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This is the Wills Wing Team Pilots competition blog. Here you can keep up with the various members of our team as they progress through the competition season.
Author: Jeff Shapiro Created: 5/13/2009 2:59 PM
Jeff Shapiro is a renaissance man who's spent quite a bit of his existence at height. Jeff learned to fly hang gliders at 17 and he's been flying for 17. He's a falconer who trains raptors to hunt the mountains near his Montana home. He's climbed at or near the hardest ratings on rock, ice, and mixed terrain with many first ascents and repeats of routes in the Alaska Range, Glacier Park, and Yosemite.

Sorry it's been a few days since I have updated. I have been fighting off a head cold that has been going around camp but thanks to a friend (and Kiwi Pilot), Conrad, I started a run of antibiotics to combat the sinus infection that has resulted and I am feeling worlds better. We have had two days of called tasks because of high winds and storms (although both days people flew;-). The first called day I broke down and rode down the hill in a car which was a good opportunity to get healthy.

Yesterday, I was feeling a bit better so when the day was called early, I spent the morning enjoying the free flight festival that was going on in Laragne. It was cool to see everything from sail planes to RC air craft and there was even a scooter tow rigged to yank up paraglider and speed kite pilots into the air (even in the high winds). A few sky divers (some in wing suits) jumped in and landed there too. The organizers asked if we were willing to fly for a bit of a demo and because the launch conditions seemed totally reasonable, Jonny Durrand, Jeff, Zippy and I went up the hill with the current aerobatic champion (Sam) to have a fly. It was blowing around 20 and the thermals provided a nice combo of ridge and thermal lift. We took turns strafing launch and interacting with the folks standing on top for around 30 mins. At the beginning of my flight, Jonny got on the radio and said that Sam had just blown a loop over town and tumbled. He threw both chutes and by the time I looked towards where he was, they were both out and looked beautiful. He had a nice, soft landing in a good field. Apparently, it was really turbulent and in the climb out for his loop, he flew through a lumpy patch and lost a bunch of energy, stopping up side down. He took out an upright, his keel and his sail tore from the chute bridle. It was his 7th time under canopy. When the rest of us flew to town and over the LZ, it was indeed turbulent and none of us felt like looping. We did some mild spins and wingovers into our approaches. I was a little taken back when I heard my name being announced mixed with a bunch of excited french over the loud speaker while landing. There were people lined up to watch and after landing, I turned around to join them in watching the others land. We had some photos taken and broke down with smiles after a good flight with good friends.

Today, we finally had another task day. It was forecast to be light wind and strong lift so most of us were really excited. They called a barn burner of a 100 mile box that had us flying deep into the mountains. Today, timing was everything and I kind of blew it. Some days I am really upset at myself for not doing well because I feel like I made bad decisions and flew poorly. Today, I feel OK even though my flight was short. I will explain.

We started out with conditions that any mountain pilot dreams of. We climbed out quickly and easily and spent 40 minutes driving around cloud base, sometimes taking lift up the sides of clouds to much higher than base. It was a beautiful site to see over 100 gliders high among big, white cumulous congestous clouds. I wasn't in a great position for the first start and, although almost the entire field left on the first start, OB and I decided to stick around for another 20 minutes for the second. I was climbing back up with OB about 1000' over head when he came over the radio telling me to look over at a glider that had just dropped out of a cloud up side down with the pilot laying on the sail. I watch nervously as he spun with a broken outboard leading edge, up side down for a couple of thousand feet. I was yelling out loud for him to pull his chute (like he could hear me;-) and was relieved when I saw it finally come out clean only around 350 feet over the trees. I started to concentrate on my climbing again when I realized that there was only 2 more minutes until the second start and again I was in poor position. I found strong lift and made up some altitude quickly and was able to leave with Jeff. I was around 600' lower than him and when I stopped for a climb on the way to the first turn point, I reached base just under 4 ks out of the circle and there was only 6 or 7 minutes to the last start. The lift was strong and the clouds were working so I went back to get the last start. This turned out to be a MAJOR mistake. At first I felt good and was going fast. I quickly caught up to some pilots from the second start including Swiss Nick. We worked well together for a while until we started to notice the sky filling in and looking very dark. I was getting reports from Zippy that the climbs were still good and where he was in the course indicated that they were going very fast. Nick and I were finding totally different conditions. It was very soft with light lift, hardly any of the clouds seem to be working well and the ground was very shaded. We pushed hard and did our best but by the time we got close to the second turn point deep in the mountains, it was shaded out and we had a head wind from a cu nimb in front of us pulling up the valley. We were low and landed a couple of fields apart. I got sprinkled on while breaking down.

