If it was adventure we were after, then X-Pyr 2014 certainly delivered. Add to that a generous dollop of adrenaline, exhaustion and spectacular scenery and you have yourself an event that kept everyone on the edge of their seats day after day in anticipation of the next waypoint. This post is my annotated debrief of what I learnt, what I would do differently and some general reflection on X-Pyr.
I’d never been to the Pyrenees, or Spain for that matter, but somewhere in the back of my mind I always knew that an opportunity would present itself to not only see the mountains but to experience them in some unique way.
When my brother was selected to compete in X-Pyr 2014 I didn’t think twice about being his assistant. Who in their right mind would pass up an opportunity like that? This was my first time as an assistant and, to the uninitiated assistant that I was, my role sounded relatively simple. But it didn’t take long before the Pyrenees forged their own version of what my role would be and how the competition played out.
My brother and I have made plenty of adventure plans in the past but only a handful ever materialized. It’s usually a case of not having enough time, being on opposite ends of the world, not having enough cash, personal issues, health issues etc. You get the picture. This was a trip that would attempt to make up for all those other failed attempts and give us a chance to spend some adventure time together.
Even before we started making our way towards Spain I knew that there would be two main things required of me as an assistant: being a porter and being a driver.
On the physical side, I did as much walking and hiking as I could but I didn’t want to push it too hard since I had knee surgery only a few months earlier. Despite my best efforts to adequately prepare for all the hiking during the comp, I was only scratching the surface and it was woefully insufficient. To put it bluntly: a few walks around a small island in the med (I was based in Malta at the time) with a backpack fully loaded with 2L bottles of water didn’t come close to painting a true representation of what the Pyrenees would eventually throw at me. No matter how many kilometers I put in on those small hills, they were no match for the Pyrenees.
The van not only evoked nostalgic memories of a touring era now largely replaced by inexpensive air-travel, but also impressed passersby for it’s ability to make it up the hard mountain climbs.
We bought a mechanically sound but older (circa 1983) Ford Transit camper. It was a van that had as much character as it did miles on the odometer. Everyone who passed us or pulled up alongside waved and smiled. The van not only evoked nostalgic memories of a touring era now largely replaced by inexpensive air-travel, but also impressed passersby for it’s ability to make it up the hard mountain climbs. As the days rolled on we grew fonder of the beast’s quirks and it quickly became the third member of our team.
The trip from Eastern Europe to Spain saw us pass through some of the best paragliding spots in Slovenia, Italy, France and Spain. It was a real treat for me to experience so many different flying sites under my brother’s watchful eye and guidance. After all, I’m an amateur compared to him, a person who makes a living living out of flying tandems and guiding cross country pilots. In those few weeks I saw my flying skills improve exponentially. More importantly, somewhere along the way and despite our own independent personalities, we bonded again, as brothers, colleagues and friends.
I should have traded the flying hours for cardio and done more mountain training rather than moderate hill climbing.
Leading up to the competition, I’d always assumed that there would be enough time for me to fly while the race was on. But once the competition started it became plainly obvious that it wasn’t going to be possible. The pace was too fast and carrying the glider as well as all the other supplies proved to be unworkable — any flying on my part would have to wait till after we’d crossed the finish line.
In hindsight, knowing what I know now, I should have traded the flying hours for cardio and done more mountain training rather than moderate hill climbing. The intent was there but the intensity didn’t come close to what was eventually needed. And although my fitness didn’t impact our overall speed, each mountain ascent and descent left my body demanding more rest and attention than I could spare — there simply weren’t enough hours in the day.
Walking up and down those mountains was tough on our knees and ankles. Each day brought with it a fresh set of strapping bandages and a series of anti-inflammatory meds. By nightfall, both of us staggered around like old men, bumped into things and let out groans reminiscent of our grandparents. Wherever we found a cool stream we’d soak our feet to relieve some of the pain and swelling.
But it wouldn’t be till the final day of the competition when all the teams stood firmly in Port de la Selva that the full spectrum of our collective injuries, aches, strains and blisters came to the fore. Some competitors fared better than others. The truth, however, was clearly visible by the liberal application of strapping tape, joint supports, painkillers, limping and generous liquor consumption — anything to dull the pain.
