Will Gadd and I just completed what we believe to be the longest connected track log that has ever been flown. About 650 kilometers across the Canadian Rockies to the US border. One rule: all forward progress was made in the air. Most of the line had never been flown. All up it took us 35 days to complete, with two long bouts of bad weather that shut us down completely for more than a week at a time. A great deal of media will be out shortly documenting the journey, that is not what this essay is all about. I’m still too frazzled, thrilled, shocked, and exhausted to put into words what the expedition meant. I haven’t even begun to look back and process the risks, the rewards, and ultimately what comes down to a lesson in humility. We pressed awfully hard to make it happen, often in desperate terrain and desperate conditions. You can’t get away with that too many times without serious consequences. But we made it whole, safely, in one piece and one thing I have had a moment to reflect on is how much we relied on our gear. What worked, what didn’t, what we’d do differently. Will is also going to write up an essay on gear as well as the ethics of “vol biv”, which I look forward to reading very much, as I learned on this trip that we didn’t always agree, but he was always right, and he has been an incredible mentor- his knowledge, skill and approach are incredibly valuable to the human flight community.
If you don’t fly vol-biv, this article may not make most exciting reading. But if you play in the mountains; on paragliders; on foot or on steep walls; or any other form of alpine travel this may be of use. I spent nearly 3 weeks packing for this trip, laying everything out again and again looking for places I could cut an ounce here or there, making sure I had everything I needed to be self-sufficient. Finding the right balance of things needed vs comfort vs weight when everything needs to ride on your back on the ground and in the air is challenging.
For transparency, anything marked with an * was provided by my sponsors.
My pack weighed exactly 60 pounds at the start. Will’s was a couple pounds lighter, owing to using the Ozium lightweight harness (more on this choice below). I cut nothing during the trip, in fact I added a touch with a better sleeping bag as it got pretty cold at the end. This was with 4 days of food (details below), all gear, and no water. Luckily there was water or snow everywhere on the expedition, so we never had to carry more than 3 litres. We top landed nearly the whole trip and were able in almost every case to take off from the same place the next day (or the next flyable day), and because of our rule of no forward progress unless we were in the air (we could go down, up, or back to reprovision or find a launch), we didn’t have to cover much ground on foot. Straight line distance from our first launch above the town of McBride to the US border is 620 kilometers. Our flight logs added up to 802 kilometers as we made a detour the first day to fly right over Mt Robson (EPIC!) and had a number of flights where we had to travel north or south to link the track log, or for a number of reasons couldn’t fly the crow line.
- * Flytec 6030. I thought long and hard on going with a smaller option for my vario, but I love the 6030 and didn’t want to rely on a bluetooth/other device option.
- Android phone running Earthmate APP (for the Delorme Tracker) and XCsoar for maps/igc log
- * Delorme Satellite Tracker. Once we got these running they were amazing. I’ve always used SPOT. I could write a whole article on the negatives of SPOT. Horrible customer service, horrible website, and their app for sending text messages (SPOT CONNECT) is a miserable piece of junk. Enough said. So I was psyched to try the Delorme. Much more expensive service than SPOT, but having the ability to text to another device, or cell phone, or someone’s email really increased safety and our ability to track one another. We had 4 devices- Will and I each had one, our ground crew had one, and the production crew had one. When you send a text message, the recipient can click on the message and see exactly where it was sent from. It pairs via bluetooth to your phone’s app so you can use your phone to send messages instead of the very un-ergonomic, very old-school push buttons on the device itself. So we could literally be in the air, pop open our Earthmate app, and send a message to the production crew that we were going to land soon, or that we were ok- and they would immediately know right where we were. So a lot of positives. But it does have some downsides. The first is that it took us hours, and HOURS of work to set them all up. Annoying things like the topo maps have to reside on your phone’s memory rather than an external mini sd card (ie you can’t re-route where the app looks for the maps if you store them somewhere else). Really it should be a one page simple set of instructions- do this, then this, then this. But to get there took watching videos, figuring out this really archaic contacts sync, figuring out a world of things that should have been easy that were not. Really to use the device efficiently you’ve got to use the app that comes with it- which is paired via bluetooth. But unfortunately ever 3-4 times you go to use it this connection fails. Even though it says it’s good. The only fix that consistently worked for us was shutting down both devices and rebooting. Time consuming and frustrating, but still- the positives far outweighed the time it took to set it up and the techy problems that arose, and I’m sure the company will get these issues solved.
- Yaesu Radio and * Thermal Tracker Push to Talk (PTT). OK this one is really important. I don’t like radio chatter and neither does Will, or in my experience any good pilot. But sometimes it’s necessary, especially when you get separated. People listen up- get a PTT system that WORKS for crying out loud. Pretty much every time I’m in the air there are pilots who have shit radios or that you can’t hear because their PTT systems suck. I’ve had my Thermal Tracker PTT since my first days flying 8 years ago. THE SAME ONE. I am constantly told how clearly people can hear me. Get one.
- * Niviuk Peak 3. I love this wing. It carried me 387 kilometers last summer on the record flight across Idaho and Montana, and it has carried me over 5,000 kilometers this season. There is no other 2 liner even close to it on the market. It’s a 2 liner that is mellow, safe, easy to fly, with tons of passive safety. A low end EN/D that for me at least, covers a very wide spectrum. A bulldog into wind, wicked capable and predictable in nasty lee conditions, with all the benefits of being a two-liner so you’re constantly in touch with the wing. But with none of the sketchiness of a comp wing.
