Right, you — yes you. I’m going to give you a fold-up aircraft and a set of shoes and drop you off in Salzburg town centre. I’ll give you two weeks to cross the length of the European Alps, and I’ll see you on the beach at Monaco, OK?
Sounds ridiculous, I know – but every two years, athletes attempt just that in what’s now recognized by many as the toughest adventure race on earth: the Red Bull X-Alps. The race starts on July 7th, in a month's time.
The race marries man’s oldest dream – to fly like a bird – with our most basic instinct: to run, to just keep going, whatever it takes.
Tactics add the extra twist. There’s nothing more gutting than getting the forecast wrong and seeing your rival fly over your head when you’re sweating it out on foot.
The story began in 2003, when a handful of athletes gathered on the summit snowfields of Dachstein, Austria. “We wanted to create the purest kind of race,” says Hannes Arch, mastermind behind the event. “Cross the Alps with your glider, by foot or flight, with no help – simple.”
Over time, it has become “the ultimate game”, according to long-time competitor Honza Rejmanek. In 2013, athletes have to possess world-class paragliding skills and an ironman’s level of aerobic fitness to enter the Red Bull X-Alps. Athletes cover up to 100 km on foot per day – others have flown over double that distance.
Each racer is tagged with a Live Tracking GPS, allowing hundreds of thousands to watch the race unfold online. In recent years, 31 year-old Christian Maurer has been the man to beat. We have watched him soar from ridge to ridge, surfing through the Alps as if he was born to fly, making it look effortless.
A favourite moment was seeing him climb a rocky south face behind the Matterhorn roped to his supporter, mountain guide Thomas Theurillat, before launching away like an eagle in the morning thermals. Another was seeing him surf the air through the Dolomites: the contrast between the spiky sharp limestone cliffs and his wafer-thin paraglider couldn’t have been starker.
This year’s route to Monaco is the longest yet at 1,031 km, and requires athletes to fly or climb past Germany’s highest peak the Zugspitze, Switzerland’s Matterhorn and Mt Blanc, the summit of Europe. It’s one thing to watch the race online, it’s another to be standing in the bowels of the Alps, looking up at the jagged, inhospitable skyline and wondering how the hell these athletes can ever hope to cross such savage terrain, let alone do it in such quick time.
Perhaps the whole concept is best captured by Hannes Arch. “I started flying when I was a climber,” he says. “Our paragliders were the easy way to get down from the summit after a hard ascent.
“Now the equipment is so advanced, the Red Bull X-Alps is the perfect test to see just how far we can push them – and ourselves.”
As a paraglider pilot myself, I have to agree. We all become complete Red Bull X-Alps junkies in July, watching and commenting on every move. It’s the tactics, the flying skill, and the respect for the sheer grunt the guys put it on the ground that makes it so addictive. At times, following the winning athlete’s track online is like watching an escaped convict making a mad dash for freedom as his jailers follow in hot pursuit.
Come and join in the fun. The race starts on July 7th and you can follow the action as it happens with Live Tracking on www.redbullxalps.com.
Hugh Miller is the publisher of Cross Country and Paramotor magazines. He will be following the race and blogging as the drama unfolds on the Red Bull X-Alps website.