Having had an amazing volbiv adventure with four friends in July 2019, flying from Saint André-les-Alpes in the south of France to Andermatt in Switzerland, I was keen to encourage more pilots to give volbiv a go in a supportive group environment, and so the idea of the Gumball Transalps Rally was hatched. It wasn’t going to be a race, and people could do it however they wanted – purist (ie. no hitch-hiking or chairlifts), or more relaxed (me!) – but the intention would be to try to stick together, at least for the first couple of days. We’d cover the same ground as last year – St André north to Chamonix and beyond, and see how far we could get.
We started making plans in the new year, and had lots of interest, and then along came the small matter of Covid-19 which threw everyone’s plans into disarray. Even after European countries emerged from lockdown the trip was still hanging in the balance because of quarantine requirements when arriving in a foreign country, and when returning home. Come the summer though, France had a voluntary quarantine in place, and by mid-June, even with the UK’s requirement to self-isolate for two weeks upon return, I decided to bite the bullet and buy a one-way flight to Nice for Sunday 19th July. That’s all it needed, someone to commit, and then others followed – the inaugural Gumball Transalps Rally was ON!!
All the gear, hopefully some idea!
Last minute purchases were made, kit was meticulously weighed and packed, and despite doubts about the forecast for the first few days, eight intrepid Gumballers met up on the evening of Sunday 19th July at a pizzeria in St André – after all, who knew when we’d get our next square (or round) meal, or when we’d all be together again?!
L to R – Nigel, Tim, Chris, Tony, Feite, Rhys, Ian, Steve
Nigel drove us all up to takeoff area on Le Chalvet where we pitched our tents under the most amazing night sky, with Comet Neowise clearly visible to the NW. Pretty soon we hit the sack, silently praying that the northerly wind wouldn’t be as strong as forecast…
The weather gods clearly heard our prayers and by midday we were all airborne and on our way northwards enjoying great flying conditions.
Crossing the Lac de Serre-Ponçon with the Ecrins in the distance
Six of us flew about 100kms, landing in pairs at Col du Palastre, Les Richards, and Orcières – not a bad start to the trip! Well, apart from Steve who was in Briançon Hospital after unfortunately breaking his collarbone in a heavy landing, and Tony who’d bombed in the boonies at the southern end of the Dormillouse close to the Tête de l’Estrop.
Dawn on day 2 at the Col du Palastre
I camped with Rhys at the Col du Palastre (2200m), and the following day we enjoyed great flying conditions again – Chris and I made it past Albertville making about 140kms, but I was about an hour ahead of him and sadly we didn’t meet up for another three days. The rest of the team was scattered between Montlambert and St Vincent les Forts! I hitched to Doussard and enjoyed a few beers in the LZ bar, before pitching my tent in the same spot as last year, just a short walk away.
Into the wild! Flying along the Chaîne de Belledonne
Landing in Ugine after six hours in the saddle
Day 3 was a non-flying day for us all so we used the time to get into position for Thursday’s good forecast – after a swim, and coffee with friends in their campervan, I headed up to La Sambuy where I had a fun evening with a dozen French and Belgium pilots on a volbiv course. Chris hiked to his chalet in St Gervais, much of the time in very heavy rain. Rhys, Feite and latecomer Zsolt rendezvoused at Montlambert, whilst Nigel returned home to Saint André. Tony and Ian met up at St Vincent to fly together for a few days.
Wonderful views from La Sambuy
Day 4 (Thursday) was the day to make it into Switzerland – I had a fantastic three hour 95km flight past Chamonix, landing in the Martigny valley near Saxon. The forecast was grim for tomorrow so I played the family card and caught a train to Verbier where I stayed two nights in my sister-in-law’s family’s apartment!
Cruising north along the Aravis Expressway!
Nice and high as I pass the Lac d’Émosson
The Martigny valley – not where I’d hoped to land!
Chris’s flight from Plaine Joux was going well until he got low on the slopes below Lac d’Émosson – he ended up having a very sketchy landing just below Finhaut but fortunately was only shaken, not stirred! Rhys, Feite and Zsolt made it to Passy from Montlambert but the NW wind had picked up by then which made the conditions too unpleasant to continue into the Chamonix valley.
Chris finally made it to Verbier on Friday – he’d left his wallet and passport in his cousin’s car back at St Gervais, so had to spend a second night there on Thursday!
So it’s now Saturday morning (day 6) and Chris and I were on the main takeoff above Verbier having opted to hike up there rather than take the gondola! “Why?” I hear you ask… well, apart from a 200m vertical walk up to the Col de Sambuy on Thursday morning I’d not covered any ground on foot, so this seemed the perfect time! I’m not sure Chris agreed though!! Rhys, Feite and Zsolt were at the Plaine Joux takeoff, with Rhys hoping today was his day to make it into Switzerland. Feite and Zsolt had to leave the Gumball Rally and were going to fly locally.
