Bonus Episode- Ask Me Anything with Gavin, your questions answered!

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Episode 132- Bastienne Wentzel and the Beginner’s Guide to Paragliding

 

Bastienne Wentzel is a professional science writer, editor of Lift magazine and assistant pilot instructor based in the Netherlands. A few years ago she became frustrated with the lack of comprehensive, correct information available for newer pilots trying to learn to fly and decided to write an instructional book in Dutch. It was such a hit that the team at Cross Country magazine, headed up by Ed Ewing decided to take three years re-writing and editing her original book in English. The magnificent result has just been published. The book is absolutely packed with tips, illustrations, and expert advice to help newer pilots learn the A to Z’s of learning to fly safely. From the history of the sport, to gear, understanding aerology, the fundamentals of flight, meteorology, getting licensed, understanding airspace and more it’s all presented in an easy-to-understand and highly readable format. This show is dedicated to Bastienne’s book and our listeners who are just taking flight and learning the ropes. Enjoy!

Find out more here: https://beginnersguidetoparagliding.com

And PLEASE take our podcast survey here that I speak about in the opener (win Patagonia schwag or a The Beginner’s Guide book!)

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Show Notes: 

  • How the book came to be
  • Bastienne’s history and becoming an instructor, and the lack of a proper instructional books
  • The various chapters and what’s available
  • Meteorology and aerology
  • What Bastienne has learned in her years in the sport

Mentioned in the Show: Jeff Shapiro, Ed Ewing, Cross Country Magazine, Greg Hammerton, Hugh Miller, Bruce Goldsmith, Kelly Farina

 

Bastienne

Episode 131- Ferdinand Van Shelven takes on his 5th X-Alps

Ferdy Van Shelven launches in the 2017 X-Alps

Ferdinand (aka “Ferdy”) Van Shelven, “The Flying Dutchman” is returning for his 5th Red Bull X-Alps this June after taking a break from the 2019 race. Ferdy has been in the top 7 in all of his previous 4 campaigns from 2011 to 2017. How has a pilot from the flatlands of the Netherlands become so competitive in the toughest race on Earth? We explore his flying philosophy; his approach to risk; the dynamic with his wife Nicole supporting him in the race; the right head-space for something as huge as the X-Alps; how his approach will change in this edition; the good and bad side of ignorance; some of the sketchy situations he’s experienced in the race; how to follow your instincts; sitting out the 2019 race and a lot more. Enjoy this fun talk with a huge fan favorite of the race!

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Show Notes:

  • The flying dutchman returns!
  • Some sketchy situations
  • Sitting out the 2019 race
  • Oh the crazy places you will go!
  • Pain
  • What rookies should expect, and are they ready?
  • Doing the race with your wife as supporter and a new baby on board!
  • The breakthrough of Ferdy’s 2017 race, and how he’s been so consistent
  • The crazy vertical the race requires on some days
  • Dealing with the risk of the X-Alps
  • Day 2 of the 2017 X-Alps when Benoit crashed and Antoine Girard got really hurt and had to retire from the race
  • How much psychological trauma can we handle?
  • Where and how Chrigel gains on the rest and the advantage of being out front early
  • Best/ worst experiences of the race

 

Mentioned in this episode: Red Bull X-Alps, Zooom, Tom De Dorlodot, Nick Neynens, Chrigel Maurer, Bruce Marks, Skywalk, Salewa, Toma Coconea, Aaron Durogati, Paul Guschlbauer, Simon Oberrauner, Rick Brezina, Michal Gierlach, Benoit Outters, Antoine Girard, Reavis Sutphin-Gray

 

Episode 130- Instruments and chasing beauty with Koni Schafroth

Koni flying over a glacier in Switzerland

Koni Schafroth has been flying over 30 years, but you’re not going to find him chasing distance and trying to win XContest. Koni pursues free flight for the beauty and tapping into the incredible emotion that flying provides. Soaring over glaciers on a perfect day; midnight flights under the full moon; flying with friends; and coming home safely. Koni is a mechanical engineer and is the creator of the XCTracer varios, the most sophisticated and accurate variometers on the market today. In this episode we explore how best to set up your vario; FLarm use for safety and collision avoidance and buddy tracking; avoiding costly mistakes and a reminder to watch for complacency; 30 years of learning; how to think about risk and some fun stories. Enjoy!

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If you like what you hear, please consider becoming a subscriber to ensure our high-quality content continues.

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Show Notes:

  • Koni discusses the very beginning of the sport and some lucky near-misses
  • Yet another engineer takes to the sport
  • Chasing it…but not by kilometers
  • Why engineers love flying
  • How varios work and the difference between an accelerometer and a barometer
  • Should we not dampen our varios?
  • Improving your climbing
  • FLarm collision avoidance and buddy tracking
  • What vario is right for you?
  • Making cheap mistakes
  • Chrigel, everyone else, and risk
  • Don’t run out of luck

 

Mentioned in this episode: XCTracer, Tom DeDorlodot, Ferdy Van Shelven, Flytec, Alex Robé, Coupe Icare, Chrigel Maurer, XContest

 

The XCTracer Maxx

Thinking about competing in the Red Bull X-Alps? Read this first.

 

Day 7 2017 Red Bull X-Alps, Zugspitze arena. Photo Olga Schmaidenko

Tomorrow, October 14th the world finds out who’s going to compete in the 10th edition of the Red Bull X-Alps, which kicks off June 20th, 2021. We’ll find out which 33 athletes from around the globe get to spend most of their waking hours over the next 9 months getting physically and mentally prepared for what’s billed as the toughest adventure race on Earth. Team USA 1 has competed now three times and we hope to again in 2021. I know the mileage, sweat and tears that are in store in the months ahead. The endless checklists, the endless refinements, the training that just keeps getting harder…and harder…and harder until finally the blessed taper two weeks before the race kicks off and then there’s nothing but anticipation and unsettled nerves until the gun goes off in Salzburg.