Hondarribia is a fairly small town and it didn’t take us longer than an hour to take in the main sights. The city center is picturesque and surprisingly lively for a town its size. Plenty of locals pile on into the pedestrianized areas to pass the time at cafes, bars, restaurants or street-side seating. Stan and I mostly went into town for the fast internet, to get away from the camper and to see something other than the depressing weather. It rained constantly.
If I ever do something like this again, I’ll be sure to get rid of any small, round or annoying objects capable of rolling around the car.
It wasn’t uncommon for the wind to be strong enough to rock the camper more violently than any gale force conditions I’d experienced while sailing. The van creaked, cupboards flung open and pots clanked against one another. And if all that wasn’t distracting enough while trying to sleep, a steady stream of walnuts falling on my head kept me up most nights. Yes, walnuts. We carried a sack of walnuts half way around the world for reasons I now don’t recollect. Whenever we applied the brakes, took tight corners or went over a speed humps, there would always be a fresh set of walnuts rolling around on the floor. If I ever do something like this again, I’ll be sure to get rid of any small, round or annoying objects capable of rolling around the car.
On the flip side, the time spent in the cabin gave us an opportunity to prepare our instruments, smartphones, tablets and laptops, load all the required software and make any adjustments to the routes. And of course, each storm was always completed by a majestic sunset over the Atlantic.
Although we arrived in Hondarribia in plenty of time to take in the surroundings and get a bit of flying under our belts, mostly we stayed confined to the camper to avoid the wet weather. Looking back at it now, perhaps it was just as well that we weren’t doing too much; Stan was recuperating from his second bout of tonsillitis in as many weeks. He was completely out of it and barely able to move a muscle.
My primary task was to get him back up on his feet and ready for the comp. Thanks to my vast experience in self-medication and amateur doctoring, a regimen of carefully selected antibiotics did the trick in around three days. But eating food and breathing at night still caused him some problems. His throat had almost fully closed up and we had to crush the pills between two tablespoons before he was able swallow them. He’d seen a doctor a week earlier but the course of antibiotics he was prescribed didn’t eliminate it completely — it came back with a vengeance.
Being stuck in the camper was as mundane as the bland cereal we had for breakfast. We couldn’t do much about the weather but we could certainly do something about breakfast. We switched it up a bit and started to order tortilla patatas (potato pie) from a nearby cafe — you know the saying, when in Rome… It was salty and on most days tasteless, but it was something different and easier for Stan to force down his swollen throat.
Cooking in the camper gave us mixed results. We quickly learnt that anything aromatic, like curry or fish, lingered on for days afterwards. Our clothes, bed linen and even the toilet paper needed to be aired. We switched to cooking simpler meals that were quick to prepare and easier to clean.
…when the clock hit midnight on a competition night and I was still scrubbing pots by headlamp, it made for a poor climax to the day.
One such meal was a combination of couscous and meat in a can. It packed three portions and was the perfect balance between caloric intake and preparation speed. Whenever we camped away from civilization, it would be our staple evening meal during the competition.
As far as our pots were concerned, contrary to the non-stick advertising, the pots we bought were difficult to clean and most of what we cooked burnt onto the bottom. Ordinarily this wouldn’t be an issue, but when the clock hit midnight on a competition night and I was still scrubbing pots by headlamp, it made for a poor climax to the day.
There was one stage of the competition that we weren’t all that thrilled about: Aneto. Neither of us were looking forward to climbing it with crampons (something we’d been told would be required). In the absence of flyable weather, climbing Aneto instead of flying, was starting to look like a real possibility. But a few days before the start we got word that X-Pyr wasn’t given permission to fly/hike Aneto because of some national park issue. To be honest, we were somewhat relieved that we wouldn’t need to buy specialized equipment for just one mountain. As it were, it turned out that some competitors climbed to the top a few days before the start with nothing more than a pair of running shoes.
Still, after the briefing we managed to pose for a few interviews and pictures. Fast forward to 55s to hear us talk about how “we’re not going to survive” the race ;)
We were fortunate enough to have a short writeup of our trip featured in Cross Country Magazine a few days before the start of X-Pyr 2014. It really gave us a big confidence boost and helped set the tone for what was to come. The adventure was in full swing.
[ The remainder of this post expands on the blog entries I made during X-Pyr. The original entries were very brief and didn’t capture everything I wanted to say — there simply wasn’t enough time. ]
[July 13, 2014] What a day. Given that between the two of us we’re recovering from ankle injuries, knee surgery, a bout of tonsillitis and malaria, we’re quite happy with the first day. The hike up to La Rhune was harder than either of us anticipated. Stan was exhausted but in good spirits and wanted to get up in the air before the weather had a chance to deteriorate. It was nice to once again feel the sun on our faces after so many days of drizzle and storms.
