Look back of Red Bull X-Alps paragliding competition

The Red Bull X-Alps is a paragliding race in which athletes must hike or fly about 1,200 km across the Alps. Cross-country flying is the classical form of paragliding competitions with championships in club, regional, national and international levels. The Red Bull X-Alps is the world’s toughest adventure race. It’s a fiercely contested battle across the Alps lasting almost two weeks in which around 30 athletes run, hike and fly by paraglider up to 150km a day passing set Turnpoints positioned across iconic mountains and famous resorts.

The Alps region is a destination for outdoor sports, filled with a variety of challenges, including hiking, mountaineering, skiing, mountain biking, backcountry camping, hot air ballooning, paragliding, and more. The Alps is home to some of the best flying sites in Europe. The high mountain terrain and reliable weather create ideal conditions suitable for all pilots from beginner to pro. In the winter, smooth, cold air, gentle thermals and light valley winds means flying can also be very pleasant.

The Red Bull X-Alps is only open to the world’s best paraglider pilots and adventure athletes, with athletes often hiking up to 4,000m of vertical ascent a day and running as much as 100km on foot, it’s not only an incredible test of physical endurance but it has become recognized as the supreme test for the world’s best hike-and-fly athletes.

It first launched in 2003 and has since taken place every other year. Every edition of the Red Bull X-Alps features a different route over the Alps that crosses remote mountain chains and valleys and passes famous resorts and peaks. The route traditionally covers the Alpine regions of Austria, Germany, Italy, Switzerland and France before ending in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, France.

Around 30 athletes take part and must navigate their way via a predetermined set of turn points that vary with each race. Every kilometer must be covered either on foot or by paraglider. Teams consist of one athlete and one official supporter, whose role it is to provide technical advice, mental and nutritional support.

Athletes race from 05:00 until 22:00 but they can only fly during daylight hours between 06:00 to 21:00. Overnight, a mandatory rest period is in place and athletes cannot move from their location. However, each athlete is equipped with a Night Pass, which allows them to break the curfew once. This can help to gain a strategic advantage, but it comes at the cost of additional fatigue. From day four and every 48 hours thereafter, the athlete in last place is eliminated.

Paragliding is the recreational and competitive adventure sport of flying paragliders: lightweight, free-flying, foot-launched glider aircraft with no rigid primary structure. The pilot sits in a harness or lies supine in a cocoon-like ‘pod’ suspended below a fabric wing. Wing shape is maintained by the suspension lines, the pressure of air entering vents in the front of the wing, and the aerodynamic forces of the air flowing over the outside.

Despite not using an engine, paraglider flights can last many hours and cover many hundreds of kilometres, though flights of one to two hours and covering some tens of kilometres are more the norm. By skillful exploitation of sources of lift, the pilot may gain height, often climbing to altitudes of a few thousand metres.

Paraglider ground handling, also known as kiting, is the practice of handling the paraglider on land. The primary purpose of ground handling is to practice the skills necessary for launching and landing. However, ground handling could be considered a fun and challenging sport in and of itself.

Ground handling is considered an essential part of most paragliding wing management training. It needs to be remembered that in any sort of stumble or tumble, the head is at risk and a helmet is therefore always advisable. It is highly recommended that low hour pilots, ground-handling, should be wearing a formal harness with leg and waist straps firmly fitted and fastened.

As with all aircraft, launching and landing are done into wind. The wing is placed into an airstream, either by running or being pulled, or an existing wind. The wing moves up over the pilot into a position in which it can carry the passenger. The pilot is then lifted from the ground and, after a safety period, can sit down into his harness. Unlike skydivers, paragliders, like hang gliders, do not jump at any time during this process.

Landing a paraglider, as with all unpowered aircraft which cannot abort a landing, involves some specific techniques and traffic patterns. Paragliding pilots most commonly lose their height by flying a figure 8 over a landing zone until they reach the correct height, then line up into the wind and give the glider full speed. Once the correct height (about a metre above ground) is achieved the pilot will stall the glider in order to land.

Historic versions
The concept for the Red Bull X-Alps was developed by Austrian pilot Hannes Arch who saw a TV documentary in which German pilot Toni Bender crossed the Alps from North to South by paraglider, carrying all his equipment, sleeping rough and hiking parts of the way.

When conditions are good, athletes use paragliders to fly, and when they are not they must run or hike, carrying their paraglider and other mandatory equipment. The use of tunnels and all other forms of transport are not permitted.

The first edition led from Austria’s Dachstein Glacier to Monaco via Germany’s highest mountain, the Zugspitze, Mont Blanc and Mont Gros in France. Seventeen athletes and their support teams covered a distance of 800 kilometers as the crow flies.

Over the years the route and the turn points have changed. From 2009 the race started off in the Austrian city of Salzburg. At 1,031 kilometers, the 2013 course was the longest in the history of the race and athletes had to pass 10 turn points: Gaisberg, Dachstein, and Wildkogel in Austria; Zugspitze in Germany; Ortler/Sulden in Italy; Interlaken, Matterhorn in Switzerland; Mont Blanc, Saint Hilaire, and Peille in France.

