I wrote this nearly two years ago in the lead up to my debut xalps (2015), but decided it was too controversial to publish! So many people would ask me about my training and then give me a really worried look when hearing my response. Losing any sense of humility after a good run last xalps, and not seeing much change to my attitudes since, here it is…
This blog is supposed to be about the adventures I have flying in the mountains, but since being accepted, the xalps has never been far from my mind. When I’m introduced as the crazy xalps guy the first thing I am invariably asked about is my training. In time I’ll whittle down the word count of my response to save my breath, but here is the long answer to what I think about training – without mentioning that horrible word again until the conclusion of the article.
Firstly why do I fly? The original reason was to explore the mountains around Glenorchy in New Zealand, as I have every summer since. I’ve expanded this to exploring mountains in other places, but also I’ve become very interested in exploring the air as well, and I find the multiple influences in the mountains especially interesting. With the last year of exciting flying in exotic locations I’ve been spoilt to a point where I want to do something different every time. As you try new things and explore with confidence your rate of learning increases rapidly, so it’s really helped my flying. Now coming back to New Zealand I’ve been flying much further which is really amazing after all those years of studying maps and familiarising with the area with smaller flights, tramping and climbing. But the main aim still is to have fun exploring and I find that the smaller flights in special or unexpected conditions are the ones where I can’t contain my excitement, as opposed to the longer flights where I’m concentrating and my mood is more subdued.
Why do I want to compete in the xalps? I’ve always wondered how you could take the freedom and excitement of flying and reduce it to kilometres, points, and rules. But the xalps is different to other competitions. It is based on a simple concept, with the outcome being that the pilot has full creative expression and the race becomes addictive to watch. Rather than fly in classic conditions with puffy clouds and light winds in the middle of the day with conditions deemed suitable by the competition organisers, the xalps explores the limits of what is possible. It is closely aligned to the type of flying I love, the spirit of exploration is a necessary ingredient and the flying is pure and close to the elements free from artificial interference.
I’ve always been captivated by xalps but didn’t imagine myself taking part. The fickle nature of paragliding has its highs and lows and this is amplified by vol biv and this was enough for me. But since improving my flying I’ve started to consider it, and my experiences in x-berg and x-pyr have confirmed this – they were both amazing adventures. I even found that I enjoyed walking on the road in the dark! When I was convinced that it would be possible for me to compete in xalps and to enjoy it I put in my application.
My physical fitness? I’ve always been fit, to the astonishment of those who comment on how much I eat. I would come back from tramping with Dad to win the school cross country race. My binge fitness regime is erratic but my body seems to know that it needs to be ready for me to climb a mountain at any moment. The trails in the Alps are a walk in the park compared to some of the back country tramping in New Zealand. In x-pyr I felt better every day after the first awful slog across the border to the foot hills of the Pyrenees. I’ll be doing some road work to make sure the muscles are ready for this but I’ll only be running if I’m late to fly. Road work will also be good to fine tune foot care, although I’m also lucky with my feet. X-berg in South Africa was a lot more wild, and my feet suffered a little more than they might have with a choice of footwear to suit the conditions. X-berg was a more physical race but I still had plenty of gas in the tank at the finish.
I won’t be committing to a regimented fitness program but I do have a few things in the pipeline to make sure I’m up to the task. As usual I’ll be carrying my vol biv gear and plenty of food on any cross country flight and ensuring that mentally I’m not limiting my flying. I’ve got a few mountain running and pack raft missions planned for the windy days. I haven’t finalised my itinerary yet but I’m likely to be in the Indian Himalaya in April, Kyrgyzstan or the Balkans in May, and the Alps in June. With all those mountains around I’ll easily be tempted to climb a few – but in general I just love moving fast and efficiently through the alpine environment. On foot or in the air (if not on a river!).
