iconic places


10h 15min, that's how long the extraordinary flight in the Alps lasted. No engine, no landing, between three glaciers: Grossglockner, Solden, Marmolada

The thing with iconic places is that you have to experience them to understand their power and charm. For paragliders, an iconic place is certainly the alpine mountain Grente above the Antholz valley in South Tyrol. My experience was like this: 

We set off from Gdynia at 7:30 in the morning on Monday. We arrive at Antholz around midnight. We set up a makeshift camp on the side of a mountain, in the forest, under the entrance gate to a nature reserve. We wake up around 5 a.m., set up the camp and set off at 6 a.m. There is no ski resort or public road on Grente. You have to bring your equipment on foot to the start. It is important not to go too fast and not to use up all the glycogen stored in the blood. Especially since the flight can last all day. At the end of the route there is a shepherd's hut, where you can drink coffee and replenish your water supply. The trail is picturesque. It is passed by all the para-pilgrims who want to get to the legendary start. There is no other way. 

At the launch site (2300m above sea level) I am at 8:30 a.m. Early for flying, but it is possible to take off from Grente even at 9 a.m. Probably because the mountain has a southeast exposure, and the mountain range above the valley reaches over 3000m and stretches many kilometers to the northeast. This allows you to fly for a few hours, when the thermals in the surrounding areas are still asleep. And there is plenty of places to fly. The classic route stretches over a triangle between the Grossglockner Glacier, the glaciers in the Sölden area and the Marmolada Glacier in the Dolomites. 

The first pilots depart for the route at 9:30 a.m. Colored glaives stencil the route in space. I take off at 9:50 a.m. The first arm of the triangle is difficult. I fly it unhurriedly, respecting the altitude I get deep into the valley. I don't look back at the gliders ahead of me. They know the patents (they fly on the furniture, as it is called) and I do not. The thermals are already working, but it doesn't mean they are strong enough to fly without vigilance. It's delicate, not very warm, and there are no clouds. The winds are grinding, the inversions are breaking, the rocks are warming up slowly. The air is turbulent enough that I don't mind taking pictures. And in the valley, on the direction of the flight is a pass at about 2000m that I have to cross. It's barely 15km from the start. It would be silly to land here and watch gajets flying overhead for the rest of the day. After a good hour of flying cautiously I get over that obstacle. After the pass it's a little easier. I speed up. 

After another hour I reach the Isel river valley (the valley leading to Lienz). From this jump or maybe more from this time thermals are in full swing. Clouds appear in the sky, the flight goes higher. There are also first pilots coming back after "passing" the glacier. The turning point in the Grossglockner region has to be set more or less before noon. Each pilot places this point somewhere else, each optimizes it and decides when and where to turn back in his own way. I turn back at 12:30 - late. 

Cloud bases are at 4000m. The peloton is stretching west towards Sölden. This part of the route I fly at full speed, catching up with time. Flying is logical, thermals are strong, there are many glaives in the air showing lift. Around 16:15 I make my own turn before Solden and turn southeast towards Dolomites. 

The Alps look insane. The flight towards the Dolomites causes an explosion of sensations and emotions. Majestic rocky teeth shine with orange luminosity. But how to get there? Should I fly through fishtail and sausage (as the spots are commonly called) or maybe in a different way? Where is the wind coming from and what is working at that time? Paragliders with whom I was flying in a group dispersed in the sky. I see someone flying close to the ground. Pilots mixed up with trainees and pilots with different plans than mine. Who is who in this aquarium? What's the patent on the Dolce jump? Or maybe they were all washed out because the bottom was blown? It is about 2-3 km below me. And in front of me there is a many kilometers long jump over Brunico valley. Dolomites are covered with clouds. Is it normal that the sky is covered? Will the mountains work? Or should I close the route now and fly straight to the airstrip? Slowing down. The whole difficulty with flying in such mountains is that the mountains breathe at their own rhythm. There are places where valley winds blow from three sides in one direction. Flying there is easy and pleasant because the clash of winds carries everything, but only until the time when the wind turns in one of the valleys and takes the heated air somewhere else. Then, despite the sunshine, the slopes don't feel so hot, and there's a draft when you land. And somehow it is so, that if it is blowing in one place, it is suffocating in another. 

I am here for the first time. I fly vigilantly like a dragonfly. I reach the walls of Cima Nove, Cima Dieci and Monte Cavallo. Majestic vertical wall below me. Below me! Surely there are climbers on it. But I don't like such observations. I should fly further south towards Cortina d'Ampezzo to close the FAI triangle. It would probably be 250, but it's almost 7 pm and I still have to go back and most of Dolomites are in shadow. And I would like to land near the start more than stretch the route. I turn back. Thermals are getting weaker with every minute. I'm flying slowly, squeezing hard on the old roads. I spell reality: just don't spoil it, don't get flushed. All heard advice pops into my head. And these mountains also appear so dangerous, the shadows lengthen hiding the world in deep dark valleys. I'm crawling towards the start and suddenly Dariusz "Muzyk" Chrobak appears next to me, coming back from the depths of Dolomites. Muzyk is a champion and as befits a champion he flies with confidence, not wasting time for terrain scouting. He breaks through to the Kronplatz foreground. I fly on the goose behind him. What the hell! If it works for him, it will work for me too!  

I make the last chimney of the day. The musician has already turned off and left. I enjoy the moment. I can see Dolomites in the sun, clouds break up and thermals end my day. I know I will make it. The moment fills me with wild joy. 

At 20:07, after 10 hours and 15 minutes of flight I land at Grente. On the counter I have 240km of flat triangle route. We gather and talk with the pilots who made it. We work through the moments and emotions. And there were moments. Everyone had his own. It is great. This is a phenomenal difference from my powered photo flights. There I am alone with my emotions. After all, after photo I fly alone and away from other pilots, so they don't get in my frames. 

Anyway, everyone from my team made it. All the more I am glad I did not risk it. We don't have to drive ourselves and after a while the pizza tastes great. We crash at a classic campsite around midnight, only to get up at 5am the next morning, roll up camp and head off to the start.... 

But that's a whole other story ;-))

Congratulations d to Dariusz Chrobak (who did 285km FAI) Szafranek, Tomek "Polendwicy" Krupski, Andrzej Trebenda, Stefan Piasecki, Boguslaw Zdrowak, Wojtek Galicy, Jaroslaw Jozik, Maciej Gąsiorek, Bartek Stuchlik and all other pilots with whom I experienced this epic journey to Grente. And thank you very much for your tips. Also the ones that are inconspicuous or unconscious.... until they're picked up from memory during the flight! 

Track of my flight:


PL pilots flight chart is here: