For 12 days he ran and hiked 557km, scaled 57,000m of vertical ascent and flew 1,454km on his paraglide. Yet in his bid to cross the Alps from Salzburg, Austria, to Monaco, he fell an agonising 178km short of the finish line. Read Steve Nash’s account of pure sporting endurance and adventure at the 2015 Red Bull X-Alps.
Day 1: Salzburg, Austria
For me, this had been the focus of my life for over 12 months, at the expense of everything else, training every single day in rain or shine, hot and cold; I could not have been more prepared. The gun went off and we were running through the small streets of Salzburg with paragliding packs carrying only the mandatory kit (approximately 7kgs with water). The first ‘turnpoint’ (essentially checkpoints) was a huge inflatable Red Bull can on the top of the Gaisberg Mountain (1288m) overlooking Salzburg. There were hundreds if not thousands of spectators at the launch site, all cheering as each athlete arrived at the top.
I launched perfectly and that was how the whole flight to the second turnpoint at the Dachstein Mountain (2995m) went, eventually taking it in the air and turning west with a huge grin. A number of us were flying so high that we had to be careful of the 3840m airspace ceiling -the conditions were that good. At one point I got very close to the ground and was only just above the trees, so I had to work very hard to stay in the air. Maybe an hour later, after lots of delicate flying, I hooked into a strengthening thermal and rode it all the way back to 3000m! I’d flown over 130kms before landing at 7pm.
Day 2: Innerwald, Austria
As I started hiking dead on the 5am start time, it was clear that the weather had changed dramatically for the worst. By 6am it was a full on storm with thunder and lightning raging, but being low in the valley it didn’t matter -I was still smiling from the epic flight the day before. Choosing the Gore-Tex lined running shoes from inov-8 was not only good for these conditions, but much of the varied terrain I encountered; only changing to a more ventilated shoe on the tarmac.
The next turnpoint was just over the border into Germany. I knew this area well from flying there before, but it remained torrential rain. As I climbed up to the mountain turn point, the weather improved significantly. Not long after, I was in the air making good progress, but then just as quickly I got stuck in a strong wind that feeds the main Innsbruck valley -other competitors saw this and avoided this move and leapfrogged me. I did stay in the air, but found it difficult to make progress in the westerly direction.
Day 3: Wallberg, Germany
Four of us climbed the Hirschberg mountain together hoping to regain some ground if we flew together; there is a strong feeling that if the teams helped each other, the chances of reaching the finish line in Monaco were much higher. We did fly together, but the air was pretty dead and no one really flew far that day.
I was not able to make it as far as the campsite where my supporters stayed, so I slept near the Zugspitze cable car building that runs from near Garmisch Partenkirchen. By the 10.30pm curfew time, a wild storm had broken; it was a very chaotic scene and I was lucky that a German friend arrived just in time for me to shelter in his two-week old car!
Day 4: Grainau, Germany
I reeled in another couple of athletes on the way to the Lermoos turn point, fired up by the slim chance of flying down the Fernpass. I took a gamble to climb up a mountain hoping to fly, but it didn’t really pay off, as the cloud base was only just at the point where I could launch. I did fly, but it wasn’t pleasant nor particularly safe and I was glad to be back on the ground even if it was more hiking for a few hours. As I passed through a small village, a young lad came up to me with his mum and said ‘Hi Steve, would you sign my T-shirt’. I knew what position I was in now, as he’d got pretty well all the competitors signatures that were in front of me! It also made me realise how many people were following this race on the live tracking website.
Day 5: Orztal Valley, Italy
I had an amazing flight from the Timmeljoch pass, despite the crazy strong wind as I flew over the Meran valley -it was blowing so strong that at times I was flying backwards despite using the speed system on the paraglider. After a patient battle with the wind, I was within striking distance of the mountain hut that marked the turn point; rather cruelly we had to land here to sign another Red Bull board -this was a tricky place to land. I relaunched and had to fight the increasingly strong valley wind and made little ground against it, eventually being glad to have landed unscathed (well almost, I did take a heavy landing and smashed my face into my instruments resulting in a badly cut lip with lots of blood).
Day 5: Genova Valley, Italy
The 1500m climb up to the top of the next col was relentlessly steep, but as I got to the top it was clear that it would be flyable on the other side… and it was. I had an important route decision to make due east of Treviso near the Italian /Swiss border, so I tried to contact my supporter Richard Bungay for help with the decision. He came back to me with a garbled message, but I couldn’t understand him and I had to make the decision unaided -it was the wrong choice as within 30 minutes I was in the grips of an incredibly strong valley wind and soon afterwards I was on the ground. Kicking myself for making the wrong choice and now being as low in spirits as well as altitude, I soon picked up when the support vehicle arrived with unlimited supplies of iced tea to cool me as it was 38C. I crossed the border on foot, unlike most of the field in front of me who had passed it in the air.
Day 6: Bernina Pass, Switzerland
We were now in a prime position for a flight to bag the Piz Corvatch turn point. Within 30 minutes of launching, I was at 4200m looking at the amazing panorama of 4000m+ Swiss peaks which included Piz Palu, Piz Bernina and most importantly for me Piz Corvatch. Taking the turn point was easy, followed by another relaxed valley crossing to the west of St Moritz. Then, however, it was like flying into a washing machine. It took fast reactions and a calm head to just keep the paraglider inflated. I fought my way to Chiavenna, but lost significant height getting there.
I landed in a farm field close to the main road, but as I was packing the wing up, the large framed farmer enthusiastically beckoned me towards his farm. He shook my hand, offered me coffee and cake, his wife made me a sandwich and he even offered to give me a lift to the nearest station, which I had to decline!
