Editor’s Note: The emerging sport of speed riding first was introduced to our users when we featured an incredible video of Francois Bon speed riding the Eiger Nordwand on Alpinist TV (watch the January 15, 2007 video). A year later, at the 2008 Alpinist Film Festival, two videos–“Speed Riding: Attack a Popow Land” and “Speed Riding: Attack of the Gringos”–impressed the crowd on Snow Night. This time, Bon is back with an even more impressive feat: a speed riding descent of Aconcagua’s intimidating 8,000′ south face. We caught up with Bon to ask him a few questions about his background, speed riding basics and the future of the sport.
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1. Please tell us a bit about yourself.
I’m 35 years old, and I live in a little village called Montvenix close to Les Arcs ski resort, in France. I’m a test pilot in paragliding and speed riding.
2. What is the difference between paragliding and speed riding? Is there any difference between speed riding and speed flying?
Paragliding is flying with large canopies (20-32 square meters, depending on your weight) that allow you to stay and travel in the sky. You can climb on thermal air currents, and your “glide ratio” is about 1:8, meaning you go eight times farther forward than down.
Speed flying is a general term for using smaller canopies (8-14 square meters), or mini gliders. Speed riding is the specific term for going down snow slopes with mini gliders and skis. The glide ratio is much lower–1:4–which allows you to play with the ground, mixing skiing and flying in a new way.
3. How did you get interested in speed flying?
I’ve been skiing since I was a small child, and since then I’ve been a ski patroller and ski instructor. I’ve been skydiving and BASE jumping for ten years.
I started paragliding in 1986 and taught flying lessons from 1989 to 2000. After that I worked as a research and development pilot for various companies. I did distance competitions until 1996 with the French team, but I always liked “acro” (flying acrobatics, or aerobatics). I competed in acro comps from 2000 to 2005. In 2004 I won the World Tour in Argentina, and I’ve been involved with the FAI–which makes the compeition rules and calendars, selects the events and trains the juries–since the start.
I started to fly mini gliders in 2004, modifying 11-square-meter kites. Some friends joined me by using old skydiving canopies–fun, but I was not satisfied with skydive canopies for serious speed riding practice. The company I work for, GIN Gliders, made the first speed riding glider.
I made the first speed riding descents of Mont Blanc and the Eiger in Europe in the summer of 2006, and of the south face of Aconcagua (see the video above) in March of this year.
4. On Aconcagua were you part of a climbing expedition?
Companies provided a guide, cook, food, and mules for hauling gear to base camp, which made it easy to concentrate on the ascent and the descent.
5. By what route did you climb Aconcagua?
I climbed the normal route, on the northwest face.
Francois Bon ascends Aconcagua’s (6962m) normal route in preparation for the ultimate ride down the south face. [Photo] Walter Bonatti collection
6. How did you make the change from climbing to flying? How did you swap gear? Did you fly your climbing gear down with you?
I climbed with the glider, helmet-cam, skis, clothes and med kit. From the launch point, the guide and cook took the tents and climbing equipment back to base camp. I met my guide two days after, at the approach camp, lower than base camp, in the valley going out of the national park.
7. What equipment did you use for your descent? Was it modified at all?
I used an unmodified GIN Nano 10-square-meter mini glider. I also used a simple, light harness instead of a regular one.
8. How did you plan the descent?
I prepared the descent months ago by looking at pictures of the face, checking maps, weather forecasts, reading a lot. Then, before going to base camp, I went to the bottom of the south face to have a detailed look. I flew a very similar line to what I expected.
9. What were your greatest concerns?
My greatest worry was the meteorological window. The forecast is not very accurate for the area around Aconcagua, and I needed a soft wind, less than 30 kph, with little turbulence and good visibility. At base camp I was in radio contact with logistics bases in Penitentes and Mendoza for updates. I was prepared to speed ride down the west face if the conditions were impossible for riding the south one, or to walk down if nothing could be done…
10. Did you have much contact with the face on the way down?
I touched several times, but the visibility was very bad, and I was going so fast–over 150 kph at the start, then around 100 kph at the end. Add the exhaustion of walking eleven hours to the summit on the last day, and the danger of stopping and staying on the face–nobody is going to rescue you there–so I purposefully did more flying than riding the face.
For mountaineers the 8,000′ south face of Aconcagua (6962m), Argentina, is a technically demanding wall of rock and ice. For speed riders, it’s a three-minute trip at speeds exceeding 150 kph. [Photo] Francois Bon collection
11. What special moments did you encounter on the way down?
It’s like another reality to do a speed ride like this. Perhaps that’s because of the high altitude.
I stayed very focused on the decisions for take off, like the wind conditions, the clouds. Then, just after the start, all I could think of was: “Wow that’s so fast!!” The air pressure was intense–something I didn’t experience on Mont Blanc. I passed each snow area so quickly that I felt like I was falling among the cliffs. My trajectories were so vertical, so unusual.
12. Can you describe how you felt when you reached the bottom?
Full of adrenalin, of course! I took time to recall every wild moment of the descent, my heart drumming, and… Oxygen! Feeling oxygen in my brain was a pleasure after fifteen days of traveling. During the 4.5-hour walk to approach camp, I was floating in the moonlight–a great way to finish the ride.
13. What’s next for you in speed flying or other adventures?
There are always more interested people to get involved, more places to discover–especially the extreme locations where flying mini gliders will be possible.
14. What is currently possible in speed flying, and where is the sport going?
Mountaineers can go down mountains quickly speed flying–that’s not only a matter of convenience, but also a matter of safety. The sport is becoming more prevalent, and at the elite competition level riders are going for enormous, fast runs (there are both slalom and freeride competitions). In France, dedicated areas exist in ski resorts, and dedicated schools are requiring instructor qualifications to teach the sport. Other countries like Switzerland, Austria and Germany are also organizing the practice through ski areas, competitions, governments.
And the best part about speed riding is that it’s pleasurable in every place, at every level. It’s attracting lots of people–many of whom do not come from a paragliding background. Mostly skiers are trying the activity, and in time it will become a real part of the free flight world.
15. Do you think speed riding will ever become mainstream?
In time, air sports will include speed flying on a greater scale–that’s a natural evolution. Let’s use the background and knowledge that the air sports community has built to grow organically without mistakes. It’s a rare opportunity to make the free flight community bigger.
16. Is speed riding for everyone?
Yes, speed riding is for any confirmed skier. At every level you’re able to have lots of fun! The best way to start is to try paragliding, or speed riding at ski resorts that have certified instructors (more information at www.speedriding-school.com).
17. What’s it like to fly?
To fly is freedom: no lies, pure expression, osmosis with the natural elements.
To learn more about speed riding, check out the huge archive of pictures and videos on www.acro-base.com.