It ain’t all a picnic. Ben Abruzzo and Gavin McClurg walk off the Gaisberg, 2017 Red Bull X-Alps. Photo Olga Schmaidenko

If you’ve been thinking about applying to the Red Bull X-Alps this blog post is for you. I’m not on the selection committee and I know no more about who gets selected that anyone else, but I do know how difficult (and awesome) the race is, and what athletes can expect to endure. And I can guess what the selection committee really wants to see in an applicant. Knowledge is power as they say, so my hope is this post helps the uninitiated navigate the unknown.

When I think back to our first campaign in 2015 the most unwieldy aspect of the race were all the things we didn’t understand and couldn’t totally anticipate or prepare for. How hard was it really when it came to the physical aspect? Could I fly safely in the conditions the race required? What about all the logistics? What were the critical things my team needed to be comfortable doing? How would we handle (and could we prepare for) the inevitable conflict and stress the race would throw at us? And the scariest of them all- did we have what it takes?

Gavin Mcclurg (USA1) signs the Kronplatz TP during the 2019 Red Bull X-Alps

Huge projects are like huge goals. They have to be broken down into manageable segments. Otherwise they can never be tackled. So let’s break it down:

THE PHYSICAL

For 11.5 days you’re allowed to move from 0500-22:30, and one night you can go all night (all athletes are allowed to use a “nightpass” once in the race, and the top three of the prologue can use two). So other than one night you’re moving either on the ground or in the air 17.5 hours a day. On unflyable days the top athletes will cover 90-120 km. Remember- that’s with a pack, carrying all of your gear (7-10 kilos typically without food and water), going up and over and across the Alps, and if it’s unflyable that means you’re traveling in the rain, snow and wind and often on very busy roads with a ton of traffic. In my three  campaigns I’ve climbed at least the height of Everest 4 times (120,000′) in each one. That’s 10,000′ a day (many days are close to 20,000′), and even in good flying years you’ll cover at least a marathon a day in distance. I’ve averaged 4 flights per day in all three campaigns. That’s a hell of a lot of vertical, and even though it’s the Alps which tends to have pretty friendly terrain, I can count on two hands the number of “normal” launches I’ve used, and less when it comes to landings (last year I touched down briefly on a winding road with a car barreling down on me before winging it over a waterfall). Don’t just read those numbers and assume you can tough it out. Think ultrathon every day, WITH a pack, WITH a ton of very sketchy flying, WITH a ton of endless decision-making, WITHOUT much sleep. You cannot simply will yourself across this course. Blisters alone takes out several athletes every year. I read that Chrigel shoots for 30,000 meters per month of vertical. On Team USA 1 we shoot for 8-10,000 feet of vertical per week PLUS a ton of time in the gym working on serious core strength to accommodate the pack and the vertical, PLUS several months of aerobic base training (think miles), PLUS endless foot conditioning (again, think miles). You should be thinking about committing 10-15 hours per week to training in the fall (this does NOT include flying, ground handling, logistics, team planning, etc- this is just the physical training), then 15-25 hours per week in the winter, and up to 35 hours per week in the last three months. My secret is Ben Abruzzo, my trainer and one of my team members in the race. Certainly you can go it on your own, but I don’t recommend it. Overtraining is as sinister as undertraining and getting it right should be handled by a professional. Having a competent trainer allows you to unload one huge stress point- will I be physically ready?

 

Prepare to suffer- gym training for the 2015 race. Photo Jody MacDonald

FLYING

The Red Bull X-Alps is not a game for recreational pilots. In 2015 the legend Toma Coconea nearly lost his life in the race. Ditto for 7-time competitor Tom De Dorlodot. Michael Witschi (one of the best pilots in the game) threw his reserve and veteran X-Alps pilot Michael Gebert pulled out because the conditions were so sketchy. In 2017 Antoine Girard got so broken trying to launch on day two of the race he had to pull out. I saw two other super talented pilots crash in violent Foehn conditions that day. The thing is- to be remotely competitive in the X-Alps flying in conditions that we shouldn’t fly in is just part of the game. You’ve gotta have wicked ground handling skills, acro skills are a must, and you’ve gotta be super duper comfortable flying in the lee, in rotor, and generally in conditions that would and should terrify most pilots. If this kind of flying turns you on, the Red Bull X-Alps could be right up your alley. Here’s a few segments from the 2017 race to give you an idea:)

 

FINANCES

The race is extraordinarily expensive. If you’re selected you don’t have to pay the organization to compete, but you’ve got to cover all your costs, which are considerable. The Europeans obviously have a big advantage here as they don’t have to contend with buying airline tickets for your team or renting race vehicles, but it’s still three + weeks of things that really add up (there’s a mandatory pre-race week, which includes the Prologue, and then the actual 12 day race). Food, road tolls, and fuel are the obvious ones but also things like gear, apps and maps for your team, sim cards and data plans, and sometimes just getting water for the race vehicle in places like Switzerland can be astonishing (anything you have to buy in Switzerland is astonishing!). Each of our campaigns has cost in the neighborhood of $30,000 USD. Can it be done for less? Of course, but just the van rental alone for the two weeks of the race and three weeks of training before the race is 8,000 euros. Nick Neynens rocks up with a small SUV and his team (his mom and his brother) are happy posting up in a tent, cooking on a camp stove and giving him a big block of cheese every once in awhile, so there is clearly a huge range here, but the point is- give it some serious consideration.

 

Gavin McCulrg (USA1) and Tobias Grossrubatcher (ITA2) prepare to launch during the Red Bull X-Alps in Davos, Switzerland in 2019. Photo Vitek Ludvik.

KNOWLEDGE OF THE ALPS

Take a look at the results of the race since its inception in 2003. The first thing to notice is that it has an 11% finish rate- one of the many statistics that gives credence to its billing as the “Toughest on Earth”. The second thing is that is has never been won by a non-Swiss athlete. The third is how only a fraction of the already small numbers who have completed the course are non-Europeans. The first was legendary Japanese pilot Kauro “Ogi” Ogisawa in 2007 (Ogi competed at the age of 59 in the 2019 race!). The next wasn’t until 6 years later when Jon Chambers came in an impressive 4th in 2013. The next was me in 2015. Through the 2019 race only 6 non-European athletes have made it to Monaco! The point is- the Alps are a complex maze of dense, imposing mountains that create their own weather systems. It can be totally flyable in one valley but suicidal only 15 km away! Did you watch Chrigel fly from Davos up the Rhine and top land Titlis in the 2019 race? Not many pilots on Earth could have pulled that off that day, but I’d gamble that number goes to zero if that wasn’t your backyard, as it is for Chrigel.

