Crossing the KARAKORAM
…pushing the limits of reality
By Phillippe Nodet
Edited, with a forward by Matt Gerdes
‘Vol-Bivouac’ means, literally, fly-camping. At the fringe of what many consider to be an already fringe sport, vol-bivouac 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 or weeks. 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. Vol-bivouac flying is most common in the European Alps, where more than one hundred thousand pilots live and fly, although the number of accomplished ‘vol-biv’ pilots probably totals less than two hundred worldwide.
In September of 2006, when the strongest and most turbulent thermals form in the Himalaya, two French pilots made what is now widely considered to be the most extreme vol-biv flight in the history of paragliding. Over a period of ten days, they circumnavigated Nanga Parbat, flew over the Trango Towers, and crossed the Hispar Glacier (the world’s largest) completely unsupported and alone.
Although their achievement has set a precedent and a benchmark in the sport, Phillippe Nodet and Julien Wirtz returned to France and barely even mentioned their adventure. For the two seasoned instructors and cross country pilots, it was just another month off from work, which they spent flying in the Himalaya. There was no bragging or press releases after they returned, and I probably wouldn’t have known that they had gone at all if I hadn’t heard that they were planning a trip in the first place. They were so casual about their route and what they had done that it wasn’t until we saw their track-log on the map that we realized how serious of a flight it was.
Dangerous is really the only way to describe their plan. Reckless wouldn’t fit, because their skill and experience was more than sufficient to see them through the flight plan they had drafted at home in France using maps and Google earth to map their route. But the risk of taking a hit in the turbulence above and between the largest mountains in the world and then being forced to land in unimaginably hostile terrain several weeks walk from the nearest shred of civilization with no way to summon help was all too significant.
What follows is an account of their trip, in their own words.
Tarashing, 8 September 2006, Nanga Parbat Tour
Flight of Approximately 60 miles
For the first time in a week the sky is clear. We can see Nanga Parbat at 26,633’ and the impressive Rupal face – 14,760’ of ice and rock. Nicknamed the “Naked Mountain” because it rises alone above the surrounding peaks, Nanga Parbat stands out in the landscape on the Himalayan frontier above the expansive Indus plain.
Our bags are packed with ten days of food, ice axes, crampons and our two Ozone Addict R gliders, custom built with lightweight cloth and materials. We are ready for our mission, a vol-bivouac flight of nearly 300 miles over the highest summits and biggest glaciers on earth. This is the anthology of our adventure.
We swallow a few different medications to reduce the effects of hypoxia, such as Aspirin and Diamox. Preparing to launch at 11,500’ in less than half an hour we will be flying at over 21,320’.
Our first flight presents our first major challenge. We will circumnavigate the mountain of Nanga Parbat. The flight plan is 62 miles long, above mind blowing scenery. The flight takes us over the three largest glacial faces in the world, the Rupal, Diamir and Rakhiot glaciers, each separated by a 19,700’ pass. If we land out, there are no roads or villages less than a few days walk, if we are lucky enough to land someplace relatively accessible. There are plenty of other possible landing sites that would mean several weeks of walking and climbing in extreme alpine terrain, or worse.
The first 12 miles of our flight goes quickly as we skirt along the Rupal face under a rising cloudbase. The cumulus clouds are tall, and produce a fine hail that peppers our face painfully in the biting sub-zero cold. Suddenly, two abandoned tents appear high on the mountain at more than 19,000’ on a spur. There is no one inside, and the image of the deserted human objects highlights our vulnerability.
We cross the Mazeno pass and glide into the western edge of the Diamir, where the cumuli seem smaller than on the eastern side side. We fly carefully along icy walls devoid of thermal activity, but manage to advance without difficulty thanks to the numerous transversal ridges transporting heat up from lower elevations.
Cloudbase has still not risen above 21,000’ and we are gliding far below the crest, where strong west winds propel massive plums of blowing snow.
In just four hours, we finish the Nanga tour and land in the Parishing valley, gateway to the high plateau of Deosai. It would have taken us more than a month to cover the same route on foot!
Parishing to Skardu, 9 September 2006
Flight of Approximaetly 60 miles
After we landed in the Parishing Valley, we needed to hike up a bit to find a good launch. About three thousand feet above the valley floor we found a nice launch where the atomic elevator was already working.
Minutes later we are turning circles at a 22,960’ cloudbase, and needless to say the view is again amazing. We’re overlooking the entire Deosai massif, the highest plateau in the world. To the east, we see the Himalayan range with NunKun and Zanskar in the foreground. The view to the north is dominated by K2 and the Karakoram range.
We succeed in crossing the shoulder of the Deosai massif, hopping from one peak to the next in textbook alpine cross country flying, and then we are in sight of the Indus valley near Skardu.
We are now in the heart of Baltistan, called “Little Tibet”. Skardu, the capital of this former mini kingdom, is located in the middle of a large and extremely arid basin. Despite the presence of the Indus River, the bottom of the valley is a desert in which the town of Skardu is a unique haven.
We land near a series of sand dunes in an eerie peace, without the slightest breeze. But the calm is shattered after sunset, and Skardu disappears in a cloud of sand. The evening catabatic flow descending from the glaciers rushes down the mountainsides like a storm, gusting to over 40mph!
