(Tina Sjogren/Brooke Meetze) Speedfly in thin air. What does this mean? "Basically you go faster – a lot faster," Mal Haskins told ExplorersWeb.
Cross adventure is blowing up. We might be softer than Mallory and Amundsen but we do things our pioneers could not have dreamt up.
We ski down 8000ers, wing-jump spires, and paraglide at the edge of the atmosphere. Our kids sail the oceans, our friends have mini-helis in their backyards and fly rockets to space.
In impossible conditions we handle the latest tech, test drive sensors and invent gear. We are the new explorers, preparing for new frontiers. Did you know, by the way, that National Geographic was brainchild of an inventor - Graham Bell?
Take recent Antartica record holder Aleks Gamme (to the South Pole and back in a fortnight, almost) who is equally into science, action sports and exploration. "I enjoy diversity, and would like to combine elements," he told ExplorersWeb, "such as ski to a mountain, climb it and jump it. I used to sky dive for many years before my expeditions so now I plan to spend more time descending the fun way, jumping or speedflying."
Speaking of which. Remember the Manaslu speedfly 8000 expedition last year? Mal, Ben, Siddhi Mama and Phemba Sherpa made it to the top (8156m/26759 ft) October 12. Mal's impossible equation: find a wing that's small enough to lug but big enough to fly in the thin air. Ultimately the conditions were off. "I tried but had issues with the wind and made a number of abortive attempts before calling it a day," he said.
In the heat of the summits we never got the full story. So last week ExWeb caught up with Mal for the scoop about his kickbutt speedfly attempt.
Explorers Web: What happened on summit day?
Mal Haskins: We summitted at 11:20 pm on what I guess is now considered the true summit of Manaslu rather than the col about 30m lower.
We had originally planned to leave C4 around 4:30am but it was quite cold and fairly windy. The weather for the last few weeks hadn’t been giving us large cloud build up in the afternoon so we traded off an earlier start with slightly warmer temperatures.
I had already made the choice to NOT make a flight attempt from the summit as the forecast was for winds coming 180 degrees from the wrong way and also too strong.
The trip to the summit and the summit itself was pretty special as we basically had the entire mountain too ourselves. This often meant that we were also plugging steps as the trail from the previous summit windows had been covered by wind slab.
There was one other expedition that was on the mountain at the same time. They had elected to stay at C3 and leave very early in the morning. They passed our tents about 5:45 or so in the morning and then we passed them about one hour later and about 700m out of C4.
The summit itself was quite a surprise as the majority of the mountain is not on super exposed or very steep terrain. However, in the final 100m or so to the summit cone you walk by some gendarmes and the mountain falls away a few thousand meters, vertically, just to your right. It was a pretty inspiring view.
After the summit we had a fairly easy walk back to C4 where we quickly packed up, shouldered loads and headed down to C3. This is where I had left my speedriding/flying equipment.
ExWeb: tell us about the test flights?
Mal: I was doing test flights and sorting out landing areas below camp 1. I did two flights from above C1 and down to about 5300. At the time I didn’t use my GPS to record my track log so I can’t be sure of the starting altitude, but it was near 5800m and I launched on ski’s.
I did make another attempt to fly from C3 on our way back down the mountain. Whilst conditions were not perfect for a flight attempt I had a good safe run-out so I thought I would give it a go despite a 15-20km tailwind.
It took ages to get ready to make an attempt and sort the wing out. Looking back at some of my footage I am utterly exhausted. What would have taken about 5-7 minutes normally took over an hour. I was also the last person on the mountain – everybody else was at C2 by this stage. I was also wearing a heavy pack – which is not normal for speedriding/flying.
The launch initially started fine but then a sudden increase in the tail wind caught my canopy and threw it in front of me – I ended up sliding down the hill sideways for a while across the crusty snow before coming to rest.
I tried to have another attempt but I think the wind was actually increasing and I was too tired and exhausted to untangle the lines and clear the snow from my canopy. So, instead I skied to C2
ExWeb: To the wing: you say it combines skiing, paragliding and skydiving. That's crazy in itself
but in thin air? Where and how high has this been done before?
Mal: The highest flight with a speedwing has been down in south America off the summit of Aconcagua (ed note: 22841 ft/6962m) by Francois Bon, a French canopy pilot.
The effect of the thin air would be to increase the sink rate of the canopy. Since the glide rate of a canopy doesn’t change it means that the air speed of the canopy has to increase to account for the higher sink rate – what does this mean? Basically you go faster – a lot faster.
The launch is faster, the landings are faster, your reaction times to approaching terrain and obstacles needs to be faster. In this sport the margin for error is very, very slim so all these factors add up.
We also fly different size wings – the smaller they are the faster they are, and often with less glide. The wing I was planning to launch on this trip was a lite weight prototype, a 14m square canopy. I expected to have speeds as high as 150km an hour. This wing is pretty much the largest version of a speedwing and would normally fly at about 60km at low altitude.
ExWeb: What would you rate as most important skill in this context? Climbing? Skiing? Flying?
Mal: Well the climbing side of this is to purely be able to reach the summit – it’s not all that necessary for the actual sport of speedriding/flying. And whilst both flying and skiing are crucial factors it doesn’t count for anything unless you are able to make good sound decisions about the environmental factors effecting what you are about to try and do.
I’ve seen very good speedflying pilots doing really stupid things all because they weren’t able to make a good decision based on the information that the world was giving them. For speedriding (using skis) it is very possible to learn easily in a moderately forgiving environment.
When you have ski’s on your feet you can interact with the terrain, touch and go so to speak. When you foot launch these canopies it becomes a whole other ballgame.
