In 1999, German paragliding pilot Toni Bender did something many had dreamed of, but no one had done: crossing the Alps from North to South with only his paraglider and feet to propel him.
The resulting documentary was what inspired to create the Red Bull X-Alps – where not one man would do attempt this challenge, but many.
"I thought it would be cool to base a paragliding competition on this format and developed a basic concept for it - and the idea was born! Together with Red Bull, we have developed it over the years to be the Red Bull X-Alps it is today - the toughest and most extreme endurance and outdoor race in the world. Its simplicity is what makes it most appealing. We start in Salzburg and whoever arrives in Monaco first wins.”
The first race was simple – Dachstein Glacier, Zugspitze, Mont Gros, Monaco. 17 athletes made the attempt.
World-class ice climber and adventurer Will Gadd determined it one of the toughest and most dangerous experiences of his life.
In retrospect, there would never be another race like this again – the competitors simply had no idea what they were getting into, what it would do to their bodies, and how much mental strength would be required to succeed.
Thankfully, Swiss pilot Kaspar Henny finished a hair under 12 days, and there was a reason to try again sometime in the future.
In the race’s second year, it saw the addition of Mont Blanc as a turn point – and two women joining the race fleet.
Alex Hofer would take his first of two wins, while Toma Cocanea, the Running Romanian, ground out mile after mile on the road, but failed to finish.
With Italy’s Marmolada and Switzerland’s Eiger summits added to the race course, the Red Bull X-Alps truly began to take on some of the most scenic territory on the planet.
Alex Hofer would defend his title, but the real story was Toma Coconea, running his way to second place in a year that offered very little opportunity for big flights.
The big news in 2009? The start would no longer be on the Dachstein Glacier – rather somewhere that a bigger crowd could watch.
The gun went off at Mozartplatz in Salzburg, with 30 athletes hustling up the Gaisberg before taking off west for Zugspitze. 2009 also saw the first entry (and victory) of Christian ‘Chrigel’ Maurer, a then little-known pilot from Interlaken, Switzerland.
He and defending champion Alex Hofer were the only ones to finish the race. ‘Chrigel the Eagle’ did it in a record new time: under 10 days, with over 70% of the race done in the air.
With more turnpoints than ever before, the 2011 edition saw again just two teams make it to Monaco, after stopping by classic peaks like Tre Cime and the Matterhorn.
Toma Coconea stormed back to second place in conditions that keep many teams grounded – minus Chrigel, of course.
The biggest, baddest route yet was a huge challenge for the 31 athletes starting in Salzburg – but good weather, better training, and a much higher level of competition mean a record 10 teams made it to the finish.
Sadly, it wasn’t much of a race – Chrigel smoked the competition by almost 48 hours.
After the success of so many teams in reaching the final turnpoint in 2013, race directors Hannes Arch and Christoph Weber decided only one thing could be done – make the race harder.
A tougher route was born, with more turnpoints that would require extremely tactical thinking and flying. Athletes were also given the use of one ‘night pass’ that let each racer strategically pick a night to keep hiking and gain a key position for morning takeoff.
Also added: a prologue event, allowing athletes the chance to get their wings in the air and feel out the competition. Despite all this, the winner was no surprise: Maurer won again – although shuffling at the top of the pack in the closing hours had many fans and athletes on the edge of their seats.
On September 9, 2016, a short time before his 49th birthday, Red Bull X-Alps inventor Hannes Arch died while flying his private helicopter near Grossglockner.
The Red Bull X-Alps simply would not have begun or continued to exist without Hannes Arch. He helped shape the rules, select the athletes, and determine the route. Despite Hannes having his own public persona and career to maintain, his role as Red Bull X-Alps race mastermind was incredibly important for him on a personal level, and every single person who participated in or worked on a Red Bull X-Alps got to know his dedication to the event and the athletes.
He will continue to live on in the memories of his friends, family, and adventurers worldwide.
In 2017, the Red Bull X-Alps will return for the eighth edition, and it’s evolved in many different ways.
Athletes will have the chance to feel out the competition at the Leatherman Prologue, a one-day race taking place a few days ahead of the world's toughest adventure race.
Starting in Salzburg, 32 athletes of 21 nationalities will race a straight-line distance of 1,138km across the Alps to Monaco via 7 turnpoints in 7 different countries.
Fans will be able to watch the race via Live Tracking, with more photos, video and action than ever before. As every race before it, it will undoubtedly be the best Red Bull X-Alps yet.