Day 7: Voga above Chiavenna, Italy
Another 5am start, this time up the Forcola Pass; I knew the best option was to fly the east side of the mountain where the early morning thermals had started to form white clouds above the peaks. Having laid out the wing, I spotted the New Zealand athlete launch quite a lot lower than where I was stood. He lost a lot of height as he flew out, so I decided it was too early to launch and had a snack bar. I also struggled to climb out later, but then the flight seemed to go okay. Concentrating on trying to surf up a spur, I so nearly collided with a single rusty cable that went direct to the village below. It scared me, in fact it scared me a lot; I lost all my concentration and within minutes was on the ground surrounded by high voltages cables, a motorway, a main line railway etc.
Having regained my composure, I now had a 2-hour hike to where I knew there I could relaunch. The flight to Airolo was as hoped but slow. Then it got tricky as I approached the Neufenen Pass with more power cables to contend with and again I was back on the ground. Having not had the greatest of flying days, I now needed some food, so a huge bowl of pasta took minutes to eat, before a quick hike to the top of the pass.
I reached the top of the col at 8.30pm and the snow covered launch was challenging but I launched without issue. Then the flight could only be described as like flying in a waterfall that cascaded all the way down to the valley floor, with me like a leaf along for the ride.
Day 8: Goms Valley, Switzerland
It rained most of the night and the forecast suggested that it would be with us most of the day, so I would be walking to the Matterhorn turnpoint. However, at about 7am I realised that it was starting to clear so I made a snap decision to climb the nearest peak that I thought I could launch from. Problem was that the support team had gone ahead and I only had the bare minimum kit and clothing for a ‘non flying’ day, but I had no choice if I wanted to try to fly. I did find a good place to launch, as high as the rainy clouds would allow, but the wind was very strong from the west (the direction I was headed) preventing me from really capitalising on an extended flight. I fought hard in the air to stay up, but eventually landed east of Brig; now I knew it was a long hot walk to Zermatt. I reached Tasch at 9.30pm, but the bonus was a shower at the campsite; my first in 8 days since leaving Salzburg.
Day 9: Zermatt, Switzerland
As we were relatively close to the Matterhorn turnpoint cylinder, I got to the launch site very early, but after waiting for almost 2 hours, I decided that I would have to launch. Although it was incredibly hard to even leave the immediate area around where I had taken off, I did manage to tag the turn point. I then flew north trying to climb up and out of the Zermatt valley, but every time I got some reasonable height I got the full force of the wind from the west. Eventually, I got pinned in wind so strong I was using all the speed the wing had but still going backwards. I got so scared of a major collapse with very little height that I cut and ran over the back of the ridge and not long after I had landed. I walked across the front of the mountain and it made me realise just how windy it actually was!
Day 10: Moosalp, Switzerland
I had a nice relaxed glide across the Valais whilst most of the region was still asleep at 6am, then straight away I hiked up the mountain on the other side to maximise the time I would be able to fly. I did have to wait to launch, but then a couple of birds of prey climbed up right in front of me so I launched into the same rising air and pretty soon I was well above the 3000m peaks moving west towards the next turnpoint, Mont Blanc. The flight was epic, often topping out at more than 4000m, but able to fly fast as the wind was negligible at this height.
After a tricky detour to negotiate the notoriously windy valley around Martigny, I was now in France. I landed below the Col du Balme with a relatively short hike up for a flight into the Chamonix valley. I thought this would be a simple glide down to Chamonix, but then I hit the cold air flowing down from the Glacier du Tour and the wing went crazy. After some airborne wrestling I realised I had a cravat (a part of the fabric tucks in on itself) on one side of the wing and it started to rotate round very quickly. I instinctively stalled the wing dropping at about 8 metres per second. The wing recovered, I landed no problem, but now had to walk into Chamonix rather than float over the top of it!
Day 11: Chamonix, France
The flying conditions just got better as the day progressed and having launched above Chamonix, I then crossed to the Aravis chain of mountains. I arrive above the Annecy turnpoint at 3000m, where I had to land to sign the board before I could continue. There was a French Red Bull guy at the Annecy take off who enthusiastically told me it was still possible to reach Monaco; I knew that I had run out of time.
The great flying conditions continued on into the evening allowing me to fly further south, landing at 7:30pm. I pushed hard during the last 3 hours available to me, but all the time I couldn’t help thinking that I needed one more good day like I’d just enjoyed.
Day 12: La Chappelle, France
Setting off at 5am for the last time, we knew that a long flight was impossible with the race finishing in just 7 hours’ time. I was still keen to try to fly as far as possible, so we agreed on a monster climb up 1500m to stretch out a flight on the other side as far as possible. It was a tough climb, but with the reward of a flight with about 20 birds of prey showing me where the early morning lift was. I did fly further south, but when we got the foot of the Col du Galibire, it was difficult to climb in rough, wind broken thermals. I landed in one of the few safe places before it became impossible, and then radioed Richard and Shirley who met up with me on the road for the last 50 minutes of hiking.
At 12pm we stopped in a small lay by on a very busy road and our amazing adventure ended, just 178kms away from our goal at Monaco. It would have been the icing on the cake to reach Monaco, but we were so proud of what achieved to get as far as we did. It was a truly team effort with Richard, Shirley and myself all giving everything we had to give. In such a sporting event this was our real success!
The vital statistics:
Hiking / running -557kms
Hiked up -57,000m
- Of all the kit we used, the shoes and socks combination was our most tried and tested. The ROCLITE 282 GTX combined with RACE ULTRA SOCK and a toe-sock liner provided perfect protection for my feet, which endured cold, wet underfoot conditions through to 38C sweltering heat. There was absolutely no damage to my feet or nails, which in turn enabled me to keep racing all the way to the end.