Oh but it can be glorious! Photo Vitek Ludvik

IS IT TIME TO APPLY?

This is a question I think many overly-ambitious pilots get wrong. There are two main approaches here. The first is to just wing it and apply even with a thin flying and mountain resume and see if you get lucky (although if you are French, Swiss, Italian or Austrian sorry, you’ve gotta be a top-notch contender!). The problem then becomes if you aren’t really ready for the race placing in the top half and not getting eliminated is a tall order, which then means your chances of getting invited back go way down. I actually have no idea how much favoritism the race committee gives to veterans, but they have published that if you don’t place in the top half, it’s certainly no guarantee. Case in point- in 2017 polish pilot Michal Gerlach who is a seriously accomplished comp pilot and came in a respectable 16th in the race did not get a slot in 2019. There are dozens of examples like this. I know a lot of people who just go for it and apply. What isn’t maybe obvious is how awesome the race is to experience. Before my first race in 2015 I never for a moment thought I’d want to do it more than once. As we closed on Monaco in the 2015 race we were already planning the 2017 race! And here we are going into what is hopefully our 4th. In other words- play the long game. There’s no rush. The race isn’t going away and I’m proof that you can overcome age! My suggestion is first to get a bunch of shorter, more reasonable hike and fly races under your belt. Do a ton of bivvy trips. I suppose race to goal competitions also get their attention but I doubt they weigh nearly as heavily as races like the EigerTour, Dolomiti, IronFly, VercoFly, X-Pyr or the many others. The top 10 competitors in 2015 moved fast, but you could make mistakes and stay in the game. The pace of the top 20 in the 2019 race was ridiculous, it’s become a completely different game. These days most of the field is insanely fit, their teams are absolutely prepared and professional, and the competition is STIFF. Hell Chrigel even has an X-Alps school for his protegés! You pay for mistakes dearly and making up ground is nearly impossible. So…better be prepared!

 

Pulling the night pass. 2019 X-Alps. Photo Vitek Ludvik.

GETTING CHOSEN

Firstly, listen to the podcast I did with Race Director Christoph Weber. He doesn’t totally disclose what they are looking for, but he stresses that they want to see not just excellent piloting skills, but a solid background in operating in the mountains. The race takes you through a lot of really serious terrain. They want to see that you can be autonomous in sketchy places and you’re going to make good decisions. They don’t want yahoo’s who say things like “I’m fearless and I’m going to kick ass!” Think confident humility. Experience in the Alps is invaluable. Documented bivvy expeditions through remote terrain a huge plus. The more videos, articles and media you can generate in advance that show you’re a serious pilot and a serious student of the sport and the race has to weigh promisingly.

SPONSORSHIP

Yes, it’s the Red Bull X-Alps. It’s got the name and it’s by far the biggest thing in paragliding. But…it’s still paragliding. Once again I think Europeans have a massive advantage here as flying is just such a much bigger thing in Europe than anywhere else, but getting even free gear, let alone money for competing is harder than you think. My guess is less than a handful of the veterans of the race get much help beyond gear. By all means go for it, but remember that fulfilling big promises to potential sponsors is going to be nearly impossible to do unless you bring your own photographer or videographer over to document your race (they better be UBER fit!). In my three races I’ve had maybe 5 seconds of footage total in the hour-long documentaries Zooom (Zooom is the race organizer) creates, and in two of the races I had one of their film crews with me for several days. If you aren’t Chrigel, a female, or a Red Bull athlete don’t expect much. Blunt- but true. And trust me, your team is going to be too busy to document much on their own.

YOUR TEAM

Without an amazing team you don’t have a chance. That’s just a fact. Chrigel himself had Thomas Theurillat for his first four wins, without a doubt our sport’s greatest sports-psychologist (not to mention he’s an accomplished mountain guide!). Check out Thomas’ incredible company OneDay to find out more (he was also on the podcast recently). Your team gets less sleep than you do and will be doing almost all of your thinking. The X-Alps is 12 days of physical chess with a big dollop of random thrown in to make things interesting. You can’t bull your way across the course, you have to think. You’ve got to all get along and have a blast even when shit isn’t going right. They have to juggle not killing themselves AND try not to kill you. The supporter role in the X-Alps is about the furthest thing from a holiday there is. The race is awesome on so many levels- the flying; the incredible beauty of the Alps; the intensity; the competition; seeing what you’re made of and a lot more. All of it- awesome. But I keep coming back for more because none of it compares to the experience you have with your team. You’re going to war with people you totally rely on and the laughter and joy we’ve experience in our X-Alps campaigns isn’t replicable anywhere else. So pick your team carefully!

 

Gavin McClurg (USA2) and his support team Ben Abruzzo and Bruce Marks reach Monaco in 8th place on July 15th, 2015

Episode 129- Piedrahita, Wild Stories, Accident hindsights and more with Steve Ham

One of Steve’s incredible illustrations…

Steve Ham’s fascination with flying began with hang gliders in 1981, which subsequently ended any attempt at a serious career path. In 1991 Steve discovered Piedrahita in Spain and began a crusade to put the site on the world map for flying and competitions. During the 90’s Steve organized and ran some of the most memorable and successful comps of the decade, including 4 World Cups, the Europeans, the Hang Gliding World series and multiple national events. Steve still holds the site record from Piedrahita and has at various times in his long career held many other records in Spain and the UK. Steve has represented the British Team several times over a long competition career starting in 1990 and the latest in 2007 in Australia; and has notched a number of wins at comps around the world. He was the comp director in the tragic 2011 World’s competitions in Piedrahita, probably the most notorious event in the history of paragliding which resulted in two deaths and several reserve throws on the second day. The fallout from that event radically changed paragliding and resulted in the ban of Open Class gliders. In this episode we revisit the tragedy in Piedrahita and get the full story on what happened and how the “writing was on the wall”; we hear about his fateful accident after the comp that lead to him becoming a talented illustrator; several other accidents both hang gliding and paragliding over the years; Steve’s “flyguiding” in Piedrahita; the craziness of Manila in 2007, and plenty of entertaining stories. Enjoy!

