The May Day Bank Holiday weekend of 2nd-5th May had been pencilled in for the annual North South Cup for some months, and the plan was, weather permitting, for the gathering to be held in Scotland. The forecast for Friday and Saturday was looking good some days ahead, but Sunday and Monday weren’t looking promising. Still, the decision was made, and the epic road trip in Richard Osborne’s Magic XC Bus was on! I picked up Alex Coltman and Ken Wilkinson on Thursday lunchtime, and we met Richard just off the M5 near Avonmouth. Split between four drivers, the journey up to the Highlands really isn’t too bad at all and we arrived at the Bridge of Orchy Hotel in time for last orders having had time for battered haggis and chips earlier at a hotel a few miles down the road (well, it had to be done!).
There was a good crowd there, although some of the Northern team had rebelled and set up a rival camp at Killin, which was closer to where they correctly thought we’d be flying on Friday. After a couple of beers spent catching up with old friends, we drove down to the wild camping area by the river and pitched our tents for the night.
Friday dawned cloudy and breezy (rather like the inside of my tent, but somewhat fresher), and after a round of bacon butties we wandered off to the briefing at the hotel. Jocky summoned the warring parties and announced that we were going to fly at a hill called Carn Laith, near Blair Atholl. Rather optimistically he said the next briefing would be on top of the hill at 1100.
We duly packed up the tents and drove the 60 odd miles to the hill, where it became immediately obvious that it was rather more than “a hill”! At just over 3000′ high it’s officially a “Munro”, and with a 2000′ climb and 4.5km horizontal distance to hike, it was clear that the adventure was about to start!
I guess we set off on the hike up at about midday and reached the top at 1330 or thereabouts. I don’t think I’ve ever had to walk as long as that carrying all my kit before (famous last words), but there was a gentle breeze blowing up the southerly face at the top, and the clouds were showing signs of breaking up, so any tiredness was soon forgotten in the excitement of the imminent prospect of getting airborne over this stunning scenery.
There was some chatter that a 70km triangle had been set, however I didn’t have the coordinates so I gave some thought to a triangle of my own – about the same distance but rotated clockwise by about 30 deg so as to minimise the possibility of a long walk out. As you’ll soon discover it didn’t quite work out like that!
I took off at just after 1400 and was immediately torn between following the crowd on their way to the first TP about 20km due north of takeoff, and heading off on a bearing of 030 to my TP. Stupidly I ended up hedging my bets and heading more or less up the middle before deciding rather too late to follow the herd. So I ended up after about an hour nice and high (almost 5,000ft) but with a big valley to cross before I’d get onto the sunny southern slopes of the main Cairngorm range.
I duly set off and was immediately rewarded with 3m/s sink. Agggh, time for full speedbar. Of course this increased my sink rate even more, but I would be getting through it quicker. Except I didn’t get through it – I was in it pretty much all the way to the ground just past the river in the centre of the valley! Nightmare! It was just as well I didn’t fly over any hikers as the air was thick from my profanities 🙂 However once I’d landed and accepted my fate I was determined to make the most of my situation – after all, I was in the middle of a stunning albeit remote part of the world, on a sunny day, with plenty of daylight left, and with a path of sorts to walk on. The only trouble was the 20kg pack on my back…
I fired up MultiMap on my phone and reckoned there wasn’t a lot in it between heading east or west. I chose west because I thought there was more chance of linking up with other pilots as most people sensibly attempted the crossing to the west of me where the valley wasn’t as wide.
To cut a long walk short, I walked a bit, then some more, then a lot more, and some more, and so on for the best part of five hours! I made radio contact with Eddie Colfox along the way (who ended up on the south side of the river – I was on the north), and at about 1945 met up with Chris Williams and Adam Ladd were pondering what to do at a point on the river where the bridge on my OS map had clearly been destroyed by flood water some years earlier. The choices were either to wade across to Eddie, or to hike for another 30 minutes to another bridge a couple of miles down stream. We chose the latter option as none of us had any mobile phone signal yet.
Finally we made contact with Ken and Rich who were in Aviemore after Ken drove the camper van up there to retrieve Rich who had had a great flight. After some confusion over where they thought we were they rolled up at 2030 with beers and sandwiches which were extremely well received!
