It’s Tuesday 24th April and the North South Cup which was due to be held in the Peak District has just been called off because of the appalling weather forecast for the weekend, and I resign myself to a wet weekend in Bath. Then on Thursday evening Guy Anderson emails me to say that Scotland is forecast to be epic and do I want to drive up with him? I’m sorely tempted but after much prevaricating I decide it’s just too far to go for a weekend, so I start inviting some friends round for drinks at our house on Friday night. Five minutes after I send the invites out Guy calls me and asks “Are you sure?” “Agghhh” I reply, as I’m still in two minds, but I end up saying no. Five minutes later, after talking it over with my very long-suffering wife, I phone him back and say “F*%k it! I’m coming – you only live once!”
So then came the task of uninviting our friends! After a couple of grovelling emails John and Jane agree to host at their house, so that’s me off the hook then – phew – although I knew I’d come in for some serious in-absentia ribbing for organising it then bailing out!
The next task was to try and fill Guy’s car as two of us going up in his Land Cruiser wasn’t going to be cheap! By morning my postings to the North South Cup Facebook page and to the Avon Yahoo group had yielded results, with the other two spaces filled by Ken Wilkinson and Neil Roberts who we were going to pick up en route. Ken then very kindly offered to take his car which at 50mpg meant that the fuel bill was going to be halved compared to Guy’s wagon. Excellent – things were coming together nicely!
I left Bath at 1100 and deposited my car at Ken’s house in Bristol, then we RV’d with Guy near Avonmouth and headed up the M5 to Cannock to pick up Neil. The drive up was easy, if long, but a pit stop at the side of Loch Lomond at a very well stocked pub revived us!
We pitched up at The Bridge of Orchy Hotel where surprise surprise (not!) there were about thirty other pilots all discussing plans for tomorrow. Or should I say, seeking out Mike Cavanagh, Chris Scammell and other experts and sussing out their plans! Not really any the wiser (but at least less thirsty) we headed off to the bunkhouse to get our heads down in preparation for the epic day ahead…
Saturday dawned clear and bright and after a decent breakfast we headed up to the Glencoe Ski Centre admiring the stunning views during the short drive.
When we got to the car park we were greeted to the sight of hundreds of mountain bikers gearing up for the Glencoe MacAvalanche downhill event. Madness if you ask me! I wonder if the ratio of blokes to girls (or ham to clam ratio as I’ve heard it charmingly called 🙂 ) is the same for MTBing as it is for PGing? I suspect it might be lower as there seemed to be lots of girls donning all manner of body armour!
Anyway, enough of that…! We chatted to other pilots and pored over maps before parting with £5 as we hopped on the chairlift up the hill. Wow, this is civilised!
It was only a short walk to a flattish fairly dry takeoff area and before too long the first pilots were off…
Meanwhile it takes me a while to get ready as I don sufficient layers to keep warm… here’s the complete list!
- tight stretchy sports layer thingy
- merino wool t shirt
- thin fleece
- windproof Advance gilet
- thicker fleece
- normal windproof flying jacket (ie. soft shell jacket)
- waterproof (and windproof) jacket
- pyjamas! (didn’t think of bringing long johns!)
- thin iPhone compatible gloves
- ski gloves
- thin lycra balaclava
- thicker fleece balaclava
- helmet (obviously!)
You might think this is a bit over the top but after shivering uncontrollably at times whilst spending three hours between 3000′-6000′ two weekends ago in Wales I wasn’t gong to make the same mistake twice!
Anyway, I eventually took off at about 1140 with no clear plan in my head other than a vague “I might try to head over to Ben Nevis” which I’d mentioned to Andy Wallis a little while earlier. Basically I was just going to go with the flow depending on who else I found myself flying with.
It took about half an hour of soaring the steep cliffs before a few pilots who had sunk out found the first decent thermal low over the car park, thus marking it for everyone else, but I arrived a bit too late and missed the best bit of the climb which Guy, Neil, Kirsty and Steve Etherington had caught, so I had to watch them climb out above me as I rejoined the mel’ee, albeit above most.
