200k FAI triangle

This legendary route has now become the classic flight from Fiesch.  It begins along the Goms, to an easterly turnpoint near the Rhône Glacier, returns back past take-off again to continue along the main Rhône valley to a westerly turnpoint beyond Sion, and from there heads south-east to a southerly turnpoint near Saas-Fee or Zermatt, before the final leg back to Fiesch.   This XContest page contains hundreds of track logs which you can peruse to see exactly how this challenge has been accomplished.  However, be aware that the UK XC League flight rules would not accept this route for an FAI triangle declaration, because it does not start and finish at one of the apices.

This flight (not one of mine) shows a fairly typical choice of route and turnpoints:

Complications include airspace issues around Sion, and only limited landing options away from the Rhône valley, where the breeze at ground level may well exceed paraglider trim speed in mid-afternoon.  This wind affects conditions at considerable altitude, resulting in the cracks preferring stronger leeside climbs there over the torn thermals on windward slopes.  A substantial proportion of pilots accomplish this route on EN-B gliders; indeed, a higher rated wing may even be a handicap due to the difficulty of maintaining the intense concentration required to fly a hot ship for many hours in big air.  I have never completed this feat, so the information here is based partly on my experience flying various sections of the route, and also on advice from better pilots than me who have achieved it.

At this point, I will assume that you have read the pages on Fiescheralp and the Goms, as these cover the initial stages of the flight, and are nearing the end of your return trip along the Goms, having taken your first turnpoint in the Grimselpass area.  Both flanks of the shoulder above Bellwald are likely to be baking in direct sun, and generating the strongest conditions of the flight so far, so I generally take full advantage of the lift here to max out before setting off back across the Fieschertal towards Eggishorn.  On days with a really high base, you may be able to arrive above the peak, and you will then be in an excellent position to pick up lift off the spine of the ridge leading to the Riederhorn. With less height, the thermal 1km north-east of the Heimat takeoff (which may well have provided your final climb before you started across the Fieschertal on the way out) may still be working; otherwise there are usually plenty of gliders in the general area marking the lift. Experienced pilots have told me that I should try taking a line behind Eggishorn, beside the Aletsch Glacier, but I lack the confidence that I will always find lift here, and no sensible landing options are visible if you go that way.

Usual location of thermal in front of Eggishorn

Usual location of thermal in front of Eggishorn on the return from Bellwald

You can expect base be higher and the thermals stronger than when you started here earlier.  It’s not unusual to find that the conditions below ridge level are uncomfortably choppy at this point in the flight; I suspect that this turbulence is caused by the arrival of the normal main Rhône valley wind, flowing up from Brig to Fiesch.  The air is likely to become smoother as you gain height.  Once above Eggishorn level, pilots seem to choose one of three route options, with examples shown below.  The Tiger line is favoured by the cracks and requires plenty of height; from Eggishorn they immediately cross the Aletsch Glacier towards the big mountains to the west, confident of picking up lift as they traverse across the south-easterly facing slopes below.  The Standard line runs along the glacier side of the spine connecting Eggishorn and Riederhorn, and seems to be reliably buoyant, with the likely added bonus of a couple of good climbs on the way.  The Cautious line, above the sunny slopes of Bettmeralp and Riederalp, is the instinctive choice of those who are apprehensive to be on what feels like the “wrong” side of a ridge, but the lift here can be surprisingly disappointing.

Examples of routes from Eggishorn into the main Rhône valley

Examples of routes from Eggishorn into the main Rhône valley

Beyond Brig, it’s usual to continue along the sunny south-facing side of the valley.  The ground features are much larger than the spines and gullies in the Goms, so there are generally more well defined areas of lift and sink, and longer glides between thermals.  The valley breeze becomes an increasingly important feature, as it tends to strengthen and reach higher altitudes, the further you advance to the west, so you are likely to make faster progress and experience less turbulence by staying high.  If you lose height, which forces you out towards the valley over lower terrain, I strongly recommend making it your first priority to work your way back up towards the spine of the main ridge rather than attempting to push into this headwind.  Not only would staying in this valley breeze reduce your groundspeed, but you would find yourself spending much of your time in leeside conditions.

