X-Alps  Meet the Athletes of the Air

Imagine if you had a way of moving so quickly through the valleys and mountains of the Southern Alps, that you could travel unsupported for hundreds of kilometres with just a rucksack and the odd day of good weather.

By Lorraine Johns, with Kinga Masztalerz and Nick Neynens, members of the NZ Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association.

High on life. Photo/Kinga Masztalerz collection.

This extreme take on Te Araroa, journeying the length of New Zealand, is known by paragliders as vol biv. Literally meaning fly and camp, it is the concept of hiking and flying as far as you can, with no certainty, or even much of a plan, as to where you will find yourself from one day to the next. One moment you may be thousands of metres above civilisation, with only a piece of material that you can fit in your pack keeping you aloft. By the end of the day you may find yourself one hundred kilometres away, walking alone in a remote valley or on a mountain ridge where perhaps no-one has stood before. When night falls, you’ll still be alone with your wing, waiting through darkness for dawn to signal whether you will soar the skies again, or continue on by foot through the unknown.

Hike and fly opposite Mt Earnslaw / Pikirakatahi. Photo/ Nick Neynens.

Very few people can fly paragliders long distances through the New Zealand Southern Alps. Kinga Masztalerz and Nick Neynens are two of these few. They are among New Zealand’s top cross-country paragliding pilots, and are starting to hit the mainstream media as they prepare to represent New Zealand in the upcoming Red Bull X-Alps adventure race. This race is one in which athletes must weave their way by foot and paraglider through 1138 kilometres of mountainous terrain in the European Alps, passing through five countries with turn points such as The Matterhorn and Mount Blanc. Entry is not automatic, each athlete must apply with a lengthy CV that demonstrates they have sufficient skill and experience to compete and remain safe. Nick has competed already in 2015 and 2017, whilst this is the first race for Kinga.   When they step up to the start line on the 16th of June, they will be the only two New Zealanders to ever do so. 

Nick flying next to Mt Aspiring / Tititea. Photo/Nick Neynens

In a fortnight of vol biv adventures between 2015 and 2016, Nick flew 211 kilometres through the mountains from the Ahuriri Valley to Arthurs Pass, just missing out on making it over Mount Rolleston as the sun began to set and the flanks of the rocky mountain cooled down. Nick had spent the previous, somewhat rainy day, hut bagging in the Dingle Burn. Then, on Christmas morning, he popped up above Top Dingle Hut and was soon soaring above the glaciers of Mount Barth, with Mounts Brewster and Cook framing the horizon. This has proved an untouchable feat which only he has been able to repeat, beating his own record with a 235-kilometre flight a week later. Nick describes his approach to adventuring as “put on your boots and go” – really just going where the wind blows, though the further and deeper into the backcountry, the better.

Kinga is also passionate about vol biv and has walked and flown unsupported for 400 kilometres through the Southern Alps – 173 kilometres of which was flown on one very sunny day. Much of the rest of the way took significantly longer by both foot and wing in typical drizzly New Zealand summer conditions, exiting on day sixteen. No other woman in New Zealand has yet undertaken such an adventure, and not many men either. It is not surprising that Nick and Kinga hold the respective New Zealand paragliding distance records for men and women.

Kinga soars the coast. Photo/ Kinga Masztalerz Collection.

For Kinga, sport has always been a consuming part of life with an intense training regime an important part of her daily routine. A dedicated and talented rock climber, Kinga once saw paragliding as something sedate to take up later in life, never believing it could compete with climbing for adrenalin. Life changed when an elbow injury saw her side-lined for six months. Finally finding a quiet moment in life to try out paragliding, she has never once returned to rock climbing since her first flight off a small training hill.

You have a magical piece of cloth that you can put in your backpack, you can hike up a hill with this backpack on, put this piece of cloth on the ground, take two steps, then fly tens or hundreds of kilometres by the power of nature – sun and wind – and your mind and the decisions you make.

Nick too comes from a tramping and climbing background, summiting Mount Tasman just before he took up paragliding. Nick was attracted to flying through the desire to explore the hills in a new way, particularly his home mountains of the Southern Lakes; there is almost no view he has not seen of the Mount Earnslaw/Pikirakatahi Massif. He still loves to explore the mountains by foot when it’s too windy to fly, once climbing to the summit of the East Peak of Mount Earnslaw from the valley floor in three hours. However, nowadays he prefers to climb with a wing in his pack, and has launched from places such as the summit of the highest mountain in France, Mont Blanc. More recently, New Zealand’s outdoors folk have become familiar with Nick’s escapades through a humorous two-part retelling of a trip where he flew to Barker Hut from just above Bealey Spur Hut, climbed Mount Harper, flew in and around the Wilberforce before landing at Harman Pass, and finished the trip by flying from Arthurs Pass to Lewis Pass.

