A clear blue sky with not a cloud is sight suggested a difficult day of soaring. Thermals are usually under clouds and if there are no clouds, are there any thermals and where are they?
Thermals are large bubbles of warmer air which rise from the ground. If you have ever watched a lava lamp you have an idea of how they work. Unlike a lava lamp you cannot see the bubble.
We knew that as the day warmed up thermals would rise from peaks and ridges of the hills and mountains so we arranged a tow after lunch. The air felt lively and we bounced around a bit on the end of the tow rope then after 2000 feet detached ourselves from the tow rope.
Immediately there was the awful feeling of still air with no thermal but we flew over the top of a hill and felt rising air lifting our wings.
We circled around and at 5500 feet set off in search of another thermal over a higher hill. Soon we were flying towards a mountain called Las Blancas where the trees gave way to bare rock and snow at 7000 feet.
From Las Blancas a ridge runs up towards the highest Pyrenean peaks and we flew a few hundred feet above the ridge which gave gentle lift all the way to the end where a vigorous kick of rising air took us up to 8500 feet. Then the really exciting bit of getting close to the highest peaks where, flying just a wingspan away from the rocks, there is rising air.
We flew east until the peaks gave way to the great gash of the Canfranc Valley, a place where road and rail go through tunnels into France. Crossing the valley cost us height but quickly picked it up again and flew on towards Ordesa Gorge.
Ordesa Gorge is Europe’s answer to the Grand Canyon. Up to 4000 feet deep with almost vertical sides it is a wonderful nature reserve of rivers and forest, cliffs, lakes and snow.
The rock formations are folded into dramatic curves and precipices with changing colours.
We were now 65 km from the airfield and decided to turn back. Again we had another long run without needing to turn in thermals and travelled west.
At one point we saw a group of climbers traversing a snow field toward a rocky peak. We waved our wings at them. We would be back for supper but they would have a cold night in one of the refuge huts. At one point I saw a large animal running across a scree.
There are said to be no bears left in the Pyrenees, maybe it was a mountain goat, an Ibex or an Izard, a type of antelope.
We flew with several Griffon Vultures but today saw no golden eagles or the rare Lammergeier, a bearded vulture. A collision with a vulture proved fatal for a pilot 2 years ago.
Eventually the power of the sun weakened and we began to lose height. For a final half hour we flew over the Aragon Valley with its river flowing into Lake Yesa and circled a medieval hilltop village called Berdun.
Eventually we called the airfield for landing and my friend put us down gently just 4 hours after we started.
People say it must be so peaceful up there. There are times, like today, when the air is buoyant and you have time to relax and enjoy. Other times you have to be concentrating hard.
“Have I enough height to clear that ridge safely? Do I fly over that rocky outcrop or should I go around it? Where is the next patch of rising air? If I fly any further, will I be able to get back?”
You have to be thinking at least 3 steps ahead of where you are.
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