Escapee Alex Ledger explains how he took off for Mt. Blanc where he went paragliding and mountaineering to spectacular results. Read his post and check out his video.
Mont Blanc has been on my ‘bucket list’ for a while and in September I found a small window of opportunity to tick it off the list. The aim: to climb and fly from the summit of Mt. Blanc! Normally I am busy running SkySchool courses in September however with a week off I took the opportunity to pull together a group of pilots and mountaineers to take on the challenge. The team consisted of Neil Laughton, who has climbed the Seven Summits and also flew the SkyCar across the Gibraltar Straits in 2009; Tim Reeve, a retired soldier and two ex-students, Ian Hadfield and Chris Glennie.
Eeach member of the team carried a Paraglider, harness, reserve parachute, climbing harness, 30m rope, helmet, ice axe, walking poles, crampons, food, water and spare clothing – by no means a light load. With our equipment packed and ready we took the first lift to the Aiguille du Midi which stands at a breath taking 3,842m (12,600ft) above sea level.
The Aiguille du Midi has the highest vertical ascent cable car in the world, from 1,035m to 3,842m, and was to be the location of our test flight. The lack of acclimatisation after such a rapid height gain can quickly result in acute mountain sickness. Fortunately none of the team was seriously affected and with crampons fitted and ice axe in hand we passed through the tunnel towards the exit on to the ridge of the mountain. It was at this point the almost vertical drop on both sides of the ridge brought home the reality of what we were about to do.
As this was only my third time using crampons I was paired and connected by a 30m rope with Neil. His briefing was very simple, “if you start to fall, shout ‘falling’, I will decide which side of the mountain to jump in order to counteract you. Dig the pointy end of your ice axe into the snow while holding it close to your chest and lift your feet up so your crampons don’t make you back flip. Now off you go”. I’m all for going in at the deep end however this really sharpened my senses, one false move and I would be back down in Chamonix in a matter of seconds, the extra weight of the paraglider slopping around on my back making things even more precarious! The key to mountaineering is to trust your kit and work as a team. I therefore focused on taking short steps and digging my crampons in hard before taking the next step. I also maintained a constant dialogue with Neil who gave advice and encouragement and at last we made our way down the ridge in one piece.
Upon reaching the take-off area we took the opportunity to catch our breath and take in the stunning views of Chamonix approximately 8,000ft below. There was no turning back now. We packed away our ice axes and crampons in our rucksack and then prepared our wings. Due to the lack of wind and thinner air we had to run a lot further and faster than usual, with no margin for error. With a small gust of wind I launched my canopy and simply ran off the edge of the mountain. Within seconds I was out over the sheer ice wall with nothing below me for several thousand feet. With only a gentle touch on the controls I put in some really big banking turns right next to the cliff face and could feel the G force increase through the harness as the turns became bigger and more dynamic. It was a fantastic feeling doing these manoeuvres so close to the mountain and unlike anything I had experienced before.
Once over the landing area in Chamonix I still had over 5,000ft of altitude to play with and I made the most of this by doing a prolonged series of acrobatic manoeuvres, which further added to the exhilaration. Upon landing I was greeted by the rest of the team, all with big smiles on their faces having achieved something very special indeed. At this point we had to re-assess our expedition plans. The conditions were set to deteriorate rapidly due to an approaching cold front. They predicted 60mph winds on the summit and cloud from 2,500m by mid-day making both climbing and flying impossible. We therefore made the decision to climb up to 10,000ft, spend the night at the Tete Rousse hut and then launch from there the following morning. Even though the summit attempt had to be cancelled there was no sense of disappointment. It was a fantastic learning experience for all of us and we have already made plans to return for a second attempt in 2013. Follow the link for the video.