What Happens When You Cross Freestyle Skiing With Paragliding?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
When you combine two already intense sports, it does, in fact, get more intense.
By Kelcey Wright
What do you get when you cross freestyle skiing with paragliding? Answer: the craziest, fastest, most extreme mountain sport adrenaline junkies can dream up.
Speed riding is a high-speed, high-intensity and high-stakes (and, up until recently, mostly unregulated) mountain sport that allows for superfast speeds — we’re talking up to 90 miles per hour — and access to terrain that would otherwise be off-limits to regular skiers or paragliders. How? A 5-pound canopylike “speed wing,” strapped on the back, permits skiers to take off and touch down onto smooth snow, and glide over any rough or steep spots on the slope. But, of course, the intensity doesn’t come without risks — potentially lethal ones.
When it’s done right, the best part of speed riding is that it turns ski hazards into recreation and bad terrain into “good, clean fun,” says professional skier, wingsuit flier and base jumper JT Holmes, who lives in Squaw Valley, California. That’s all down to the wing’s movement, which removes the limitations typically imposed by steep hills or jumping off man-made or natural edges. If there’s an obstacle or danger in the way, just go airborne until it looks safe to come back down to the snow again. The wing, which ranges in size from 20 to 45 square feet and is steered with strings, inflates as the rider gains speed, essentially turning into a parachute and producing lift.
Holmes says the first time he saw speed riding, the skier completed nine 3,000-foot runs in a day on a mountain where he was about to do just two runs on his skis.
All of a sudden, when you put skis on, you’re having this opportunity to go up and down. … It’s incredible.
Asher Zalchendler, professional speed riding instructor
Speed riding began in France in the 1970s when adventurers began experimenting with parachutes on the sides of steep mountains — first with riders jumping on by foot and then with skis. In the early 2000s, standard parachutes were replaced by smaller “wings” that allowed for faster speeds. Speed riding pioneer François Bon helped perfect the first speed wing design in 2005. It’s been decades of trial and error in terms of equipment and technique, and before certified schools began less than 10 years ago, the sport was completely unregulated. There are now hundreds of speed riders around the world.
Professional speed riding instructor Asher Zalchendler was inspired to try the sport after hearing a story about Bon, who hiked Mount Aconcagua in Argentina for 13 days and then came down in five minutes with his skis and wing. “To go those speeds without skis, it’s kind of a high-performance sport,” explains Zalchendler, who is now recognized as one of the most accomplished speed riders in the world. “When you’re running hard and fast until you’re flying, lots can go wrong. But all of a sudden, when you put skis on, you’re having this opportunity to go up and down. … It’s incredible.”
Speed riding is growing in popularity in countries like France, Norway, Austria and New Zealand, where there are large mountains and certified speed riding schools. The schools have been integral to the growth of the sport. Zalchendler runs two of the world’s largest at Ski and Fly in France, with camps that introduce avid skiers to speed riding, as well as challenge experienced speed riders. In six years, the camps have seen more than 1,235 participants.
But as thrilling as speed riding is, it can also be dangerous — risks include hitting objects in flight, bad landings and misjudging speed and altitude. And it can prove fatal: There have been two deaths at Aiguille du Midi in France alone since 2012. Some ski resorts in Europe and most in the U.S. have banned the sport altogether, which explains why you won’t yet find a speed riding school in North America.
Though there have been speed riding competitions on and off for the past five years, there are no official annual events because, as Zalchendler explains, the sport is all about creativity — and it’s difficult to judge or score. Instead, the sport is growing in popularity for extreme sports enthusiasts who are simply looking for that next jolt of adrenaline.
Still, speed riding is “nowhere near a popular winter sport,” Zalchendler notes, blaming a lack of accredited schools around the world and places to ride. But when they do come to Europe to learn it? “They fall in love instantly.”
Go There: Ski and Fly
- When to go: There are two camps this year: a two-week socialize and progress camp (March 16–30) and two one-week progress camps (March 16–23 and March 23–30).
- Directions: It’s a 13-hour flight from Los Angeles or a nine-hour flight from New York to Turin, Italy. Then rent a car and drive 3.5 hours northwest to Val d’Isère, France, in the French Alps. Map.
- Accommodations: There are six shared apartments, each housing four to six other participants. Single rooms are available upon request.
- Kelcey Wright, OZY AuthorContact Kelcey Wright