Adventure: Top-landing Mont Blanc 2003

Friday 3 October, 2003

Six years later, on 19 August 2009, a team of paraglider pilots repeated the feat of top-landing Mont Blanc

More than 200 years after the first ascent of Mont Blanc by Balmat and Paccard and 25 years after the birth of paragliding, the first paraglider has landed on top of Europe’s highest peak. This would be an historic event in itself but in total seven pilots accomplished this challenge after taking off from Chamonix, Samoëns and Megève. David Casartelli was one of them and tells their story. Published in Cross Country magazine in October 2003

On Tuesday August 12 2003, after over ten years of waiting and planning, we got our first definite sign that our dream of landing on the top of Mont Blanc might come to fruition.

Cloudbase rose over the top of the mountain and one of the team flew over the top. Frantic phone calls ensued, and on Wednesday August 13, 2003, four paraglider pilots took off from Planpraz, in Chamonix, another from Samoëns and another two pilots from Megève. All were on the same radio frequency and all had the same aim. To take a carefully planned (and legal) route around to the Italian side of the mountain, thermal above the summit, and land on top of Europe’s biggest mountain.

Launching from Chamonix were myself, Yvan Boullen, Jean-Paul Bonfanti and Alain Finet. From Samoëns, Pierre Denambride, and from Megève, Fred Escriba and Yves Goueslain. We are all very experienced Alpine pilots with an excellent knowledge of the aerology around the Mont Blanc area.

Shortly after launching in Chamonix I became very excited when I realised how high the cloud base was. After 15 minutes of flying above Aiguillette des Houches, cloudbase was already at 4,300 metres. One glider was already there – Pierre had been flying for one hour making his way over from Samoëns. He too, was aware that the conditions would be good for attempting a landing on Mont Blanc. Yves and Fred had yet to take off since the launch in Megeve is North-facing and they needed to wait until around 2 pm for good conditions.

In order to succeed in this attempt, all of us had to adhere to the rules regarding the Mont Blanc restricted zone. From July till August (inclusive) it is strictly forbidden to fly paragliders or hang gliders from “Aiguille d’Argentière” to “Aiguille du Tricot” (the French side of the Mont-Blanc Massif). The only way to accomplish this flight legally in August was to fly around the zone to the west, and to approach Mont Blanc from the west side of the massif by flying through Italy. That’s the solution, but it involves flying into a very wild part of the massif, with no possibilities of turning back. Everyone was well aware of the possible consequences and prepared to accept the risk.

The conditions were unusually good on the way to Mont Blanc with strong thermals but not too much turbulence. At 12.30, cumulus still sat above the top of Mont Blanc, around 5,000 metres. The flight was going well, without any problem.

Arriving near Aiguille du Tricot, a well-organised thermal took us all to an altitude of 4,200 metres near “Aiguille de Bionnassay” where the adventure really began.

By crossing the “Col de Miage” (a very impressive pass between Miage and Bionnassay), we entered no-man’s land in Italy above the Aiguilles Grises and the Gonela refuge. The landscape here is composed of nothing but rocks and ice. Truly the heart of Mont  Blanc! The atmosphere was very wild and all of us used every ounce of concentration.

Finally we found a good thermal at the foot of the “Rochers du Mont-Blanc”, alt. 3,900 m, above the “Quinetto Sella” refuge. The thermal was consistent at 4-6 m/s. A large cloud street was still present above the gliders, possibly as high as 5,200 metres. At this stage we were all wildly excited and started to believe our goal might be possible but having to keep concentrating as we thermalled together. Steadily we gained altitude… 4,200 metres, 4,400 metres, then 4,700… By now we had to rely on our GPS’s for altitude as our varios had long since lost their accuracy because of not compensating for the temperature.

Suddenly, we realised we were above the summit by a good margin. We continued to climb to cloud base at the magic altitude of 5,200 metres, directly above the summit of Mont Blanc. I was so excited I flew close the summit, surprising three mountaineers who started looking for the plane they assumed we must have jumped from.

The wind speed was almost zero, coming from the southeast. I made a carefull approach on my Boomerang and top landed first. I quickly used the radio to announce that there was no apparent danger. Pierre followed me two minutes later, and then it was Yvan’s turn. Jean-Paul hesitated. He was frozen and tired by the altitude and decided not to topland. Yvan grabbed the radio: “Jean-Paul, you do what you want, but if you don’t land, you will regret it for all your life.” Jean-Paul thought about it, then came in with big ears. At last, his feet touched the snow, safe, and with his friends on top of Mont Blanc.

Alain, who had to wait for the next thermal cycle near the ’Rochers du Mont-Blanc’, followed our lead and joined us a few moments later. Yves and Fred also succeeded in the challenge, but reached the top by finding a thermal further to the south, on the ’Rocher Rouges du Brouillard’ and the ’Pic Baretti’.

After a magic two hours on the summit everybody took off in safe conditions and returned to where we launched. That evening, all the local pilots met up in Chamonix for a big party at the MBC (Micro Brasserie de Chamonix).

Our flight was only feasible due to the experience of the pilots, and because we all have a good understanding of conditions in the high mountains. It was also important that we respected the flying rules. This flight was viable as a result of extensive preparation and years of attempts and observations by the pilots. It was also only possible due the exceptional and rare conditions that occurred in the Alps during the summer of 2003.

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