From the moment I moved to Chamonix ―almost three years ago now― and became a paragliding pilot, I’ve been captivated by the idea of combining my favorite sports in the mountain: mountaineering & paragliding.
That’s how I stepped into the world of Paralpinism.
My dream was taking off from the summit of Mont Blanc (4,810 m), the mountain I see everyday from my home, in the town I fell in love with.
Last September, I finally had the fortune of a good weather window and a great company of local friends (2018 female world champion in acrobatic paragliding Claire Mercuriot, a hike and fly aficionado Matias Gomez, and a paragliding instructor at Les Ailes du Mont Blanc in Chamonix Jeremy Picq) to climb up Mont Blanc by the Trois Monts route ―which involves climbing up Mont Blanc du Tacul and Mt Maudit on the way― and flew off from the summit by paragliding!
Here’s the story of my paralpinism experience on the roof of the Alps.
Aiguille du Midi lift is the normal starting point for the Trois Mont route but as it was closed, we drove through Mont Blanc tunnel to board Sky Way Monte Biainco in Courmayeur instead and traverse the glacier from Helbronner lift station ―on the Italian side― to Cosmiques hut (3,600 m). A nice glacier ski tour in the winter, it was in autumn proved to be more complicated as we navigated through a labyrinth of crevasses.
The lift closure had its bright side, though: we ended up being only eight guests at the usually fully occupied hut with capacity for 148 mountaineers, and only six of us headed up Mont Blanc the next morning. Truly a privilege for a place and route that are usually busy with climbers!
We set off from the hut to start the journey to the summit of Mont Blanc around 2.30am, climbing up with head torches in the dark. We encountered a few adventures due to dry autumn conditions, making the climb slightly more technical than in the summer: climbing up a big serac around 15m in height on the face of Mont Blanc du Tacul using two ladders joined together, a couple of sections of snow/ice mixed climbing on Maudit (4,350 m) and an steep icy traverse en route to col de la Brenva (4,300 m).
While we were on the face of Maudit, there was also a serac fall right next to us! Though it was probably small, the sound and snow fumes forced me to remember what mountains are like and how fortunate we can be.
Topping out of the last ice climb section on Mont Maudit, we had our first sighting of the summit of Mont Blanc, and it wasn’t what we wanted to see. There was a lenticular cloud on the summit of Mont Blanc, indicating strong winds there. Chances were high that we would not be able to fly that day and we were a little heartbroken, but we still wanted to reach the summit. In any case, we had a plan B: from the summit, we could walk down to Dome du Gouter ―where winds would probably be weaker― and take off from there. So we pressed on.
Surprisingly, the lenticular clouds disappeared as we got closer and by the time we reached col de la Brenva, right before the last stretch to the summit, we saw a paraglider who just took off from the summit. Needless to say, we all jumped up in joy! So we pushed ourselves to the summit of Mont Blanc (4,810 m), and fortunately found that the wind was blowing from the perfect direction (from the north) at around 10-15 km/h.
It was time to fly!
The summit of Mont Blanc isn’t steep but if you mess the take off up badly, you could fall a very long distance, down a steep slope with séracs. Due to high altitude and thin air, speed is necessary for the take off. So, basically: you need to be committed but also, you need to make sure everything is going right when you’re committing!
Given I was the least experienced pilot of the team ―two of them were professionals and the other doubled my years of experience― I prepared my glider and launched first. They watched me takeoff, along with other mountaineers who had just arrived at the summit from Gouter hut.
Here’s a video of that incredible moment!
My take off from the summit of Mont Blanc. Video: Matias Gomez
The glider inflated and rose very smoothly, and remained perfectly still above my head. I turned around to face down the mountain towards Chamonix. I was a little nervous while I was preparing, but the routine take off motion instructed my body about what I had to do next and I remained calm, and pretty soon, very excited!
Once in the air, I felt invigorated. The cumulus clouds that I normally see above me ―even when flying― were down below. The crispy air passing my face reminded me that I had just taken off from Mont Blanc!
