Neil Silverwood

The wind hunters

Vol-biv, or “fly-camping”, is a sport of contrasts. First comes the earthly grind: you have to lug your pack—and your wing—up a mountain. Then, when you’re high enough and the air feels good, you step into empty space. You fly.

Written by       Photographed by Neil Silverwood

Kade Wallis isn’t nervous. He doesn’t know enough to be. On the eastern shore of Lake Wānaka, Wallis triple-checks his equipment as his daughter plays at the water’s edge: harness, helmet, satellite tracking device, food, water and—critically—the piece of synthetic cloth that, under the right conditions, could carry him more than 100 kilometres across the mountains, valleys and glaciers of the Queenstown-Lakes District in a single day.

But Wallis isn’t expecting to make it that far. This is the Christchurch builder’s first go at the Wānaka Hike & Fly, New Zealand’s only vol-biv race, which spans three days and has waypoints dotted across the Southern Alps. Wallis started flying only eight months ago; he wants to learn quickly, and likes the idea of jumping in the deep end.

“Then you kind of have to figure it out. You don’t have a choice. I don’t really know what I’m in for.”

Flight is a relief after the slog of getting yourself and your gear to the take-off point, about a kilometre above Lake Wānaka. Pilots don’t “jump off cliffs”, says race organiser Kinga Masztalerz—they take flight, just like a bird does.

It’s just gone dawn, late summer. The mountains, wreathed in wispy clouds, reflect off the lake. The first cicadas are waking up. Far above, a convoy of helicopters heads west—a film crew maybe, or one of the region’s secretive billionaires waiting out the apocalypse. As the minutes tick down, the almost 30 vol-biv pilots—mostly men, though there are several women—assemble on the starting line, great packs on their backs, eyeing the narrow sealed road which winds its way towards Glendhu and deeper into Mount Aspiring National Park.

You win this race by picking up points: more than 60 peaks and rocks from here to Queenstown and Arrowtown are marked as ‘waypoints’, worth between one and four points each. Beginners might aim for the closer, low-value waypoints. But top pilots have a decision to make: hoon off to bag the four-pointers, or collect a stack of easy ones?

The starting horn blares and with a cheer, they’re off. Slowly. The loaded-up pilots shuffle away at a jog, conserving their energy for what’s to come. First mission: climb high enough to take flight.

The Waterfall Creek path heads up, up, up through scrub and above the treeline. The pilots continue along a ridgeline and begin to hike vertiginous switchbacks, grinding higher still, until they’re almost a kilometre up on where they started, high enough for the view to inspire pangs of vertigo. They joke between breaths, discussing their routes, comparing notes on the forecast.

As they reach a small plateau, the laughter and jokes die down. A tense quiet descends. The race started far below, but the real competition is about to begin. One by one the pilots slip into their jackets and gloves; up above, the temperature can reach zero without wind chill. After a final gear check, when the breeze is just right, the veterans go first.

There are several ways to launch a paraglider. Commercial pilots carry tourists beneath their giant wing like babies in a front pack. To launch, they face forward, off the edge of the mountain. Pilots flying solo generally face backwards, watching their wing as the breeze catches its lip and lifts it slowly from the ground, rustling like a giant plastic bag. They lean back, adjusting the angle and filling the wing with air. And then, when the moment is right, they turn, take a few brief steps, and are carried away on the breeze with a whoop. They look like kayakers paddling an invisible river, rising or falling at the whims of unseen forces.

But these competitors are not flying blind—they’re hunting. As morning progresses and the ground warms, the air above begins to rise in thermal pockets through a process of convection. Warm air is less dense than cold air, and so these pockets continue to ascend, cooling slowly, until the air reaches a similar temperature to the environment and the thermal dissipates. While thermals are invisible to the untrained eye, veteran pilots read the landscape, making a beeline for exposed rock and other sources of heat, avoiding temperature sucks like lakes and shaded faces.

Using a corkscrew pattern to stay within these thermal columns, pilots can reach dizzying heights—say, 11,000 feet—at speeds of more than 10 metres per second.

They wheel and circle in silence; from below it’s like a strange, high-stakes dance. Pilots climb until they reach sufficient altitude to exit into an epic glide, soaring in a slow descent before picking up another thermal and beginning the process anew—provided they’re not caught in a “sink” of low-pressure air and forced to land.

It’s late summer—the heat on the ground is oppressive. But temperatures at 10,000 feet can hit zero on a good day. Every pilot is an amateur meteorologist, but even the most experienced forecaster can be caught out by Aotearoa’s temperamental weather.