Back to my point about being disappointed. Some days, I feel like I fly poorly and my decisions are weak. These are the days that I spend a few moments in my LZ cursing and kicking the dirt (hang glider pilots version of a tantrum;-). Today, I made a decision to take a start that turned out to be a poor choice because I should have recognized the onset of overdevelopment. It was a decision that I committed to. That's hang gliding. After the decision was made, I felt like I flew the best I could and landed when conditions deteriorated. Both are examples of failure but both are a earned opportunity to learn valuable knowledge about how to be a better competitor. I am feeling humbled in these mountains and yet feel overwhelmingly lucky to experience this. We learn from our success but I have learned from years of climbing, failure happens far more often and is a necessary step towards learning the lessons that are required for success. Tomorrow is another day.

On a good note, Zippy smoked the course and placed in the top 5 for the day (I think). Nice work Zach! Dustin is also in and Jeff is still in the air, hopefully on his way.

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Today the forecast was for a west/ northwest wind that was to turn to southwest late in the day. The winds were supposed to be stronger on the ground than up high and there was to be the applicable valley flow which would turn out to be true and would make things quite difficult on the final glide. Because Chabre doesn't have a launch that works in a predominantly west wind, we went to the beautiful set up area of Aspres (about 10ks north of us). The launch is a stress free affair with green grass and wild flowers which was a welcome change from the rocky ground on top of Chabre. We set up and went through the task briefing and learned that we were to fly a long, slight dog leg with the first turn point on a feature we all refer to as the volcano located just to the north of the camping area and would continue on to a turn point in a gorge south, south east of Sisterone. After getting that turn point we would try to come back pretty much the same course line back to Laragne. It would be a long day and with the winds forecast to be strong on the ground, I wasn't sure if it would be easy with the Southwest that was supposed to roll in or if we would struggle in the 10-15 knot North west that was blowing while on launch.
No one on launch was extra keen to get off as the few guys who did launch early weren't making it look too easy to get high. Soaring was not an issue but the prospect of 130 guys fighting for position 1-200 feet over the ridge didn't seem too appealing. In the end we all piled off and the climbs were actually very good. Soon we had jumped across the valley and the gaggle began driving around cloud base waiting for the start times to turn over, all fighting for a good position. I thought about the weather briefing and the talk of potential over development and was keen for the first start. I was in good position and felt like I was in good company so went 2 or 3 seconds after the first gate rolled over. Jonny was off to my right, Atilla was with us and Blay was right next to me with Zippy just behind. We made a couple of fast glides to the first turn point and the gaggle went left toward the mountains and the clouds. Blay, Zippy and I went off into the blue and across the valley just to the east of the camp ground. It was a risk but if we found a good climb or two in the flats, we stood a chance to beat the gaggle to the second turn point. Zippy went off for a cloud that started to pop but didn't end up finding much. Blay and I had a good climb and made really good time across the flats although by the time we got to the mountains the gaggle was a little behind but higher so it wasn't long before they caught us. We worked well together across the mountains to and past Sisterone until our decisions divided and we split up. I ended up making a significant mistake at this point, passing up a climb just before the turn point with hopes that I could glide the 3 ks to tag it and turn around to get the climb on the way back. Several faster pilots had already snagged the turn point and passed me going the other way so I thought I would have company. As I dove in to get the turn point, I encountered a lot of sink and lost significant altitude which forced me to climb out from low on the ridge that I passed up costing me a lot of time. I went on glide feeling a bit discouraged but hooked back up with Thomas from Austria and we found a strong 5-6 mps climb to base. I was stoked to hear OB on the radio saying that he was under the same cloud just off to my left. We left together with him gliding into the mountains while telling me on the radio that it was the fastest line the previous day and that he thought the climbs would be stronger. For some reason, I slowly drifted away from him (at first only with the intention of spreading out) and felt like I was getting a better line although in hind site, it would have been much smarter to stay with him. He is flying exceptionally well and we would have been stronger as a team of two but after a certain point, I was committed to my decision. This was the second and MOST costly mistake I made today. I got really low in front of the ridge to the east of Sisterone and had to literally claw my way in ridge lift and thermals back to peak height to where I could properly climb out. It took almost an hour, I think (at least it felt like it was that long;-( but I managed to climb to a 9.6-1 into goal. I left with 16ks to go at slightly faster than best glide. My numbers were good and got better while I was high but as I descended into the valley flow and the west turned to a dreaded north west (headwind) my glide angle quickly became 4-1 or less. It felt like I was flying a standard as opposed to my race wing. I HAD to stop for a few turns in weak lift with less than 3 ks to go because I was not going to make it by 500 m. I ended up crossing the goal line with 10 feet and landed 30 feet past it. I wasn't the last into goal but there weren't too many after me. Ha ha. Once again, tomorrow is another day and another opportunity to learn and do better. Zippy, OB and Dustin all made it in as well and Davis landed 16 ks short on the west side of the river in Sisterone (as I think many did).
My impression of this place is that although it is by far the most beautiful place I have ever raced in, it is absolutely unforgiving of bad decisions and will make you pay for them like no place I have ever flown. The valleys orient in every direction and the mountains are random in a way that it's sometimes hard to keep track of the side that is wind ward because the valley flow is often a different direction than the predominant wind direction. This keeps you making decisions not only based on the sky and terrain but also in regards to your altitude. It's extremely technical and challenging. I really like it but still have a lot to learn about this beautiful place.