ExWeb: What's your history in the three disciplines?
Mal: I’ve been climbing rock since I was about 14 and mountaineering since I was 25 – about 15 years ago now! Skiing-wise, I’m no amazing big mountain skier but I can get down most terrain - maybe not in the best style though ;) I have been working as a professional mountain guide now since 2005.
With respect to flying – I started flying paragliders in 2005 and had a very brief taste of skydiving in the late 90’s. My intro to speedflying was to see some footage of it and choose to give it a go.
I would have to say that my background in paragliding gave me many distinct advantages in my learning curve. I’ve been exploring lots of launch sites in and around New Zealand as well as from the summits of some of our mountains here, such as Mt Aspiring. I’ve also been using my speedwings in Nepal previously when trying to fly off the Lhotse face in 2008 (bad weather) Kyajo Ri (2008), Gokyo Ri (2010) and a few others.
These attempts all met with varying degrees of success – mainly because the speedflying wasn’t my primary reason for being there.
ExWeb: How did you come up with the idea of Manaslu?
Mal: In many ways it came down to a matter of elimination. I had originally thought to go to either Cho Oyu or Shishapangma, however, the powers that be felt that anything to do with flying or canopies could not occur in Tibet.
I was looking for a summit that offered a good chance of a ski launch combined with a good run-out in case of needing to abort. I also needed a landing area – preferably a glacier rather than moraine as I would prefer to survive the landing uninjured!
I used Google earth to check out possible summit and landing areas and basically came down to the choice of Manaslu. The other factors were wind directions. Manaslu often recorded winds coming from the North rather than NW or W. Ultimately the wind was wrong on my summit day.
I wasn’t sure if there would be anybody else on the mountain with us – so we went prepared to be totally independent. Was a bit of a surprise to see 16 other expeditions there however it did save us a whole load of effort in the end.
ExWeb: The biggest difficulty in trying to speedwing on high altitude?
Mal: There are many difficulties but I think the biggest one is making sure that your mind is clear, that you are able to sort out your equipment and connect to it all safely.
This is of course assuming that the winds and weather are good enough for a flight. A summit window may not actually be good enough for a flight window – so to revise I would say the weather and conditions are the biggest difficulty – you can’t stay on or near the summit for a few days at that altitude.
ExWeb: Will you try again or any other similar plans?
Mal: Yes – I’d like to try again. I learned a few valuable lessons on this trip that I would take into account for the next time. Besides the specific objective of 8000m I am always planning on making summits and flying from them (when I’m not guiding that is). This includes Aoraki, Mt Cook in New Zealand.
ExWeb: Single worst moment of the expedition?
Mal: A tie between a horrendous night at C2 with sleep apnea and the third evening of our approach trek – we were in the middle of the earthquake that rocked the Himalaya.
Above the village we were in a lake or glacial lake burst and the bridge that we had only just crossed was swept away as the river rose 9m. It roared like a jet engine for the next three hours. The next day we heard rumours of mass devastation in Kathmandu. Whilst this turned out to not be the case we spent a nasty 24hours or so trying to get some better info.
Mal: There are many really – the walk in and out around the Manaslu circuit to the Annapurna circuit was a real adventure – we started in the monsoon and got simply washed away and still got over 40cm of snow on us on the walk out.
• Flying down from above C1 above other climbers on their summit push
• Skiing down from C3
• A sunset from Camp 3
• Arriving at an empty summit
• Arriving back in basecamp and giving my girlfriend, Sophie Ward, a huge hug!
And I couldn't have done it without Shiddi MaMa Tamang Sherpa and Phemba Sherpa. They did a fine job and were very dedicated.
ExWeb: What did you think about the paragliders on Everest last spring?
Mal: Awesome – simply incredible! I know Babu from flying with him in Phokara over the years and he’s a great pilot. Both he and Lhakpa must have been a great team go get to the summit, organize a TANDEM paraglider, launch it and then thermal ABOVE the summit.
ExWeb: The Japanese climber Miura used a small chute when he screamed down the Lhotse wall on Everest in the 70s. With a speedwing flying at speeds above 100kmh one foot off the ground is not uncommon says your website, how does it compare to a chute such as Miura's?
Mal: Miura could be considered to be the first speedriding pilot in the world! I watched the documentary and often thought about how I would feel doing something similar. However, he was using his canopy for an entirely different reason. His was a round canopy, more like an air break behind him, intended to be used as a break. It can never “fly” as such. It was in fact a parachute. He had no control over his chute, and his intention was to ski.
Speedwings are designed as wings giving the skier/pilot the ability to leave the surface and fly, then touch down again and continue skiing. It is the combination of skiing and flying and the way to use the available terrain that separates speedflying from Miura’s attempt.
ExWeb: Coolest adventure sports/challenges (beside yours) right now in your opinion?
Mal: I know a few people who are sailing around the world now, combining kite surfing, paragliding, skydiving and basejumping. There is also the attempt to repeat Joseph Kittinger’s longest free fall as well as the “rocket man” in Europe. Other friends continue to push the boundaries of wingsuit proximity flying.... There are just so many exciting challenges and adventures happening it’s hard to follow them all.
Mal Haskins of Wanaka, New Zealand, is working for Alpine Guides, Southern Lakes Heli Ski, NZ Mountain Safety Council, and Wanaka Paragliding (Tandem Pilot).
He's into mountaineering, climbing, kite surfing, paragliding, mountain biking, web design, and... gardening. He's married, listens to a mix of dance music to current rock, and watches mostly science fiction movies, "or anything I can put on my iPod for expeditions!"
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