Red Bull X-Alps

In the air with Stephan Gruber

Athletes don’t just hike to a launch point and soar across the sky. Being in the air is almost as demanding as hiking, finds our race reporter Tarquin Cooper...

© Tarquin Cooper
 © Tarquin Cooper

I (Editorial Comment: Race Reporter Tarquin Cooper) have a confession: until now I’d always thought being in the air was the fairly relaxed part of the Red Bull X-Alps. Sure I know that taking off can be tricky and that mountain air and valley winds can throw in some surprises.

Maybe I’ve just seen too many selfies on Instagram of athletes looking relaxed, smiling from ear-to-ear, enjoying epic flights in the skies, like Tom de Dorlodot here.

Last week I teamed up with Austrian athlete Stephan Gruber for a flight near the Aschau Chiemsee Turnpoint just above the headquarters of Skywalk – and he gave me a baptism into hike and fly.  

We hiked up to the summit of Hochfelln, 1,674m. I arrived looking like I’d just stepped out of a sauna while Stephan looked like he’d barely increased his heart rate. We then enjoyed a perfect launch before soaring in the afternoon thermals. Then came the valley crossing, destination; the Kampenwand.

Flying tandem with Gruber brought home the reality of the race: when you have to make a certain direction, it’s a whole different game to flying around, following the best conditions. Leave the comfort of that sunny ridgeline for the open valley and suddenly it becomes a constant struggle to find those thermals and stay airborne.

We made it across but then fought to gain altitude. Behind me, I could hear the occasional ‘sch**sse’ as Stephan circled above the trees, searching in vain for an elusive pocket of warm air. Not being a German speaker, I took this to be a technical paragliding term.

I asked Stephan how physical it really is to fly in the race when you’ve already been going several days. “It’s hard,” he told me. “You need a lot of energy for flying, to stay concentrated, for balance, you need your full body.”

No kicking back and relaxing then. “You have to read the clouds and the wind, where the thermals will be to reach the right points on the mountain so you climb up, that’s most important,” he added.

As if to demonstrate the point, he shifted his weight from side to side behind me, constantly looking from side to side, scanning the terrain below like a bird of prey. “Are the trees supposed to be that close?” I asked.

He fought valiantly until eventually we succumbed to gravity, landing in a farmer’s field after covering about 20km in the air. If these were race conditions, it would be 1,500m back up the hill for Stephan to get in another flight.

During the day we talked a lot about why athletes are prepared to put themselves through such a physical and mental challenge as the Red Bull X-Alps, day after day. “What’s the real reason athletes do it?” I asked.

“Because it’s the most important competition for paragliding. When you are in the Red Bull X-Alps, it’s like being in the World Cup for soccer.”

And for fans, it feels the same – and when you’re following on Live Tracking, it’s just as exciting.

Tune into Live Tracking from 29 June when the Leatherman Prologue will see the athletes race around the Salzkammergut, starting in Fuschl am See and passing the Zwolferhorn and the Schafberg!