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After a couple of Mistral days we had beautiful weather for a task yesterday. Light winds out of the South west and good lift forecast allowed the task committee to call a 164k course (around 100 miles) in a huge square like shape around the area. The winds were light on launch and as often happens on Chabre, the wind started comng in from the west which cause for "over the back" conditions occasionally and dust devils to roll through launch which made it a bit sporty to get 130 pilots off safely. In the end there was only 1 blown launch which resulted in a damaged glider but the pilot was ok.
We (the US team) got off and climbed to cloud base trying to find each other and to be in good position. We all ended up taking the second start and seemed to be making good time to the first turn point. I lost most of the team but was with Alex Ploner (from Italy) and Andre Wolf which felt comfortable and fast. I climbed in a screamer (the strongest for the day for me) that took me back to 3000m in 12-15mps and that's when I made my first poor decision. Most of the fast guys went straight across the town of Gap to the turn point which was a very direct line. I thought that the clouds (the only clouds) over the mountains looked faster so I swung wide and got on top of the peaks. I found good lift and ended up on the same course line that I took on a task last year over Peak de Bure. It worked but I was now 3-4 glides behind the leading group. After crossing the same turquoise lake that we crossed last year (OB took really nice photos of us crossing it for a pre worlds blog post) I got the turn point and had to take a couple of slower climbs to get over the mountains to make it past a largely non land able area on the way to the last turn point. I climbed with a russian and about 3 other pilots over a sail plane port and managed to pick a decent line to the turn point which was on the low side of a ridge line made up of several scallops. Unfortunately, I didn't clear the ridge and got a bit stuck between two ridge scallops and had a bit of a scary time trying to beat the rotor to the front of the mountain. The Russian woman, Julia, and a Kiwi, Warren both apparently landed in the trees in this same place later. I made it to the front of the mountain very low and tagged the turn point with just enough height to work ridge lift and thermals back to the peaks top and saw that I had to make a pretty long jump across a high plateau to make it into goal. I worked hard but never got above 1900m and decided to try to make it with hopes that I would find lift on the plateau and or the peak on it's flanks. After an hour and a bit of cursing I landed 13ks short up on that plateau.
It turned out that the road I landed on was a bit hard to find and it took around 4 hours to find me which made for a long night. It's hard starting a comp off way down the results list as many pilots either made goal or barely didn't but today is another day. That's the beauty of this sport. It's exciting, self reflective and humbling all taking place in some of the most beautiful places on this planet.
I apologize for not posting photos. My SD card is somehow not working so I will have to replace it.

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It's been a whirlwind (literally) the last few days with a mistral blowing though the Haute Alps. We were able to wade through the forms and insurance/registration paperwork to be official and are now in the process of waiting to race. Although everyone is happy and the mood is positive, I can tell that I am not the only one, by a long shot, that is chomping at the bit to start the comp for the same reasons that I was excited for Christmas morning when I was a child.

