Les Hautes Alpes - A road trip to Laragne
July 2017
For the last ten years or so, Laragne has been hosting the Chabre Open paragliding competition for recreational pilots. Sponsored by Ozone and expertly organised by the amazing couple that is David and Rachel from nearby Ribiers, the contest offers experienced pilots a taste of what it's like to fly competitively. That was a good reason to drive down from Germany for a few days. I didn't formally participate but learned a lot just by hanging around and listening to the briefings.
An hour after take-off. View North towards Serres.
The main launch site is the long ridge of La Chabre. The South take-off is gentle and forgiving, just bear in mind that there's a forbiddingly steep cliff North of the ridge, a dead vertical drop to be precise. There's only one more caveat: you won't be able to fly back to the official landing site at Laragne, unless some lift carries you over the rather shallow Southern slopes of the mountain. If you drop, there's a secondary landing half-way down the mountain, a fairly large clearing in the forest, and the only one. Don't miss it. From here it's a slog either back to Laragne or up to take-off. Better wait till there's some lift.
View back towards take off. A gentle slope on one side, on the other a vertical cliff.


Beware also of dustdevils at take-off. Because there's not much dust to go around, they are not so easy to spot until it's too late. As the wind gets stronger around noon, so does the rotor behind the ridge, creating ideal conditions for setting off these extremely powerful mini-tornadoes.
One such treacherous swirl swept across the colourful crowd just when a lot of pilots were readying themselves for launch. One unlucky pilot - unable to throw himself onto his glider to keep it on the ground - was pulled up vigorously and quickly as if by an invisible hand. The wing inflated but the pilot was badly twisted and was unceremoniously facing the wrong way. In fact, the paraglider was flying towards the other side of the ridge where strong turbulence would surely have put an early end to the flight. It did not look well at all. The pilot though seemed unfazed. With his body weight and brakes he managed to carefully steer the glider back into safety before untwisting himself. He made it look easy but a less seasoned pilot could easily have met his end here. In fact, why don't you watch it! The webcam caught the La Chabre Dust Devil on camera.

Local weather pattern

You may be surprised to find that the wind at La Chabre turns westerly in the afternoon, that is it blows down the narrow Méouge valley, rather than up. The reason is quite simply that this is not your typical alpine valley with the high mountains at the end. Its terminus rather is two shallow passes barely reaching above 1000m. Its the big mountains in the North, especially the massive Écrin range, that determine the local wind pattern. They draw in air from as far South as Sisteron, the gateway to the Provence, along valleys big and small, little matters their orientation. Taking off with a westerly component is possible but the flying is reportedly quite turbulent, so better not to leave it too late.

Bubbling along the valley

Shortly after taking off and taking aim at the house thermal, it goes up with a solid 7 meters a second, and soon we are at 2700m, that's more than 1500m above take off with glorious views in all directions: in the West the Mont Ventoux and the Massiv Central, then in the North the Alps and the rolling hills of the Provence in the South.
View towards Mont Ventoux.
A few times during that flight, I nearly bottom out. I am low enough to scan the ground for possible landing options. Each time I am lucky and fly into strong thermal that quickly delivers me to above 2000m. These thermals were released in the most unlikely places showing once more that site knowledge, especially for cross-country flights, helps tremendously. Eventually my luck ran out and I found myself on the ground just South of Serres, not quite near Chorges, the goal of today, but what an intro to the area.

Le Buc

Another day, another site. The prediction was for West so it was time to take a closer look at Le Buc near Sederon. Thermals only start to come through in the afternoon which leaves the morning free to catch up on coffee and pastry. I like such sites. Better still, le Buc offers the perfect take-off: grassy, spacious, and a steady wind that's nicely channeled up the bowl-shaped flank of the mountain.
View from Le Buc towards Mont Ventoux.
The goal for today is to fly back to Laragne, broadly by flying along the Vallée of the Méouge and the Vallée de Chabron along a few waypoints. Because of an inversion, this was expected to be a difficult task. As it turned out, the inversion was soon burned away and it was easy to get up above 2500m, once more with stunning views all around.
With a stiff wind and strong thermals, the flight proved quite bumpy and in places I was going backwards. Yet, my Epsilon 8 served me well once again. Not a second that I felt uncomfortable. Eventually, two hours later, I fail to find the next thermal and have to negotiate my way into a very narrow side valley off the Vallée de Méouge with very few options to land - rugged, plenty of trees and shrubs and only a handful of little fields mostly at impossible inclines. Add to that a relentless wind that created unwanted lift and turbulence near the ground. There was really only one safe option: a field of lavender that sat right beneath the ridge, but was big and fairly plane, in full bloom and abuzz with bees and butterflies. Thinking of it now, what a fabulously stylish way to finish it off.
A field to land in, where initially there seemed to be none. Thank you!
A lot remains to be explored. My flights here weren't by any means close to the potential that the area offers. Clearly, I'll need to come back here very soon.