Euro 2011 - Day 8 - Sondrio to Sisteron

Follow our flight with the photo journal below, to read how Dan got on with the drive click his diary

The forecast for the next couple of days showed showers and thunderstorms breaking out over the central and eastern alps as a weak warm front slid across from the north-west to stall over Switzerland and the northern French Alps. The decision was made to relocate to Sisteron in Haute Provence, as it was the only place far enough south and west that looked as though it would escape most of the weather.

We prepared to launch and lined up at the far end of "our" runway.

Dan looked unusually pensive as he held the wing for us, probably mulling over the long drive ahead and the potential for mad cyclist and lorry driver encounters when crossing the passes into France...
We launched at around 1030, setting off east down the Sondrio valley where the convection appeared more reliable with higher cloudbases.
We had a last look down the main valley that had been our home for the last five days, then worked our way up NE of Sondrio town, eventually making 10,500' off one of the high back cols.
Once established, we could see the rear of Bernina and a few high, short-lived cumulus near the pass into the Engadin.
Due to a NE'ly drift and the early morning sun, we found tight climbs, mostly in the blue, coming off the east-facing slopes of the Poschiavo valley.
The air was crisp and clear and we managed to get to 11,000' along the ridge running up to the eastern end of the Bernina massif. The decision had already been made to route NW through the St. Moritz area as the lower ground looked much more stable.
There were spectacular views of hanging glaciers and snow domes as we tucked in tight to the sunny flanks of the ridgeline.
The air was mildly positive but no usable thermals were reaching this high, so we crossed over into the Engadin.

We slowly sank down as we tracked in the direction of St. Moritz, passing over the glaciers running down from the northern side of Bernina. There wasn't much lift about and after a few abortive turns we did a low pass over a mountain restaurant, already packed to overflowing with sun-worshippers, then set off towards the far side of the main valley.

There was 3-4kts to over 11,000' just west of St. Moritz, which led to a run out through the Maloja Pass. We moved steadily west from there, passing north of San Vittore, Locarno and Masera in moderate conditions with 3-4kts and 10,500-11,000' bases.


Looking further west, there were two possible routes: cross over into Switzerland and attempt to work the upper Rhone Valley and into France past Mont Blanc or creep round the southern flanks of Monte Rosa and into the Aosta Valley, then into the Mont Blanc area that way.

The southern route won the day as it looked blue and possibly stable in the Rhone Valley and we didn't want to get caught unable to cross the high passes and have to take the long route round the west of Mt. Blanc.

Cloudbase steadily fell as we started to cross the many ridgelines that run south from Monte Rosa.
Climbs were weak but we needed them to vault over each ridge in turn.
We could see the air drying out in the distance but the climbs were getting weaker and narrower.
Although there were clouds forming the thermals were almost non-existent and required a lot of patience to work the tiny bubbles coming off the trigger points.
We finally could see into the Aosta Valley, where it appeared to be almost totally blue.
The lift was going slightly higher in the blue but still very weak and only triggering in a few places.

The was a good looking group of clouds near the head of the Aosta Valley, in what was probably a minor convergence. They had 5kts written all over them but we could only average 2kts in sheared and broken lift having searched the whole area.

We had a peek across to the Swiss side and it appeared to be even more stable, so were glad we'd chosen the southern option.

There were little puffs coming out the the deep valley behind Mont Blanc but they looked hard work, so we turned south towards the high altitude ski resorts of Meribel and Courchevel in the hope of picking something off the upper slopes.
A brief glimpse of the summit of Mont Blanc as we head into France.
Again, there was lift coming off the cols and end-of-valley trigger points but it was still weak and fitful.
The occasional tiny puff formed but they weren't a great guide as to where the lift was.
Looking back the way we'd come, the clouds were evaporating fast as the airmass dried and stabilised.
Leaving Courchevel behind, we tiptoed south, hoping to have enough height at the end of the valley to cross over into the Maurienne.
Conditions were still mostly blue with very faint markers.
We just needed to keep enough altitude along the edge of the Grand Casse but there were no signs of lift.
We could have crossed over the Col de la Vanoise to the area around Sollieres but that would have left quite a long run down the Maurienne which we knew from many past experiences could become difficult to leave if you dropped below the level of the passes.
We arrived on the western flank of the Grand Casse.
Would there be still air, or worse, sink?
Surprisingly, there was an intermittent line of weak lift on the edge of the snowline which allowed us to run the whole length of the Grand Casse without losing any height.
We popped into the Maurienne with 500' to spare and were able to glide directly across, over the Col Frejus with a similar margin and into the Bardoneccia Valley.
There was a nice 4kts in the blue to 11,700' just above Bardoneccia town, probably boosted by the end-of-valley convergence. This was gratifying as there were no markers at all in this area and it could easily have been completely stable. Husbanding the height 20mins earlier and choosing the higher route had made the difference between a relatively easy crossing and a very likely struggle out of the Maurienne.
After going in and out of Italy, we set off south towards Briancon then St. Crepin. We had our first Flarm contacts of the flight and passed by a couple of gliders who were finding it difficult, like us, in the blue area south of Briancon.

The conditions in the blue were similar to those we'd experienced earlier on and it was becoming rather frustrating. I remembered one of Jacques Noel's hotspots from a soaring course long ago and it worked well in an area almost devoid of lift. (Thanks Jacques!)

This enabled us to cross into the Barcelonette valley and explore down to the boundary with the Nice TMA, then run back up the Parcours, which was working rather modestly, and into the Ecrins.

The evening sun was playing on the upper slopes of the high peaks and we worked our way up to 13,200' in the last of the thermal activity before gliding off the height on the way down to Sisteron.
We passed over the Glacier Blanc, the Glacier Noir and many of the spectacularly jagged peaks of the Ecrins massif including Mt. Pelvoux and Barre des Ecrins.
We turned St. Auban and were surprised to find a smooth thermal coming out the valley bottom. We glid off a further 70Km by way of the Crete de Selles.
New on the scene since our last visit was a massive solar installation between Gap and La Motte.
We wound our way down into the circuit at Sisteron.
Setting up for a final approach onto RW36.

Touching down at 1915.

It had been a fascinating day of hard-earned progress from the Engadine in the morning to Provence in the evening. There had been lots of tactical transitions in what were fairly benign but weak conditions: if we had dropped out of the upper layer at any point, it would have added greatly to the difficulty as the thermals were reluctant enough at high level let alone on the lower slopes.