It has been a huge bonus this year to have my wife, Kara with me to see and experience some of the things that add such charm and romance to this area of the world. She has been a trooper dealing with the hang gliding oriented tasks and fourtunately we have been lucky to travel with a great group of people and to have time to do some of the things that I really wanted her to have the opportunity to do. Yesterday, after a walk through town and a visit to the train station for a schedule to get her to the airport in Marcielle for her flight on Wednesday morning, we drove the short distance to the town of Sisterone and walked through the Citadel (built 2000+ years ago by the Gauls) followed by a stroll and a coffee. On our way back to Laragne, we stopped for a swim at the same gorge with the waterfall that we cooled off at so many times last year. It was a great way to spend the afternoon and had me feeling thankful to be "here, now" for sure.

By the time we got back to town, the evening was setting in. Dustin and I felt like we needed some exercise so we decided to take a run/ hike up to launch. Our friend, Kurt Warren decided to come with us and the three of us started off with the wind howling through the trees at the base of Chabre. It was a really cool hike/run (about 20K's I think) and felt like just what we needed. I have to say, it was really cool being up on launch at the end of the day with the wind blowing close to 50k's/ hr. We arrived back at the campground tired, hungry and psyched that there was the entire comp listening to live music and drinking wine. Nothing like coming home from a long stroll directly into a party;-)

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Just like last year, we had a crazy reintroduction to European travel and flying. Zippy and Katie met us at the airport in Dusseldorf and after working out the last minute details in regards to the team van, we were on our way with the intention of making it to Chamonix. The drive brought back so many memories from last year. Just like our all nighter to France from Greifenburg, we swapped driver duties and made it in good style to Chamonix around 2am. After a very difficult couple of hours sleep in the van, we woke to sunny skies and glaciated mountains overlooking the village. I can tell when I am in a place that has magic in it. There are many beautiful places in the world but a few stand out. I felt the same way the first time I visited Yosemite. Walking around the streets in Chamonix and looking at the mountains that I have dreamed of flying and climbing in since childhood seemed like a dream. We found the local paraglider LZ and inspected/ rebuilt our gliders after the flight from the States and got sorted to find the best flexwing site in the area, Plain Joux. Just like our lucky day in Greifenburg last season, we had perfect conditions and climbed out in smooth lift, gaining enough height to scan the entire range and some. We took a tour of the valley and stayed a group of three, laughing our guts out while taking video and photos of the Mont Blanc Massif. We landed after around an hour and a half, broke down and drove until 11:30pm to Laragne.

After a much needed sleep, we went to the "peoples market" and shopped for fresh veggies and supplies. I love the culture here. The romantic town of Laragne was full of happy people out enjoying life. Conditions for the day were forecast to be good and although Jeff, Dustin, Zippy and I got a much later start than most, we headed up the hill with promising clouds popping over the mountains in all directions. We stayed a group of four, climbing and gliding together north toward the Aspes launch and Peak De Bur. I really enjoyed the going with our group. Flying with Jeff, Dustin and Zippy in a place like the Haute Alps was yet another life highlight that won't be forgotten. On a fast glide back to the LZ in Laragne, we spent a few minutes getting rained on directly over Ceuse (a famous sport climbing area) which made the last part of the flight around the mountains kind of surreal. Pure beauty, pure bliss;-)

On our way to Aspes

On our way back;-)

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Do we have clearance, Clarence?
-Roger, Roger.
Surely you must mean that we can take the gliders?
-Yes I do, and don't call me Shirley.

I quote from the movie Airplane because traveling with hang gliders, especially internationally, is a bit stressful at best and at worst, can age you 20 years instantly. Today we rolled out of our hotel just south of Bellingham, Wa and crossed the border north into Canada to catch our flight from Vancouver to Dusseldorf. We checked in and after a little charm and a lot of luck, O'Brien had us paying $40 Canadian each for our gliders. I managed to get the two handlers that were there to help us to feel important about the fact that they were about to help make or break our trip and we left feeling good that they would make it on safely. The folks that helped us went way above and beyond and although it took a truck to come to pick them up curb side (they wouldn't fit in the service elevator), we were told after arriving at the gate that they did indeed make it and sound.
Now, we are just kicking back with a coffee and waiting for the complimentary drinks that will flow on the Atlantic crossing.