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Thanks to GPS-Live Tracking, all athletes can be followed in real time on the official website throughout the race. The exact position of the athletes is monitored via data loggers and GSM cell phones. The athletes also carry a camera with them at all times. Stills and videos are used in the athletes’ online diaries, which are kept up to date by their supporters.

X-Alps 2021
For the 10th edition of the race a totally new route was unveiled, organisers updated the format to create an out-and-back route from Salzburg to Mt Blanc and back to Zell am See via 12 Turnpoints in five countries. At 1,238km it was the longest route in the race’s history. Once again, the race kicked off with a one-day Prologue in Wagrain-Kleinarl.

The main race started in Salzburg just as a heatwave struck. The first few days saw the lead change multiple times. On day two Maurer made the first breakaway, but the chaser pack reined him back in. Around Mt Blanc, the race’s biggest challenge, Maurer and Pinot flew wingtip to wingtip but it was on day 8 that Maurer once again made a magic move, this time across Switzerland to Italy from Fiesch to Merano, which saw him end the day 160km ahead of his nearest rival. It sealed his victory. Day 10 saw a closely-fought battle for 2nd and 3rd decided between three athletes.

Ultimately it was von Känel who triumphed, reaching the landing float after 9d, 2h 7m. Oberrauner came third, arriving 11min later while Pinot came in 4th, 40min afterwards. Outters was the final athlete to make goal, after an heroic 40h push which saw him cover 170km on foot and hike 7,700m.

X-Alps 2019
The 2019 route started in Salzburg, Austria and ended in Monaco, one major change was made to the 2019 route: a record number of 13 Turnpoints in 6 different countries. The field of 32 adventurers, which saw two female athletes for the first time since 2015, set off to cross the main chain of the Alps five times and face conditions like never before in the history of the race.

Starting in mid June, an unusual amount of snow forced the athletes to either rethink their route choices or to cope with gruelling ascents and mountain traverses. Whereas lasting rain and even thunderstorms gave most athletes a hard time on the ground in Switzerland, the French Alps proved to be a test piece in endurance and patience. A vast heatwave ensured mostly stable air conditions for the front of the field that were heading for Monaco.

Finally a group of ten managed to brave every adversity and reached the goal, with Chrigel Maurer once again emerging victorious. French rookie Maxime Pinot secured second place, while joint third went to Benoit Outters and Paul Guschlbauer.

X-Alps 2017
With seven turnpoints and a total distance of 1,138km, Red Bull X-Alps 2017 was both the longest and toughest race to date. The Prologue Race, (this time named the Leatherman Prologue), was restricted due to poor weather conditions.

The one-day hiking race which saw no paragliding due to bad weather took place around the mountains of Fuschl am See. The athletes started in Fuschl and reached the Zwölferhorn before returning to Fuschl as fast as possible. The bad weather forced the athletes to run the whole way in pursuit of an additional Night Pass and a head start on day two of the main race.

The first three athletes to finish the Prologue race were rewarded with a head start on day two of the main race and an additional Ledlenser Nightpass to journey through the night, which is normally a mandatory rest period. Proving to be unstoppable, Chrigel Maurer took his fifth consecutive win against the other 31 competitors, achieving a time of 10 days and 23 hours. It was no easy victory though. Hot on his heels was rookie Frenchman Benoît Outters, who, as the only other finisher of the race.

X-Alps 2015
The route follows an arc of Europe’s highest mountains, starting in Salzburg, Austria and finishing in Monaco. The 2015 route has ten turnpoints and a straight-line distance of 1,038 km and is more challenging tactically than the 2013 race due to it having less obvious flight paths.

New to the 2015 edition was the Powertraveller Prologue, a one-day hike and paragliding race around the mountains of Fuschl am See. The first three athletes to finish the Prologue were each rewarded with a five-minute headstart in the Red Bull X-Alps race start on July 5 and an additional Led Lenser Nightpass to journey through the night, which is normally a mandatory rest period.

Chrigel Maurer continued his reign of dominance, yet again taking first place with a time of 8 days and 4 hours. In contrast to previous editions, a record number of athletes made goal. By the time the clock stopped, 19 athletes had made it to Monaco. First was Paul Guschlbauer (AUT1) 2h21m, second was Stanislav Mayer (CZE) in 2h22m, third was Gavin McClurg (USA2) 2h24m.

X-Alps 2013
From Mozartplatz, Salzburg, Austria, to Monaco, at 1,031 km, the route was almost 200 km longer than in 2011. With a total of ten turnpoints and 31 competing teams, 2013 promised to be one of the most challenging races so far. Once again, the competition kicked off at Salzburg’s Mozartplatz where the teams would tackle the 200km longer route. Despite the distance, as many as ten teams reached the finish; accounting for one of the highest completion rates in the race’s history.

Chrigel Maurer took the top spot to secure his third consecutive win – crossing the line in a record time of just 6 days, 23 hours and 40 minutes. He traveled a total distance of 2,556 km, 2,288 km of which he covered by paraglider and 268 km on the ground. Frenchman Clement Latour would come in nearly two days later with the rest of the pack arriving over the next 48 hours.