Red Bull X-Alps

Alpine eagles square up

We profile the Italian and Swiss athletes in the lineup.

© zooom / Harald Tauderer

There is a scene in the recent BBC Planet Earth II series in which two golden eagles fight with their outstretched talons on an alpine peak for the prize of a fox carcass. Only one can be the victor. 

In this edition’s Red Bull X-Alps, there are two human eagles taking part – and their prowess in the sky and mountains is every bit as dramatic; their determination to come out on top every bit as courageous.

In the Swiss corner is the four time champion, Christian ‘Chrigel the eagle’ Maurer whose dominance came close to being challenged in 2015 before he saw off the challengers and re-established his supremacy. Then there’s the Italian eagle, Aaron Durogati, who became a ‘real’ eagle in the above documentary by putting on a camera to film the eagle POV sequences. Which one will triumph in the world’s toughest adventure race? 

Maurer says he still has his eyes fixed on the crown. “The goal is to win the Red Bull X-Alps for a fifth time,” he says. But this year he has a new team and will be without the support of Thomas Theurillat, which has raised eyebrows among race followers. 

“Thomas and Chrigel were the first to show this is a team event not a solo piloting race,” says Cross Country editor Ed Ewing. “Thomas ran the ship and took all the stress off Chrigel. He had the iPad, the checklists, he planned the route. As a guide, pilot and sports psychologist he was the perfect supporter for this race. Since then, everyone has copied that model. Take him away from Chrigel, yes he can still fly but will he still be able to do it without the famous Thomas? We will have to wait and see.”

Aaron Durogati meanwhile is also looking at the podium but if previous editions are to go by, he doesn’t quite have the speed to prove a real danger to Maurer. In 2015 he finished in sixth place, arriving in Monaco 26 hours after Maurer. But this year could be different. 

“I think I learned a lot over the past years,” he says. “The last two editions I made some mistakes which I’ll try not to do this year.” He’s also in much better shape. In 2015 he was still recovering from a broken leg and did the whole race still with iron in his leg, which has now been removed. “I’ve since fully recovered and I’m feeling really good,” he says. 

Italy and Switzerland also feature two rookies taking part. At 23, Italy’s Tobias Grossrubatscher is very young but nonetheless a formidable pilot with many hike and fly adventures under his wing. His approach is to make good decisions and stay safe. “The goal is to reach Monaco,” he says. 

Then there’s Krischa Berlinger, Dave Turner’s supporter from 2015. He’s only been flying since 2012 but he seems to be making up for lost time. Earlier this year he completed an epic 1,400km vol biv adventure through Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan which took 46 days. “We flew to 7,000m without oxygen but also landed backwards multiple times due to very strong winds,” he says. 

“It was incredible,” says Cross-Country’s Ed Ewing. “These guys raise the bar with adventure flying and they did that flying in all weather, where people don’t fly often. He’s got the adventure in him and being Swiss also helps.”

He’s also a formidable mountaineer having knocked up some decent alpine ascents in his youth. But he’s got another quality which could prove useful, adds Ewing, who spoke with him at length recently. “He strikes me as a hard bastard but also one with a big sense of humour – that could bring something fresh to the race.” 

We can’t wait for it to begin…