Flight has always been a quintessential human dream. Long before the civilization-defining Wright Flyer lifted off on Dec. 17, 1903 and reached a top speed of 48 km/h, men and women around the globe have looked to the skies and thought: how do we get up there? What would it be like?
We’ve come a long way since that fateful 255.6-metre jaunt off the ground. Now, the Airbus A350-900 Ultra Long Range airliner can cover 18,000 kilometres on one tank of fuel. Meanwhile, the speed king amongst air-breathing jets is the SR-71 Blackbird, a military spy plane that once screamed through the stratosphere at 3,540 km/h—fast enough to cross the continental United States in less than one hour and eight minutes.
But what about those who want to fly for simpler reasons, those who truly wish to know what it’s like to soar with the eagles? Such individuals turn to the paraglider. Most recreational flights last anywhere from one to two hours, but some—like Pembertonian James Elliott—try to remain airborne for much longer.
Up, up and away
From June 11 to 25, Elliott will take on the 20th annual Red Bull X-Alps, a one-of-a-kind biannual race spread throughout five Western European countries: Austria, Germany, Switzerland, France, and Italy. He and 31 other world-class athletes will hike and paraglide their way around a monumental 1,223-kilometre course, strategically choosing when to fly, when to run and when to rest. Their goal: make it further in 12 days than anyone else.
Unlike most high-level sporting events, the X-Alps are co-ed. Four women, including Austrian rookie Elisabeth Egger, will take to the skies alongside their male counterparts. Elliott is the lone Canadian in the field and one of just three North Americans tackling a sport dominated by Europe.
When asked how he feels representing his country in such a manner, Elliott needed a moment to find words.
“I’m honoured, because very few Canadians have ever been selected for this race, let alone competed in it,” he said after a pause. “I think that it represents the biggest challenge and can therefore be an inspiration for other Canadian pilots who want to compete internationally or develop their own hike-and-fly skills.”
Elliott, though originally from Vancouver, spends a lot of time in Pemberton doing what he loves most. He’s been enthralled with flight since childhood, graduating from model airplanes to a pilot’s license and ultimately to paragliding.
As a former high school soccer player and lifelong trail runner, Elliott is no stranger to endurance. Despite that fact, he did not get to ride his first air current until he was 28 years old during an introductory session in Spain. It was love at first glide.
“If you’ve ever had a dream of flying, that is almost exactly what paragliding is like,” Elliott explained. “It’s the ultimate freedom and the ultimate challenge: you can fly for five minutes or, on a good day, you can fly for 10 hours. It’s almost sensory overload if you were to do it for the first time or the first few times, but then you become used to it, and that’s where the dopamine comes from.”
Paragliding may feel like a dream, but the consequences of even a small mistake are very real. Elliott and his peers can’t simply rely on their backup parachutes in case of trouble: instead, they spend hours researching an area’s terrain, climate and weather patterns before leaving home. Once off the ground, they must be technically superb.
Elliott made his first foray into the competitive hike-and-fly realm in his mid-30s, but he’s been ascending like a fast-rising thermal. The West Coaster cut his teeth in competitions like Utah’s XRedRocks (where he finished seventh last year) and the X-Pyr traversing the Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain (where he placed 11th). Such results gave him confidence that the world stage was within reach.
Make no mistake, though—the X-Alps is billed as Earth’s toughest adventure race, and it’s easy to see why. Even the most gruelling ultramarathons like Italy’s Tor des Glaciers 450 span just over a week and cover about 450 kilometres—a modest time period and distance compared to what elite hike-and-flyers deal with.
X-Alps athletes can spend up to 11 consecutive hours airborne, covering 300 kilometres in one go. Most people can’t even hold their urine for that long, let alone maintain sharpness of mind to predict and analyze everything around them amidst a dynamic air mass. Furthermore, one must strategically decide how to cover ground each and every day (there’s a nightly curfew that each athlete may only violate once).
“It’s like a giant, three-dimensional chess game where you’re trying to position yourself on top or on the side of a mountain at the right time of day, in the right weather, so you can fly as far as you can,” Elliott explained.
Pemberton is actually an ideal place to train for this mammoth challenge, being fairly similar to the Alps in terms of terrain and volatile weather. Despite the advent of regular competitions like the XRedRocks, paragliding remains a niche sport in many parts of the world, which continues to give European athletes a leg up. There are only a handful of non-Europeans in contention: two from the United States and one each from Australia, China, Japan and New Zealand in addition to Elliott.
In comparison, perennial powerhouses like Austria, France, Italy and Switzerland are sending four or five athletes apiece into the fray. All are looking to dethrone Chrigel Maurer, a Swiss phenom who has won the X-Alps seven times.
Elliott has taken full advantage of every training opportunity and has no illusions about the task at hand. No amount of tirelessly plotting out flights and forecasting the location of sun and wind can substitute for the real thing, and his priority is his own health.
He’d love to finish in the top half of the field, but simply finishing at all would be a splendid result—on average, only 14 per cent of competitors reach the goal. Elliott’s support team is made up of four volunteers who are as committed to the cause as he is, but ultimately, they’re keeping the fun aspect in mind. After all, where’s the magic in flight if you’re not enjoying yourself?
“It’s incredibly fun to the point of potentially life-changing,” said Elliott. “It gives you a very unique perspective on our world. It exposes you to environments and feelings that you would never be able to feel on the ground.”