a guide heading that way, get high and keep them in sight. Even if I lose the lead guide, odds are another will be venturing along behind with a slower mini gaggle – simply wait by thermaling in place with a wide valley/LZ within easy glide.
That was the plan. Little did we know, the pilots of the Haute Alps had a very different experience in store for us.
The lingering remnants of the Mistral means this is still the only flyable site in the region and with the improving conditions it appears that every pilot with the day off has made the St. Vincent pilgrimage. A similar trek appears to have been undertaken by the neophyte public, looking to savour their first taste of free flight.
In other words, it gonna get crazy up in here.
Arriving at launch, the conditions are still fairly docile. But with the sun and tourists out in full swing, this doesn’t present a problem for the tandem operators. The TMs simply adapt to the conditions by adapting the customer they take. Miniature passengers toting similarly scaled harnesses accompany the TMs to the launch area. Chris points out that the size of the passengers steadily increases in conjunction with the conditions. I gather the French have a different set of rules with respect to minors and waivers than we do in British Columbia (a waiver signed by a guardian on behalf of a minor back home is not enforceable in court).
Over the course of an hour the passengers start to approach adult size and a mass of pilots start to get ready. Looking at the crowd in the set up area, we could ultimately see upwards of 30 wings trying to concurrently work the 1 km long ridge. Under normal circumstances this wouldn’t be an issue as better pilots would climb out and move to one of the local peaks to jumpstart a cross country. But with the clearing weather, the inversion at launch is more established. And no one cares.
A pair of queues form at launch, the north for tandems and the south for solo pilots. From the pair spawns a stream of launches continuing unabated for at least an hour. The best of the group can climb no more then 50 meters above launch, the worst linger in the ridge lift 10 meters below.
I launch into this forming Grand Melee to hear on the radio one of the guides recommending that the remainder of our group hold off for the time being. The ridge has turned into an airborne bucket of crabs, everyone scrambling to get out and hindering the efforts of all around them. Some are ridge soaring, some trying to thermal, some turning left, some turning right. Any success in finding lift by a lone pilot is frustrated as the mob converges in on them from every direction. A few mid air close calls ensue. I don’t hear any yelling or cursing, yet.
It dawns on me that the safest place to be is below this herd (as no one has been able to climb out yet). No pilot in their right mind will follow someone who appears to be on the verge of sinking out. I push out, drop down to just below launch height, drift back in, and surf the dynamic lift from the valley wind. A moment of much needed tranquility. I now have to figure out how to get away from this mess.
The largest problem is that the climbs are still weak. As climbs are found, the herd stampedes in and prevents any further progress upwards by the (un)fortunate discoverer. I need to get a climb that is far enough away from the herd so that by the time they see there is lift, I will be at or above the highest pilots.
This means getting out of phase with the gaggle.
When the herd stampedes north, I must push south.
When the herd jumps on a climb, I need to push on.
Get enough horizontal separation so that when I find a climb, the vertical separation will follow quickly. This means I need to wait for the remainder of pilots to be opposite me at either the far north or south end of the ridge before I start circling.
Then it happens, a poor soul finds a climb just south of launch near the bowl and starts to circle. The sharks swarm him and more or less rip his chances of climbing out to shreds. I turn around and head north to the very opposite end.
Figure eight-ing back and forth, I drift up to launch height. Patience. Watch the shark swarm. They pay me no heed.
A lone wing has turned and is moving my way.
A quad of wing overs lets the interloper know in no uncertain terms that his company is not appreciated. He turns back. In a thermal, nothing says ‘get off my lawn’ like wing overs.
I start to circle and climb out. This catches the sharks attention and they speed bar towards me. But it is too late, they can only maintain at the upper extent of the dynamic lift and the thermal has lifted me above it.
I drive south, above and in opposition. Hooking the thermal that the uncoordinated mass wasted, I move onto the slopes of Dormillouse.
The Flying Circus now left far below and behind.
The end result was a jaunt past the peak and south in the direction of St.Andre. I didn’t make it very far as only one of the guides, Chris, was able to get away. He landed just south of my eventual LZ.
Sometimes the gaggle is greater than the sum of its parts, other times it cannot even rise to the level of its weakest link. Today was a lesson in the latter.