“At the fringe of what many consider to be an already fringe sport, vol-bivouac (“fly-camping”) pilots are paragliders who carry the necessary self-support equipment with them in flight and cross sections of mountainous terrain on foot and by air, using thermals and wind to cover sometimes vast distances over a period of several days, weeks or even longer. The vol-bivouac pilot’s mission is to launch in the mountains and fly as far as possible using thermals and wind, landing at the end of the flyable day near a suitable launch from which his or her expedition may begin again the next day…. The amount of skill and planning that is necessary to make long vol-bivouac flights in big mountains is massive, due to the complexities of mountain weather and terrain.”
— Matt Gerdes
In an evolution of paragliding history, Nick Greece, Gavin McClurg, Brad Sander, Oriol Fernandez, Eric Reed and Antoine Laurens are 150 miles into an odyssey that, should it succeed, will establish a new vol-biv record in the United States.
On September 14, the six men, all expert pilots, launched from Walt’s Point (4,028’) near Lone Point, California. Their goal: to fly point-to-point for thirty days, reaching Oregon or, should conditions permit, the Canadian border.
Despite their lofty goals, Day 1 ended inauspiciously. Equipped with bad beta, they made it less then 20 miles before being forced to land on Kearsarge Peak (12,598’).
That landing was rough for Nick Greece, who recently set the American footlaunch record of 204 miles by flying from his home in Jackson Hole across the Wind River Range and the Red Desert.
“I nearly broke both my legs,” he said in a phone call this morning from his bivy spot at ca. 9,500’ east of Lee Vining Peak.
As bad as the landing was for Greece, it was worse for Brad Sander.
Sander, who has more hours flying the Greater Ranges than anyone in history, landed on his hip at about 15 mph while trying to top land in thermic conditions. Shortly thereafter, his wing re-inflated on its own, causing him to re-launch.
He managed to fly safely down into the valley and land near a waiting ambulance that had been summoned by his teammates.
Oriol Fernandez, Eric Reed and Antoine Laurens had been part of the 2010 expedition with Sander that had crossed more than 600 miles in the Himalaya—the longest vol-biv flight on record. After Sander's accident, Fernandez and Reed accompanied him to the hospital, while Laurens, Greece and McClurg remained behind at their bivy spot on Kearsarge Peak.
The team feared Sander had broken his pelvis. Fortunately, x-rays and a CAT scan revealed only a bruised kidney.
Though the loss of Sander’s company was a profound blow to the expedition, they decided to push on.
Fernandez and Reed rejoined Greece, Laurens and McClurg on Kearsarge Peak, and the next morning, the four flew some 60 miles to the popular paragliding launch on 10,886-foot McGee Mountain southeast of Mammoth Lakes.
At this point, the weather, which had been extraordinarily good, caught up with them. “We had to spend a whole day there because it was blown out,” said Greece. “It was too windy to launch.”
The views at dusk, Greece noted, were stunning.
Day 4 dawned better, and the four again lit out, flying back into the Sierra, around and directly over the west side of Mammoth, before toplanding at a boy scout camp high above Mono Lake.
At this point, they were joined by an unexpected visitor. Dave Turner, a big-wall climber who in January 2008, in Chile's Torres del Paine National Park, made the world's first solo of a Grade VII route (Taste the Paine, VII A4+, 1200m, on Cerro Escudo's overhanging east face), had been following the expedition on the internet. Turner often flies the Sierra Nevada alone, and hiked up to their bivy spot with the intention of accompanying them for the day.
"We’re going to try to make it to South Lake Tahoe today,” said Greece before the team launched this morning. "Tomorrow, we’ll try to get to the south end of the Warner Range outside Alturas, California. From there, it’ll be on to Oregon—Drake Peak.”
For now, the outcome of their adventure remains uncertain.
Should they make it to the end of the Warner Range, they'll match Reed's effort from last year, when he flew from Walt’s to Alturas. Any farther than that and they will be in unchartered territory.
“The weather we’ve had has been really weird," said Greece. “It’s the best weather they’ve seen here in years."
And with five of the best pilots in the world positioned to take advantage, the next chapter of vol-biv may about to be written.
Readers may follow the expedition at http://chorlton.homeip.net/spotmap/sierra.html. Updates are also being made on their Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/sierrasafari?ref=ts.