Antoine Girard Soars Above the World’s Tallest Mountains
Antoine Girard Soars Above the World’s Tallest Mountains
Battling through storms and lightning strikes, French paraglider Antoine Girard flew to 8,157 meters above Broad Peak, the 12th tallest mountain in the world - higher than anyone has ever flown.
On the 7th July, alone and on foot, carrying only my parapente, my sleeping gear and 7 days’ worth of food I leave to begin a long journey through the densest concentration of peaks over 8000m anywhere in the world; Pakistan’s Karakoram mountains.
A storm cuts short my first day’s flight and I only manage to climb as far as the entrance of the Desoai (Land of Giants) reserve. At 4800m the Desoai is the World’s second highest plateau and with the exception of snow leopards, Himalayan brown bears, grey wolves, ibex, foxes, vultures and marmots, is completely uninhabited.
The flat terrain of the Desoai offers few suitable take-off points, forcing me to finish day 1 by traversing the plateau on foot; needless to say I would have preferred to do the traverse using my wing.
I have a small flyable weather window on the second day, but the cloud ceiling is low for this region, only about 5500m. (The base of the clouds generally represents the maximum altitude for a parapente flight; it is possible to climb through the cloud base but risky because you immediately lose visibility.) I am squeezed into a narrow band of flyable air between the ground and the cloud base. After waiting an hour for conditions to improve I decide to take the risk; I climb into the cloud, reaching 6000m. The rest of the flight is difficult and very technical. A headwind forces me to backtrack several times and the thought of a sudden landing brings me out in a cold sweat but in the end I manage to traverse 40km and now aim for Nanga Parbat (8126m), which I plan to circle.
After flying 90km a sudden storm came on, forcing me to land at the base of Naga Parbat. I find myself on a ridge at 4400m surrounded by glaciers. The storm gathers force so quickly I don't have time to put up the tent and 120kph winds and blowing snow force me to huddle against a rock for 2 hours. I'm starting to freeze but a lull in the storm gives me just enough time to erect the tent. This is just as well because a chain of storms will keep me stuck at this spot for the next 60 hours! The wait is long and trying. I decide to ration my food as much as possible because I have no idea how long this storm might last.
After three days of waiting I am freed from my tent but it's cloudy. The cloud base is low, only 5300m and I have to cross a pass at 5300m! It's going to be delicate. I advance, at once amazed and terrified by the gigantic wall they call the Rupal face of Nanga Parbat. With its base at 3500m and its summit at 8126m the Rupal is highest vertical precipice in the World. The giant face is terrifying. I fly over jagged seracs at its base, all the while keeping my distance.
As I get close to the Mazeno pass, the fog around the pass lifts, but behind me the shadows advance. There’s no possibility of turning back, but what is on the other side of the Mazeno? More fog? Clear skies? A glacier? I have no way of knowing so I prepare my flight instruments in case I find myself without visibility. I spiral upward in a thermal reaching 5500m. The last 100m of this climb is spent in the clouds. The wind pushes me toward the Mazeno and after a long transition I finally make it over the pass, just 10m off the ground. I am consumed with relief when I finally see that the other side of the pass is totally free of fog. I am now beneath the Diamir face having circled the mountain! I land in light rain and it takes me 2 hours walking to find good drinking water.
The following day’s flight takes me toward Gilgit along the Indus Valley. I land a few times to let rain showers pass, but conditions are generally good and I fly long enough to watch the sun set on Rakaposhi (7788m). That night’s camp site is magnificent, with multi-coloured wildflowers all around and the last rays of sun on the peaks. After a 60km flight the next day I finally arrive in Karimabad with just enough time to stock up on almonds, pasta and cereal before sleep and a dawn departure.
Despite being well acclimatised I find the hike out of Karimabad hard. The sun is punishing and my backpack heavy. Today’s flight is short but difficult; a storm is brewing so I land and set up the tent. That night the storm arrives and I spend several hours mopping my tent with a towel. My single canopy expedition tent is great in the snow but less so in the rain. The rain continues the next day and I wait for a flyable window but none arrives.
The following morning finds me flying along the Indus valley. I turn out of the valley and fly toward Booni; easy flying with a high cloud ceiling at 6400m and just a couple of detours to avoid rain clouds. I land on the crest of a ridge close to Booni having flown a total distance of 174km! I am now on the Afghan frontier - time to turn back towards Karimabad.
The next morning the sky fills rapidly with clouds and the wind turns 180 degrees, making it impossible to take off. I am condemned to my ridge for the rest of the day. I wake the next day to find the ground covered in a 20cm blanket of snow. The return flight to Karimabad is hard; the cloud ceiling is low and it takes me 2 days. At the end of the second day I am caught in a strong valley “breeze”. The 90kph wind drives me 3km backward and gives me a good scare but luckily I have the altitude to spare and I am able to ride it out.
