My last Red Bull X-Alps ...

Gavin Mc CLURG, Team Kortel pilot, tells us about his X-Alps 2021

On the morning of May 31, a short two and a half weeks before the Red Bull X-Alps prologue, I had my first serious accident in over 15 years of flying. I was on the second day of a solo bivouac flight in the mountains of Idaho, loaded down with all the gear: tent, cold weather gear, oxygen, first aid kit, food for several days, etc. I don't know if being overweight on my glider contributed to the accident, but on the second day of the trip I launched in what seemed like benign conditions and ended up on the ground in less than 4 minutes after losing control of my wing at less than 30 meters/ground. I only had time to deploy my reserve parachute just before I hit the ground. The sound my body made on impact was terrifying, and I thought my back, pelvis, or both were broken. Fortunately, I had Ibuprofen and oxygen to manage the rapidly growing pain. I am built like a "wombat" and tend to bounce back quite well! Friends were only a few hours away from the accident site, and quickly came to my aid and retrieved my gear. I was able to get out on my own and in the early evening I went for a scan at the local hospital, hoping for a miracle. Not being able to participate in X-Alps was really the least of my worries. All I hoped for was that there would be no serious damage.

But the scan came back completely clean. The ER doctor brought the results and said a series of words that made no sense. "I have no idea how you fared given the course of the accident and the extent of the shock, but you have absolutely nothing. I imagine you won't feel very well for a week or two, but you should be back in training in no time."

In fact, I didn't feel well until halfway through the X-Alps a few weeks later, but that night as I left the hospital and replayed the accident over and over in my head, all I could think of was, "My God, Gavin, you're a lucky bastard!"

The day before the prologue, I was still drinking quite heavily and had only been able to do occasional walking, on flat ground, for almost three weeks. On top of that, I was fighting a tough flu that I had caught just before leaving. A flu that would plague me for the entire first week of the race. We weren't really 100% for the race, but on the day of the prologue, I was feeling good. I got to the start in 8th place and finished in the same position shortly after on a relatively easy course with 3 waypoints in very pleasant flying conditions. The prologue is only like the real race in that there is walking, flying and a serious media circus, but it gave me a welcome confidence boost. Unfortunately, the prologue will be the only easy, "normal" flying we experience during the entire race.

Every Red Bull X-Alps I’ve competed in has been defined by the weather. Just like any XC flight, no two are ever the same. In 2015 it was relentless strong wind (which led to many accidents and withdrawals). 2017 had what was regarded as the worst weather of any previous race (only Chrigel and Benoit finished). In 2019 it was insufferable heat.

In 2021, it was downright scary. From day one, the race was subject to strong winds, several days of strong foehn in the north (scary) and south (even scarier), endless thunderstorms, hail, and hypnotic lightning. The 2021 edition probably had the highest number of first-time participants in the event's history. Weather, power lines, wind, or a combination of these elements eliminated most of them. Team USA 1 got off to a very bad start, which put us in a situation I've never experienced before - the elimination block. I wish I could blame it on the flu or my physical (mental?) state after the crash, but the truth is that we always seemed to be out of step with the sun and the day. Almost everything we tried didn't work. On day two I took off eight times and did over 4,000 metres of positive elevation gain, but most of the time I just managed to fly down. The only thing that worked well in the first two days was the run to the Gaisberg. It was hot and humid, but I felt good and managed to beat other athletes to the top, coming in as usual in 8th place. In the evening I was second to last. On my last flight I actually went backwards after struggling against the time limit (9pm) for more than 1,000 useless metres, and not being able to advance a single kilometre in the air.

On day four things started coming together for our team. I’d begun a course of antibiotics and was finally making things work in the air. I would avoid the second elimination on day 5 by getting a jump on Nick Neynens on the way to Lermoos and having a stellar evening after doing a really tricky launch off a castle, then getting one of the best glides of my life under a dark, stormy sky and landing only seconds before a torrential downpour, which seemed to happen in this race two or three times every day.

In the middle of the race, when the top ten were fighting at superhuman speed, our team managed to gain ground on almost everyone else. We stayed upbeat and, as usual, laughed regularly, mostly at my expense. When I was in trouble, I tried to smile ("that's a good lesson, Gavin!") and lead the way. We knew from experience that the competitors ahead of us would certainly make mistakes. Some would cross a prohibited airspace, some would get injured, and some would drop out. And in this 2021 edition, some would simply be too scared to continue. All these things happened and we kept going.

Most days and many flights weren’t reasonable for flying at all, but that’s exactly what everyone kept doing. One of my best flights was from Fiesch to the Dent d'Oche bypass. I flew almost 80 km along the Rhone in a tailwind so strong that all I had to do was stand on each ridge, point into the wind with full throttle, and hold on until I was thrown downwind. There was no sun, all the potential thermals were shredded, and I had to land high on the slope before a rainstorm broke out or I risked being sucked into the venturi of a high pass with winds of over 70 km/h. I still had to take shelter, under a cow trough for example. When the rain stopped, I didn't hesitate to take off and flew another 40 km in just over 30 minutes, fighting continuously to keep my wing open. The scary thing is that I had a lot of fun and I had a blast! Conditions that would normally be terrifying seemed quite acceptable.

Two days later I could have injured myself by taking off in turbulent conditions and suffering a major wing collapse just after leaving the ground. The next day I went from 300m to the ground in less than 10 seconds, and was blown over a pass in a strong northerly wind as I circled Mont Blanc. Both incidents would normally have landed me in hospital. But in both cases I just cleared my head and took off again as soon as possible. Stupid yes, but very exciting! After the fall at the pass, I took off in the strongest wind I've ever encountered, apart from ground handling in the snow, then went downwind of Mont Blanc to protect myself from the worst of it and passed Yael MARGELISH and Michael LACHER. I landed briefly to cross a pass, took off again and am convinced that I could have covered another 100km in the last two hours of the day and perhaps caught Steve Bramfitt if a thunderstorm cell had not formed in the Macugnaga valley just before I arrived, forcing me to land at the top of the slope.

My personal experience in this Red Bull X-Alps 2021 is certainly not unique. One could write books on the experience of each team in this year's edition. We all took risks. We all took unreasonable risks. We all pushed to our absolute limits and then we left those limits behind and kept pushing. I could see it in everyone's eyes at the awards ceremony. It was a look of accomplishment, fear, exhaustion, elation and wonder. It was the wonder that kept me coming back again and again. Until this year. Perhaps there was a look in my own eyes this time that was not there in the past. It was the look of finality. It's been seven years. Too much time, too much relentless training, too much risk, too much money, too many near misses. These have been some of the greatest adventures in the 49 years I've been on this planet and I wouldn't trade them for anything. Except for my life.