But no worry, by now the thermals were coming through nicely and by 1220 I was at 5,100′ enjoying the fantastic views as large parts of Scotland opened up all around me with every extra 100′ climbed.
So there I was nice and high but without much of a clue as to what to do as Guy and co had already headed to the west on the start of their adventure! I was reluctant to go straight over the back, as after all the talk of 3-4 hour walk outs if you landed in a valley with no roads, I was feeling a bit of a wimp! So I decided to half heartedly follow Richard Carter and a few others who’d already set off in a SE’ly direction. At this point I wasn’t sure what their plan was (ie. downwind XC or a triangle), but after a while they headed NE over Rannoch Moor along a cloud street so all became clear. I followed them for 6km before I hit some nasty sink and decided to head back towards takeoff to close my triangle rather than risk landing in the middle of the moor.
There were still quite a few people boating around high above takeoff and on the mountain behind, and as I headed back I found a boomer of a thermal which took me up from 2,300′ to 5,300′ in eight minutes… lovely!
It was now 1315 and after an hour and a half in the air I was feeling a bit more comfortable about being in the mountains, and in a surprisingly bold and decisive move (for me) I thought I might as well try to get onto Aonach Mor and maybe complete a big triangle if I could get back to takeoff again. But how to get there? I decided to head NW in front of the Buachaille across the Glencoe valley towards Garbh Bheinn.
A climb half way there took me up to almost 6,000′ so by the time I was over the NE’ly facing slopes of Garbh Bheinn just south of Kinlochleven I was still nice and high.
From here I guess I could have crossed over Loch Leven and got onto Mam na Gualainn but for whatever reason I decided to head along the back of Aonach Eagach (famed as the narrowest ridge on the UK mainland).
Going along here, and losing height, I was conscious that with the prevailing NE’ly wind, going onto the sunny leeside slopes might not be a very pleasant experience unless I was high above the ridge, so I always kept upwind on the northern slope. I found a small climb above the Pap of Glencoe and with that (3,200′) I thought I had enough height to cross back over the valley to Maell Mor, but half way there I found a lovely climb that took me back up to 5,200′ so now it was game on for an upwind leg to Fort William.
I glided over Loch Leven and after a bit of searching on the south facing slopes above North Ballachulish I found a great climb over Beinn an Aonach Mhoir which took me up to 6,000′. Earlier I’d noticed a yellow glider (I later found out it was Nigel Brevitt) head over Kinlochleven onto the south facing slopes of Mam na Gualainn and as I was climbing now, I could see him working his way along the ridge but he never managed to get much above it, and he told me later it was very rough along there and that he was happy to be on the ground when he landed at Ballachulish.
So from 6,000′ I headed into wind and was 8.5km upwind and down to 2,500′ before I found another climb which took me up to 4,500′.
Ben Nevis was looking tantalising close at this point so I pushed on towards Fort William getting another small top-up climb along the way.
As a little mental exercise, what’s the best way of quickly working out whether a thermal is strong enough to stop for when you’re pushing upwind? I didn’t have an answer at the time and just went with it because I was low and the thermal was quite strong (2-3m/s) but I thought about it later and have come up with a workable rule of thumb which I’ll share at the end of the story.
I was quite low (1,500′) by the time I reached Fort William just after 1500 and getting onto Aonach Mor and Ben Nevis seemed like an impossible task from this position so I contemplated landing on the town football pitch and getting a bus back to Glencoe.
However it seemed a shame to land quite so soon so I pushed on forward heading towards the big smelting plant to see if I could get a nice fat thermal to get me high again, however I was only half way there and down to 1,300′ so I headed back towards Cow Hill with a view of soaring it for a bit whilst I made up my mind what to do.
As I reached the hill I found a gentle climb so went with it thinking I could always find somewhere to land by the side of the loch. By the time I was above the shore I was at 3,500′ and the drift was taking me in a WSW direction across the loch.
I was completely in two minds about what I should do now – cross the loch into uncharted territory and glide towards the obvious NE facing bowl, or play it safe and try and head back to Ballachulish? I had noticed a chain ferry going across the spit in the right of the photo above but still I dithered, partly because I had just remembered that I had promised to call the owners of the new bunkhouse we were staying at before I took off to let them know that we wanted supper for the four of us later on. Aggh, the unwanted things that crop up in your mind at crucial times that affect your decision making…!
