It’s a race of truly epic proportions – 33 competitors from around the globe are pitted against each other as they walk, run and fly the 1000km length of the Swiss Alps. On average only 12% of competitors actually finish the race.
This is the grueling competition known as the Red Bull X-Alps – and for the first time, a Kiwi has been selected to take part.
We caught up with New Zealand Paraglider Nick Neynens ahead of the competition that kicked off over the weekend.
When you meet someone training for a competition as intense as the X-Alps, the first thing you naturally want to ask them is ‘how is your training going?’
That is the wrong question to ask Nick Neynens – he hates ‘the T word’
“Probably because it’s the most commonly asked, and it implies that you should be doing something undesirable to get better. It suggests I have the same cliche approach and mindset as everyone else, and it supposes that the X-Alps is the most important thing ever. It’s not. The most important thing is to have fun.”
Nick has always been a keen adventurer, and although he’s enjoyed keeping up to date with previous X-Alps competitions, he only thought about entering last year.
“I have always been super excited to follow X-Alps, as the most adventurous pilots are, but I only recently considered doing it myself. Flying a high performance wing in challenging turbulent conditions is really a prerequisite for X-Alps, so first I’ve needed to get to that level by gradually exploring the boundaries of what is possible – and importantly, to enjoy it,” he explains.
Nick’s journey has been a few years in the making. His father first introduced him to the mountains when he was a kid, and he’s been flying since he first researched paragliding on the internet in 2007. Fast forward to 2014, and Nick set the New Zealand record for triangle flight. The idea was to fly a record distance in one day, and finish back at the start to create a triangle shape. That distance was an impressive 134km – approximately 45km per side – achieved at Roy’s Peak near Wanaka on December 16.
“To fly far, you have to fly fast all day long – and with a triangle, you have to make sure you’re on time to get back again. Looking at the maps I’d explored over the years, thinking about the best way to use nature to your advantage, and then putting it all together in one flight was just fantastic. It was much more about setting goals and flying sensibly than my put on your boots and go approach, but it was still lots of fun! In a similar way X-Alps gives me a direction and focus for a great fly and hike adventure.”
X-Alps is not for everyone – even the most experienced paragliders find it challenging. There’s a rigorous selection process – only the world’s very best adventurers even make it to the starting line. Once they’re there, competitors have to hike and paraglide across six countries and some of Europe’s tallest mountains, starting in Austria, and finishing up in Monaco – as quickly as possible.
The competition is always different, and this year looks set to be the most difficult yet. Nick’s far from phased though; he’s completed two ‘X-Alps style’ races before in South Africa and the Pyrenees – both of which he says were amazing experiences.
“X-Alps is going to be longer which is good for me – there’s less pressure on a single flight, it’s more about having well-rounded skills, the right attitude and a sensible approach of working with your body, rather than against it. I’m pretty happy about my mindset in preparing for this race. Rather than worry about everything it’s best to think of it as an adventure.”
Nick’s also got a good team behind him, including official supporter Louis Tapper who has been working with Nick since last summer in New Zealand.
“X-Alps is a team event, and I have been working closely with Louis. He takes a focused and analytical approach to back up my enthusiasm for exploring new things. Together we compare notes and combine our ideas to make an ever-evolving strategy. X-Alps is a great combination of planning and intuitive execution, and we are looking forward to enjoying, learning from, and sharing our whole experience,” says Nick.
Nick arrived in Eastern Europe in May, and has spent the last month on an X-Alps route reconnaissance road trip with Louis. One of the highlights has been meeting some fellow competitors such as X-Alps veteran, Tom de Dordolot.
“One of the things that may surprise you about meeting the veteran X-Alps guys is that they are quite friendly and down to earth. I was impressed that Tom de Dorlodot (team BEL) and Thomas Theurillat (SUI1 supporter) were quite balanced with their approach to life – a holiday with the girlfriend, spending time with the kids. Much of their advice was just good common sense, which is easy to lose sight of as a rookie entrant amongst all the hype leading up to X-Alps.”
In the lead-up to the competition, Nick tackled the Grimsel Pass over in Switzerland – one of the windiest places in Europe that certainly lived up to its reputation.
“There was a strong northerly which kept things interesting. I had a good adventure though, the cloud was low, and the instability kept things pumping. They say local knowledge is no advantage here – you can miss things due to habit, so I’m glad to be doing things my own way, in new territory.”
Nick has been helped along the way by a number of sponsors including Macpac. We sponsored his trip by providing him with gear to make sure he would be protected against the elements on his adventure.
Keep an eye on the Macpac blog, and Louis Tapper’s Kiwi Paragliding blog for video updates and all the latest on Nick’s X-Alps journey.
Watch the video