Not 15 minutes after launching, race favourite and 2022 winner Ben Kellett is already a speck in the sky. He exits a thermal and glides south-west across the mountains towards Queenstown. Kellett is an experienced pilot, familiar with the terrain and the meteorology, who has flown from Queenstown to Mount Cook in a single, eight-hour flight. He knows the lifecycle of a thermal—how they’re born from the heat of the sun, increase in strength throughout the day before easing off in the evening—and how to exploit the sea breeze that blows in from the coast in the afternoons. Kellett is widely expected to fly some gnarly lines over the next three days.

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Not every take-off is graceful. The wind conditions must be right before a pilot can safely inflate their wing. They change fast. As Kade Wallis is preparing to launch, his wing hovering above, a strong gust lifts him off the ground and dashes him into the side of the mountain, just out of view. The remaining pilots and safety officer rush over the crest, reaching not for Wallis but his wing.

“I got plucked,” he says. “It’s happened before. I wasn’t hurt, just needed someone to grab the wing so it didn’t keep dragging me.”

After 30 minutes, Wallis regains his composure, hikes further up the hill in search of a more sheltered take-off point and eventually takes flight. As he reaches the second turnpoint—his goal for day one—Wallis watches other pilots heading deeper into the mountains. He decides to follow: his dream is to make it to Roses Saddle, about halfway between Glendhu and Lake Wakatipu. It’ll be his furthest flight yet, across the most challenging terrain, but this race is geared towards pushing athletes. This afternoon, Wallis collects the turnpoint and continues onwards, before bad conditions force a “sketchy” landing in a neighbouring valley.

There’s no racing allowed after dark—wherever you are, you stop. Late on day two, Tom Wright landed in the Matukituki Valley 1100 metres lower than planned, and spent the golden hour scrambling to the tarns where his mates were camped. Camping there, or in a particular DOC hut, is worth bonus points. Sticking with a group is safer, and encourages camaraderie between pilots.

Competitors get bonus race points for camping out. But every decision carries a risk: in the valley, Wallis gets a terrible night’s sleep. Next morning, he’s bleary. Catching his first thermal, he realises he’s losing pressure in the wing. Moving out of the thermal into “free air”—where the wing is no longer riding warm air currents—he looks up and sees that his risers are twisted. These ropes connect the pilot’s harness to the paraglider, and control speed and direction by manipulating the pitch and yaw of the wing.

Pressure is now rushing to the back of Wallis’s wing, throwing off the distribution of air it needs to stay taut. Wallis is at risk of a collapse—his wing folding into a scrunched ball and losing all ability to stay airborne. Experienced pilots can re-inflate their wings, and often intentionally collapse the wing in training, but Wallis is shaken. He goes straight for the easiest landing he can find, directly into the valley below.

Vol-biv pilots often sleep in their rolled-up gliders­—saves lugging a sleeping bag around.

He’s never been in a situation like this before and it scares him. He calls his partner, and talks about “maybe reconsidering the whole paragliding thing”. “Is the risk worth it?” he asks. “The wing could have collapsed and I don’t know what would have happened.”

But this race is a roller coaster. The next day, Wallis catches the flight of his life—perfect, smooth, “amazing”, the sort of flight that restores faith. “I sat down after landing and I almost cried. The emotions were so intense.”

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Paragliding doesn’t get a lot of press coverage. For the most part, the sport is either treated as a holiday nicety or a sombre reminder of humanity’s unsuitability for flight à la Icarus.

“If you show up to A&E as a paraglider because you got caught in a tree, it’s front-page news,” says pilot and former big-wave surfer Bradley Franks. “Meanwhile, the place is full of mountain bikers with broken bones. Just the other week there were two broken backs.”

But most people can and do fly safely, says race founder Kinga Masztalerz. Six years ago, she flew 172 kilometres through the Southern Alps in a single day, doubling her own women’s national record. She said at the time: “It was beautiful, it was scary, it was rough, it was ugly, it was throwing me around, it was super easy sometimes. Everything.”

That was part of a two-week, 400-kilometre vol-biv journey through the alps. She did it solo, collecting water from streams, fording freezing rivers. At times, she couldn’t get online to check the weather forecast. She took to confiding in her GoPro. Hiking through pouring rain, she sobbed, “It’s hard. It’s hard. It’s so cold. There are so many first times. It’s so scary.”

Born in Poland, Masztalerz was a rock climbing obsessive, only glimpsing paragliders from her perch on a multi-pitch wall. “Climbing was the best thing in my world,” she says. “On my holidays it was training, micronutrients, macronutrients—everything was about climbing.”