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Show Notes:

  • The 2011 World’s in Piedrahita- what went wrong and all the fallout from the comp
  • Piedrahita gets on the map
  • The Open Class and Serial Class and comparisons to 1998
  • Fly on the wall goes bad
  • The history of comp gliders
  • Revisiting the weight issue and size of gliders and “weightless” style comps
  • Saving Piedrahita
  • Accidents and takeaways
  • The craziness in Manila in 2007 and Eva’s flight over 30,000′
  • Maintaining a good attitude at comps
  • The liberation of leaving competitions
  • Running a comp and covering costs
  • Red Bull X-Alps
  • Becoming an illustrator
  • Kiwi’s “road to Macedonia” series
  • Meet directing and flying in comps = bad idea
  • Stupid decisions and complacency
  • Looking back at a long career
  • How our acceptance of risk changes in the comp environment

 

Mentioned in this episode: XCMag, Russ Ogden, Ozone, Gin, Ed Ewing, Alex Hoffa, Richard Gallon, CIVL, Eitel von Muhlenbrock, Mads Syndergaard, Francisco Vargas, James “Kiwi” Johnston, Tom Payne, Seiko Fukuoka, Brett Janaway, Bruce Goldsmith, Godfrey Wenness, Eva Wisnerska, David Dagault, USHPA, Miguel Gutierrez, Alas Del Hombre, Jocky Sanderson

 

Steve’s coronavirus illustration for Gavin’s column in XCMag

Chasing Fool’s Gold in Texas

Wish they all could have been like this…

Please note: a much shorter version of this article is in my column in Cross Country Magazine, issue 213.

I’ve had my eye on Texas for an awfully long time. Very few people have given it a shot since Will Gadd broke the open distance record there, flying 423 km on the summer solstice in 2002. Why? Because it’s brutal! On record days you’re taking off in absurdly strong winds. Cloudbase feels like it’s an arm’s length above your head early in the morning when you need to get in the air to go big, when thermals are weak and broken. Then it’s a crap shoot for the first 75 km. As soon as you get blown downwind of the airstrip you’re in no man’s land. One wrong decision or a little bad luck and you’re on the deck. But getting on the deck safely in a sea of thick mesquite, cactus, and monster windmills in strong wind is a long ways from a gimme. If you’re lucky enough to stick it in on a dirt road (which rarely run parallel with the wind) have fun walking in 100+ degree heat (most of our days the heat index was well over 110 degrees) to a road where your retrieve can get to you as all non-county roads are locked up tight behind big Texas-sized gates (watch out for rattle snakes, wild boar, and scorpions!). As an added bonus- you’re flying right along the Mexican border for the first 150 miles. People down in this part of Texas are very wary of disheveled looking people wandering around with backpacks (ie paragliders). Every piece of land as far as the eye can see is privately owned. Texans carry guns. Big guns. We heard “I was just about to shoot you” and “next time one of you lands out here you’re going to get shot” about as many times as I heard “this place sucks” by one of our team members, which was every day of our three week encampment. In other words- you aren’t going to southern Texas in the middle of summer to have a flying vacation. You don’t go to Texas to have fun. You go there for a chance at glory.

Here’s a few of the signs we ran across that give you a little idea of the flavor of things down here:

Brazil has held the world distance record since 2007, when Marcelo Prieto, Rafael Saladini and Frank Brown flew 461 km from Quixada. In 2015 Donizete Lemos, Frank Brown, and Marcelo Prieto flew 513 km from Tacima, a site 400 km further east of Quixada and much closer to the ocean, which provides for early cloud support, and really crazy launches in extremely high wind. Then in 2016 Donizete and new team members Samuel Nascimento and Rafael Saladini smashed the record flying 564km, also from the tricky Tacima launch (their encampment lasted 39 days, of which they flew 3). Ciclos 2 documents these Brazilians’ incredible dedication to team flying and world-record chasing and is a must-watch. It’s an absolutely gorgeous film, probably the best cross country film ever made.

Then last year another Brazilian team (Marcelo Prieto, Rafael Saladini, and Rafael de Moraes Barros) went ever further, this time starting by towing in front of the ridge of Tacima to make it safer and flew a remarkable 588km. Could Texas hold even more potential? The going thinking, even among the Brazilians is yes. I’ve flown the Sertau from Tacima and now I’ve flown Texas. Here’s how I rank them:

Cody Mittanck and Gavin McClurg launch

  1. Consistency: Brazil by far. From Tacima in ten days I had two reasonable flights and a lot of scary launches. Still better than Texas, and we were there three weeks. The last few years a whole slew of world-class pilots have been towing from Caico, a town 200km inland from Tacima and are regularly banging out 500km+ flights across the Sertao.
  2. Food:  Texas. I’d heard the little town of Hebbronville had one Subway and not much else. But if you like meat, Texas has some wicked BBQ and Tacima is grim from a culinary standpoint.
  3. Heat: Brazil. Texas is stinking hot. AND Humid. It’s brutal.
  4. Risk/ Danger: Brazil. Tacima does have a pretty full-on launch, but once you’re off the ground it’s a walk in the park compared to Texas. And if you tow from Caico or other sites, the Sertao is much, much friendlier.
  5. Aesthetic flying: Brazil. The Sertau isn’t just flat forever. It’s broken up by cool terrain, strange lakes, odd outcroppings and is really quite stunning. Although Texas did grow on me. The first 250km is pretty much just flat mesquite with a bit of circle farming (which makes it very easy to get disoriented if there’s not a lot of wind pushing you obviously one direction), but then you hit the hill country which is…hilly and green and dicey if you’re low in a lot of wind, and once on the north of hill country landings get easier, which is nice late in the day.
  6. Potential: Going only on what Dustin Martin and Jonny Durand did in 2012, I have to say Texas. But it hasn’t been that dry since and being there on the right day is going to require a hell of a lot of luck and persistence.
  7. Retrieve: Texas absolutely. When you go deep in Brazil getting home is almost as wild an adventure as the flight, and takes about as long. Texas has paved roads and they go mostly the right direction.

