"My legs are shot" says Jon Chambers (GBR) as he tucks into a bowl of soup at the summit restaurant of the Zugspitze, the fourth turnpoint in the Red Bull X-Alps, and Germany’s highest mountain.
"It was a tough three hour climb, with lots of loose shale, and I kept slipping over," the Briton says. Outside it is hailing, and you can hear the rumble of the thunderclouds that envelop us.
Clement Latour (FRA1) launched half an hour earlier. He'd looked so nervous, standing precariously on the tiny snowfield, only just big enough for him to lay out his wing behind him.
"I don't want to do this," he’d said, before snatching his wing above him and running out over the sheer cliffs below. He had launched in a gap in the clouds, and immediately pulled in his wingtips to descend faster — and avoid being lifted into the clouds.
The thermal air currents that keep paragliders aloft can sometimes be mercilessly strong – and the cumulo-nimbus clouds that surround us are evidence of that. Parachutists and glider pilots alike have been lifted to heights of 10,000m – and while some have been lucky to survive, others haven’t.
Safety is Chambers' main priority, and after a discussion with his supporters, he elects to wait it out. But the temptation to fly is strong. A clearing appears. It's spectacular, with huge columns of cloud everywhere. It has taken Chambers three days of solid effort and canny decision-making to reach the Zugspitze. A glide down is physically effortless, and will see him a further 15km down route to his eventual goal, Monaco, while hiking will just eat up more hours and take an ever greater toll on his body. It's a tough call and he decides to hike.
This is the Red Bull X-Alps – touted as one of the world’s toughest adventure races – and with the physical effort and tough decisions involved, it’s hard not to agree.
"What you can't get across is just how mind-blowingly epic this race is," says Stephan Haase, (USA2). "It's the decisions. You make one decision, and there are just many permutations that lead out from that decision that affect the race and your ranking."
The race started in Salzburg on July 7th amid a cacophony of crowds and excitement that saw the athletes burst out of the city center and up to the Gaisberg, the first of 10 turnpoints between the start, and finish line of Monaco. The concept is pure madness. Athletes have to hike or fly a straight-line course of 1,031km, carrying their flying equipment at all times, which even with the latest technological developments, still weighs 8-10 kg. In reality, the athletes cover more like 2,500km by the time they finish.
"It's not just a physical challenge," says race mastermind Hannes Arch. "It's about the body and the mind. The athletes have to perform for 18hrs a day and sustain that for 10+ days. It's hugely demanding. If you make a wrong decision you don't just fall back in the rankings — you can seriously hurt yourself or worse. That's why it's the world's toughest adventure race. It's still an adventure!"
Spectators were reminded of this on the first day when Kaoru Ogisawa (JPN1), drifted into a tree on take-off. He was thankfully unharmed and after sourcing a new wing, took off again.
This year, on its 10th anniversary, the Red Bull X-Alps was undoubtedly the best edition yet of the race. With a high pressure system building, perfect paragliding conditions were set up over the Alps. A light northerly airflow swept in, producing good, strong thermals that blasted athletes skywards and enabled them to make good distances by air each day.
But conditions needed to be good: this year a truly difficult course line was set, requiring some really high passes to be crossed. Organisers were scratching their heads, wondering how the leaders made such quick work of it, as they bounced from climb to climb, reaching heights of up to 4,000m near the Matterhorn and Mt Blanc.
Some, like Ferdinand van Schelven (NED), set personal bests. On his penultimate day of racing, the ‘Flying Dutchman’ flew 153km.
"I looked at this new route through the Vercors, with some locals, and I thought why not, let's try it," he said. Conditions were incredible. "I flew for 11 hours, and even after 8 pm, it was going up everywhere — I was on full speed bar trying to get down!"
"The good weather also brought a lot of windy and dangerous conditions as well," reported Max Fanderl (CAN) on his blog. "We had flights in plus 50 km winds, in rain and thunder storms, but at the same time we had some long flights, flying over glaciers and very beautiful terrain. We had hikes in areas we never would have gone."
This edition of the race was also taken the most seriously by athletes. Haase moved from his home in the USA to Austria in January specifically to train for the event. He was eventually forced to quit after blisters on his feet turned nasty and he became at risk, as he put it, of 'losing body parts'.
Latour’s team spent months working on his harness, flying the routes and preparing the Frenchman for success. As one athlete put it, ‘unless you’re born in the Alps with a paraglider in your cradle, you don’t stand much chance in this race’.