My wing handling skills? My instructor once talked about getting to the point where the wing is just like an extension to your body. The xalps is all about maximising your time in the air so it’s essential to be completely comfortable in a wide range of conditions. I’ve spent years practicing kiting or ground handling and I think this is the best way to feel completely comfortable on launch and to understand your wings behaviour and how to fly it. It’s also heart breaking to miss an opportunity to fly because you’re wasting time on launch. I find that in vol biv flying I’m constantly thinking of the time I have to get in the air (say, during a thermal cycle, during a break in the clouds, before approaching showers) versus how long it will take me to get to a suitable launch (some launches might need a breeze or some tricky manoeuvring).
Wing overs are invaluable for harnessing the energy of your wing in the air and compensating in rough air with active flying. Someone said it’s a good measure of whether you are comfortable and competent with your wing.
I’ve continued to be more concerned about the performance of my wing in flight (for example gliding into a headwind for a landing) rather than the behaviour (for example I wouldn’t adjust my flying to avoid rough leeside conditions based on the wing I’m flying), so I believe that for me personally the performance gain of the higher EN classes improves my overall safety.
Tight landings? This is something I’ve become renowned for practicing in the past. I often outland deep in the mountains but I definitely adjust the risks I take in accordance with how remote the country is – I’ve seen goats with broken legs too! The focus is to avoid injury and it’s better to land and walk than land and not be able to walk. It’s important to be able to quickly evaluate the merits of landings somewhere as conditions can change really fast. This is also an area where timely and pertinent information from the supporter can potentially be helpful and consequential.
Cross country flying in various conditions? I have considered honing my technical skills in conventional competitions but I find it hard to sacrifice a week to sit on hills. If the weather is average chances are you’d still be having an amazing time in the mountains, and if it was good, you’d be flying in more scenic places for longer. But I might sign up for a task or two. Definitely I’ll be extracting all the information I can out of my fellow pilots.
The biggest thing that is improving my flying is getting out there amongst it. It’s amazing what you can achieve when you’re not afraid of a walk out. The idea was to get coincidental fitness on the walk outs but so far I’ve usually managed to fly even further than I’d hoped. Often when I fly I’m looking to try new routes and go somewhere I’ve never been, to try and learn something new.
So far this summer my vario has been broken so that’s been a good excuse to fly low and fast, and not dilly dally in ill-defined lift. I’m looking forward to getting it back though so I can top out for those long glides and explore convergence lift in more depth. But when you’re in a booming thermal on sunny cliffs in the back country, there’s little need for a vario – you can see the world getting smaller.
Since flying the big triangle I’ve been drawing triangles all over the map. But one thing I always say is the map doesn’t show the weather. It’s important that I get out there in the marginal conditions and try and see what I can cobble together in unconventional scenarios. For this the best approach is to go vol biv. When you’re flying, you’re learning, and even if it’s obviously not flyable you can still observe things from the ground.
The great thing about xalps as compared to vol biv is you have a supporter. Logistics is taken care of and you can travel light and fast without having to consider where you’ll set up camp. It is adventure but with a strong focus of moving forward. The Alps has the best documented flying conditions in the world and the supporter has a wealth of real time information to assess and present to the pilot to enable informed decision making. The month leading up to the race is very important for establishing a common understanding and communication strategy between myself and my supporter, as well as improving the systems to ensure our logistics are as streamlined as possible. Here strategies will be discussed and route choices evaluated so we are fully prepared for the race. We will also continue to devise ways to mitigate race risks such as impact and overuse injuries or damaging equipment, cable and hazard avoidance, airspace and race rule breaches, being organised with the right gear (flying and walking kit, batteries, food, communications, navigation), managing emotions and fatigue, making good flying decisions and good strategic decisions.
In general I want to keep the same philosophy of having fun and exploring that has brought me this far in my flying. But there are a few small improvements that I can make based on my experiences in x-berg and x-pyr, and some key xalps risks that we need to manage. There is a serious side to having fun, but I still can’t imagine it could possibly be boring or tedious enough to be labelled as training. In Salzberg on 5 July 2015 we won’t be worn down and strung out, we’ll be brimming with excitement for the next part of the adventure.