Chris and I met a couple of Swiss pilots who suggested that a flight to Bellinzona could be a good goal for the day, and with strong winds forecast in the northern alps for a few days this seemed like a good plan. I plotted the route in Flyskyhy – a mere 190kms! Oh well, never say never and all that!!
Climbing out above the takeoff at Verbier
Cranking it up on the cliffs above Sion
What followed was eight mind-blowing hours flying over stunning landscapes – it had everything – huge cliffs, 3000m peaks, glaciers, high passes, lakes and big valleys.
The Aletsch Glacier above Fiesch
Cruising over the 2480m Nufenenpass into the Airolo valley
Heading along the Airolo valley
Getting close now – it’s 6pm and Bellinzona is only 25kms away!
Made it! 7hrs44 and 190kms later
I landed in goal at 1936 and it took me quite a few minutes to gather my thoughts and start packing up. But what to do now? I didn’t think the forecast was looking that good for tomorrow, and I could have killed for a beer or two, but I didn’t really fancy walking into the town centre with all my kit, and then out again to find somewhere to camp. In the end I passed on the beer and went searching for a spot to pitch the tent by the river. This is a problem when in urban areas – up on a mountain top it’s simple, pitch the tent, chill, and enjoy the views, but finding somewhere discrete to camp in towns is tricky. In the end I found a good spot in the park that runs alongside the river, so I ate some food and pitched the tent as dusk fell, then enjoyed a few small swigs of whisky from the mini-bar (two plastic miniature bottles that I always carry with me!) before hitting the sack.
As for the others, well, Chris had a great flight, landing about 50kms back up the valley, but Rhys didn’t make it into Switzerland, and with strong winds forecast for a few days he decided to call it a day there.
Sunday (day 7) dawned pretty cloudy and I had the madcap idea to hike 20kms up to the 2000m Passo San Jorio on the flanks of Monte Marmontana (2316m), and then try to fly from there to the north end of Lake Como. Fortunately, after about 30 minutes of walking I realised the sun was coming out, and that perhaps hiking wasn’t the best of plans! I turned round and walked to the gondola station at Monte Carasso, where it was a quick ride up to the beautiful hillside hamlet of Mornera (1350m), and from there just a short walk to the take off high above Bellinzona.
Waiting for things to start happening…
Luckily for me a local pilot turned up and was happy to act as wind dummy – I took off ten minutes later at 1140 and pretty quickly worked my way up to 2600m and decided that the time was right to head SE across the valley. I got stuck for about 30 minutes at the top of the valley I’d been planning to hike up to before I found a climb, but once back up at 2600m I was on my way eastwards…
Approaching Lake Como with an eagle for company
Soaring Monte Foffricio, looking back at where I’d flown from
Apart from getting low after crossing Lake Como it was pretty much plain sailing all the way and I landed with a pretty big smile on my face after flying just over 100kms – it certainly beat walking!
Coming in to land after 4.5 hours in the air. Monte Padrio is the peak centre-left
It was about an hour’s walk up to Monte Padrio (2152m) and what a great spot it was too – beautiful views in every direction with just the tinkling of bells from the nearby goats providing a musical accompaniment to a beautiful sunset…
Camping at Monte Padrio – a perfect spot…
The trouble with camping above a S/SE’ly facing morning takeoff is that any clouds take a LONG time to clear the hill, leaving you shivering whilst you know there’s sunshine all around! This was the case on Monday morning, still, at least I had the goats (and a confused sheep with the longest ears in the world) for company! They weren’t at all interested in me until I got my bright orange down quilt out to warm myself up under – then I couldn’t get rid of them!
‘Dumbo’, the elephant-eared sheep!
By this stage in the trip (a week in) I was starting to think about where I might end up, and also examining options for flying home sometime during the week. I was flexible on dates, but I quite liked the idea of trying to meet up with fellow Advance Team member, Mike Sicco, who lives in Gemona del Fruili, so I plotted a vague route via Trento, Feltre, then on to Gemona.
Meteo-parapente was forecasting strong winds in the Trento valley later in the afternoon, so I knew a long flight was going to be tricky, so I was pretty happy with a 3 hour 66km flight, landing at the northern end of the mountains known as the Dolomiti di Brenta. It was a fun flight, passing old WW1 fortifications, the ski resort of Passo Tonale, and I had a wonderful ten minutes’ cloud-surfing before reaching the end of the valley and deciding to land high to avoid the wind in the Trento valley.
You can’t beat a few moments of serene cloud-surfing – such good fun!
Coming in to land high
Despite it being a cracking flight, I was a bit disappointed landing so early in the day especially as there was no sign of the forecast strong winds, and in hindsight I think I made a bad decision by focussing on getting across Trento and onwards to Feltre, rather than heading north into less stable conditions.
Red – my intended route, Green – with hindsight!
Anyway, we live and learn, and of course I wasn’t thinking about this as I enjoyed a four mile hike to find a suitable camping spot with good takeoff options for the next day… On the way I passed signs warning about bears, but all I saw were a few semi-wild horses!
What a view to wake up to!