Ultimately, Christian 'Chrigel' Maurer (SUI1) won the race convincingly, for the third time in a row. On the second day of the race, he launched with four others but he simply flew faster and better. By the sixth day, he was 300km clear of his nearest rival. Spectators following the race the world over were mesmerised by Maurer’s ‘magic moves’. On the third day, at 8:10am he caught a 4 m/s thermal. This is unheard of in flying. Paragliders don't normally launch until late in the morning, when the sun has heated the slopes enough to generate lift – and here was Maurer, riding some strange convergence of winds up high. He then glided some 20km, hugging in close to the forested slopes. Maurer later revealed his trick – he was surfing a buoyant cushion of warmer air that lifts from the trees in the hours after dawn.
It’d be too easy to attribute Maurer’s success to his talent alone. But it’s been the small details, the planning, the equipment development, the training, the check-lists, that have contributed to his victory. A professional athlete, he dedicated seven solid months to the race in equipment preparation and physical training. As just one example, Maurer explained that through the winter he’d go ground-handling in 40-50 km/h winds in snowfields, to experience what it’s like at and beyond his level of abilities. That way, when he’s stood on a cliff edge with 30-40 km/h of wind, he’s that much more experienced at handling the wing.
Theurillat, his supporter, is a mountain guide and psychological coach who would put Maurer through a meditation programme in the evening to relax and recharge. Their tactic of sleeping high in mountain huts and getting early glides in before the day had even got going also paid off. As Theurillat puts it – "20 to 30 km might not seem like much, but over seven days that could make 150 km."
"And we are still learning," he added. "We have a list of things we want to change for 2015!"
One of the things that makes the race so special is the way its millions of fans could follow the race unfold with Red Bull Mobile Live Tracking and see the athletes' flights in real time and 3D. Every athlete was also given a Nokia Lumia phone for them to blog and share their pictures, giving fans another unique behind-the-scenes account. The interest was also reflected on the ground. At the turnpoint high above Interlaken, hundreds of spectators waited for Aaron Durogati’s arrival. He top landed and ran through a cordon of photographers and spectators to the sign-in board as a helicopter buzzed overhead, filming. The excitement was palpable.
Maurer eventually won the race in 6d 23hr and 40m, almost two days ahead of his nearest rival. But the fight for second place was probably the most exciting, intense element of the entire race. Frenchmen Clement Latour and Antoine Girard raced to the wire. Having flown different routes down the Alps Maritimes, they landed within approximately 15km of each other. They then proceeded to run almost eight hours non-stop through the night. Eventually, at 03:30am, Latour arrived, ecstatic but exhausted. "It's unbelievable," he said.
Thirty minutes later Girard arrived to equally rapturous applause.
Theurillat, who stayed up to watch, shook his head. “After 9 days of solid racing, no let up. How many thermals, how many glides, how many decisions have led to this point?" he asks.
That the pair should arrive so close together after jostling for position most of the race is nothing short of incredible — but their physical endurance, stamina — and paragliding skill — sums up what makes the race so special.
For these two — and 10 athletes in total — there was still one more flight to make — and that was the triumphant descent to the landing float on Monaco's Mediterranean sea.
5 Reasons this was the best race ever
1. Conditions were epic. The lift was so strong that athletes could climb faster with their paragliders than the average Boeing 747 can leave the airport. Entering a strong thermal that’s going up at 10 metres per second is like stepping in a super-fast elevator in Chamonix valley and being on the top of Mt Blanc within seven minutes!
2. The field was super-strong. There was only one retirement due to injury – Stephan Haase left due to blisters that became infected. Normally four or five drop out in the first few days.
3. It didn’t rain. Much. Austria isn't known for dry weather in July - the last time the Paragliding World Championships were held in the Pinzgau valley, it was a total wash-out. This year, the route has been like a drag race, at times.
4. Christian Maurer defied belief, again. “Watching Maurer fly has been sublime,” as one follower put it. His 'magic moves' have been uncanny, and he makes the others look average. But they're not. One of the best adventure pilots in the world was the race back marker. It's just that Maurer is exceptional. He is gifted, and he showed us what he can do with that gift.
5. The race in the front pack was so addictive. Chambers, Latour, Muller, and Girard were all jockeying for second place the whole way. And their support crews were completely on it, screeching around the valleys of the Alps like Formula 1 pitstop crew.
The Race in Numbers
- The course was the longest yet at 1,031km
- Chrigel Maurer drew out a 300km lead on his nearest rival
- On his final day of racing, Toma Coconea ran and hiked 130km – the equivalent of 3 marathons!
- Maurer performed 50% faster than any other athlete
- Athletes reached heights of 4,000m while flying around the Matterhorn
- Coconea was supported by a convoy of 20 Romanian cars on his final journey into Monaco
- 0 – the number of skiers Babu Sunuwar had seen in real life before arriving in Europe!
- Each athlete consumed an average 5,000 calories a day – twice a normal adult male’s intake
- 10 athletes made it to Monaco – the most ever
- Maurer has now won the Red Bull X-Alps an historic 3 times