Millions of people fly over Europe every day — it's the world’s busiest airspace, with over 30,000 flights a day crossing the continent. But none of them are on an adventure quite like this. On a sunny Sunday in April, acrobatic paragliding pilots Tim Alongi, Francois Ragolski and Martin Schricke dropped into the French Alps for what may have been some of the most incredible flights of their lives. See all the action in the video above.
On top of Europe
And when we say "dropped," we mean it literally, as in they dropped out of a helicopter. Normal for skydivers, but an undertaking that takes some plannning for paragliders. But with the chance to soar over Mont Blanc at well above 16,000 feet, it was worth it — and we’re sure glad they brought their GoPros!
Watch the best action moments below:
“We wanted to make the craziest acro footage we could above the Mont Blanc Massif,” says Schricke, who grew up visiting his grandparents in Chamonix/Mont Blanc. "It’s a mythical place. I’ve been coming here since I was young and eyeing the mountain in front of the house for a long time. It’s been a dream to go up and fly above it!”
While it’s certainly been done before — it’s possible to foot-launch from the top of Mont Blanc, although it’s quite a hike to get there — it’s unlikely this airspace has ever seen this kind of action. “We’re probably the first to do this kind of acrobatic flying above Mont Blanc!" says Schricke.
What made it possible? “You can’t get to 2,300 feet above Mont Blanc using acro gear without using a helicopter,” says Ragolski. “We were lucky to have a heli pilot with so much motivation. He was safe, but pushing the levels of where he could take us.”
To exit the heli, they used a technique called "d-bagging" (yes, seriously) in which the glider is carefully packed in a separate bag, held by a "drop master."
Once out of the helicopter, strong winds — the kind that would normally keep people from hiking to and launching from the summit — allowed the guys to soar over the summit of Mont Blanc. "Soaring on top of Mont Blanc in strong wind is almost never done by other pilots,” says Ragolski. "To score those conditions at that spot, with that gear, was really lucky!”
The Glacier des Bossons
Alongi thought so too. "Just to think about being up there gives me the goosebumps," he says. "It happens so fast. You don’t realize what you're doing until it's over; you're so focused on what you're doing in the moment." Of course, part of that is because things are happening fast. High altitude means thin air, which means the glider moves faster than usual.
"To practice acro that high, with almost half the air pressure, it’s much harder because everything happens twice as fast," says Ragolski. "Flying three-way [with two friends] at this height really requires attention. When we could come together to chat or plan, you can move 700 feet at the snap of your fingers." Still, Ragolski managed to grab a seat on top of Schricke’s glider for a full two minutes at 16,400 feet. How’s that for a nosebleed seat?
After hanging out up high and doing some thin-air acro, the pilots decided to introduce something else to the mix: exploring the incredible terrain. So they went down to the famous Aiguille de la République — a lone spire of rock at the end of an intimidating ridge — for a little slalom action. Then it was over to the Glacier des Bossons, the cascading waterfall of ice that offers up some of the most other-worldly terrain on the planet, where the boys dragged their feet in spots that humans can otherwise never access.
Surprisingly, the most difficult part of the trip was the landing, or more precisely, after it, when blood came rushing back to their fingers after hanging out over 16,000 feet in high winds.
“I’ve been a ski instructor for years,” says Ragolski, "and I’ve never had such cold hands in my life!” Despite the pain, the thin air and the effort, it was worth it. Ragolski concludes: "There were so many incredible moments it is hard to pick one!"