Given that between the two of us we’re recovering from ankle injuries, knee surgery, a bout of tonsillitis and malaria, we’re quite happy with the first day.
Today demonstrated to us that we wouldn’t be able to rely on the trackers. There were a lot of intermittent delays with position updates which made it difficult to keep tabs on our progress and for me to plan an intercept route. At times the lag was as large as 30 minutes between one position and the next – a far cry from the one second interval that the trackers were supposed to deliver.
It was next to impossible to figure out whether Stan was on foot, flying, heading towards a road or hiking in the opposite direction to attempt a relaunch. In the end it all came down to the basics like reading the weather conditions, contours on the map and making a judgement call based on experience. It was a game of hit and miss anytime we got close to the French side of the mountains.
Bumping into other assistants on the road was always a bonus. We’d sound our horns, wave and sometimes stopped for a quick chat to update ourselves on the whereabouts of the other competitors. On occasion, and in the most unexpected places, seeing another support vehicle brought a smile to my face and signaled that I wasn’t the only assistant to lose a pilot, albeit temporarily.
We hit a snag towards the end of the day and without any warning. The camper ignition stopped working. It seemed as though the race was going to be over before it started. I poked around the engine but exhausted the most common causes and decided to jump start the van by rolling downhill in reverse.
With hazard lights flashing and using the mirrors for guidance I rolled for some 50 metres before releasing the clutch. It didn’t work and I’d consumed almost half the hill. A few cars passed by cautiously. When the road was clear again I gave it another shot. I built up enough speed and released the clutch gradually. The van roared and shook like a mad elephant. It started but I’d lost some confidence in the van.
By the time I caught up to Stan it was time to make camp. I drove ahead and found a campsite (Camping Baztan) on the east side of Erratzu and barely 15 minutes before curfew. Turning off the engine knowing that it might not start the next morning was a gamble but we didn’t have a choice. I’d have to deal with that problem tomorrow morning. We gorged ourselves on whatever had the highest caloric value and fell asleep.
[July 14, 2014] After only three hours of sleep, the skies opened up in the middle of the night and our campsite turned to mud. After strapping his ankles and knee, Stan set out just before 6am while I stayed behind to try and fix the starter motor.
Standing ankle deep in mud and with my head buried under the hood, I was finding it difficult to believe that the engine would start. Luckily the village had a mechanic and I walked down the road to track him down. We came back in his van and began to troubleshoot the issue. He tried the same things I did the previous day but he managed to take it a step further and diagnosed problem as a faulty solenoid in the starter motor.
We tried to fix it but in the end I was running out of time and just asked him, with my broken Spanish and elaborate miming, to show me how to bypass the problem. I needed a temporary solution that would keep us moving rather than a new starter motor. He whipped out two screwdrivers, placed them on the terminals of the motor and with sparks flying the engine roared back to life. The van could now be started but only from within the engine bay.
Ignatius refused to take any money for lending me a hand but I eventually convinced him to take the money because nobody should have to put up with muddy shoes. He smiled, took the money and drove away.
People in the Pyrenees are really friendly and willing to go out of their way to help. I really enjoyed being surrounded by such a deep sense of community spirit.
Well, at least we’re still in the race. Stan was already 11km up and over a mountain pass and I caught up to him just in time to replenish his water and snacks. It was drizzling and it didn’t look like there would be any flying today.
To top things off, for the whole day we were in a GSM dead zone. Making contact with each other wasn’t possible unless both of us stood on a mountain with a clear view towards the Spanish. The SIM cards we were issued were from Vodafone and had problems registering with Orange, the dominant network on the French side. Each time we crossed into French territory, or get close to the border, the phones refused to operate and lost signal. We had our own private phones as a backup but these were useless when Stan was flying as there was no way for him to send his coordinates via text message.
In spite of the shitty weather, today was all about hiking and putting as much distance behind us in the hope of launching from Orhi tomorrow.
[July 15, 2014] The hike up to Orhy was as exhausting as it was spectacular. From the top of the mountain we could still see valleys in each direction covered by a blanket of white. The sweat was worth the scenery.