 

Cody Mittanck on glide early on a blue day. All the green stuff is mesquite (ie landable, but extremely painful, and the death of your wing). All the white towers are windmills (death). All the roads are gated off (possible death). All the light green field are a goat head hell (wish you were dead).

Since Dustin Martin flew 475 miles (Jonny Durand landed 3 miles short at 472) on his hang glider in 2012, the only paragliding encampment I know of was an Ozone team pilot crew with some of the best cross country pilots in the world  headed up by Nick Greece in 2014. They had marginal weather (it was a wet year), but Luc Armant was able to beat Will Gadd’s long-standing US record flying 463 km. It was well short of a world record, but it gave us a glimpse of the potential. Several months before our trip was scheduled I called Nick Greece to get some beta.

“Nick”, I said, “what do I need to know about Texas?”

“Don’t go. That’s what you need to know.”

With that encouragement, we began planning.

We began studying the water tables (the drought index) and weather patterns. Watched the GEOS radar for months trying to figure out how the weather models were aligning with the actual conditions so we could narrow down which models worked best. I contacted the Texas weather gurus Davis Straub and Gary Osoba to get their thoughts on how things were lining up. We needed multiple winches, tow-techs, and retrieve drivers. We needed a place to stay. Going off of Will Gadd’s record, which was set on the summer solstice (June 21), we finally decided to head down on June 16th (a 30 hour drive from Sun Valley!) so we’d have a couple of days to get organized and be ready for the long days. Turns out dryness and the right wind is a LOT more important than sun hours in Texas as you only lose a couple minutes a week after the solstice so this was something we weighted too heavily. Turns out we were three weeks early, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Two weeks before our departure, on June 11th I got a message from Dave Prentice, who has probably chased distance in Texas more than anyone.

“Hey, you know a guy named Sebastien Kayrouz? He’s 200km out and covering ground fast. I think he could get your record.”

I got on XCFind and sure enough, Sebastien was humming along quite nicely. I’d never heard of this guy. And he’d foot launched! There isn’t much terrain in Texas, but there are some low foot launches in their “hill country” NW of San Antonio, (it’s a stretch to even call them hills), but I’d heard they were usually blown out, especially on record days. I tapped everyone I knew as Sebastien passed the 300km mark. No one had heard of him. Last year at the US Nationals in Chelan he hadn’t broken the top 100 and was flying an Ozone Alpina, and yet this unknown pilot was flying solo at magnificent speed. I tapped some of my midwest contacts and learned that Sebastien was a relatively new pilot, had become a weather guru, and had been grooming 4 different launches in the hill country to be ready for the “perfect day.” And the perfect day was exactly what he was now tapping, and he was prepared. He’d hiked his gear up the little hill the night before just so he would be more fresh on the day. There was a subtropical low to the south of Louisiana (usually you want a high pressure there, but a combo of factors allowed the counter-clockwise low to mix with a strong dry line over the New Mexico border to create a monster convergence that flowed directly north). As he sailed past my record (387km) with a lot of day left, I began getting very excited about Texas!

In the end Sebastien flew 502km, an inspiring flight that crushed my record and I think got a lot of people around the world thinking more seriously about Texas. If this new pilot flying an M7 solo could fly 502 km in short of ten hours (good days in Texas you can land well after sunset and fly 11-12 hours), how far could a skilled team flying comp gliders working together as they do in Brazil go? Meaning no disrespect whatsoever to Sebastien as his flight was incredible at every level, but his flight confirmed what I hear from the world-record chasers, be it in sailplanes, hang gliders or paragliders: going huge is 85% the day, and 15% the pilot. To go 600km or more, you need a magnificent day, and you need to be in the air.

Our team would be two-time world record holder Donizete Lemos, World Cup shredder and X-Alps pilot Cody Mittanck, and myself. Donizete had planned an encampment with his Brazilian brethren- Rafael Saladini, Frank Brown and others this season but Covid had of course pinned his mates down and when he heard Cody and I were going to give it a shot I was elated when he gave me a call. What an opportunity! We were going to be taught by the Maestro himself!

We’d be joined by two other teams and we all agreed to share resources. My buddies Ben Abruzzo, Max Montgomery and Wyatt Lines were the New Mexico contingent and would be with us the first week, and late-to-join Cedar Wright, Marcos Rosenjaker, James “Kiwi” Oroc and thrillingly the legend himself, the “dark prince”, Larry Tudor would join us for the second half of the three week encampment. Larry was the first person to fly 200, then 300 miles in a hang glider (the 300 mile record stood for a LONG time) and knew a thing or two about breaking records, and having someone with such an endless lexicon of amazing stories would help all of us stay optimistic as the days wore on.

Looking back we properly blew it our first week. Day one Donizete and I made it away from the airport (Cody launched 5 times and never made it out- which is just how it works in Texas) and made pretty quick work of flying 140km to Cotella, a small town nestled at a freeway intersection north of our launch in Hebbronville. But because it wasn’t a “record” day we decided we should save our energy and land. It took both of us over an hour to get to the dirt, which turned out to be on the perimeter of a prison. Trying to land in 30+ km of wind at 3 pm in booming conditions in Texas is pretty terrifying. You can’t just spiral to the ground or something more fancy as you’ll get blown into the mesquite- or worse. As a thunderhead upwind of us marched our way and I began questioning our decision to attempt to land we finally hit enough sink to get down to Earth, where a half-dozen prison guards, the sheriff, the deputy and a tsunami of unescapable sweat met us.

But I’d just flown 140 easy kilometers with Donizete Lemos! We’d all discussed the rules of team flying the night before and day one we were totally in-step and doing it. We got this!

In that first week we purposefully landed on several days just because it wasn’t a record day that I’m convinced would have given up an easy 400 km. We figured we had to guard our energy and be ready for the big one. What we didn’t know was that Texas gives up a “big one” very, very rarely and we should have taken every kilometer possible. Dustin Martin said in the podcast I did with him that he thought a really good day comes around only every few years. We drove an awful long way to mostly suffer, we might as well have flown as much as we could.