Nick is now a veteran of flying vol biv and can, for example, tell you where to find the best thermal in New Zealand. Thermals are the precious gold of the sky, upward currents of warm air that paragliding pilots use to jump from one mountain ridge to the next. Created by the sun when it unevenly heats different parts of the Earth’s surface, they are the means by which a paraglider can launch at Mount Cheeseman Skifield in the Craigieburn Ranges, far to the east of The Divide, and land on the West Coast of the South Island. And where does the biggest pot of gold in New Zealand lie? According to Nick it is on Mount Huxley, with its 700-metre sheer face and surrounding amphitheatre of jagged, rocky mountains just waiting to be scorched by the noon sun.

The top of Mount Huxley’s quality thermal-generating face. Photo/Lorraine Johns

Paragliding is one of those sports that athletes like Kinga and Nick can make look effortless to the hiker on the ground. The reality in the air is somewhat different; paragliders are prone to collapse in turbulent air, and thermals are turbulent. When the sun is strong and the terrain severe like it is in New Zealand’s Southern Alps, with an often-strong and temperamental prevailing wind, the air currents can be quite violent.

It is the skill cross-country pilots like Kinga and Nick exhibit in keeping that little piece of cloth flying smoothly that allow them to take on this bold style of adventure. Vol biv pilots need to be able to understand and respond quickly to highly dynamic and dangerous environments in which micro inputs are often continuously required to keep the paraglider flying safely above the pilot’s head.

Deep in the Southern Alps of New Zealand, during a flight from Brewster Hut to the highway by Lake Pukaki. Photo/Nick Neynens.

Kinga and Nick have had their share of intense moments flying in the mountains. At the beginning of her flying adventures, being a very inexperienced pilot at the time, Kinga once decided to remain in the air as some tell-tale signs of a storm appeared. Trying to make her way back to the car proved to be a mistake as she battled high wind, strong thermals and rain before managing to safely land flying backwards a fair way from her car, her saturated wing flopping to the ground on touchdown. Many paraglider pilots are familiar with a video of the unflappable Nick calmly deploying his reserve parachute over trees near the Routeburn Track when his paraglider became tangled in one of the lines connecting it to his harness.  

The uncertainty in paragliding is addictive for both Kinga and Nick, primarily because it can lead to some of the most exquisite experiences imaginable. For Nick, the moment of flying over a pass between valleys is one of the best things about paragliding. Sometimes not knowing until the last minute whether the jump can be made or what will be on the other side of the pass, and often being surprised by an abrupt and drastic change in scenery. From tussock flats and gentle rolling hills, to massive glacier-carved river valleys and deep gorges, dark and jagged mountain flanks, and crevassed snowfields, anything is possible in New Zealand.

Making the glide across a valley in the Southern Alps. Photo/Kinga Masztalerz Collection.

Similarly, Kinga considers one of her greatest experiences to be a flight she took early in her first year of paragliding from a launch near Mount Blanc, where she decided to fly over a small pass. She passed through the tiny gap in the ridge metres above the heads of those standing on the pass, to discover an impressive glacier on the other side. With nowhere feasible to land and continue on by foot, this was her first experience of being committed to relying on her paragliding skills to regain height and fly to safety. In fact, she flew along the glacier all the way to Switzerland and back to France around the entire Mont Blanc massif, making for an unforgettable flight.

Not all landings are created equal. Photo/Kinga Masztalerz Collection.

The margins in flying can be small, and sometimes metres are the difference between flying onward or taking the long, hard road home on foot – which is a road both Nick and Kinga will chance taking in pursuit of the ultimate vol biv experience.

It is the combination of significant skill built up over time and through experience and the ability to perform under pressure which makes Nick and Kinga suited to a race in which there is no room for feeling out of your depth in the face of adversity, and in which challenge must be embraced. For Kinga, the Red Bull X-Alps is the quintessential hike and fly experience.    

There is nothing greater in paragliding. It’s massive, the pace is massive, the organisation is incredible, and the athletes who qualify and participate are some of the best pilots in the world. It’s so long that everyone is pushed to their physical and mental limits as you face hundreds of difficult decisions every day.

For Nick, it is the amalgamation of both hiking and flying in a race, which he describes as “almost luxurious”.

I love the adventure and the fact that you make your own decisions about route and get to see how they compare to everyone else’s. You just have to keep going as far as you can.

And that could just be all the way – the years of vol biv training Nick and Kinga have undertaken in New Zealand and overseas have added a touch of steel to their decision making, which might just make them unstoppable come June.

Nick and Kinga will be taking the skills that have seen them enjoy such a unique style of adventure in New Zealand’s Southern Alps, to the world, when they compete in the Red Bull X-Alps which starts on 16 June 2019. You can follow the team on https://facebook.com/nzxalps. If you are interested in supporting their campaigns, you can find Kinga’s give a little page here, and Nick’s here.

Wilderlife