It could be a revolution in the world of mountaineering… or remain in a footnote. But what the Englishman Will Sim and the German Fabian Buhl have just done looks futuristic: approaching a virgin mountain in the Himalayas (the Gulmit tower) flying a paraglider, climbing it, and flying back to civilization again. It could be the gateway to a new way of exploring remote peaks hidden in the vastness of the Himalayas. The idea, however transgressive it may seem, is not new, but was dreamed up in the 80s of the last century, when a few began to take off from the peaks first with hang gliding and, later, with paragliding.
The French mountaineer Jean Marc Boivin has remained as one of the great references of this combination of flight and mountaineering: “Paragliding is simple and effective and it will allow me to carry out chains of unthinkable ascents, but it is only good for descending, one does not go very away”, Boivin would affirm 35 years ago. Paragliding had just been born as a form of flight at the request of some French competition skydivers who, in order to improve their landing and be able to practice it frequently and without the cost of mobilizing a plane, began to inflate it by running on grassy slopes in the alpine town of Mieussy in 1978.
Barely four years later, in 1982, a new concept would be born: para-alpinism, which consists of climbing a mountain to take off from its top: this is how Roger Fillon set off on June 6 from the top of the iconic Aiguille Verte. Boivin immediately got on this wave and was the first to fly from the top of Everest, in 1988. Two years later, he would die after taking off with his wing from Angel Falls, in Venezuela, and suffering a violent landing.
Will Sim (33 years old), smiles and adds: “Boivin was right, but the materials and specific knowledge of flying have evolved so much since then that a world of possibilities has now opened up: paragliding is no longer just for descending, but to scroll. I also don’t know if what we have done is para-alpinism, as I affirm in the documentary: I prefer to call it flying and climbing, simply”.
Sim, who has promoted the documentary of his journey in the Gulmit tower (Karakoram, Pakistan) in recent days at the BBK Mendi Film Bilbao Bizkaia, still cannot believe the adventure he experienced last summer. “Paragliding has become very fashionable among guides and climbers. It is like a disease. I don’t know if it’s a fad that’s here to stay, or a passing wave, but it’s very exciting. We travel to Pakistan with our skis, sails and mountaineering gear open to anything but bored in a base camp. There we learned about the Gulmit Tower (5,800 m), still virgin despite several attempts to climb it from the northeast slope initiated by some Frenchmen in 1988, and a few from the south.
Both approaches to the mountain are very long and dangerous: between three and four days of walking avoiding risks of avalanches, rock falls and very treacherous glaciers. Porters cannot be subjected to such dangers. After spending several days learning about the flight conditions in the area, we decided that by taking off from the slopes near the town of Karimabad, at an altitude of about 3,000 meters, we could hunt thermals, ascend to almost 6,000 meters and land at 5,000 meters, at feet from the south face of Gulmit Tower. But first they had to solve a serious logistical problem: How to fly with all the necessary material, with ropes and technical equipment, bivouac equipment and food without exceeding the weight limit? By dint of minimizing their equipment, they managed to exceed the set limits by about ten kilos without losing flight performance but without being sure of being able to reach the top of the Gulmit glacier, the desired landing point.
An hour of flight served to avoid three days of approach. In the middle of the afternoon, both climbers were resting in a tiny tent at the top of the Gulmit Glacier, safe from avalanches. That same morning, they climbed the access slope to the pass and there they lined up the granite wall, almost 600 meters uneven. Linking mixed sections with others of pure rock, after noon the couple reached the top, shelving 34 years of fruitless attempts to conquer the tower. That same evening, before nightfall, they were having dinner on a terrace in Karimabad.
The Alps as a laboratory
Curiously, the easiest part of the adventure was climbing, despite taking place in highly technical terrain and with enormous commitment: here rescues are practically utopian. “It is as important to be a good pilot as it is to be a good mountaineer. In both cases learning takes years of investment. You need to dedicate many hours to it and live in a place conducive to flying safely. If I lived in England, in the rain, it wouldn’t be possible. That’s why I live in Chamonix (France), where I have everything at hand. Being an expert takes years, but being able to do modest flights is almost instantaneous. In the Alps we do it often: we fly from emblematic peaks like the Grandes Jorasses and use the Alps as a laboratory, using ultralight gliders. It is a discipline in full swing ”, acknowledges Sim. Many climbers now include a paraglider weighing less than two kilos in their backpack and, if circumstances allow, return to the valley from the peaks by flying.
The documentary on the Gulmit, signed by Jake Holland, is not the only one of this style. Recently, The North Face has launched a production that includes the figure of extreme skier Sam Anthamatten and his crazy bet to take off in the meadows of his home in Zermatt (at the foot of the Swiss slope of the Matterhorn), land at the base of the Obelgaberhorn, climb it and ski its vertiginous north slope. “I don’t know Sam personally, but I do know that he is a superlative skier and a great rider. In Pakistan, he would have the doors open to go on great adventures… ”, concedes Will Sim. Anthamatten himself considers it lucky to have been born at the right time, a moment of opportunity in which cutting-edge technology is mixed with the same historical desire to take the game of mountaineering to unsuspected limits.
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