 

Final glide on our first 300 km day. A marginal day at best in Texas- late start and very early end, but still pretty magic

By the start of the second week we’d all had a really fun 300+ km day just beyond the hill country and enough hours in the air that the team flying was starting to gel. Unfortunately the weather was not. And forecasting was like trying to decipher Germany’s Enigma machine in WWII. Larry Tudor’s advice for record-hunting was to try every day, which we did. Many, many days we’d fly just far enough away from the airport to make for a nice long walk. I think I set the record at 7 miles. It was 105 that day (113 with the heat index). Walking 7 miles with 65 pounds of comp kit in 105 degree heat is pretty equivalent to a really, really bad day in the X-Alps, and seemed quite a bit more life-threatening. I was convinced if our retrieve driver Ricardo hadn’t have gotten to me when he did I’d still be out there as vulture food.

Cedar and his team showed up just as the weather made a turn for the worse. His first flight he made a downwind turn at the end of the airport and underestimated the wind strength and landed in a cactus. His second flight he smoked it into a mesquite tree a few km downwind of the airport, which took 2 1/2 hours of sawing in insane heat to extract his wing. His third flight he flew 20 km, bombed out, landed on a road but hung his wing over another mesquite tree (mesquite is basically a massive cactus and has only one purpose that I can tell- causing misery). A week later he got his personal best, but in the process sun burned his face so badly I’m not sure it went down as a win.

 

Texas: 5. Cedar: 0

We were getting daily weather briefs from Davis Straub and as we entered our 3rd week they began coming with messages like: “this is the worst window of weather I’ve ever seen down there, but hang in there, it can change!” So we did. We hung in there. Cedar’s team and Ben’s team were over it and couldn’t get out of town fast enough but thankfully our tow techs were keen to keep supporting us (Greg Bryl and Greg Cusick) and Donizete seemed like he was just warming up and would happily have quit his job to stick around. He clearly knew that world-record hunting doesn’t come easy and chasing it all those years in Brazil had taught him incredible patience. Cody and I had not much else going on and the forecast was showing a glimmer of hope. We’d invested a lot into Texas, we might as well wait it out, as much it felt like a colossal waste of life.

We managed another great team flight over the 300 km mark, just beyond hill country on another very light wind day and then on what would be the last possible day we would have a chance, July 7th, Cody and I got a shot. Donizete had stretched his window as far as he could and reluctantly returned home, so for our final go it would just be the two of us. The winds were lighter than we’d need to go huge, but everything else looked close to perfect.

Cody and I pinged off tow at about the same time. We were in sync and working together immediately. In the beginning you have to move slow. Take every single bit of lift as high as you can. Fly absolute best glide. One wrong move is usually unrecoverable. It can be extremely tense. We skimped along for the first 30 km, with Cody almost always slightly higher showing me the better line. One trick I’d learned early when there isn’t cloud support is to bounce from one possible LZ to another (early on there are very few) and just point into the wind around the next LZ and wait for a thermal to come through. Typically in the flats this is a death sentence, but more often than not it worked for me.  Get as tall as you can, move to the next. This seemed to have better odds than constantly winging it off downwind because if you got a sinky line you were done. But on this finally day we had great cloud support but unfortunately all the climbs were cut up and piecing them together was a real struggle. As we got into the thick of the windmills Cody got a better piece of a climb than I did and it was game over for me. Texas won again.

I landed on a paved road, got a quick retrieve back to the campground, picked up the trailer, said goodbye to the Greg’s and Kiwi and began chasing Cody. The early strong winds had clearly backed off and while he was making great progress, he was way short of record pace. But the sky was brilliant. THIS was what Texas was supposed to look like!

At 300km out as Cody approached the hill country his perfect sky started to turn ugly. It was only 5 pm, he had 400km easy, but radar confirmed he was flying towards some booming cumulonimbus and we’d learned you need to give overdevelopment a massive amount of respect in Texas. I’d never seen skies get so big so quickly and none of us wanted to mess around with tornados. I couldn’t reach Cody on the radio, and he obviously had a better view of the sky than I did, but we both clearly had the same thought. For now, it was ok to press on. Several clouds were going super tall very fast, but it didn’t feel or look that menacing. Yet.

Twenty minutes later my wind alert app showed several weather stations to Cody’s west jump up precipitously. What had been a consistent 15km on the ground all day was suddenly 45, and several stations quite close to one another were all strong but all showed different wind directions. Would Cody descend into this? Was he above it? His flight path was bending strongly west from north, directly towards the Mexico border, which was into clearer sky, but it now looked like the growing storm would swallow him up. “RUN”, I thought, and stepped on the gas. If he got pushed too hard he’d get to see first hand how much of Trump’s wall had been built! I’d never seen a sky go that ballistic that fast.

As I raced out of Del Rio, which is right on the Rio Grande river and the Mexican border I started seeing the first lightning. The last output from Cody’s inReach showed he was flying at 87km/hr, coming nearly due south. He was 370 km out and I just hoped he could put it down safely as he was clearly in the gust front. Then I got a message on Telegram that he was on the ground safely. His location was only 10 minutes away. Ten minutes after I picked him up we were buffeted by a proper rain and wind storm (footage below). Texas wins.

You don’t come for the views. You don’t come for the cultural experience. You’re going to suffer quite a bit. You’re going to wait around a lot. You better like meat. And be able to deal with extreme heat. And you better have a smooth tongue when confronted with big dudes with big guns. Like David Prentice says “chasing records in Texas will drive you crazy.” He’s right. Is it fun? That isn’t the right word. But it’s…compelling, in a weird sort of way. And for some reason that I can’t articulate…I’m excited to go back.

Here are some clips from the trip:

Chasing Fools Gold from Cloudbase Mayhem on Vimeo.

