A Big Sky presence at Red Bull X-Alps
Big Sky resident provides support for one of the toughest races in the world
Touted as the toughest adventure race in the world, Red Bull X-Alps pits around 30 paragliders – or pilots – against each other in a dash across 1,000 kilometers, crossing the Alps three times and navigating to turn points through life-threatening conditions.
The sport remains one of the last true frontiers of exploration and a grueling test of man against nature. Just as surfers chase mavericks and kayakers go after Class VI rapids, pilots of the Red Bull X-Alps track thermals – or puffs of air rising from the earth – so they can glide among goliath peaks – interacting with birds and clouds in a rush of wind and adrenaline.
Just three years ago, frequent Red Bull X-Alps competitor and French adventurer Antoine Girard glided through Pakistan and past major peaks in the Himalayas like K2 and Trident. He ended-up piloting over Broad Peak – at 26,414 feet – a remarkable accomplishment that set a world record. His effort pushed a sport of extremes even further.
X-Alps organizers announced to pilots at a pre-race meeting that top landing the peaks – literally landing on top of them – with the treacherously deep snow and unpredictable winds could be life threatening. If they became stuck, the only recourse would be a helicopter ride out – and elimination from the race.
Each racer typically has a support crew three to five members for the harrowing and exhausting 12-day journey threading through the Alps.
Pilot Cody Mittanck had support from Washington state’s Brian Fletcher and Big Sky’s very own Huntley Brockie – a team dubbed USA3.
According to Brockie, it is a race that requires “the right fitness, the right flying skills and a whole sh*t-ton of heart.” Something about a solo mission across the Alps spanning nearly two weeks has always intrigued him – the intensity of it; the interaction with raw wilderness. He is honored he was able to support Mittanck, who began regimented training 6 months prior to the race.
“I was able to get a first-hand experience of the intimate inner workings of this really fantastic race,” he said.
He said the people attacking this race see it as a proving ground to display this mix of adventure, alpinism and paragliding – these multidiscipline sports. They can throw themselves full-on into a competitive environment – the ultimate test of ability and endurance.
Each day was met with a 4:30 a.m. alarm with their heads hitting their pillows around midnight every night, Brockie said.
“Cody went on four to five hours of sleep over 12 days, hiking tens of thousands of vert [sik], flying desirable as well as less than desirable conditions and never once looked to be slowing down –super impressive and inspiring to witness first hand!” Fletcher said.
By race end, with Mittanck gliding into Chamonix, France, Fletcher said he had flown 1,433 km and walked 415 km, leaving USA3 just 399 km from the end goal of Monaco.
“Our minimum expectations were not to get eliminated and to make it past Mont Blanc,” Mittanck said.
Pressure was high as the team was in the back, facing elimination for the first half of the race. Every decision was key. So, the team was constantly pouring over maps, formulating a plan to ride the thermals while dodging restricted air space.
The most dramatic point came on day eight. If Mittanck did not accomplish a flight into the Lermoos turnpoint that day, they would have “likely faced elimination.”
“I launched from the peaks above the restricted Innsbruck airspace just as the more stable valley air began mixing upwards. It was a bit of a gamble because I would violate airspace in the valley below if I couldn't get up and over the back of the peaks,” he explained in a Facebook post. “An airspace violation meant a 48 hour penalty and sure elimination. Before I even realized it, I was a couple hundred meters above the air space with nowhere to land desperately hanging on to a broken thermal. I finally got up high enough to side slope land. I hiked back up as fast as I could and launched into a Col, immediately through a tight slot over the back and had a flight dodging thunderstorms and tree landings that put me within a few [hours] hike from Lermoos.”
In the end, the team’s initial goals were met, as specified by Fletcher: do not get eliminated and do not get hurt.
“We were super stoked to have finished and had an absolutely incredible experience. Huntley was constant positive energy despite my pessimism at times. He worked hard to keep me fueled and going on the right track. Brian was unbelievably fit, carrying his wing along with my water and food on most of the hikes. This whole endeavor was certainly a team effort,” Mittanck said.
Brockie described the addictive qualities of the sport. Complete focus leads to flow and the melting away of all of life’s stresses. It is a constant chess match between the pilot, the weather and the terrain.
“You can feel it as you control this very powerful energy and then you have to accomplish this goal of flying, without being certain where your next lift is coming from. You have a good idea of the weather, you have a theory of how the weather is affecting the terrain,” he said. “You feel the mountain begin to breathe as you are sitting on the ground. You can feel the thermals begin: 30 minute cycles, 20 minute cycles. You decide to go up. And before long you are being pulled toward the sky. You turn, you are in a thermal as you are in a bubble.”
Feeling the power of the earth in that way becomes otherworldly. It is akin to big wave surfing, he said, except paragliders are big wave surfing blindfolded.
“Flying consumes all of you from before you launch to after you land. That might be the thing that attracts me more than anything else,” he said.