Go, Speed Flier, Go - Ski Mag

Go, Speed Flier, Go

Travel
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Carson Klein

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The thing that changes everything unfurls with a crisp crackling sound and François Bon is pleased. He will not die skiing today. The wing he spent so many months designing and testing inflates overhead as soon as his skis pick up speed. It is shiny, curved, and puffy, like a paraglider's, but the Frenchman does not fly—not yet. He drives his skis deeper into the snow.

It is May 2006, high on Mont Blanc in France, and a helicopter pilot is circling overhead to film the descent. Things aren't going well. Bon is carving turns so quickly down the mountain's northerly faces that the pilot assigned to follow him curses wildly. Alarm bells and warning lights fill the cockpit. "Big shit! the pilot shouts in French. The air at 14,000 feet is too thin for such fast maneuvers and the pilot is struggling to keep a good angle for the cameraman. The lensman has filmed Bon dozens of times and never barfed once—but this! The scene unfolding outside the bubbled glass is so big, so new, that the pilot is caught off guard. "Foocker! he shouts. "Foock! Foock! Foock!

Bon is calm, just a man and his soul patch hurtling by. Thirteen thousand feet. Twelve. Eleven-five. He slices snowfields so quickly that contrails burn off his bases, and he pulls on the wing's controls to help steer and sits back in his harness to keep his balance. The slope is dotted with bone-breaking rock fields that end in 1,000-foot cliffs, but such obstacles are of little concern. The wing floats overhead like a strong and benevolent hand, ready to pick him up, and over, anything.

Speed riding, speed flying: People call it both, though the French just call it speed. Either way, it's redefining what it means for a skier to go big. Sure, freeskiers will always find the most perilous lines, and ski-BASE jumpers throw double gainers off 2,000-foot cliffs. But a speed flier can carve virgin slopes locked between rocks, skip over glacial ice, huck a 1,000-foot wall, and carve again. And if you're François Bon, you can fly.

There he goes, a hissing blur of baffled nylon. Seracs appear on the glacier—too dangerous to ski. The foil sighs and scoops the wind, plucking him gingerly from the surface. Up and up he goes, soaring into the sky.

Bon feels sorry for the little people scraping groomers in lousy 2-D. He feels sorry for those who aren't French. To get good at speed flying, say, to the point where you can descend 12,467 vertical feet of Mont Blanc in eight minutes (and then ski the Eiger in two minutes, 43 seconds), it helps to live in France, where dying is a personal problem.

It was here, after all, among the litigationless folds of les Alpes françaises that someone first dared to sink axes into ice, expanding the reach of ski mountaineering to places it'd never been. French skiers were among the first to tackle lines so big, impossible even, that the rest of us watched on tenterhooks and called it "extreme. Who else could invent a sport like parkour, the acrobatic art of leaping between rooftops and running up walls? Here in America, it took years for resorts to allow snowboarding—and we invented it. As for speed flying, maybe tort reform will someday make it OK to do at ski areas in North America. In the meantime, there's France. Here you can ride the lifts with parachute packs, take a lesson, and let it fly all day long. The only rules are, don't hit anyone and always wear a helmet.

It's now March 2007, five years after Bon's maiden voyage, and the slopes of Les Arcs, just south of Mont Blanc, are filled with skiers tugging on Marlboros, Gauloises, and hand-rolled Drum. It's a stunning blue-sky day, and a small crowd of spectators—Brits, Romanians, a Euro in a tight blue suit—gathers among a billowing copse of brightly color flags stuck in the snow. This is the finish line for a speed-flying course above.

"Let's give some voice to all the speed fliers! an announcer booms into a mike, and everyone claps and hoots.

Twenty-six of the world's top pilots have come here for the 2007 Gin Speed-Flying Pro, all of them handpicked by Bon. Over the next two days they'll race GS, downhill, and big-mountain courses as part of an event that Bon hopes will give the emerging sport some exposure. So far it seems to be working. A small American team is here making a film while a camera crew from Paris prepares for live interviews. "This competition should be tup, one of the Parisians tells me excitedly. "Absolutely tup.

French rap kicks in and a pregnant lady in oversize sunglasses (not smoking) walks around with free cans of Red Bull. Though there have been a few speed-flying competitions and demos in Valfréjus and Tignes, never before have so many of the best fliers converged on one spot. The purse isn't huge, $5,000 and some free skis. But today is the sport's first definitive attempt to name a champ.

