The Red Bull X-Alps
The Red Bull X-Alps is one of the longest and most dangerous adventure races in world. Starting from the Dachstein glacier in Austria the 850 km route passed the Marmolada in the Dolomites, the Eiger in Switzerland and Mont Blanc before finishing at Monaco - an incredible journey from icy glacier to warm sea.
The rules are simple athletes must cover the route flying, or on foot carrying the paraglider. (The trick here is to get the paraglider to carry you!) The event combines piloting, mountaineering and endurance racing skills and the 30 deep field of competitors was bursting with the talent of worlds top pilots and mountaineers.
This was my second attempt at this amazing race and many people have asked why I wanted to do this race again after all the hardship of 2005. But in 2005 I fell in love with this brutal and unique competition where you have to pit your wits against some of the worlds best pilots and the beautiful but cruel Alps.
The race took 15 days. During this time I covered a total of 1,200km, averaging 80km per day over the mountains. My supporter who drove the accompanying support vehicle was my long term partner Bhavna Patel.
I managed to take four weeks holidays over the summer to research the route although my physical training regime started much earlier in the year, peaking at 90km runs - that’s two marathons back to back. With plenty of training and could complete the first marathon in 3.5hrs before stepping down to a slower pace for the second. Lugging the paraglider this distance focused my mind somewhat on getting light weight gear:
To this end, Ozone made a light weight Mantra 2 especially for the race and it was the perfect wing for this event; fast, safe and light. Other lightweight gear provided by Flying Fever meant my minimum equipment weight was ~12kg.
Day 1: The race starts
This year the race started with an exciting hike up the Dachstein glacier to reach a snowy take off point at ~3000m altitude. A strong 30kmh wind at the top froze the crowds that had gathered to watch and gave me my first challenge, what to do faced with this strong head wind?
This is a great example of the uniqueness of the Redbull X-Alps - in order to compete you have to be prepared to bend the normal paragliding rules and push the boundaries taking calculated risks and overcoming your fears.
Tomy Coconea (Romania) reached the top first and decided not to fly; Ulric Jessop (Great Britain), Michael Gebert (Germany) and I were next, and we decided to look for a lower take off – hoping the wind would be more manageable. Descending an enormous cliff face on a dodgy “via ferata” was an experience I won’t forget in a hurry! But it was worth it, I had a great start, managing to fly into the turbulent headwind for well over four hours. When I landed, I was in second place, only Martin Muller (Swiss) had managed to fly further. This was a fantastic start and boosted my confidence for the rest of the race. Not everything went to plan though, when I turned in for the night I worryingly had a blister developing - a nightmare scenario on day one.
Day 2: Adventures on foot
The weather on the second day was terrible and looking back, it turned out to be one of the scariest days of the whole race. I started at 4 am, aiming to take a short cut across the high mountains and into Italy before the worst of the weather hit. But the bad weather caught up with me early and reduced visibility to a few meters. I lost the path and then spent hours climbing over treacherous icy terrain trying to re-find it. Large sections of the path had been washed away and the weather worsened by the hour with wild winds, interminable thunder and lightning, hail and perilous cliffs and river crossings. When I finally reached the top I whooped with real joy and relief. I could now start the relatively safety of the descent into Italy. But this “short cut” was a tactical mistake, many others had caught up and overtaken me as I struggled to find the path. I had to hike all night to regain my 2nd place.
Day 3: Adventures in the Air
Day 3 started in Italy, and we had spent the night near a take off in Cortina. The aim was to fly south of the Marmolada and get the first turn point, although this would be difficult because there was a lot of high terrain and a low cloud base. I waited until 2.00pm to take off to give cloud base a chance to rise.
During the flight I caught up with Gerard Ameseder (Austria) and Michael Gerbert and we all arrived above the north side of the Marmolada together. The direct route from here is to go around east side of the peak and then fly along the south face of the ravine, but this was a little dodgy because the low cloud meant we would have to fly in the ravine rather than above it!
I had researched this route with Jimmy Pacher who lives there. Back in May his words were “I have not seen the eastern route work late in the day before…” and this was at the forefront of my mind. But the X-Alps is all about trying to do what has not done before and with this in mind, Gerard and I went for it. Michael decided to land near the glacier and hike to the 3,300m peak to get the turn point on foot before take off again.
