Success in the first task – getting up in the generally reliable lift in the vicinity of takeoff – brings the reward of a stunning view of the Aletsch Glacier (at 23km, the longest glacier in the Alps). The peaks of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau can be identified above this spectacular “river of ice”.
If you’re not interested in clocking up kilometres, it’s usually quite easy to potter around the area between take-off and the Riederhorn, about 8km to the south-west, enjoying the scenery. In normal conditions, you can expect to find plenty of thermals (and gliders marking them) unless you’ve taken off very early. However, as there are no official landing options for the first 12km west of Fiesch, it’s a good idea to stay above take-off height here unless you’re confident of finding lift when you really need it in an unfamiliar area.
The track log below shows a route in normal conditions, i.e. around the middle of the day with cloudbase at a little over 3000m. The ayvri and XContest links show how I am able to benefit from buoyant air along above the spine of the ridge and to pick up thermals on both sides of it; this is typical. The relevant section comes in the middle of a flight when I had returned to Fiescheralp from the Goms, intending to fly into the main Rhône valley, but I changed my mind shortly after starting the transition after the Riederhorn, hence the eccentric turnpoint beyond the peak.
Early in the morning after a cold front or a storm due to overdevelopment the night before, cloudbase may well be below takeoff but rise swiftly as excess moisture in the air is soaked up and the temperature climbs. In these conditions, a low-level trip to the Riederhorn and back amongst forming cloud can be a delight, and you may well find that by the time you return to Heimat, base has reached sufficient height for you to embark upon the transition to the Goms. My track log below is from just such a flight, which despite a very low base of 2,250m initially, rising to 2,650m by the time I got back to takeoff little more than an hour later, was going ok until rain stopped play soon afterwards.
Note that I am picking up most of my thermals from the shoulder where the steep tree-covered slope rising from the valley flattens out to form the Riederalp/Bettmeralp/Fiescheralp plateau. In the afternoon, this area often still works, but is less reliable than the higher route shown above, and the thermals are likely to be drifting and torn in a south-westerly valley breeze.
The usual XC direction in which to start is to the east, into the Goms valley, as the more easterly aspect of the terrain there means that it typically begins to work well before the more southerly-facing slopes to the west. I strongly recommend maximising height before starting the 5km glide across the Fieschertal towards the shoulder above Bellwald, the village on the shoulder to the east of take-off. If you are no longer in lift and have 2800m or more directly from takeoff, you can set off immediately, but most pilots head left along the slope for 1km to the north, for a top-up in a second house thermal, to shorten the transition. If base is low or the thermals are poor, you can even head a further km north to reduce the length of the crossing. It is nearly always a mistake to allow yourself to be pressurised into leaving low because you have lost your thermal or been struggling to get good height. This is likely to lead to even more difficulty at Bellwald, because you will arrive even lower, in an area where thermals near the terrain tend to be scrappy, with a variable location, and the valley floor is higher.
As you glide across the Fieschertal valley, you will usually find smooth air and relatively gentle sink as you enjoy spectacular views of the 4274m Finsteraarhorn and Fiescher glacier on your left. I have never encountered significant turbulence or seen anyone take a hit on this transition, so it can be a good opportunity to make any minor comfort adjustments to your harness, or to take some pictures.