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Sorry it's been a few days since I last up dated but life has been a mad dash. Kara, Jeff and I had the pleasure of seeing our good friends, Patrick and Cynthia, get married on the shores of the beautiful Swan Lake in North Western Montana. It was exactly how I had envisioned their wedding, good friends, nice weather and a relaxed and celebratory atmosphere in general. Patrick has been one of my closest friends for the past ten years and I have had some of the most growth oriented moments in my life while climbing with him. The wedding was something that I had been looking forward to for a long time for a couple of reasons. First, I was extremely happy to see my good friend marry such an amazing woman knowing that they will be happy durring their lives together and second, I had the distinct honor of being Patrick's best man. Also, one of the coolest things for Kara and I was to see our daughter, Nya as the flower girl and we were so proud of her for being who she is. I feel lucky to have their family connected to mine and look forward to new memories to come.

What a perfect way to start off an amazing adventure and trip. We partied with Mr. and Mrs. Knolle and after a good night sleep at the lake, woke up to drive back to Missoula to collect our gear for the journey to Vancouver for the flight to Europe. One of our defining attempts during trips (and life in general) is to pay attention to the process. There are amazing things to experience if you pay attention and the beginning of this trip was no exception. When we were finally packed up and ready and my precious daughter was safe with Grammy, the clouds were dark and clapping thunder and flashes of lightning directly above the house was our send off. I felt pretty intense energy in the truck when I looked over at Kara and then at Jeff in the rear view mirror while loud music was playing and the realization that we were actually on our way.

Next stop, Germany!

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When I arrived home yesterday with the task of short packing my T2C for the flight to Germany, I found a crate with a long awaited tool inside. I have been extremely excited to get started on an new direction in life and this was a key that I needed to allow the next step toward that direction to happen.

Carbon on the brain;-)

After a nice session short packing with Jeff, we were both satisfied with how well our gliders were protected for the journey. We decided to take a break and to grab some food. On our "lunch break" I received a call from our close friend, Chris Gibisch who told me that he had just flown his WW T2 across a section of mountains that had not previously been jumped to a LZ at the base of the Bitterroot Mountains not far from my house. We jumped in Jeff's truck and entered his coordinates into the NUVI to go find him. When we got there, we found Chris and another local pilot (Brian Stubes) breaking down happily in a nice LZ. It was a cool way to end the evening seeing two friends that had just realized a goal and seen new adventure in their hang gliders. Their energy was tangible. Good on ya boys!

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After getting up at 2:45am for my shift at the hospital, I was pretty tired by the time 3pm rolled around but the sun was shining, the crew was at the LZ and it was going to be the last opportunity to fly before Jeff and I short pack our gliders for the flight to Germany. I was pleasantly surprised to find most of my good friends either waiting for me or already heading up the hill with nice cumulous popping in the skies over Missoula. I flew mostly with O'brien and our very good friend, Chris Gibisch, racing around the local peaks, taking nice climbs and high speed glides while laughing our guts out. It's always a special day when you can ring up with your two best friends. It's funny, Jeff and Chris were talking smack on the radio at one point and I thought they were laughing out loud only to realize that it was me that was the one laughing. Good times indeed. This is a short clip from the flight yesterday. Still a rookie with i-movie and even worse at getting good footage but hopefully, by the time I get through this next trip the progress will be evident. At the end, O'Brien shows us all proper landing technique;-)

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Finally had the chance to go for a test fly with Jeff at our local site here in Missoula. I was pretty psyched to have Jeff up there. It was his first flight from Sentinel. I've been telling him for years how much fun it is to fly there and it was cool to finally blaze around above town with only days left before we leave for Europe. It's a special situation to be able to drive right out of the town that you live in to a site that the wind sock on top is visible from your deck. Equally as cool is to land in perfectly manicured grass and after breaking down to be 5 minutes from something to eat and home. Gotta love Missoula!

I have been attempting to pull out my little hand held camera to take some video lately. Apparently, so far I have been pretty unsuccessful in producing anything but a lot of wind noise and indiscernible chatter. I always like to see video because, although people like O'Brien can really catch a moment and use a still photo to inspire, video seems to give a better impression of the "life of the moment". This one kinda sucks but I will try to improve and consider it as a work in progress. More than anything, I am trying to practice to be able to get some nice short clips from Europe so please bear with me.

We are going to fly again today for the last time before short packing the wings for the trip. I get the feeling from the forecast that it will be better flying conditions than yesterday. I am going to try to put a small camera inside my sail to get some footage of my sprogs. There has been a bunch of hype in regards to the pitch police for the Worlds which has sparked my curiosity. Maybe I will get something useful.

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