 

And a few tips tips if you still want to give Texas a try (but don’t say I didn’t warn you!):

  • Watch the water tables (think drought) and get REALLY good at forecasting
  • You’ll need a yellow strobe light for any rigs on the runways, and you’ll need contacts for the various runways you might use. Don’t expect to just ruck up and make it work- we spent months putting it all together
  • You’ll need a personal strobe in case you get lucky and find yourself still flying after sunset
  • Your gear is critical. Don’t go to Texas with light weight hike and fly kit. You need a wicked comfortable, maximum-safety harness you can pile up a lot of hours in that can withstand all the nasty stuff that tears you to pieces, that gives you plenty of back support and ability to fly on bar all day. Something with two reserves and something that fits like a glove. The Kortel Design Kanibal II was my weapon and I wouldn’t go back without it. Want one? I’m a dealer! For your wing you need the best performance you can handle. Donizete and Cody flew the Enzo 3, I flew the Niviuk Evox (all are CCC wings). Texas requires super, super advanced flying skills. You need to be a competent, skilled XC pilot with a lot of experience.
  • There’s a very decent RV park about 10 minutes from the Hebbronville airport (FJC RV Park) that has grass, some shade and all the hook ups for a very good rate. There are also two decent hotels in Hebbronville, but for long stays- bring a camper if you can. You’ll need something with AC.
  • You need SUPER solid tow-techs and bomber winches. For most of us this was our first experience with Greg Bryl’s eWinch, which is just an incredible piece of kit (and something light enough you could take on an airplane). HIGHLY recommended. It’s windy as hell, make sure your ground handling skills are up to it.
  • Have plenty of time. Even with a lot of luck, Texas is a waiting game.

 

Episode 128- Ari in the Air and the philosophy of flight

Ari Highlining at sunset in the Cascades- Photo Zack Doleac

In this entertaining and thought-provoking podcast with Ari Delashmutt, a big mountain skier, world-record highliner, paraglider, film maker, and pursuer of the absurd we take on what is sometimes the hardest question of all. Why? Why do we pursue activities that can quite easily go wrong and kill us? As Will Gadd often says, it’s the question we all need to have an answer for and the answer often changes over time. “Truthfulness is a muscle we have to flex.” Let’s flex the muscle we often neglect. Enjoy, ponder, discuss and send your comments. I think you’re going to dig this one.

Ari has his own podcast which you can enjoy here. 

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Show Notes:

  • Cultivating a sense of your own vulnerability
  • Coming into the right relationship with reality
  • The power of collaboration
  • The attitude we should have
  • What does maturation (becoming more mature) look like?
  • It’s time to grow up- as people, as a society
  • “We paraglide for an emotional response”
  • The identity loop- we all only exist in relationship to one another
  • Knowing the reasons you do what you do
  • Maturity- taking what is unconscious into conscious
  • “In paragliding we’re having a hard time talking about safety”
  • How do we support one another in a way that addresses one another constructively?
  • Using paragliding as a tool for transformation- can we use it to change the world?
  • The egoic pursuit
  • “Personhood is an achieved state of being”
  • Doing it for the right reasons- bringing reverence and gratitude to the game every time
  • How does free flight compare to other high-risk sports?
  • What is true in paragliding is true interpersonally
  • Extending the awestruck
  • The requisite virtues of a good pilot and the 4 cardinal virtues
  • Knowing the path vs walking the path
  • Why do some people have such an affinity for high-risk activities?
  • Why paragliding is so much better than kitesurfing:) Why the 3rd dimension makes the experience so much richer
  • You have to walk the path!

 

Mentioned in this episode: Sketchy Andy, Discovery channel, the Turkey Boogie, GGBY, world record highline, Super Frenchy (Matthias Girard), Jon Malmberg, Jeff Shapiro, XContest, John Vervaeke, Red Rocks Fly-in, Will Gadd, Cody Tuttle, Nick Greece, Matt Beechinor, Nate Scales, USHPA, Josh Cohn, the Matrix, Sage Cattabriga-alosa, James “Kiwi” Johnston, Bill Belcourt

 

Episode 127- Hypoxia, Cold, Accident and Reserve Studies and more with Dr. Matt Wilkes

ER and Critical Care physician and paragliding hound Matt Wilkes returns to the Mayhem to share the many takeaways from several large studies he’s been involved with since his last talk three years ago on hypoxia and cold; the largest and most comprehensive study done to date on throwing a reserve; and an accident analysis study done with the BHPA and Cross Country Magazine. How dangerous is free flight really? What leads to most accidents and what does the data support? What do we find from the “Exposure Model”- ie what is more dangerous- flying more and having more currency, or flying less and having less exposure to risk? What are the most common pilot errors that lead to accidents? We know reserves work really well but many people either freeze up or lose track of their height and don’t throw- why? We discuss how should we throw them, what can go wrong if you do, creating the right mindset for throwing, the importance of standardizing the gear and a lot more on tossing the laundry. How much does cold, altitude, dehydration and other environmental factors cripple our cognition? How vulnerable are pilots who are just out of their initial training? We discuss the debacle on Mont Blanc last summer and how we can make bad judgements with the best of intentions, we revisit intermediate syndrome and a ton more. Listen, learn, and share with your friends; this one has a ton of valuable information we all need to digest.

Important links from the show:

Free Flight Physiology Project: https://www.freeflightphysiology.org/

Extreme Environments Laboratory: https://www.port.ac.uk/research/research-centres-and-groups/extreme-environments-research-group

Link to reserve throw video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-HS1ppN6vw4&feature=youtu.be

Link to current first aid kit and advice: https://www.freeflightphysiology.org/first-aid-key-skills/

The Killing zone: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Killing-Zone-Second-How-Pilots/dp/0071798404

Critique of book: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24013111

Brilliant avalanche article, massively applicable to paragliding

http://www.sunrockice.com/docs/Heuristic%20traps%20IM%202004.pdf

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Show Notes:

FIRST AID

  1. The scene and team
  2. The airway
  3. External bleeding
  4. Bind the pelvis
  5. Environmental protection
  6. Tourniquets, spines and helmets etc.