Shigar to Askole, 12 September 2006, after two days of bad weather
Flight of Approximately 60 miles
Shortly before launching, the jokes stop and the mood becomes tense. We are focused and nervous as gigantic thermals rip up the mountainside, and the thermal winds blow dust devils in the valley and snow in the upper elevations. The sky is at a rolling boil, but even in these conditions our Ozone Addicts prove to be indestructible!
Today we begin our flight by making a major route finding mistake that forces us to turn around at the last moment in order to avoid landing on a glacier, and the return takes us through clouds and a small snowstorm! After a flight that takes us between the gaping mouths of cu-nim clouds, over labyrinthine glaciers and on forced glides in leeward conditions, we barely manage to reach the famous Baltoro glacier which is laid out like a large avenue bordered by the highest summits on earth. From here we can see K2, Broad Peak and Gasherbrum, all over 26,200’ in altitude. Masherbrum, a 25,600’, is directly in front of us and its summit is crowned with a beautiful cumulus cloud! But we are more attracted by the famous Trango Towers. We head for them and fly above their summits at more than 22,900’, both of us choked with joy!
We are momentarily tempted to fly closer to K2, but the probability of landing on a glacier is high, and even if we managed to land safely we would still be forced to walk for more than a week through seracs and boulder-fields. The thought of that ends our daydream, and we decide to land in the village of Askole. Without warning, huge pinnacles of dust shoot skyward at the edge of the Biafo glacier. Three thousand meters above this, an enormous convergence slaps us around and up to 22,000’in the middle of the valley.
After a twenty minute battle, we land in the village in a light uphill breeze.
An astonished and delighted crowd welcomes us. We are their first visitors from the sky, and the first white men to arrive without any guides or Sherpas, having summited the highest summits with only the strength of thermals.
Askole to Arandu, 13 September 2006
Flight of Approximately 40 miles
Today promises to be even better than yesterday, with cumulus clouds already forming at 10 o’clock, some of them above 25,000’. We are only 120 km away from our goal and the comfort of the Hunza valley, but it’s120 km over ice! The confluence of the Biafo-Snowlake-Hispar glaciers forms the largest piece of ice on earth after the poles, and now we need to cross it.
The first part of the flight follows the Biafo glacier to the small village of Arandu. This route is spectacular, and fortunately causes us no problems. We have become more accustomed to the brutally strong conditions. Julien even plays with the clouds, climbing above 23,600’! We are also shooting countless photos of the peaks and valleys, some of which are still unexplored by humans.
The Biafo is a 45 mile stretch of glacier, surrounded by alpine walls of mythical proportion and reaching more than 22,000’ in height like the famous Baintha Brak, alias “The Ogre”. At the head of the glacier, the glacial desert that is Snow Lake opens its arms to us.
Once at Arandu, we identify the complicated route to Hispar. It looks just like what we had seen on Google Earth while planning our route at home in France. It is a narrow valley, at just 18 miles wide, ending in the glacial wall that is the edge of the Hispar glacier.
It’s too late to continue up the valley, so we decide to land in Arandu.
Arandu to Hispar, 18 September 2006
Flight of Approximately 40 miles
We pay dearly for our choice of landing at Arandu with five days of bad weather. During the downtime, we paced in circles like caged animals, praying for a window of escape.
Finally, the sky is blue again. We are now forced to leave because we only have two days of food left. The forced rest was not at all healthy because the village of Arandu is so poor that we were not able to eat sufficiently. We struggle up 3,000’ of hillside only to find that the only possible launch side is steep and rocky. But we are desperate to get out of Arandu at any cost and cross the Hispar glacier, even if it means we end up mummified like Oetzi the Ice Man!
The conditions that we launch into are not great. The air is stable and the thermals are blue. There isn’t much to work with, which makes the already uncertain route that much more difficult. We progress slowly, locking onto every thermal we find and ignoring none. After a tense hour, we reach the top of the Bachish range, the beginning of the wall that seperates us from the Hispar Glacier. We need to be at least 19,680’ if we want to cross it. Finally, we climb to 20,300’ and dive over the back in an insane crossing
Words can’t possibly describe the amazing scenery and our excitement. The vision of our wings over what looks like Antarctica is totally surreal. We are less than 12 miles away from Snow Lake and 19 miles of glacier away from terra firma!
However, in our desperation, we have ended up too low on this transition, with no chance to catch any thermals on the opposite side. We are suddenly grabbed and sucked into the strong catabatic current of the glacier. Suddenly desperate, we find a small hanging terrace and land in major turbulence, narrowly avoiding a crash into the seracs of the glacier.
Fifty meters below us, the Hispar glacier is a vicious snake that nearly killed us. We realize that we have played Russian Roulette and lived.
On this evening, life is stellar. At 13,000’, perched on a balcony above the most gripping spectacle we have ever seen, we fall asleep rolled up in our Addicts.
We do not fear the future anymore. Even though we are two very long day’s walk from the Hunza valley, our paradise, we are finally safe and finished with our incredible adventure through the Karakoram.
The Final Summary
Approximately 270 miles covered in five flights and 13 miles on foot over ten days of adventure.
All flights between 11,500’ (take-off) and 23,600’ of altitude.
We each lost approximately 22lbs in sweat, adrenaline, malnutrition and headaches.
The most fabulous cross country flights of our lives!
The crime weapon: the Ozone Addict R (DHV 2), special light version… FANTASTIC!
Big thanks to Ozone, Porcher Sport, Alixa and Petzl.