An elbow injury saw to that. Masztalerz took up running, throwing herself into training for trail and endurance events. It took the edge off, but something was still missing.

“I didn’t understand what it was, but now I know that what was missing was space and movement through that space.” When she climbed, she says, “I always felt really good with no contact on the wall and being surrounded by the air in every direction. So I thought with flying there was nothing to lose.

“From the first moment, from the very beginning, doing just little hops in training, I knew. When my butt left the ground, I was completely hooked. It was like magic.”

Patrick Carter, a Canadian airline pilot, checks in with race control.

Within four years she was selected for the Red Bull X-Alps, “the Olympics of vol-biv”, billed as the toughest endurance race in the world. One of just four women in a field of 32 athletes, Masztalerz had two weeks to fly 1200 kilometres across the European Alps. Less than a third of the entrants made it to the finish line in Monaco, and Masztalerz was forced to retire at the halfway mark.

The Wānaka Hike & Fly, which Masztalerz got off the ground here in 2021, is a much more low-key affair. The event is inspired by her solo trip through the Alps and is geared towards encouraging pilots to push, she says—helping pilots to do more, to go further and to fall in love with vol-biv. But that doesn’t make it easy. For one, while the European Alps are criss-crossed with a network of roads and railways, servicing chalets and villages and infrastructure, the Southern Alps hold themselves apart. Access for pilots’ support crews is limited to dirt roads and goat tracks. Signage often consists of little more than a trail blaze nailed to a post in a field of tussock. Deviate from a traditional route and a pilot can find themselves forced into no-man’s-land, far from home or humanity, or even into the flight path of
a plane.

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Paragliding is a deeply personal sport. In the sky, every decision is your own, and every decision can have potentially fatal consequences. Competitors in events like this must be athletes, pilots, part-time meteorologists. To win, they must balance their abilities against their anxieties and their competitive drive against their tolerance for risk.

“You’re flying a piece of cloth using only the power of the wind and sun, using your own decisions,” says Masztalerz. “If you make the right ones, you are rewarded. If you make the wrong ones, you find out immediately.”

Pilots take responsibility not just for their success, but their safety. And flying, she has found, has a way of outing insecurities. “If you’re not sure of your decisions, if you are not connected to your emotions, if you react badly to fear or anxiety, it all comes out. There is no cheating. It’s not like tennis or golf; you don’t just ‘lose’ the  game.”

There has not been a serious injury in this race. The pilots attend a comprehensive safety briefing beforehand, and are monitored by GPS on the ground. They must check in every night or risk disqualification, and may fly only during daylight hours. Supporters such as Alex Bryse, who flew from Queensland to assist her partner in the race, provide forecasting and supply drops.

“He only roped me in two or three weeks ago because the more he looked at the planning and the preparation, [the more] he realised how big it was and how much there was to consider,” she says. “I’m a pilot, too, and the conditions here are big and scary. The air is cold and dry, but the sun is hot, so the thermals feel different than back home. But he knows what he’s doing. I trust him to make the right decisions.”

Vol-biv pilots are GPS-monitored and must update safety officers when the day’s flying is done.

The Southern Alps protrude like a spine from the South Island, surrounded on both sides by the sea. Ferocious weather systems can blow in from any direction, howling up the glacial valleys from unpredictable directions. In the European Alps, surrounded by land, storms can be seen coming days in advance. Pilots there can draw a map of the way the wind will behave and count on it like clockwork. Conditions in New Zealand depend on what is happening at sea and that can flip in an afternoon. Masztalerz says even veteran local pilots are forced to adapt on the fly.

“Even pockets of fresh snow overnight can make it difficult, because it affects the thermals. To decipher it again and again is very difficult, even if you have been here for years, doing the same flight for years and years.”

It’s Sunday afternoon and time is ticking. In Wānaka’s Pembroke Park, most of the pilots have arrived at the finish line and are enjoying a cold beer. The last few competitors trickle in, some from the sky and some on foot. Bradley Franks has flown 80 kilometres on the first day alone, hiked almost the equivalent of a full marathon, and is in second place. Ben Kellett is in first, and first-timer Kade Wallis is in the middle of the pack at twelfth. With just 10 minutes to go, pilot Jessica Schofield appears at the park’s western end. This afternoon, she has hiked almost 20 kilometres from the Matukituki valley bridge, a four-hour walk on a good day, to claim first place in the women’s category. To cheers and claps she plonks down in the shade beneath a tree. The sun is leaving the mountains; all around us the thermals are wilting, too.

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