Geography

The main ridge of the Alps, often 2,000m from top to bottom, extends for 200km across the south of Switzerland, with only a few interruptions.

Main ridge

Fiesch provides excellent access from which to join this XC superhighway. The air is often very dry here, so cloudbases well over 3,000m are standard throughout the summer, and heights of 4,000m can be expected on several days every year. Even if you ignore the potential to fly large distances, the local area provides reliable soaring conditions and breathtaking scenery. However, there are nearly always flows of air along the main valley and/or blowing out of side valleys which need to be reckoned with.

Of course, the features which produce such exciting flying come at a price. The combination of strong thermals, large mountains and deep intersecting valleys can produce clashes between different airflows and significant valley winds, which deserve great respect. When the PWC had a round here in August 2006, the information for competitors on their website referred to the reputation of the area as “The Owens Valley of the Alps”. It’s necessary to assess the meteorological situation carefully before flying and then, once airborne, to remain vigilant for signs of change – but these precautions apply throughout the Alps. Incidents when tasks have been set in marginal conditions have led to a number of competition pilots vowing never to fly in Fiesch again, but as long as you are disciplined enough to put the idea of flying aside when the weather is unsuitable, familiar with assessing the hazards of mountain flying, and capable of keeping your glider under control in active air, there is no need for excessive concern. However, in my experience, it’s unusual to have a long flight here without encountering challenging conditions at some point, so it’s important to be able to hang on in there and maintain your motivation to fly when the air feels unfriendly – provided, of course, that you are confident that this isn’t because the conditions have actually become genuinely malignant.

Gliding at speed despite intimidating terrain and air as active as the sky suggests.

Gliding at speed despite intimidating terrain and air as active as the sky suggests.

On the positive side of the safety equation, the thermals here are often large and tend to break away from the ground and rise vertically, rather than sticking to the slope, minimising the need to spend time working rough stuff close in to terrain. Especially when flying tandem here with my wife, I’m pleased to have this extra margin of security. Unless you are in a hurry or have got low and are trying to scratch up again, in normal conditions it really is easy to adopt a policy of “get high and stay high”.

Wonderful consistent ground clearance throughout this flight

Wonderful consistent ground clearance throughout this flight (click here for Doarama visualisation, here for XContest details)

However, the really big flights require sound risk assessment skills. For example, many pilots who regularly fly along the Rhône valley west of Brig consider that the climbs rolling up the windward faces are useless if you want to make good progress, so they deliberately go for leeside thermals there. And if you intend to bag the third turnpoint for your classic 200k FAI triangle, you must accept that there are no recommended landing options for 15km in the Saas valley.

Panoramic view of the main flying area from the south

Panoramic view of the main flying area from the south

The transport facilities take all the hassle out of XC (or bombing out!). It’s five minutes’ walk from the main landing field to the bottom station of the cable car, which is big enough to take even rigid wings up from the valley floor, at 1,000m, to takeoff height at Fiescheralp, a little over 2,000m. The ridge immediately behind take-off tops out at Eggishorn, nearly 3,000m.  Then there are 4,000m peaks to the north (including the Eiger, Mönch, Jungfrau and Finsteraarhorn) which provide a stunning backdrop to the flying. Getting back to Fiesch after east-west XCs is simple, using the trains running every hour along the valley floor, unless you exceed 120km to the east or 90km to the west (or land quite late in the day).