The idea, in general, is to be the fastest pilot to weave around a series of flags scattered down 35- to 45-degree slopes that tumble off Les Arcs' toothy ridges. Contestants must round the gates no more than six feet off the ground or suffer a 30-second penalty. For the big-mountain event, fliers have to touch down in three zones marked by flags, but otherwise it's do-as-you-please on a 3,000-vertical-foot face with gullies and spines and a 100-foot cliff. "Generally it's faster to ski because to go up you have to brake, Bon tells me. "But you can go faster over the terrain if flying it makes it shorter, so it really is a blend.

For three hours in the morning and three in the afternoon, flier after flier comes whipping by. Two thirds of the field is French, but there are three Americans competing. At first the action boggles the mind—each flier coming by so fast that it's hard to tell who's who by anything other than wing color. The best guys pick the cleanest lines, point it across the flats, and control their speed and altitude with hard banking turns. Antoine Montant, a paragliding acrobat in the summer, locks his skis into an angry arc ripping by a gate. Amandine Boivin, the lone female contestant, pops off a ridge and soars hundreds of feet down to the finish line. When the Americans zip by, the wind whistling around their skis releases an eerie, unfamiliar moan.

"Everyone who sees this says, 'Holy shit, how can I do that?' says Carson Klein, a speed flier from Utah. "I feel safer doing this than I do just skiing.

Though each run is spectacular and fast and indeed a blend of carving and flight, few of the competitors are truly magnificent skiers. While most can hold their own, others could very well die getting down these inbounds steeps without a wing. Loïc Jean-Albert, a favorite for the podium, grew up as a skydiver on Reunion Island, in the Indian Ocean, and just strapped on skis "more or less for this event. Two seasons ago, Klein was a snowboarder. At one point he asks how to do a kick turn.

"You don't need to be a great skier so much as a great pilot, explains Matt Gerdes, an American competitor living in France. "But you do need to be a confident skier.

[pagebreak]

Five years ago, Bon says, only five people were dabbling in what would become speed flying, and they were all friends. In the winters, Bon, who grew up among the chalets and apartment buildings of Bourg-Saint-Maurice, skied with the Les Arcs ski patrol. But he found his calling in the summer, when he could paraglide for hours, soaring like a hawk on the updrafts, flipping and spinning.

"It got to the point where I was chasing summer, Bon says. "But I love skiing. I wanted to get back to these mountains and the snow. In winter, there are no thermals. We got thinking. The goal would be to not fly so much, but to ski more, to have that perfect moment when the two could touch.

"Speed flying contributes to the collective consciousness, Bon says. He's tan and lithe, a handsome, athletic type with straight teeth and a hoop earring. He's one of the few people on the planet to call speed flying a full-time job, by designing and testing wings for a Korean paragliding company named Gin. His skills and connections are shaping the sport.

"The French are all about exploring les possibilités, says Hal Thomson, a global marketing executive for Salomon Sports based an hour away in Annecy, France. "It's like in soccer. The Germans methodically kick, pass, score. The French curve the ball this way, pass it over there, head it back, have everyone touch it, and then shoot. For them, emotion, style, and art always win.

So in the French way, Bon and his friends decided to strap on skis, unfurl skydiving wings into the snow, and simply point their tips downhill to see what would happen. They promptly realized someone was going to get seriously hurt.

"It was shit, Bon says. "It was hard to get the canopy to inflate and the turning was too radical.

Since then, largely thanks to Bon and companies like Gin, wings have become far more stable and easier to control, even for beginners. Generous estimates say there are about 3,000 people who speed fly, with about 2,900 of them in Europe. Roughly 10 companies make speed-flying wings, which cost between $1,200 and $2,000.

Still, Bon believes the sport has a future since it draws from both the skiing and paragliding pools—not to mention its considerable YouTube appeal. "What skier doesn't want to fly? he says. "And what flier doesn't like to go close to the ground?

Figuring out the best glide ratios—how well a wing floats versus drops—is an ongoing process. Create a fat, floaty wing and you're paragliding, not skiing. Use a skydiver's chute and it'll drop you so fast that steering is nearly impossible. One company called Bio Air Technologies makes a wing called the Boozz, which is French slang for cow shit. "Cow shit doesn't fly, says Étienne Perret, who helps design them. "It just sort of falls.

The crowd is considerably larger on day two of the competition, when fliers hop a cable car to the top of the Aiguille Rouge, a 10,584-foot pyramid of reddish rock and the start of today's big-mountain event. As a DJ cranks out a remix of "Brick House, spectators gather at a lift station to ogle the final day of action.