Tuesday (day 9) dawned another glorious day, but the inversion was clearly visible. After de-camping up I hiked for about an hour up to the top of Monte Peller (2320m), a great spot with takeoffs in every direction. My goal was to try to get past Trento to Levico Terme, but with the stability it was clear it was going to be difficult. I took off just before 11 o’clock and glided over to the SE’ly facing cliffs where I found a weak climb which was just enough to get me across the next ridge in front.
Photobombed by a bee whilst waiting for the inversion to rise (a bit) on Monte Peller
The next four hours proved to be the most challenging, technical, and yet fun flying of the trip – I spent so much time scratching up close and personal to rock faces, including spending an hour on one particular section just to climb 300m!
“Pareidolia” (I had to Google it!)
But there were some spectacular views en route – this cliff beneath Cima Sophia blew me away (fortunately not literally!)
The almost vertical cliff beneath Cima Sophia (2360m) near the resort of Molveno
I ended up landing in quite a breeze on the edge of the village of Monte Terlago – I managed to hitch a lift most of the way to Trento on the back of a motorbike – it turned out he was a fellow paraglider pilot! So despite flying 41kms over the course of 4.5hrs I’d actually only made 27kms in the right direction! Still, it was a case of smiles not miles, and it was definitely a flight to remember…
Matteo the motorcyclist!
I had just enough time to down a beer and sandwich before the bus to Trento arrived, then a half hour wait at the main bus station before the Levico Terme bus left – I arrived there at 1830 in time for a really refreshing swim in the lake. Afterwards I treated myself to a cinque formaggi pizza – OMG, was it ever good!
But by now it was almost 9 o’clock and I still had to find somewhere to camp for the night – in the end I walked a little way up the hill towards the takeoff and found a quiet spot in the garden of an old house that was being renovated…!
It turned out to be a pretty good spot…
The next day (day 10) I was up at dawn, and on my way up the hill not long afterwards. I’d planned to walk some of the way to the takeoff (1500m) and hitch the rest, but I ended up hiking all the way, some 870m vertical, which took three knackering hours! And there was absolutely no shade on takeoff either… A couple of local pilots took off at midday and showed that it wasn’t working – thanks guys! Then 45 mins later it seemed better – birds were climbing out – and so I took off at 1300, and struggled, and struggled, and struggled some more! I ended up losing 600m before I found a succession of weak climbs as I headed east around the hill.
What an epic struggle!
It took me an hour to get back to takeoff height, then another 20 minutes before I found a climb which topped out at 2200m – wahoo, I was on my way at last!
Up, up and away (at last)!
It was plain sailing for the next 20kms, but the trouble was that the 2200m cloudbase was down to 1600m by this stage, and it just wasn’t high enough to let me progress further towards Feltre, which was only 15kms away. Instead I turned 90deg to the south and landed near Primolano, but not before I’d had a couple of decent sized collapses as I tried to push SE along the valley that eventually leads down to Bassano del Grappa.
Hmm, I don’t think the wing’s meant to be down there…
Ok, enough’s enough – I landed in the big green field in the centre of the pic
After a lovely cooling swim in the river I realised that this was probably a good place to call it a day. Over the last ten days I’d had an absolute blast, flying 800kms in eight flights, flying over some spectacular terrain, and meeting some lovely people, but the heat and insects were getting to me, plus the forecast was stable for the next couple of days… I was also missing Lisa, and I can’t deny that the thought of a comfy bed was in my mind too!! What clinched it was knowing that there was a flight home from Venice at 10 o’clock the following morning – if I could get there in time!
I’m loving these bars right next door to bus stops!
I walked to Primolano, and just had time for a quick beer before catching a bus to Bassano. I got on Facebook to ask if anyone I knew had a bed I could doss in for the night, and it didn’t take long to get one sorted! Thanks to Simon Fulford for putting me in touch with a local tandem pilot, Roberto Pivi, who put me up for the night, and arranged for an early taxi to the station the next morning, where I caught a train to Venice.
Little did I know that as I was enjoying a delicious final meal at the Jardin Relais Hotel (by the main Bassano LZ), 180kms to the west, Chris was enjoying a final night on a mountain above Bergamo, where he was flying home from the next day as well. Earlier he’d hitched up to a takeoff above Lecco, then flown the 20kms across Lake Como and landed high.
Chris finishing his trip in style!
He bumped into two Swiss volbivvers who were also camping there, and he had a fitting final night before a glide down to a railway station the next morning… Nice one Chris, I like your style!!
So there we have it, what an epic trip, from Nice to Venice! Yes, we got separated a bit too early, and the last days were tough, but I had learned a huge amount and really enjoyed flying into new areas of the Alps. Roll on 2021 and a bigger and better Gumball Transalps Rally! Maybe see you on it?
My route from Nice to Venice
To find out more about the Gumball Transalps Rally 2021 join the UK Vol Biv Pilots Facebook group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/UKVolBiv) and the Gumball Transalps Rally Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/gumballtransalpsrally).