štvrtok 5. apríla 2018

Seven Virgin Summits part 1 or how is climb&fly in Antarctica

At the end of the last year Juraj “Ďurifuk” Koreň and Michal Sabovčík started their first part of a unique seven-part project - SEVEN VIRGIN SUMMITSseven unclimbed summits on seven continents, which they want to climb and fly down on a paraglider. A connection of the elements of earth and air is going to be supplemented by the third one – water, when using a sailboat, kayak or raft… well, but first things first…

Antarctica was the first one and here’s the story...


Mountain climbers, similarly to paraglider pilots, discover places, logical lines, where not everyone can go and if, a long way from the summit to the base camp lies ahead of them. Glacier cracks, seracs, tricky avalanche slopes and scree areas and tiredness – that is the worst and very often the most difficult part of every expedition. Therefore, we, paraglider pilots are often looked at with envy enhanced by the feeling of sore knees. Fly down from the summit, and soar silently and effortlessly back to the base camp, car or freshly prepared dinner – that’s a dream of many mountain climbers, who would love to climb with a backpack just 2kg heavier. Pioneers of this sport like Igor Pap, Ueli Steck or Jarýk Stejskal and few others inspired us to make this combination possible. Combination of flying and climbing required much experience in both sports and therefore, I as a paraglider pilot and climber – beginner Juraj Koreň, approached a paraglider pilot – beginner and experienced mountain climber Michal Sabovčík: “Teach me to climb and I will teach you to fly…”
And during two seasons of joint climb&fly training in Tatras and Alps, an idea was born and got ripe in our heads – to make the project Seven Virgin Summits come true.

As the first one we got the chance to get to Antarctica, where we had our base camp in the form of 17-m long sailboat Altego 2, under the command of Jiří Denk. We sailed out from Ushuaia in the late December through the Beagle Channel, headed to the Cape Horn and further through the Drake Passage towards the Antarctic Peninsula. It was the most difficult and the most complicated access to a face I and even Mišo, have ever experienced. I personally spent six days in the seasickness delirium lying in the lower deck.

At the end of the sail, we finally see thousand meter high faces growing directly from the icy cold water. Clean, high and proud, beautifully untouched. Antarctic.

During a short stay at the Chilean Gonzales Videla Base on the continental Antartica, we meet the first penguin rookery, amazing and cute animals, which, however, smell so much of fish. Fish leftovers cover the whole piece of Antarctic land, where I step as the first one during anchoring the boat. Mission complete, but I return to the boat dirty from the penguin sh*t.

 Yes, it’s possible to fly here!
The weather is fantastic and so, as soon as possible, we climb the nearest summit, approx. 600 m high. Using our skis and crampons we reach the summit in less than three hours. The wind is perfect on the summit, and down there, deep under our feet, light fog is spreading romantically above the sea. We see fantastic sceneries of sea bays surrounded by virgin mountains with steep faces, looking at them, our hearts beat with desire. And we fly straight into this beauty and enjoy our first flight in Antarctica. 

Indeed, it’s a very emotional experience, enhanced by the wild terrain passing under our feet. Yes, it’s possible; we’re flying, flying in Antarctica! The last doubts vanished and we can stars looking for our virgin.

Sailing to the next anchoring place in the Port Lockroy on the Wiencke Island took as the whole day and we were enthusiastically watching and looking for possible ascend lines, take offs and landing spots on the glaciers at the foot of two approx. 1,000 m high mountain ridges of the Wall Range stretching along the whole island. In the morning, grabbing our skis, we set out to reach the base of the face with our big backpacks with paragliders, climbing equipment, tent, sleeping bags, food and cameras, each weighing maybe 15 kilograms. We reach the foot of the face around the noon, build the tent and take off the skis. We start to climb, but are forced to return after two hours. The sun has turned the snow into an unusable mash, avalanches are falling down, one after another. It won’t work like this.

Taking off into the Antarctic sky
We’re marching towards another mountain in the next ridge, another 10 km, building the camp again, we manage to get few hours of sleep. January in Antarctica is awesome, there’s no difference between the days and the nights, so it’s not strange at all that we set out at 2 am. No headlights are needed, daylight 24/7. 

We climb approx. 850 m high mountain, and despite the fact that there were low clouds under the mountain’s summit the whole time, around noon we’re lucky enough and take off from the summit into the Antarctic sky. The fly down takes few minutes and I can still feel the happiness. 

Did we manage it? The joyous feelings are blunted by certain bitterness, as during the ascent into the saddle we found fix ropes and pitons, so there was the possibility that our summit has been reached by someone else before us. Moreover, 850 m was enough for us. We wanted a four digit number.

We returned to the boat, and anchored in the real Antarctic storm, experiencing the katabatic wind, with 57 knot speed, spent a dramatic night after which we left the Wiencke Island. We’re sailing through the bays of the Antarctic Peninsula and discover a beautiful mountain with a superb climbing line, moreover on the continental Antarctica, around 1,000 m high. 

Ideal, beautiful, amazing. We’re trying to find it in our maps, its data, name, and altitude, everything that can be found out. We can’t find much though, in our maps it’s the highest peak of the Wild Spur ridge on the continental part of the Antarctic Peninsula. We even don’t know its altitude, we just see its beautiful symmetric shape and Mišo is admiring its clear, logical and challenging climbing line. I’m busy with studying the flight conditions during the take off, flight, wind and lading. Using binoculars, the captain is looking for the landing possibilities – 3 km on the right side of the mountain, where the glacier face meets the sea, seems to be a good place. 