- Woody Valley X-Alps GTO. Not the lightest vol biv harness made, but for this expedition for me it was perfect. In Europe you can get away with a super light-weight X-Alps style harness, but not in the Rockies. Will really liked his Ozium, which is half the weight of the GTO, but it was looking pretty beat up by the end of the mission. With the back/seat pad removed I had PLENTY of room for all my kit, didn’t effect performance or comfort at all and it all fit in my small (100 litre) Advance Comfort bag, which I couldn’t believe.
- * Smith Optics Maze helmet. Love it. Comfortable, warm, and the lightest certified helmet on the market. Pair this baby with the Pivlock shades, you’ll be all set.
- * Black Diamond Equipment Hilight tent, Trekking poles, Guide Gloves and ReVolt headlamp. All of the gear I got from BD was awesome. The tent is a single layer light weight assault tent. Minimal but uber comfy and man I put it to the test. We had some horrific weather on this trip, and putting this tent up in a few seconds and staying dry made life pretty awesome. Trekking poles I never fly without, and the Revolt was cool to be able to recharge in the field rather than bringing extra batteries. The only thing that didn’t work out was the Guide Gloves, but that’s because they were just too big for my brake toggles, the gloves themselves are awesome, REALLY warm and will be epic for backcountry this winter, but just a bad choice for flying.
- 6 litre Dromedary. 3 litre Camelback. Necessity.
- * SteriPen “Freedom” UV water purifier. This little baby is KILLER. I first came across SteriPen last year at the OR show. I couldn’t believe they had come up with something that could treat water that was so small. Well the Freedom is tiny! It’s barely bigger than a lighter, weighs about the same, is rechargeable and WORKS! No more messy, heavy filters, no more nasty iodine. Very cool device.
- 20 degree Western Mountaineer down sleeping bag, and a silk liner. Ok, liner was a bit much, but I get pretty damn smelly and I just like the comfort so am willing to carry the tiny amount of extra weight. I started with a 45 degree down bag, but it wasn’t enough.
- Klymit Inertia X-Frame sleeping pad. At 9 ounces, this award-winning inflatable pad rolls down to the size of your hand and hardly makes a dent in your gear bag, but makes a nice difference in comfort. In fact it’s the lightest pad in the world. We can always sleep on our wings…but this is a pretty nice touch.
- “Herbal Armour” Bug spray. I chose this one after reading a ton of reviews and wanting to find a non-DEET alternative. Worked great.
- Bear Spray
- Leatherman “Skeletool”
- Small wing repair kit– various bits of line, super glue, nylon, needle
- Sunblock. I like the Beyond Coastal brand
- 50′ 4 mil p cord (so I could get down from a tree landing)
- External Condom catheters and tubing (for peeing in-flight)
- * Patagonia ultra-light down hoody, ultra-light Houdini Jacket, Merino Long underwear, velocity running tights, board shorts, ultralight merino socks, t-shirt. All worked perfectly, as they always do. I added a soft shell jacket a few days into the trip. Will flew in soft shell pants the whole way, but I prefer short and long underwear unless it gets really cold, but my pod was a little more burly than his, so I could get away with less.
- Buff for face protection
- Salewa Speed Ascent GTX shoes. God I labored over this decision. I bought two pairs of trail shoes from my local shop, another two pairs of Salomons from Zappos, and in the 11th hour Salewa sent me the not-even-released Speed Ascent’s. I left for Canada with 7 pairs of shoes in my spares box. Right out of the box I thought they were going to be too stiff in the heal, but I put some hard miles on these shoes and they were perfect. Stiff in all the right places, supple in all the right places, stable, sticky, dry, overbuilt but in all the right places. Goretex outer layer but not too hot. And amazingly lightweight.
- sawed off toothbrush, one string of dental floss, blister salve, travel toothpaste, chap-stick, cash
- Jetboil stove. Will and I both labored over our stove. Typically I don’t bring one on bivvy trips and just make a fire, but with things being so dry and Will convincing me that we would need fire fast in many cases, we both went with the JetBoil. Compact, efficient, super easy to use and very light compared to most other stoves. I was really happy with this stove, and didn’t bring an extra cup or anything- I just used what comes with the stove. Doesn’t need a lighter to light. Heats water in seconds. I was getting 5- 6 days out of one canister, which was a couple full boils for breakfast and a couple for dinner. Downside is you can’t really cook in it. It’s just for boiling water (ie dehydrated food, instant coffee, etc.). But oatmeal and ramen and that kind of thing- perfect.
- Breakfast was Starbucks “VIA” instant coffee and instant oatmeal for both of us. Lunch was a combo of a lot of snacks that we would eat in the air. For me, a healthy supply of Pocketful almond butters, which I can’t live without and then some combo of chocolate, seaweed snacks, wasabi peas- just a bunch of stuff I found at the market.
- Dinner was mostly dehydrated food, but the best BY FAR and something I would not leave without in the future was the new Patagonia Provisions smoked salmon. Combine this with some ramen or a Tasty Bites Indian curry (the Tasty Bites Indian heat and eat meals are WAY better than the dehydrated backpacking food that really just sucks) and it was just heaven. Tea and plenty of Emergen-C packets.
Down in the truck Will and I both had a couple big bins of extras. Spare wings (there are a LOT of trees on this route!), harness, reserve, batteries, back up radios, varios, chargers, trekking poles, hand warmers, condom catheters, wing repair kits, sunblock, clothing, and food. We each packed 4 days worth of food in numbered Zip Lock bags so we could just grab and go, and not have to deal with packing or forgetting something en-route.
It was the most radical journey either of us have ever done. We made a great team, I think we did it in style and we definitely gave it everything we had. Huge, huge heartfelt thanks to ReelWaterProductions and Red Bull Media House for believing in us and for giving us the opportunity to fly this insane line, and not completely losing it when it took 35 days instead of 2 weeks!