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Hike and Fly (and train) - Chamonix France

Guest post by Bill Zimmerman, inspired by 'lifewithoutacar'







· Alps,Paraglide,Hike and Fly

Mountain friends Bill Zimmerman and Ryoko Amano share how they traveled in, up, and above Chamonix, without their car of course. Blog post written by Bill.

My paragliding partner and I turned an “unflyable” November day in Chamonix into an unforgettable hike and fly, door-to-door, without a car.

The infrastructure in the Chamonix valley is truly phenomenal. Nowhere else on earth can you ascend 2,742m (9,000 vertical feet) in the space of twenty minutes. Alpinists and skiers can sip cappuccinos at their leisure prior to boarding the cable car, pursue an adventure in the high alpine of the Mont Blanc massif, and return to the valley the same afternoon. This would be unthinkable in my native Pacific Northwest, where a similar outing might be done over several days.

Easy access to the mountains, not available for most of November. Credit: Thierry Llansades - Flicker / CC

Like all mechanical systems, this network of cable lifts and stations needs regular maintenance. These periods of downtime coincide with the low or "shoulder" seasons in the valley when visitor numbers dwindle. During the last three weeks of November, Chamonix enters a brief dormant phase when all the lifts, including the Aiguille du Midi, are typically closed. For some, this is a waiting period (une petite pause) before the winter season begins in earnest. The Aiguilles on both sides of the valley are relatively quiet for a change. Mountain fauna like marmots, chamois and ibex outnumber Homo sapiens alpinus.

A passing mid-November cold front covered the peaks above Chamonix and the valley floor with fresh snow—the first of the season. Rock faces shimmering with rime ice beckoned against a cobalt sky. I started feeling the familiar pull to get back up into the hills.

Of course, the mountains are ever-present—one just has to work a little harder than usual to access them this time of year.

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Paragliding, which has become my primary obsession, has a sub-discipline often called "hike and fly" or vol rando. This is analogous to earning your turns in ski touring or splitboarding. The hike and fly pilot trades vehicles and/or mechanical lifts for lightweight gear and trekking poles to seek out less frequented or otherwise "wild" takeoffs in the high mountains. It's from this pursuit that the Red Bull X-Alps, one of the world's toughest adventure races, was born. With the lifts closed for the season and weather conditions improving, it was a perfect time to go for it.

The weekend forecast appeared mixed for flying. Mid-mountain winds were light, north to northeast, but an inversion layer with low clouds predicted for Chamonix valley reduced the likelihood of getting airborne. My default "backyard" hike and fly, Plan Praz, is a vertical kilometer trail with south- and north-facing takeoffs at 2000m. I'd had a spectacular flight there earlier in the week, but near-term prospects were looking bleak.

Around this time my intrepid flying partner, Ryoko, proposed an alternative. Why not head up the valley, toward the Swiss border, and do a hike and fly near Vallorcine? The valley floor is roughly 300m higher there, so it was likely to be above an inversion layer. The nearby Alpage de Loriaz is a known destination for hike and fly paragliders. There are no established takeoffs in the area and with a fair amount of snow on the ground, this would be an ideal flying objective for us. Better still, the Mont Blanc Express train would deliver us nearly from our front doors to within ten minutes of the trailhead. The plan was set into motion. We agreed on a departure time and packed our gear.

Added bonus: public transportation is totally free within Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, year round, to everyone.

It was well below freezing as I shouldered my glider and set out the next morning. As predicted, the sky above Chamonix was a dull, uniform grey with a low ceiling hanging just above the valley. I crunched through the icy remains of the previous week's snow and crossed the street to the train platform. Ryoko was there and we hopped aboard the train a few minutes later.

Our plan was definitely coming together. Entering the village of Argentière, the cloud layer gave way to bright sun and clear skies. A short while later, we exited at Le Buet station and started up the trail to Loriaz. The trail was icy but we made good progress and arrived at the refuge an hour and a half later. From there, the alpage stretched out in all directions with views across to the Domaine du Tour and in the distance the Aiguille Verte, Les Droites, Aiguille d'Argentière, Grandes Jorasses, Dent du Géant, Midi and Mont Blanc itself.

Scouting for a takeoff. Ryoko happened to have a tiny windsock, which indicated zero wind.

We chose a line in the direction of a nearby col, not too far from the border of France and Switzerland. The terrain steepened somewhat, was free of obstacles and had a clear runout, which made it preferable for a takeoff. We noted the direction of Vallorcine where we'd planned to land. After stomping out short runways in the snow we prepared our wings. There was no perceptible breeze in any direction, which meant we'd need to use more energy to inflate our gliders and achieve flight. Fortunately, we both had good takeoffs on our first attempts. Then we were off and flying.

The sensation of flying with an ultra lightweight glider in the mountains is second to none. Professional climber Cedar Wright dubbed it "sky crack" which aptly describes the addictive nature of this niche sport. Getting to a flying site under your own power, scouting a takeoff, evaluating conditions and landing safely takes this fix to the next level.

Land we did, just beside the Vallorcine train station, ten minutes after takeoff. We were stoked to have had an incredibly scenic, albeit brief, descent rather than the alternative of proceeding cautiously down an ice-covered trail. A minor snag in our car-free plans was that the next train departure wasn't for nearly three hours.

The Suunto track from takeoff to landing

Lucky for us, a fairly strong tradition of hitchhiking exists between the villages that connect Chamonix. Over the years I've picked up many hitchhikers in the valley, so it was our turn to put the thumbs out (or faire du stop, as the French say). Ryoko succeeded in securing a ride for us in the first three minutes and we were dropped in the center of Chamonix shortly thereafter. Door-to-door, we'd relied only on public transport, the kindness of strangers and our own two feet to achieve an unforgettable flight.

It would have been easy to talk ourselves out of trying on what appeared to be an unflyable day. In the end, we couldn't imagine passing up an experience like this. If that weren't enough, this marked our first "official" hike and fly from a non-established paragliding site and without guidance from a more experienced local pilot.

Sometimes you can pull off amazing things if you decide to jump in and trust your abilities.

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