“I didn’t plan to go that high,” says paragliding pilot Antoine Girard about the record he recently set flying in big mountain. “The day I crossed the Baltoro Glacier, I felt it was feasible so I tried! It was an idea I had, more like an impossible dream. I took the opportunity.”
In the 1980s and ’90s flying above/around the Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe, was considered then to be the ‘great un-flown challenge’ of the world. In the past 20 to 30 years, with the highest mountain in Europe conquered many times over, the new frontier was to attempt flying from or over one of the world’s 14 8,000m mountains. Five of those are in Pakistan.
On July 23 this year, flying vol-bivouac at 8,100m over Broad Peak, Antoine Girard became the first man to do so. Many had tried before him.
Ace paragliding pilot Tom de Dorlodot was also in Pakistan and only managed to go as high as 7,458m putting him in fourth place. From the Netherlands, Leroy Westerkamp’s flight in Hunza at 7,685m in 2006 is now officially the third highest any paragliding pilot has flown. Pilot and guide for other paragliders, Brad Sander, who has called Pakistan home for several years now, holds the record for the second highest flight at 7,750m. It’s interesting to note that the top four heights in big mountain paragliding were all achieved in Pakistan.
“It’s one thing to climb a mountain and then fly off it,” said Brad Sander. “That’s what Babu Sunuwar, a Nepali paraglider did when he took off from on top of the Everest in 2011. It’s another thing entirely to start from very low and use only the wind currents and pilot skills to fly to the summit. That’s what Antoine has done.”
“We have all been dreaming about that flight since we started flying in Pakistan!” said de Dorlodot, speaking to a section of the foreign press, comments that he shared with Images on Sunday as well.
“After five summers in those mountains I was starting to doubt it was even possible.” Paragliding giants Tom de Dorlodot, Horacio Llorens and Hernan Pitocco were also flying in the area this season and joined Girard at the beginning of his trip.
“This kind of flight is not something you can schedule or say you are going to do on a certain day,” said Sander. “Maybe once in a decade the weather will be favorable enough.”
“There are only a handful of pilots with enough skills to pull it off and of course that pilot needs to be ready and in the right place,” Sander added. “It basically requires divine intervention and when it happens there is no sense of conquering but rather a feeling of wonder and gratitude at being allowed such a flight.”
“Antoine has just set the bar much higher,” said de Dorlodot. “He has really put his mark on the history of paragliding. The Baltoro Glacier is one of the most incredible places to fly on Earth. But flying above Broad Peak, what an achievement!
“I’m very happy for him and for all the flying community. It’s very inspiring — congratulations Antoine!”
“Antoine has given all of us a gift with this flight,” enthused Sander, “to imagine flying like a bird above the highest mountains with nothing but the wind and a nylon wing, it truly inspires the imagination.”
This wasn’t the first time Girard tried taking off from Broad Peak. “The first summit I tried to take off from was Camp 3 on Broad Peak in 2008, but failed,” he said. Pakistan had always been a flying destination for him. “I’ve wanted to come to Pakistan for a very long time,” he said. “They have the highest mountains and the easiest to take off from.”
He had been planning this trip since February. “It took some time to raise funds,” he said. “I took as much information as I could from people within Pakistan. I contacted several paragliding clubs and they helped me prepare for my trip.” Girard was supposed to be joined by a friend who couldn’t make it at the last minute. Undaunted, he went ahead on his own.
“Antoine had the right mindset when I met him in Hushe before he started his trip,” added de Dorlodot. “He did it with style, alone. He was well prepared, very focused. He pushed through bad weather for two weeks, drawing superb lines with his tracker.”
Opportunities might have presented themselves to Girard, but they didn’t come easy. “I travelled for 19 days and covered 1,260km,” related Girard. “I had very difficult weather throughout — there were only two days that were without rain or snow! The hardest thing to do is waiting in bad weather. That’s when doubt sets in.” Clearly pushing the boundaries requires having nerves of steel.
Flying at 8,000m with the extreme lack of oxygen at that altitude is very dangerous. How did Girard prepare for that?
“I had a bottle of oxygen,” he responds. “But I had not been able to use it because I was so cold [due to bad handling]. My fingers were frozen. This happened on the 23rd day of the trip to Pakistan.” He had plenty of time to acclimatise before that. “I had spent 13 nights at over 4,200m and often took off at 6,200m — so my body was acclimatised perfectly for the lack of oxygen. But you still have to force yourself to breathe. It’s hard not to get into a state of hypoxia.”
What other difficulties did he encounter at that altitude?
“Flying is complicated at 8,000m because the low levels of oxygen slows down the brain,” said Girard. “We don’t have the same reflexes.”
“On top of that, the lack of air accelerates the speed of the paraglide and everything goes faster. The cold and the snow prevent the formation of many thermals. It is difficult to have thermal up to 8,000m but it is possible! My flight is proof of that!”
Coming to Pakistan, was he concerned about safety? “Flight safety is up to me, so I felt pretty good about that,” he said. “For my own security in the country, when in doubt I preferred avoiding areas considered dangerous. I slept high in the mountains. I went down into the valleys in places that were considered safe. At no time did I feel I was in danger. I was always welcomed by wonderful people. Pakistanis are very welcoming.”
One heard that a group of mountaineers spotted you flying above them and notified people back at base camp. “I saw mountaineers between camp two and camp three of Broad Peak,” says Girard. “I made them a sign, but that’s all.”
Now that he’s done the impossible — flown at an altitude at which Boeing 747s fly — what’s next in store for him?
“I’ll start with some rest and then prepare for the next trip and competition,” he responds. “Maybe go to Nepal for the next adventure and finish my preparation for the most important competition in the world of hiking and flying: the X-Alps.”
One of the world’s toughest adventure races, in the Red Bull X-Alps athletes must hike or fly 1,000km across the Alps. It covers the alpine regions of Austria, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, France and ends in Monaco.
What was his favourite part of the entire flight? He laughs. “When I passed over the top of Broad Peak. It was like a dream — with my brain all fogged by the lack of oxygen!”
“I would come back if I have permission to fly,” says Girard. “I dream of flying from/over the K2 or landing on top of an 8,000m mountain!”
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, September 11th, 2016