Given our chosen strategy, Gerard and I managed to get to cloudbase at 2900m near the enormous South facing cliffs of the Marmolada. We soon realised that these cliffs would provide no lift because the ravine was too narrow. Gerard just managed to squeak over the 2700m pass but I was not to be so fortunate ending up a tiny 6ft short of making it! At the very last moment I had to turn around and had to find the nearest safe landing spot which was a gut-wrenching 700 meters below.
Determined not to loose out I climbed 100m to find a very late take off a few hundred meters above the pass, but with a little luck linked some weak climbs together covering about 25km before spiralling down at 8.59pm to avoid disqualification for flying after sunset (9pm!)
This late flight largely closed the gap with Gerard and funnily I found Michael Gerbert in my landing field - he had flown there an hour earlier!
Days 4-9: “Non stop adventure”
The next week was just an amazing adventure, with too many exploits to give justice to in such a short article. I was either dodging storms, struggling across wild mountains, flying in the rain, taking off in cloud or flying over incredible terrain every day. One thing was certain, I was pushing myself to the limit every day and was loving it. All the competitors pushed hard and we developed a great sense of camaraderie.
Days 9-14: Kindness of friends and strangers keep me going:
Up until now I was in reasonably good shape, my only complaint was a few blisters but they were not too bad. This all changed on day 9 when I pulled a muscle: An error in the SeeYou Airspace Data forced me to do an emergency landing to check the location of the Meringen airspace. Annoyingly the data was wrong so after landing I had to re-climb 700m to take off again, Not wanting to waste flying time I hiked up furiously fast and in so doing pulled muscle – I could now barely walk. After taking an 8 hour recovery break, I could still only limp along at around 3kmh. I would now have to fly extremely well to keep up with Ogi Kaori (Japan) who had overtaken me as I rested. I could no longer rely on long hikes to gain any advantage.
This was a particularly difficult time as limping to save my leg seemed to make my blisters worse and every step was painful. The kindness of so many friends and strangers that I met along the way really got me through this last week. For example, one incredibly kind Swiss guy named Julien walked with me all night, getting just 3 hours sleep just so that he could point out a cunning take-off I could use in the morning! He was also flying in the Swiss Nationals on the next day and thought nothing helping me out. It was really touching, and there were so many others like him.
Bhavna my supporter was brilliant and kept my moral high, I just managed to limp and fly enough to keep ahead of Ogi Kaori and keep 5th position.
Day 14: Monaco or Bust
The forecast for day 14 was really good, I decided to head for the Col de Galibier – Urs Lotscher (Swiss), Toma and Martin had all flown good distances from there taking them close to Monaco. The Col De Galibier was 40km away so I started walking at 3am to arrive in good time (walking was even more difficult as I was developing Tendonitis to add to my woes). I was utterly exhausted as I neared the top but confident that I would get to Monaco: For the first time in the competition I had a tail wind, good clouds forming and 30km of south facing cliffs to start a fantastic flight to Monaco.
You can not begin to imagine how bad I felt when I found that I couldn’t take off! I had expected the Briancon Valley wind to blow up the valley and make an easy take off – but with this particular meteo wind direction the Rimanche valley wind overpowered and reversed the Briancon valley wind – so there was nowhere to take off. I hiked for miles west across the mountain trying to get into the Briancon valley wind but to no avail. In desperation I hiked all the way back to the far side of the col and tried to soar up the North face and then drop into the lee to see if I could get more luck in the air… but by now I was too late and did not get anything more than a top to bottom.
For the first time in the race I was devastated, with 40 hours left but bad weather coming and poor health I had no chance of getting to Monaco. Ogi had flown a blinder and was 36 km from Monaco. Luckily I had a comfortable lead over the Ramon Morillas in 7th so I could rest for the last 40hrs and just put in a short walk to secure 6th place.
Finishing 6th and some unfinished business . . .
The disappointment of not reaching Monaco soon faded and we were just delighted to have been part of this amazing race. I was never really bothered about beating other pilots – I only had one prime goal – to get across the Alps and land in Monaco. I think most competitors felt the same and there was a great sense of camaraderie between us. Bhavna and I have resolved to make it to Monaco in 2009 we both feel like there is some “unfinished business” with this race after getting so close.
I would like to give a special thanks to Kelly from Austria Arena, his knowledge of the Alps allowed me to get good flights on even the worst days and thanks to Ozone and the race organisers without whom none of this would have happened.