STUDIES

  1. Instrumented pilots in live flight, including XC and acro, heart G
  2. Simulation
  3. Reserve throw – zipline, G force sim
  4. Lots of other work, BHPA analysis, XC survey

OWN LEARNING

  • Guiding / tandem
  • Bandwidth, theirs and my own
  • Lots of SIV courses – talking to experts/andres and paw
  • Understanding the challenges facing beginners (so easy to overestimate)
  • LLSC

XC SURVEY AND BHPA ANALYSIS

  • Exposure model (‘the more flying, the greater the exposure to risk’) vs. ‘currency’ model (‘the more flying, the safer the pilot’).
  • Member numbers – hugely variable
  • Babadag (7 per 100,000 flights) Tandems? Acro?
  • 1.5 deaths and 20 serious injuries per 100,000 flights (BHPA pilots)
  • Pilot error
    • Decisions and glider control
    • Misjudgement of distance
    • Passive safety is not the most important factor
  • High pilot workloads
  • Proximity to terrain
  • Rotational forces
  • Isolated limb and spinal injuries
  • Reserve parachutes protective
    • 50% reduction in chance of injury (even if some low/tangled).

SIV / PILOTAGE

  • Not the complicated stuff – autorotation, and understanding the power of the glider
  • Jocky and Escape
  • Flyeo, unable to do this year (individual practice -Garda – totally lame)
  • Nothing has ever been that bad

PHYSIOLOGY

  • Tiredness like driving a car
  • Take-off phase
  • Acceleration forces sufficient to LOC in spiral

HYPOXIA AND COGNITION

  • Testing is challenging – sim vs. live flight
  • No gross distortion up to 3660 m
  • Small numbers
  • Heterogenous responses
  • Lack of physical jeopardy

COLD

  • Vulnerability to cold injury and dehydration
  • 4ml.kg.hr (320ml per hour when cold – normal insensible loss?)
  • Hand protection
    • keep a warm core
    • Don’t burn yourself with heated gloves
    • Pods really help

G FORCES

  • Trainable and mitigatable
  • Affected by temperature and hydration, blood glucose concentration, alcohol, hypocapnoea, hypoxia, infection, previous exposure and currency

MONT BLANC

  • All of this added up

RESERVE PARACHUTE EXPERIMENTS

  • Large sample of amateur pilots
  • Handles on hips
  • Extractable in any direction
  • Integrated systems
  • check strop length
    • long enough to avoid pulling/rotating the deployment bag before pins released
    • short enough so the bag is well clear of the harness before arm is fully extended
  • Single sweep
  • Secure front mounted reserves at the base
  • Just throw it!
    • Can’t innovate under stress
    • Complicate directions are pointless
    • Practice, practice, practice – post take off check?
    • Students need to understand the system – do not be afraid
    • Gabe (partytillimpact) – potentially a loaded gun, need to understand how and when to use; manufacturers need to learn from skydiving (if moving towards BASE systems)
    • Malfunction junction – more, but not that many more
    • Limited comparison with skydiving

HUMAN FACTORS

  • Minimise workload with checklists
  • intermediate syndrome
    • killling zone (majority of pilots in 50-350 hours bracket, those longer alive by definition)
    • might be around 2000 hours
  • mastery is assumed before it is achieved
  • Heuristic traps
    • familiarity, consistency, acceptance, expert halo, social facilitation and scarcity

FUTURE

  • With reserves, how can we make people throw them
  • Really need to look at crash protection- always the same bit
  • Still unsure about the value of oxygen for lower altitudes, definitely use for higher, remember it’s harder work to take off
  • Smarter use of instruments and wearable tech
  • Defining the margins for safety

 

Mentioned in this episode:

Pal Takats, Kiwi, Myles Connelly, Anneka Herndon, Bill Belcourt, Reavis Sutphin-Gray, Patagonia, Cross Country Magazine, Ed Ewing, Verbier Summits

Episode 126- An oldie but goodie with the legend Pal Takats

Pal Takats (HUN) performs during the Red Bull X-Alps in Lermoos, Austria on July 6th, 2017

This week we’re doing our first “rerun” as Gavin is in the field deep in remote Nevada on a major SAR effort to find our good friend James “Kiwi” Johnson, who was recently on the show. We will get caught up with new shows on schedule soon. This is our most popular show to date and we’ve cleaned it up for your listening pleasure. Listen and learn!

Pal Takats began flying 16 years ago in the flatlands of Budapest, Hungary and has since created a career any pilot would envy. One of the first Red Bull acro pilots and the man responsible for many of the current and modern acro combinations (the Joker, Cowboy, Esfera, etc.) Pal does paramotor demos for Red Bull at air races around the world, base jumps in his free time, founded JustAcro.com, flies speed wings, has twice competed in the Red Bull X-Alps (he was 8th in 2009 and 7th in 2017), is an exceptional cross country and World Cup competition pilot but it hasn’t all been a walk in the park to get there. In 2012 Pal had an accident flying a 6M speed wing that put him in a coma and nearly ended his life. Later the same year he demolished his knee cap making a poor decision on landing after a base jump. What can the rest of us learn from his mistakes and how can we eliminate a huge, huge percentage of accidents in our sport? How paragliding schools are missing out on the foundational stuff, the importance of ground handling and how this is leading to way too many accidents. This talk covers a lot of ground. A fascinating discussion with a fascinating, passionate individual.

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Show Notes:

  • Brief history of Pal’s many, many accomplishments
  • Pal breaks the Tandem Infinity Record
  • Moving from caving to flying- the inception
  • Becoming a professional pilot and making a living from flying
  • How not getting into University became a blessing
  • Transition from Acro to Cross Country and getting disillusioned with Acro and judging
  • Pal’s accidents in 2012, coming back from a coma and the takeaways
  • Becoming a Red Bull athlete
  • How does media, sponsors and making films affect decision making? What are the bad and good sides?
  • How to avoid bad situations and the IMPORTANCE of training
  • The IMPORTANCE of groundhandling and where the schools fall short and why the basics are being skipped and how this is failing new pilots
  • Where to learn acro, and what wing to start on
  • When to move up to a higher aspect wing? Beware!
  • How paragliding doesn’t have structured rules across the board and why that’s bad for our safety and our sport
  • Highs and lows of the 2017 Red Bull X-Alps

 

Mentioned in this episode: Nik Hawks, Red Bull Media House, Reelwater Productions, JustAcro.com, Sidetracked Magazine, Squash Falconer, Will Gadd, paragliding schools, Theo Le Blic, Cody Mittanck