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In 2008, it took Francois Bon 11 days to reach the summit of 22,841-foot Aconcagua, South America's highest peak. His descent was much quicker. In four minutes and 50 seconds, he dropped 9,000 feet.
How did he do it? He was speed flying. With skis on their feet and a canopy catching wind overhead, speed flyers combine skydiving, paragliding, and skiing skills to move downhill at up to 100 miles per hour, flying over crevasses and cliffs and touching down for occasional powder turns. Bon is one of the pioneers of the sport, also called speed riding, which was developed by skydivers and paragliders in France in the early 2000s.
"You have your whole life in your fingers," says Bon, who is French. "That moment, all your life is in your hands like you are riding the edge of a knife." Bon has launched from Mount Blanc and the Eiger, and was hoping to fly from Mount Everest in 2008 before he suffered a broken leg in an avalanche.
|Ted Davenport takes flight at the 2010 New Zealand World Heli Challenge.|
Antoine Montant is another French speed flyer, seen in the video above of him riding the cable of a defunct tram in Chamonix. Montant says he imagined this stunt within days after he discovered speed riding, and he compared it to his experiences sliding rails on a snowboard. "It was perfect to show the possibilities of this sport," he says. Montant, who has set world records in paragliding, has won three consecutive titles at the Speed Flying Pro, an invite-only event for the world's best at France's Les Arcs resort (Les Arcs also has a speed flying school).
In 2011, New Zealand mountaineer Mal Haskins will take speed flying to new heights by attempting to launch from above 8,000 meters in the Tibetan Himalaya. "For me, it's an obvious step to try and make," Haskins says. "I'm very interested in seeing what the canopy does and how it reacts." The thin air above 8,000 meters increases groundspeed, meaning Haskins can expect a ride like the one Bon had in South America. "If anyone can make it happen, it's Mal," American freeskier and speed flier Ted Davenport said. "He would swoop just inches off the ground at 40 miles per hour, completely confident in his line."
The consensus amongst most is that speed flying is not skiing. "For me, this activity is born from a flying activity," Bon says. But all agree that being an excellent skier increases the safety margin. "My abilities as a skier allow me to feel more stable and confident on more difficult take-offs," Davenport said. "It's an adrenaline rush like no other."