Para-alpinism, as it is known in France, is becoming an increasingly popular past-time. In high mountain areas such as the European Alps, its advantages are obvious. Consider an ascent of Mont Blanc. In place of a seven-hour descent through dangerous terrain, you could be in the valley ordering a pizza following a twenty-minute flight. It sounded like a win-win to me anyway! Despite the sports recent rise in popularity, it’s not a new idea. In fact, paragliders have been taking off from high summits around the world for four decades. One of the pioneers was legendary French alpinist Jean-Marc Boivin, who in 1988 flew off the summit of Everest. Until recently though, wings and harnesses have been heavy and bulky items weighing in excess of 10kg, which as an additional load to climbing equipment becomes impractical. Improvements in technology have provided new canopy types consisting of just a single “mono-skin” layer rather than the conventional double layering system with air cells. These new wings weigh as little as 1kg, pack into a mid-sized stuff sack, with a harness the same weight as one for climbing. This step-change in technology has given the sport a new lease of life.
Throughout the last two summers I’ve been experimenting with where to fly and how to carry my equipment. I’ve found it works particularly well on easier climbs and alpine routes, where you don’t mind carrying extra bulk in a bag, or conversely, it is excellent on the harder routes where you haul bags up behind you. I aim to keep my pack weight down to a 15-18 kilo maximum which is about as much as I can manage launching and landing safely and I always fastidiously follow the weather forecast in advance of a flight looking at altitude winds, wind direction and cloud cover. I tend to use the mobile app FATMAP, which has high resolution satellite mapping, to work out where viable take-offs will be atop mountains and ridge-lines. I fly a Skyman Sir Edmund 2 wing, which at 1.25kg is one of the lightest out there, but more importantly for me, it launches easily in nil wind, doesn’t collapse unexpectedly and handles intuitively in the air.