Trial no. 2
Learnt by the previous action, we’re getting up at 2 am, with captain starting the motorboat and setting out through the bay, surprised by its real width. We were sailing maybe an hour. Approaching the face over the glacier takes another hour. During climbing the sun rises and creates low cumulus clouds on the blue Antarctic sky. The heart of each pilot rejoices seeing such clouds, but not mine! The wind chases the clouds the other way! We probably won’t manage to take off, but, anyway we climb. Our line is a direct icy couloir, which is in some places as steep as a vertical face ending with a snowy overhang.

The rocky parts are completely weathered, broken, with no possibility of quality belaying in the rock. We manage to climb the face and after a short ridge passage we stand on the summit, the GPS says 1,057 m AMSL, we climbed for 7 hours. Happiness, smiles. Only one thing is left – to take off.

My advice is to descend 100 m and try to take off into the wind, then turn towards the saddle a fly into the lee. That will be a tough nut to crack, but our paragliders are made for such extreme situations. Just to be sure, I communicate via the radio with our floating base camp and ask for information on the wind direction. With the reply “the wind direction is the same as the direction of the boat” we just smiled because, we could barely see the boat from such distance. So we must rely just on ourselves. While Mišo is taking off, I’m holding my breath, I’m worried about him flying in the lee, will he manage it? Because if something happens, no one will save us here. This is not like in Tatras, where you can land anywhere and in few hours you are back in the civilisation. Here in Antarctica, there’s only one possible place for safe landing. There’s no one to find you, no way to return on your own, and if you happen to fly a hundred meters farther, into the sea, you’re dead in few minutes.

Mišo disappears behind the edge in the lee. I’m taking off few minutes later, bit scared if he managed it as I can’t connect with him through the radio. After passing the edge, I see the paraglider spread out on the snow and Mišo lying without a move. Damn it! I hope that the paraglider haven’t collapsed and he hasn’t fallen, we don’t have any reserves, or back protectors. I’m shouting into the radio and he replies that he’s only enjoying the descend orgasm and that he’s seen an avalanche falling in the adjacent couloir.

Antarctic Virgin conquered
I’m joyfully flying along the face we’ve just climbed, only few meters far, making wingovers and turns. What an amazing feeling. We managed that! The Antarctic virgin is conquered and I’m flying down along those fantastic, wildly shapes rock pillars, massive ice seracs, on the places where no man has ever climbed or flown before. The feeling of a pioneer, discoverer enhanced by the adrenaline, and endorphins during climbing and flight.

Landing is followed by celebrating, smiles, handshakes and enthusiastic planning of further challenges in our project Seven Virgin Summits. In half an hour it starts to rain and snow, we managed it just in time. It seems that those who are prepared and brave are lucky.
We go to the beach, calling the sailboat to pick us up. The captain welcomes us with words: “Guys, I’ve sailed the world, people say I’m insane, but I don’t dare to think what you are …” From the safety of the port at “the end of the world” – Ushuaia (Vino tinto, Argentinian Chorizo) we were separated by the Drake Passage, whose huge waves, strong wind and sea currents has sunk tenths of ships. Therefore we’re waiting for an optimistic forecast hidden behind the Melchior Island. We’re killing the time by doing short trips to see the penguins and seals, or trying to get out of the boat on the floating ice floes and we pay a visit to the Argentinian base with very kind and hospitable crew, until the captain commands “Sailing out”. We’re unfastening the ropes and raising the anchor. Orcas are surfacing in the bay to say goodbye…

550 nautical mile-long sail across the Drake lies ahead of us, and the Drake didn’t give it to us for free. In the wind of 30 to 50 knots, in the waves around the number 7 of the Beaufort scale, we’re pushing forward at the speed around 10 knots towards the Cape Horn and then to the Beagle Channel. Constant bank and swinging makes sleeping impossible. This delirium took 6 days. I don’t remember much of that, most of the time I was lying and throwing up. I still don’t get how Mišo managed to cook, drink wine and prepare top-level meals using ready-to-cook food (after the best-before date) for the whole crew in such conditions.

New materials open new possibilities
Progress in material design opens new possibilities in all sports. New, ultra-light textiles enable the creation of paragliding gear lighter than 2 kilograms. It’s absolutely fantastic and gives us the possibility to try ultimate adventures, where the volume and weight of the gear are the crucial factor for success. Such adventures include solo bivouac adventures in Himalayas, hike and fly contests like X-Pyr or climb and fly challenges, like ours.
Thanks to ultralight materials and excellent designer work and cooperation with top paraglider pilots, the whole gear and equipment can be packed into a normal climbing backpack along with ropes, crampons, belay devices and ice axes. Of course, climbing with a bigger and heavier backpack is bit more difficult, but the vision of a fast and safe descent is worth it. In an emergency you can use the paraglider for bivouac, so we don’t have to carry sleeping bags, weighing approximately the same.
A huge thank you goes to all the sponsors, families, supporters and all, who supported us and believed that we can do that.

Deep in the heart of each and every climber there’s an inseparable companion of all fights – passion. It has various names – emotion, pleasure of conquering… it’s a funny feeling, which is worth suffering for and giving up a lot. Those, who have ever felt it, know what I’m talking about.” Wiesław Stanisławski