But let’s not forget that we’re here to fly instead of walking. The thermals didn’t start working till around 11am and those who launched earlier bombed out shortly after takeoff. Despite what looked like great flying conditions, sometimes it comes down to dumb luck. Unfortunately, Stan hit some bad air and bombed out only 16km east of Orhy. By that stage I was still hiking down towards the van and couldn’t get a fix on his position.
Unlike the Swiss Alps, the valleys here in the Pyrenees stretch for many kilometers north to south. A short flight to the next valley for the pilot can translate to hundreds of kilometers worth of driving for the assistant. There is very little time to waste in hiking down and driving to the next rendezvous.
As it turned out, Stan had to relaunch shortly after his first takeoff but ended up in what some local Spaniards call “the toilet of the Pyrenees” – anything that flies through the area gets flushed down like a turd. And just like a turd, he landed again barely 3km from where he bombed out the first time. I hiked back to the van as quickly as I could so as to catch up with him on the other side of the valley.
The problems we’d experienced with the trackers for the last few days continued to plague us and proved to be the weakest link in the competition. I can’t fault the devices because they were operating within design parameters, but it might be wiser to use satellite-enabled trackers in the future rather than relying on the GSM network for position uplinks. There were too many dead zones in the mountains to deliver true live tracking. Furthermore, the fact that we were using Spanish prepaid SIMs (subscriber identity module) in the trackers meant that they would be rejected anytime we came close to the French side of the Pyrenees.
We weren’t the only ones with car problems that day. The X-Pyr 2012 winner, Inigo Gabiria and his supporter Inigo Mendlil, lost all the electrics. We tried to jump start it but there was no use. In the end the only thing we could do was to help them roll it down to the bottom of the valley.
Even though it was a slow day in terms of covering distance, the other pilots didn’t fare any better. Once again, we were lucky enough to end up at a campsite with a decent restaurant and warm showers. Here we could take a breath and bought ourselves a few hours of relaxation by letting someone else do the cooking.
[July 16, 2014] Early morning hike to the end of the valley and then up to the highest peak. We made the journey with Inigo and Inigo, X-Pyr 2012 winners, who knew exactly where to go for the best take-off. It took us about two hours to reach the top.
There was enough time to rest up before Inigo and Stan took to the skies. Stan put in a massive effort to gain on the competition. The conditions were ideal and he closed the gap by such a margin that at one point I thought we were in with a real a chance to finish the race. I really found it difficult keeping up with him because he jumped from one valley to the next faster than my car could navigate the ground.
Andrej Durana and Zdeno Vacke were already camped not far from the next ridge and hearing me make it up the hill in our beat-up van, they were only too happy to offer me a welcome beer :) The distance between the competitors contracted and many of the early leaders had shuffled around. It was a last minute dash all the way till 10:30pm and Stan pushed hard to reach the small farmhouse where I was waiting for him with warm food.
To say that tomorrow is going to be an interesting finale would be an understatement. Depending on tomorrow’s conditions, I see plenty of opportunities to make up even more ground.
[July 17, 2014] The rest at the farmhouse wasn’t nearly enough for our aching bodies to recover from the punishing pace. We left the comfort of the camper and took to the hills at 8am. There’s was little to gain by pushing harder than necessary as the thermals would only start working around midday, and the relaxed pace was a welcome change.
There was enough time on top for a quick snooze and some snacks before Zdeno and I made our way back to the van and Stan prepared for takeoff with Andrej.
By the time I reached the camper, the action was already starting. Valley by valley and waypoint by waypoint — Stan was beginning to gain on the rest of the competition. And just like that, this X-Pyr 2014 had turned into a nail-biting event and an absolute marathon of a competition. Nothing is written in stone and this competition is offering up plenty of excitement right down to the final minute. I had a number of people text me from overseas telling me how excited they were to be following this comp albeit from the comfort of their computer screens.
Perhaps a bald man driving a beat up old camper may have raised a few alarms reminiscent of an episode of Braking Bad — they just wanted to poke around.
I got pulled over and detained for a good forty minutes by the police today. They checked all the documents, radioed their colleagues, requested more documents, inspected the cabin and finally let me go. I wasn’t sure what they were looking for, my Spanish is quite poor, but maybe the Polish license plates didn’t quite fit the norm for this part of the world. Perhaps a bald man driving a beat up old camper may have raised a few alarms reminiscent of an episode of Braking Bad — they just wanted to poke around.