I had never climbed Mont Blanc via the normal route so I flew over it, seeing the dotted chain of mountaineers connecting Gouter hut and the summit. The shadow of my glider passed the chain and I could see the mountaineers stop and look up.
In addition to the enjoyment of flying, there was also the relief that I didn’t have to spend hours walking down the mountain passing a crowd of climbers, rushing to catch a train, a cable car and a bus to get back to Chamonix.
When I was over Aiguille du Gouter, I could see Gouter hut and I decided to change course and visit the infamous aiguilles of the Mont Blanc range. I flew across glaciers of Taconnaz and Bossons and flew alongside the pointy rock peaks that normally look down on me in Chamonix. I had never flown that high and close to these glorious and somewhat menacing peaks before.
After 50 min of flight and getting pretty cold, we all landed at our familiar landing field in central Chamonix. We looked up at the summit of Mont Blanc and still couldn’t believe that we were all the way up there just one hour ago and it was just that same morning that we had set off from Cosmiques hut and spent 8 hours climbing to the summit!
Before this flight, I had climbed and skied Mont Blanc via Grands Mulets route and I had climbed on foot and walked off the summit via Trois Monts route.
In terms of alpine flying, I had ski toured up to Domes de Miage (3,673 m) and then skied and flew off, and also in September had climbed Weissmies (4,017 m) and flew off as well. Since Mont Blanc I also climbed Jungfrau (4,158 m) and took off.
I had been preparing and building experiences for a long time. Also, I was properly acclimatised before the attempt.
In recent years, paragliding equipment, namely harnesses and gliders, have become much lighter, more compact and relatively safer, enabling people to carry it in their alpine packs and take off from the mountains.
In my case, I take a 2.7kg glider (Masala XXS from Skywalk) certified as an EN A wing, which means it is as safe as gliders people use at paragliding school. My harness is 300g (The String from Neo).
I was able to fit this glider, harness, and other mountaineering equipment (rope, harness, helmet, crevasse rescue kit, 2x platypus, insulation layers, hut equipment, some snacks, crampons, 2x ice axes, 2 pairs of gloves etc.) all in my 40L backpack.
There are lighter and more compact gliders these days, around 1kg and may fit in a 4L stuff sack, and harness could be as light as 100g and it could fit in your pocket.
Paragliding is a very picky sport, in the sense that the window of weather conditions in which you can fly is very narrow in comparison to other disciplines.
The wind cannot be too strong (better not be exceeding 20 km/h), it has to be blowing in the right direction for the take off, there can’t be cloud coverage as we need visibility whilst flying, and definitely it can’t be raining or snowing!
So you must pick the right day to attempt it, but you also need to be prepared to walk down mountains with the extra weight in case the conditions do not line up.
However, when it works out, it is the greatest way to descend a mountain. It is fast, safe ―you don’t have to walk through crevassed fields, face risks of serac falls or rock falls of the afternoon―, incredibly scenic and enjoyable, and the sensation is just amazing.
For me, what I like the most about these adventures is the fact that the summit is not the end: one can enjoy the mountaineering experience up to the summit, then one can look forward to experiencing a different sensation on the descent!
The possibility of flying opened up a new dimension (literally) to exploring the mountains. I believe that one does not need to be an extreme athlete in skiing, mountaineering, paragliding, or rock climbing to enjoy more but being a bit of all of these opens up a new and, importantly, safe ways in which one can enjoy the mountains.
Feeling inspired about Ryoko’s paralpinism experience? We have good news! At Explore-Share we promote several paralpinism trips with certified mountain guides. And the best thing is that you can have this extraordinary experience even if you don’t have any previous flying experience! Guides who are also tandem paragliding pilots & paragliding instructors can take you up the mountains and you’ll fly off with them on a big paraglider.
Here are some incredible ideas:
Ryoko lives in Chamonix and travels the world in search of exciting mountain adventures, from skiing to rock climbing. As a paragliding pilot and mountaineering lover herself, she found a new passion in paralpinism. Follow her on Instagram and write her (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you have questions about pursuing this kind of activity.
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