Looking west along the Rhône valley, with Visp low down on the left

Looking west along the Rhône valley, with Visp low down on the left

You will soon be approaching the Sion TMA – hopefully you have made yourself aware of its status from the Daily Airspace Bulletin for Switzerland!  Mil off times include a short period in the middle of the day – 12:05 to 13:15 – which may enable you fly through some parts legally if you launched early and have made rapid progress.  Don’t be tempted to follow other gliders for guidance if you are uncertain about the geography here, as they may have obtained permission to cross the airspace, or even be ignorant of its boundaries.  The next two cruxes are the transitions at Gampel and Leuk; again, height is your biggest asset in getting up again successfully after these glides.  Once past the large ski area at Crans Montana, you will need to decide where to take your second turnpoint; most pilots aiming to clock up 200km will turn near Les Diablerets.  As this is the longest leg of your triangle, continuing further may not improve your score (if that bothers you!) due to the way that the software optimises points.  You will by now have flown well over 100km, and it is likely to be mid-afternoon.

You must now make an important decision concerning your route.  These days, the area around Saas Fee seems to be chosen most frequently for the third turnpoint, so I will assume that this is roughly where you will be heading.  You have three options, as shown below. 

Les Diablerets to Saas Fee route options

Les Diablerets to Saas Fee route options

Option a is the long way round, but the least committing.  You simply retrace your outward route until Visp, where you cross the main Rhône valley to the west-facing flank of the entrance to the Vispertal.  This slope, leading up to the antenna on Gibidum, may be soarable in the Rhône valley breeze from quite low down, but any dynamic lift will fade as you ascend, and disappear as soon as you fly up the valley, which lacks decent landing options, so you need to pick up a thermal here before continuing.  The height of the valley floor and the mountains increases steadily as you progress further; maintaining plenty of altitude is likely to lead to a more relaxing experience than a lower line.  I have been told that going down here may not be as bad as you might expect, and that landing at Saas Balen (about half way between the Rhône valley and your likely turnpoint) is quite reasonable, but I am glad that I have absolutely no first hand experience on which to form an opinion on that suggestion!

Usual late afternoon airflow at Visp

Option b is the most direct route, and seems to be the favourite of the most experienced pilots. You fly back only as far as Sierre, where you then cross the main Rhône valley towards the Illhorn, at the entrance of the Val d’Anniviers. This will require taking account of the status of the Sion TMA.  At various times, it may be only the CTR which you may not enter, while the rest of the airspace is inactive, enabling a simpler crossing. From the Illhorn, you continue to head south-east, across the Turtmanntal and Mattertal; the landing possibilities are more scanty than for option a.  However, you are likely to be here at the time of day when base is at its highest, so if there are plenty of cumulus around which have been providing reliable lift so far, you may be confident that you can cloud-hop over this terrain or find thermals off the sunny slopes below.  Also, Mil off resumes at 17.05, allowing you an extra 500m of height to play with.

Option c avoids the TMA completely, by flying around its western border, and is shorter than option a.  However, it is the most committing of the three choices, as the route crosses many high alpine valleys where landing out would be an unattractive prospect.  Choosing a third turnpoint to the west of Saas Fee may make more sense when approaching this area from that direction.

The last leg back to Fiesch

The last leg back to Fiesch

Once you have taken your southerly turnpoint, you will now be around 40km from completing the flight.  In good conditions, you may well find yourself at base with over 4000m at this stage, in which case reaching the Fiesch landing field at 1050m can be quick and easy.  Alternatively, if it’s late in the day and the thermals are fizzling out, it may be a struggle or even unattainable.  The “high” and “low” tracks in the image above show the extremes; in practice your route is likely to lie somewhere in between the two.  Climbs may be found on west facing slopes in front of the Fletschhorn, the last 4000m peak of the ridge heading north from Saas Fee, and the Fülhorn, the mountain just to the east of Brig.  You should stay to the west of the Simplonpass road unless you really have a lot of height, to avoid the risk of getting trashed in the leeside turbulence of the Rhône valley wind to the east of Rosswald.

Even if there is a substantial westerly wind at the Fülhorn, leading you to believe that you’ll have the assistance of a tailwind on your final glide, I recommend that you aim to have plenty of height in reserve before setting off, as it’s still possible (especially with north overpressure) that you could encounter a headwind, due to the Grimselschlange penetrating down the Goms well beyond Fiesch.  Finally, you are likely to reach the landing field so late in the day that there may well be a katabatic north-easterly off the Fieschergletscher at ground level!