Including the police detention, it took me almost 8 hours of solid driving to finally catch up with Stan in Puigcerda, a few kilometers from Waypoint 6.
Somewhere along the way we heard that Chrigiel had already reached goal. The simple fact that he’d finished was motivation enough to push that little bit harder. And in the end it paid off. Stan managed to close the gap by moving from 22nd to 12th place in just one day. An absolutely blazing achievement. Let’s see what tomorrow brings.
[July 18, 2014] This wasn’t a day that either of us really wanted to experience. The morning started out just like any other. The sun was rising and we were preparing to get the show on the road. Stan complained of some back pain but we put it down to muscle fatigue as a result of carrying the glider.
I wanted him to rest a bit before starting but he was determined to put in a last minute dash to the finish. He’d already made up over 140km the previous day and caught the main group of pilots. It wasn’t unrealistic to think that yesterday’s efforts would see him placed in the top 10 easily.
It was important to get fluids into his system because I knew that the 9 hours he spent in the air yesterday, with limited water, took a toll on his body. He was suffering from exhaustion and dehydration. If he kept on pushing this hard it would only a matter of time before his body bit back.
He completed the first 10km up a winding road towards Waypoint 6 but shortly afterwards I could see on my computer that his speed dropped and eventually stopped altogether. As I pulled up along side he asked me to stop because he wasn’t feeling well. I could see the pain written all over his face. His skin was clammy and he was having problems regulating his body temperature. This was it, he’d hit the wall. His body had packed it in and no amount of determination would get him to the takeoff site. We now realized that the pain he’d experienced earlier that morning was kidney pain, not muscular.
He sat on the side of the road for a good half an hour while I tried to feed him water. Each time he took a sip he would throw it up a few minutes later. I’d been where he is on more than one occasion and I knew that there was no quick fix for his condition. His body was giving him a final opportunity to slow down, a temporary reprieve to take a break before things become serious.
After a good forty minutes of nausea, vertigo and pain, I don’t think it came to him as a surprise when I suggested that we pull out of the race — he didn’t even object. The situation was completely out of his control. As demoralizing as it was for the both of us, pulling out was the right and intelligent thing to do. In spite of the goal being so close and within our grasp, my first priority was his health. There would always be other races but this one would need to go down as a valuable learning experience.
I made the announcement to the competition officials while Stan sank down onto one of the bunks and slept. The only thing left was to keep him well hydrated and make our way towards the finish line in Port de la Selva. The road to Port de la Selva wasn’t so easy on him either. The narrow roads meant that there was plenty of swerving and that didn’t sit well with his already upset stomach. We pulled over frequently so that he could rest. At each rest stop he’d drag out his cushion and lie down in a shaded spot for half an hour.
We were lucky to find a nice spot close to the center of Port de la Selva. Here we rested up and even enjoyed a swim in the sea. By midday, Stan was already talking of wanting ice cream and I knew that his battered body was starting to come back to life.
Those that had already reached the finish line were celebrating in their own ways. But the competition wasn’t yet over. There were a number of people within thirty kilometers of the finish line who were still fighting it out. A final dash towards goal.
Our race was over, but the memories and the friendships we forged during those few but long days will continue.
[July 19, 2014] The awards ceremony was held in an open area overlooking the main beach of Port de la Selva. A crowd had gathered around a raised stage long before the announcer’s voice brought the speakers to life. This was the first time we’d all been together since the start and it didn’t take long before we were all swapping stories.
Some of us started the party earlier and there were plenty of beers being circulated. It didn’t matter whether you’d reached the finish line or not, everyone was smiling in recognition of their own accomplishments. This was a tough race worthy of any adventure seeker.
The evening meal proved to be a delicious opportunity to talk to the winners in a more personal setting. It gave us a chance to get to within touching distance of the sport’s giants, legends even. We were there, part of it, part of the greater family of pilots. More than anything though, we were reminded that these legends aren’t all that different from us mere mortals. They are just as fragile, susceptible to pain, vulnerable and fun-loving as the rest of us. Many had shown themselves to be genuine, warm and approachable individuals who haven’t been dehumanized by the recent commercialization of the sport.
While I was recuperating and taking a well-deserved rest, my brother was going through his own version of hell. Some two weeks after the competition, Stan sent through a picture of a kidney stone the size of a small marble and the reason for our early departure from the race. I don’t even want to know the details… Ouch.