We then drove a couple of miles back up the valley from whence we’d come to pick up Richard Worley who’d been a couple of miles behind us for some time. From here it was about an hour’s drive back to Blair Atholl where we dropped everyone off, then at about 2230 we rolled down the road into Pitlochry where Alex had been waiting for quite some time. I was pretty famished by now but Alex had reccied the place and knew exactly where the chippy was, and pretty soon I was tucking into another battered haggis and chips :-). Of course, having walked a total of 22kms over six hours (ie. walk up plus walk out) I didn’t have too much of a problem justifying the calories 🙂
Have a look at the video of my adventure below…
Over the chips we had a team conflab and decided on the basis of the forecast to desert the NS Cup and head south in the hope of the prospect of some better flying, as it really wasn’t looking great in the Cairngorms. Alex did a great job of crunching the miles and at 0200 we pulled into the Tebay services where we found a great spot out of sight of the main services to pitch our three small tents for the night. One small nightcap later and I was asleep, oblivious to the sound of the motorway 100 yards away…
Saturday dawned clear and bright and by 0900 we were on our way to Parlick which we reckoned would be far enough south to keep out of the high cloud approaching from the NW. It was a bit of a race against time as we could see the cloud off to our right, but it was still sunny when we arrived at the hill so we headed up the thankfully short path to the top. My feet and shoulders were in a bit of a bad way and I don’t reckon I could have walked much further!
There wasn’t much activity of the airborne type going on as the wind was very light, and by now the thin high cloud had started coming in, so any hope of lobbing off into ripping northern thermals was quickly dashed. However that didn’t stop us from giving it our best shot, and Alex showed the locals what us southern softies were made of by lobbing off and aiming at a couple of seagulls a fair way away and spending the next 40 mins exploring the flats out in front of the hill. I had earlier enjoyed a shorter but still satisfying 20 min flight getting up to 700ft ATO, but eventually we all had had enough and hit the M6 again.
It was a long slog back down to Avonmouth to retrieve my car, and it was 2000 by the time Rich and I got back to Bath having dropped Ken and Alex off in Bristol. But it didn’t take much to revive us – a couple of beers and a Sainsbury’s takeaway Thai curry meal to be precise – and soon we were poring over forecasts yet again 🙂 It was looking likely that Mere and Long Knoll would work well so it was nice to hit the sack knowing that we didn’t have an early start the next day.
After a quick round of bacon sarnies we headed down via Long Knoll where we stopped for a look, but as we could see gliders higher over Mere we carried on. The sky was looking good when we arrived and there were plenty of gliders flying so we didn’t hang around for long before we took off. Initially it was a bit scratchy but after about ten minutes I founds something decent and climbed about 1000ft before deciding it didn’t have my name on it, and pushed forward out in front of the hill. From that vantage point I spotted Chris Harland climbing strongly and headed back to the ridge as fast as I could and joined him in his climb. This was definitely the one to leave in! Once high Chris pushed forward to do a triangle, however I had no such plans – I was definitely going downwind!
I’m not going to write a blow by blow account of the flight – that would be rather dull – however I very nearly didn’t make it past Westbury, which would have been just a tad upsetting! Rich had been lower in the same climb out, but once high we chose slightly different courses with me opting to fly over the tree covered hill where Centre Parcs is located. I’ve flown over it before coming from the north and it’s always worked well, however on this occasion it didn’t deliver, and I found myself down to 500ft AGL over Dilton Marsh and getting rather desperate before I found the hint of a climb. I minced around a bit before spotting some swifts so I followed them and sure enough they led me to some stronger lift. I drifted with it and twenty minutes later I was at base over Westbury. Phew!
Richard was a couple of km to the west of me, flying on and off with Nick Somerville, and after flying over Trowbridge we eventually met up over Melksham. Chippenham was the next stop on the 1215 from Mere, then the M4 beckoned. Nick was a bit lower than Rich and me at this point, and fought valiantly to get as far as Kemble. Rich and I were flying as a good team at this point and we sneaked through the gap between Kemble and South Cerney at 4000ft, and onto Cirencester, where we found another nice climb.
The sky wasn’t looking that promising at this point so we tracked NNE following the Fosse Way on a sort of very extended glide over Northleach, past Bourton-on-the-Water, before finally running out of steam just before Stow-in-the-Wold. My GPS said 98 point something kms, however with turnpoints it worked out as 102km – nice!!
Rich had a bit more height than me at the very end but did the decent thing and came in to land with me, and much mutual congratulation and back-slapping ensued 🙂
Now you might think that’s the end of the story, but far from it – as we were just about finishing up packing up a couple of policemen appeared through the hedgerow. Uh oh, had we done anything wrong? No, but they had received a report from a member of public that they had seen a paraglider/motor in difficulties, and asked whether it was either of us. We agreed it was probably me that they had seen, but no, I was absolutely fine. After taking our details we got onto the subject of how we were going to get home. We said we’d get a bus to Cheltenham, and then a train back to Bristol, then Bath. They said we’d be lucky, and offered us a lift to Cirencester, which we gratefully accepted. Result! I can’t really say much more about the journey except for two things – it was the first time I’ve ever been in a police car, and it was the fastest I’ve ever been in a car!
Form there it was a taxi to Kemble Station, a train to Swindon, a replacement bus service back to Bath where my wife Lisa met us. Actually that wasn’t really the end because we still had to do the final leg of the journey – back to Mere to get Richard back to his van – but at least that leg was broken by a pint and a massive bowl of cheesy chips at The Red Lion!
What a great day, and what a great fun but contrasting weekend!