I realise now that at 3,000′ I could have easily glided straight to the spit and landed there, but for whatever reason I chickened out and decided not to go for it. So of course I fell out of the thermal and ended up gliding another few kms before burning off 2,000′ above the little spit of land half way along the left hand side of the loch in the photo above, since this was the last place I could land before I hit the forest which went right down to the sea.
So although I was still kicking myself for not being bolder, I hadn’t lost sight of the fact that I’d just spent four hours flying over some of the most spectacular scenery in the UK, and had probably travelled a pretty respectable distance as well, much of it crosswind or upwind.
Would you have made the same decision? Please let me know by posting a comment…
Having packed up it didn’t take me long to get a lift back to Glencoe with a girl with a delightful Scottish accent (she must have taken pity on me because there had just been a brief shower!) Ken, who’d driven there to get some wine and beer for the meal that I had by now confirmed, met me where I was dropped off.
We waited a short while for Neil to arrive on the bus from Oban, then the three of us headed to the West Highland Way Sleeper in Bridge of Orchy. We’d heard that Guy (and Kirsty) had flown a long way and that Martin Knight was going to drive some of the way south to collect them from Tarbet (on Loch Lomond).
Our accommodation was fantastic – it’s the old Bridge of Orchy station buildings, with the dining room being the old waiting room. And it was quite a sight watching the Royal Scotsman train roll in for the night…
Steve Etherington joined us for the night and we enjoyed a great meal and too much wine! Needless to say there was much swapping of “there I was” stories and looking at each other’s photos. What a fantastic day we’d all had with Guy flying 95km, Neil about 65k, Ken a 25km triangle getting up to 7,000′ in a cloud, and me a 65km scenic tour which included a 22km triangle at the beginning!
We eventually turned in at about midnight, far too full of food and wine for comfort, wondering whether tomorrow could possibly bring anything that would get close to beating today’s epic flying…
As it happened Sunday again dawned clear and bright, but there was definitely more wind around. We were making plans over breakfast for a good stomp up some hills when Gary Stenhouse phoned from the Ski Centre saying there was hardly any wind at all! This was surprising but very welcome news so once we’d packed up and settled up we headed up the road again and before too long found ourselves heading up to takeoff on the chairlift hoping that the wind wasn’t playing tricks on us.
We were in luck – although it was windier than yesterday, with nothing in front for miles it wasn’t going to be rough, so we were all up for another flight, even if wasn’t going to be a day for big cross country flights. I layered up again, although with unbroken blue skies it was actually warmer than yesterday, but better safe than sorry! Pretty soon most of us had taken off and were enjoying 3-4m/s climbs up to 5,500′, but with the stronger winds we were all content with exploring out in front of the hill, soaking up the fantastic views.
After about an hour it was clear that the wind had picked up a bit too much for comfort so everyone landed near the car park. By 1300 we had all packed up, and with 250 XC kms and probably 18 hours flying logged between the four of us we decided to head home towards the wet and windy south that we had so successfully escaped from for 48 hours…
What a truly excellent adventure! It must be done again!
You can see more photos of the trip on Flickr here.
As I sit here under a cloudy sky back in Bath, I can’t help wondering what might have been if I’d crossed Loch Linnhe onto the other side… I can but dream 🙂
And as for my little mental challenge I posed earlier, as long as your instruments give you an indication of the windspeed and your current glide angle I don’t think it’s too difficult… Convert the windspeed in km/h into m/s by dividing by 4. Call this “w”. If you’re in a 1 m/s thermal then then as long as your glide angle before the thermal was greater than w then stay in the climb. If not, leave the thermal and carry on. So, if the wind is 20km/h, then w=5m/s, so if you’re in a 1m/s climb and your glide angle was better than 5:1 then stick with it.
NB. I realise dividing the windspeed in km/h by 4 is an approximation, but given that thermals have their own mass and inertia and generally travel downwind slower than the wind it’s probably not too far off.