So far Bon sits in third place with yesterday's winner, 29-year-old Loïc Jean-Albert, in first. The amphitheater that Bon chose for today's competition looks dangerous: 40 degrees to sheer in spots as it plummets more than 3,000 vertical feet. Most fliers will drop it in about a minute. Along the way they'll navigate down a gully, pop over a rocky section, and launch themselves off a 100-foot cliff. Just getting to the starting gate is scary enough. Fliers clip their harnesses to a safety rope fixed along a knife-edge ridge and inch their way out into the sky.

"This is really more about getting a group of friends together than competing, Bon says. But it's about putting on a good show for the crowds and cameras, too. A helicopter circles overhead with a filmmaker dangling from the door. "We asked for the best pilots they have, Bon adds.

A few moments later a small swatch of color appears up high. "They're off! the announcer booms, and a sea of 500 mostly smoking heads look up. Fliers slip down the chute with arms pumping wildly on their wings' controls. Spindrift comes swirling down the gully. Mike Steen, one of the Americans, dumps altitude by flinging himself nearly horizontal, his green, black, and yellow wing whistling. His skis touch exactly where he needs them to before he launches off a cliff in a tuck much to the crowd's delight. Others throw huge backscratchers or cross their tips midflight for style. Bon's run is steady and famore, to have that perfect moment when the two could touch.

"Speed flying contributes to the collective consciousness, Bon says. He's tan and lithe, a handsome, athletic type with straight teeth and a hoop earring. He's one of the few people on the planet to call speed flying a full-time job, by designing and testing wings for a Korean paragliding company named Gin. His skills and connections are shaping the sport.

"The French are all about exploring les possibilités, says Hal Thomson, a global marketing executive for Salomon Sports based an hour away in Annecy, France. "It's like in soccer. The Germans methodically kick, pass, score. The French curve the ball this way, pass it over there, head it back, have everyone touch it, and then shoot. For them, emotion, style, and art always win.

So in the French way, Bon and his friends decided to strap on skis, unfurl skydiving wings into the snow, and simply point their tips downhill to see what would happen. They promptly realized someone was going to get seriously hurt.

"It was shit, Bon says. "It was hard to get the canopy to inflate and the turning was too radical.

Since then, largely thanks to Bon and companies like Gin, wings have become far more stable and easier to control, even for beginners. Generous estimates say there are about 3,000 people who speed fly, with about 2,900 of them in Europe. Roughly 10 companies make speed-flying wings, which cost between $1,200 and $2,000.

Still, Bon believes the sport has a future since it draws from both the skiing and paragliding pools—not to mention its considerable YouTube appeal. "What skier doesn't want to fly? he says. "And what flier doesn't like to go close to the ground?

Figuring out the best glide ratios—how well a wing floats versus drops—is an ongoing process. Create a fat, floaty wing and you're paragliding, not skiing. Use a skydiver's chute and it'll drop you so fast that steering is nearly impossible. One company called Bio Air Technologies makes a wing called the Boozz, which is French slang for cow shit. "Cow shit doesn't fly, says Étienne Perret, who helps design them. "It just sort of falls.

The crowd is considerably larger on day two of the competition, when fliers hop a cable car to the top of the Aiguille Rouge, a 10,584-foot pyramid of reddish rock and the start of today's big-mountain event. As a DJ cranks out a remix of "Brick House, spectators gather at a lift station to ogle the final day of action.

So far Bon sits in third place with yesterday's winner, 29-year-old Loïc Jean-Albert, in first. The amphitheater that Bon chose for today's competition looks dangerous: 40 degrees to sheer in spots as it plummets more than 3,000 vertical feet. Most fliers will drop it in about a minute. Along the way they'll navigate down a gully, pop over a rocky section, and launch themselves off a 100-foot cliff. Just getting to the starting gate is scary enough. Fliers clip their harnesses to a safety rope fixed along a knife-edge ridge and inch their way out into the sky.

"This is really more about getting a group of friends together than competing, Bon says. But it's about putting on a good show for the crowds and cameras, too. A helicopter circles overhead with a filmmaker dangling from the door. "We asked for the best pilots they have, Bon adds.

