Last week I returned to Chamonix with my speedwing, a lot of climbing gear and a good friend. We came looking for stable weather and big mountains so we could do a mix of alpine climbing and speedflying.
The initial plan was to do some climbing which would take us to a summit suitable for a big flight back to the valley. Upon arrival we discovered that the past week of unseasonably warm weather had taken its toll on the climbing conditions across the massif. Significant rockfall and unstable seracs made climbing high in the mountains unjustifiably risky. Despite this setback, the weather was luckily very good for speedflying. We spent the majority of the week flying in the Aiguille Rouge, drinking beer and watching the wingsuit base jumpers fly terrifyingly close to terrain.
All was going well until Wednesday, when things took an unfortunate turn. After making several flights that day my friend Andrei made a mistake on launch which put an abrupt end to his week of flying. With a little help from the PGHM he was airlifted to the hospital in Sallanches with a possible broken leg. Fortunately his injuries were not as serious as they could have been and he will be back on his feet soon enough.
After ensuring Andrei made it back to Geneva to get home for more treatment, I soon found myself left to my own devices with three days of good weather. Even though watching your friend get helicoptered off is a pretty sobering reminder of the risks of our sport, the weather was good and the lifts were running, so I quickly resumed flying. As the end of the week approached I found myself still craving the sort of bigger objective we had originally set our sights on, so I turned my attention to the biggest mountain you can get up without climbing, Chamonix’s famous Aiguille du Midi.
The north face of the Aiguille du Midi is an imposing alpine face which towers high over Chamonix. It also just so happens to home to one of the worlds most audacious cable car systems. In half an hour you can go from eating pastries in the valley, to standing on the edge of a thousand meter cliff high in the mountains. Ideal.
So I met up with Matt, a friend of a friend and fellow pilot, to discuss the possibility of flying off the north face. He was easily convinced and the forecast looked good, so we planned to head up the following day. Unfortunately that evening an enormous rescue operation took place following a derailment of the Mont Blanc Panoramic cable car. After a long sleepless night of regretting camping so close to the helicopter base, the majority of the stranded people were rescued, but the lift was closed the following morning. Patience.
The next morning the lift was running again and the weather looked just as good as the day before so we made our way to the cable car. The intimidation game begins. I had flown off the face once before last year using skis but for Matt this would be his first time. Because the conditions were different this time I decided to attempt to footlaunch my speedwing off the face. Compared to launching with skis, footlaunching involves a significantly higher degree of commitment. To foot launch a speedwing with no headwind you must prepare the wing perfectly before running at full sprint for thirty meters or so to get the wing flying. Sounds easy, but when you bear in mind that the thirty meters is on a progressively steeping snow slope which end in a 1000m drop, you begin to appreciate the seriousness of this launch. To further complicate things for those who decide to venture past the point of no return, at 3600m the air is less dense which means even more speed would be required to get the wing flying.
Matt also planned to footlaunch, but with a bigger wing. A bigger wing is easier to launch, as the pilot will not need to run as fast or as far before the wing begins flying. When there is an enormous drop waiting for you should you make a small mistake on launch, wing size becomes a particularly critical consideration. After descending the snow ridge we arrived at the launch to discover I had the smallest wing of anyone there, by far. The intimidation intensifies.
As we assessed the conditions and tried to make up our minds if we would fly or not, we took a minute to watch few paragliders launch off the face. Serious faces at the launch site quickly turned to smiles once everyone was successfully in the air, so we both agreed, it will go. I started to lay out my wing carefully making sure every line was resting in the correct place. This launch needed to be precise and perfectly executed. Anything that could negatively affect the inflation, bringing me dangerously closer to the point of no return with a less than perfect wing over my head, needed to be avoided at all cost. After carefully laying out my wing I took a second to apply sunscreen in before flying.
As I looked up a tandem paraglider was just starting their run to the edge when the passenger stopped abruptly. This in turn tripped the instructor which collapsed the wing leaving the two of them sliding helplessly down the snow slope towards the abyss. As everyone around me at the launch regardless of the language spoken made the same panicked cringing noise. Fortunately they stopped just as they were starting to disappear over the edge. For our perspective they appeared to be teetering right on the point of no return. The instructor had managed to dig his heels in enough to stop them in time and hold them until a couple local guides ran down with ice axes to retrieve them. Just when things were shaping up, yet again the intimidation intensifies.
I looked at Matt gauge his opinion of the situation having just witnessed a near double fatality on the launch we were about to attempt. Initially his reaction was the same as mine, head for the cable car. But we waited a couple of minutes to take it in. After having processed what just happened we both quietly agreed, it’s on.
I clipped in, checked my lines, took a deep breath and at that point the intimidation intensified to its maximum. Recent memories of Andrei’s accident and the seriousness of the events that had unfolded right in front of us, combined forces to take the intimidation to levels I have rarely experienced. But then it stopped.
There comes a point when optimism seems to overtake scepticism. You remind yourself that at the end of the day the launch is no more technically difficult than any other, despite the severity of the consequences. The difference is only in your mind, and it is this mental challenge that makes the flight so appealing in the first place. As I took the first step, the intimidation vanished. Past the commitment point life is simple. You have to run for life. No stopping like the tandem, no stalling like Andrei, just run. So I sprinted until my feet no longer touched the ground and as I sat back into my harness I felt an enormous wave a relief. I was overcome with joy as I proceeded to make the most of the 2550m descent to the valley. Seven minutes of total freedom was certainly worth the risk and I enjoyed every second of it.
In the end intimidation is nothing more than a product of the mind which should be embraced, because without it there would be no adventure.