Recently, after months of training, I completed an 8,000 meters-in-a-day hike & fly challenge. The mission? Hike/run/climb a mountain in the Chaîne des Fiz from the valley floor to a wild paraglider launch at 2,190m and fly back down to the start. Repeat this five times in a single day, for a total of 8,260m (27,099ft) of total elevation gain.
Usually, after completing a hike and fly objective, the impulse is to pack up gear and reflect on the experience. What would happen, I wondered, if instead I went up for a second or third lap? How many of these laps could be combined during daylight hours? There was a powerful appeal to the idea of ascending 8,000m in a single day. With a lightweight glider, training and the right flying conditions—this was not only possible but maybe even achievable.
The linear distance of the objective I'd chosen is 57km, almost entirely uphill. I'd never attempted a marathon before, let alone an ultra, so it didn't seem like a realistic goal. It was one of those things I put on my list "just because", but it was so far-fetched that I almost accepted from the start that it was just too big and probably wouldn’t happen.
The Live Your Dream grant by the American Alpine Club is given to "everyday adventurers" to foster progression in mountain sports. I applied for it thinking my chances were slim to none, and continued training. Imagine my surprise when, just 3 weeks before my challenge, I learned that I'd been accepted as a grantee!
I chose the summer solstice (June 21st) as my target date, and monitored weather forecasts obsessively. In order to pull this off, I needed a light facing wind at the takeoff, calm air in flight and zero precipitation for an entire day. Owing to the complexities of mountain aerology, this was a big ask.
Conditions were close to perfect on June 18th, so...I decided to go for it. I woke at midnight in Chamonix, made coffee, had my usual training breakfast and went over my food and gear checklist one last time. The roads were empty during the short drive to the paraglider landing field in the nearby village of Chedde.
Starting out from the landing at 2:20am by headlamp, I reached the takeoff ahead of schedule, just before sunrise. I prepared my glider on a slope above the vertical cliff of Les Fiz and launched. Using a speedbar to accelerate my 16m2 single surface glider, I descended 1,500 vertical meters (5,000 vertical feet) and landed safely fifteen minutes later. It was 5:45am—my day had only just begun.
I would repeat this process, unsupported, for another four laps throughout the course of the day. My strategy allocated three hours per ascent, ten minutes to transition to flying, fifteen minutes of flying time and twenty minutes to repack my wing, refuel and prepare for the next lap. A delay of any kind—due to weather, wind, fatigue or injury—would push my schedule past sunset and result in a failed attempt.
I would end up finishing the fifth and final lap, totally exhausted, exactly at sunset. Final result: 19 hours, five unforgettable flights, 8,260m of vertical and 10,000 calories burned.
While I was unsupported for the duration of the event, it was far from a solo effort. Heaps of gratitude to Arc'teryx athlete and legendary adventurer Will Gadd for taking time to validate my plan, as well as offer training tips and tactics that proved absolutely essential. Tiffany Saibil graciously agreed to coach me while simultaneously caring for her newborn son. Gavan Hennigan shared loads of advice during our training lap which I later put into practice. When a trekking pole snapped early in the day, Rahi Golshan went out of his way to deliver a spare set in time for my final lap. Without his help, I'm convinced I would not have finished.
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