A few moments later a small swatch of color appears up high. "They're off! the announcer booms, and a sea of 500 mostly smoking heads look up. Fliers slip down the chute with arms pumping wildly on their wings' controls. Spindrift comes swirling down the gully. Mike Steen, one of the Americans, dumps altitude by flinging himself nearly horizontal, his green, black, and yellow wing whistling. His skis touch exactly where he needs them to before he launches off a cliff in a tuck much to the crowd's delight. Others throw huge backscratchers or cross their tips midflight for style. Bon's run is steady and fast, but others are faster. His standing slips to fourth.

There are a few tense moments. Patrick Lachat, a Swiss flier, comes down hard after a long flight and explodes on touchdown, sending one ski twanging into the rocks. One French competitor, Frédéric Fugen, comes up short on a jump over a cat track and tweaks his back hard enough to take himself out of the race. During a skydiving demo halfway through the day, Jean-Albert leaps into the blue wearing a wing suit that allows him to fly down the mountain's contours so close to the ground you swear he'll splat. He throws his chute just feet from the ground and hits a blue run so hard I wonder if his brains have turned to boozz. "It was a bit extreme, he says later.

"Speed flying seems safe compared to that, Klein says. "Anyone can learn it.

"I know some people think this will be the next big thing, but no, it won't, Steen counters. "Joe Schmo isn't going to just go rent a wing and cruise the 'Bird. You need to know what you're doing. Even then it's still dangerous. An experienced Swiss speed flier died near Verbier in December 2006 when he smacked into a rock.

But today such thoughts of doom fade behind the jovial mood. The music's pumping, there's more Red Bull to drink, and (somewhere in this crowd) hash to smoke. Jean-Albert claims the championship and a check for $2,800. David Eyraud takes $1,400 for second and Vincent Reffet $700 for third. Bon stays at fourth. Gaà«l Amman, a Swiss pilot, is the only top-five finisher who isn't French.

It doesn't seem to matter who won, though. The moment the competition is over the already boisterous French seem giddy. Dozens of them hurry through the orange light to find a wide slope off to the side that few people ski. Others follow and soon the French are rallying everyone into a mass speed-flying start. "Come on! one of them says. "We are so many! Their enthusiasm for the idea would seem silly if it weren't so infectious.

The air fills with the rustle of crinkling wings inflating in the warm winter sun. As the fliers take off, the quiet slope is suddenly a collage of puffy blues, reds, and greens. They look like fighter pilots, whipping around rocks, carving turns, and smoothing out the fall line's imperfections with graceful swoops and arcs. They hit the cat track far below, passing skiers who seem so limited, so stuck in their own gravity.

d fast, but others are faster. His standing slips to fourth.

There are a few tense moments. Patrick Lachat, a Swiss flier, comes down hard after a long flight and explodes on touchdown, sending one ski twanging into the rocks. One French competitor, Frédéric Fugen, comes up short on a jump over a cat track and tweaks his back hard enough to take himself out of the race. During a skydiving demo halfway through the day, Jean-Albert leaps into the blue wearing a wing suit that allows him to fly down the mountain's contours so close to the ground you swear he'll splat. He throws his chute just feet from the ground and hits a blue run so hard I wonder if his brains have turned to boozz. "It was a bit extreme, he says later.

"Speed flying seems safe compared to that, Klein says. "Anyone can learn it.

"I know some people think this will be the next big thing, but no, it won't, Steen counters. "Joe Schmo isn't going to just go rent a wing and cruise the 'Bird. You need to know what you're doing. Even then it's still dangerous. An experienced Swiss speed flier died near Verbier in December 2006 when he smacked into a rock.

But today such thoughts of doom fade behind the jovial mood. The music's pumping, there's more Red Bull to drink, and (somewhere in this crowd) hash to smoke. Jean-Albert claims the championship and a check for $2,800. David Eyraud takes $1,400 for second and Vincent Reffet $700 for third. Bon stays at fourth. Gaà«l Amman, a Swiss pilot, is the only top-five finisher who isn't French.

It doesn't seem to matterr who won, though. The moment the competition is over the already boisterous French seem giddy. Dozens of them hurry through the orange light to find a wide slope off to the side that few people ski. Others follow and soon the French are rallying everyone into a mass speed-flying start. "Come on! one of them says. "We are so many! Their enthusiasm for the idea would seem silly if it weren't so infectious.

The air fills with the rustle of crinkling wings inflating in the warm winter sun. As the fliers take off, the quiet slope is suddenly a collage of puffy blues, reds, and greens. They look like fighter pilots, whipping around rocks, carving turns, and smoothing out the fall line's imperfections with graceful swoops and arcs. They hit the cat track far below, passing skiers who seem so limited, so stuck in their own gravity.

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