On the 14th day of my adventure I decide I need a day of rest. I make use of my day by stuffing as much food down my neck as possible. I have already lost 6kg!
On day 15 I follow the course of the Hispo and Biafo glaciers; a flight which traverses a 70km glacial zone without the possibility of escape. It is stressful and fascinating at the same time to find oneself surrounded by ice and cliffs for as far as the eye can see. Despite climbing to 6000m I can see nothing but a sea of ice topped by a rocky shelf. If I had to land it would be hard to take off again. The edges of the glacier are just steep rocks and cliffs but luckily the flight is easy. At the top of the glacier I take the luxury of a spiralling flight around the Ganchen peak (6462m). I climb all the way to the cloud ceiling at 6700m. I feel great and still don't need oxygen; I'm keeping that for the days to come in the high mountains. I land above Paju, the entrance to the glacial zone of Baltoro.
I wake up to snow. I'm churning with anticipation on the inside - it has long been my dream to fly through the Baltoro. The waiting is so hard; my dream is within reach but as<s> </s>usual I must wait. By 7am there are already cumulus clouds but they’re not very high - only about 6000m. Knowing that the glacier is at 5000m that doesn't leave much margin for error. At 8am I find myself in the shade of a thick cloud that doesn't want to move. I prepare myself and wait for a good breeze to take off. The beginning of the flight is in typical morning conditions; light thermal and low ceiling. I try to get as close as I can to all the summits that I know. I am surrounded by so much beauty that I don’t know where to look. It's still early and I am almost at the end of the glacier. I decide to head for the top of the glacier toward Gasherbrum VI (6979m). I believe that my best chance to fly my way out of the glacier is via the Gondogoro Pass. I am not equipped for mountaineering and though not impossible, it would be, to say the least, difficult to go over the steep 5600m pass on foot. I commit myself to the risk. At that moment a small cumulus appears around 6800m on Broad Peak (8051m) I decide to go and fly the slopes of this giant.
It takes me a while to understand how the thermals work on this mountain; they are very cyclical and start on the rocky portions of the face. I need to hop back and forth between rocky areas to use the thermals coming off them. In doing so I climb up to 7200m. I am finally going to be able to use the tank of oxygen I have been carrying since day 1. As I open the oxygen I realize that I didn't properly connect a tube this morning. For several minutes I try to reconnect it but with my frozen fingers it proves impossible. I decide to continue without oxygen and stop at the first sign of altitude sickness.
I continue my system of hopping between thermals, there is virtually no wind when I arrive at 7800m. I do a self-check and everything seems to be going fine - I can continue to climb. I am above the highest clouds in a powerful thermal. The wind can finally be felt during the last climb and suddenly I am at the summit of Broad Peak! I deliberately get out of the thermal; my fingers are freezing and it's about time I find a way to warm them before I do permanent damage. I am at 8157m and I'm making virtually no headway against a 50kmh wind. I dare not land on the summit.
I make a run for the Gondogoro La pass. After two hours of fighting Broad Peak I feel no sign of altitude sickness but my reflexes and thinking are slowed. Luckily the descent from the summit should easily allow me to make the 20km traverse to the pass at 5600m. One less problem to deal with! My fingers are another matter; I have enough experience in the mountains to know I've passed the first stage of frostbite. My fingers are inert and cold and feel like they're made of wood. I pass in front of Laila peak and find my first thermal since Broad Peak 30km back. Then I arrive at Huche and the head of the road, which means civilization. A reassuring feeling.
At 6pm I choose an east face about 60km from Skardu for my landing place. I’ve flown 120km today. I set up camp as best I can with frozen fingers. My thumbs are swollen and my fingers are useless. I comfort myself by watching the sun disappear between K2 and Broad peak. As the stars appear only the pain in my hands reminds me that I am not dreaming. The pain won't let me sleep but I am smiling a broad smile.
I hoped to continue my adventure now that the weather is set fair but I take stock of myself and realize that I feel so handicapped by the frostbite (despite the painkillers) that I must resign myself to going home to get some treatment. The next plane for Islamabad is tomorrow morning. That gives me time for a last few flights before leaving Pakistan. I decide to see as much of the countryside as possible before heading back to Skardu.
I take my time trying to break camp; knowing that I am leaving makes the packing process torturous.
I pilot with the controls gripped in my fists. I head for Nanga Parbat but it disappears in the snow and clouds so I turn west but I fly into rain. I do a 180 and am soon back at Skardu but I have some time left so I prolong the pleasure right up to the last rays of sunlight. I land at 7pm after a flight of 248km - the Pakistani record! This country really does have huge potential for flying!
I completed my circuit of over 1200 km in 18 days.