In April 2014, I accepted an invitation from Xavier De Le Rue to join him and the Timeline crew in the arctic archipelago of Svalbard where they were filming the first part of their Degrees North film project. The idea was to head to a very remote region and start experimenting with paramotors. If you haven’t come across one before, a paramotor is a big paragliding wing with a pilot hanging underneath who has a small motor strapped to his back that powers a propeller. In Svalbard, the idea was to experiment with this very cheap alternative to helicopters to scope and film lines. It was a huge success. Exactly one year on and the same crew is stepping out of a helicopter onto Rainbow Glacier just south of Haines, Alaska.
The glacier sits on the fringe of the terrain accessed by SEABA Helis, and De Le Rue, Ralph Backstrom, and skier Sam Anthamatten are ecstatic. After sitting out nine days of weather-bound cabin fever, they release their pent-up frustration in whoops of joy as they take in their surroundings. The ridge we stare at is breathtaking, littered with epic lines. The biggest face is aptly named Grandma’s Wrinkles because it looks for all the world like a chain-smoking old lady who’s had a vat of melted ice cream thrown in her face. Cornices the size of school buses sit precariously above cascading spines, faint blue glacial ice features wink in the sun, and huge open faces wait patiently to have lines drawn on them. The reverie is broken by the crackling of Anthamatten’s radio and the sound of a distant helicopter long-lining in all the equipment the team needs to camp here for the next two weeks.
This is not a small operation. Including myself, we are a total of 10—a dedicated filmer, a filmer/data wrangler, a producer/filmer, a photographer, a paramotor pilot, two snowboarders, one skier, and a new addition for this trip, a drone pilot. He is instantly recognizable as David Benedek’s long-term filming and riding partner Christoph Weber. He completes a group that can make a strong case for being the most eclectically skilled crew ever to enter these mountains. But to succeed in the goal they have set themselves they need to be.
That goal is to replace helicopters with paramotors to access lines. It’s a simple goal, and in many ways the paramotor makes things easier by removing legal worries with aviation authorities, the huge cost of pilots, fuel, and the helicopter itself, not to mention the logistical barriers presented by flying permits, weather, and timing. But the level of risk for something going wrong rises massively, and that’s where the deep and dangerous chasm that divides theory and practice begins to open up. Put in perspective, this is snowboarding’s equivalent of science fiction.
Undoubtedly, the splitboard is just a different answer to the same question: “I don’t have heli budget, how can I access remote backcountry terrain?” The evolution to this question began to take shape when De Le Rue met Christophe Blanc-Gras, one of France’s most talented and experienced paragliding pilots. They first teamed up for Xavier’s Mission Antarctic in 2013, when Xavier was looking for aerial filming alternatives. Discussions between the two men on the long boat trip from Ushuaia on the southern tip of Argentina to the Antarctic Peninsula revealed that Blanc-Gras had already dropped BASE jumpers from a tandem chute in the Andes and still managed to land the massive wing with only one person in it. Apparently with very little weight under a huge wing, the biggest danger for the pilot is getting swept away into the heavens by thermals or strong winds.
To experiment properly with this idea, De Le Rue and the Timeline crew began researching high-altitude wildernesses where they could fly undisturbed. De Le Rue had already set about learning to paraglide and then to fly paramotors so that he could understand the potential and limitations of these tools, and the success of Antarctica had set his imagination on fire. Svalbard provided a great training ground in 2014, but with the unrivaled trifecta of terrain, humidity, and snowfall, Alaska was always going to provide the ideal stage for the first drop. Last winter’s lack of snow killed off a boat trip captained by Scott Liska through the Central Coast inlets, where the plan was originally to launch the paramotors from the boat. But with the end of the season looming, a conversation with Alaskan Heliski pioneer Scott “Sunny” Sundberg at SEABA in Haines provided the perfect location—a huge ridge stretching for more than three miles that offered a myriad of options for riding, flying, and landing. On the other side of the glacier, under a protective tusk of rock, sat the ideal camping spot complete with a pitch-perfect runway and a grandstand view of all the faces. The upside of being weather bound for nine days also meant that when the crew arrived there was more than four feet of fresh snow waiting. The stars appeared to have aligned perfectly.
I wake at 3:00 a.m. to the sound of the heavens collapsing, thunder tearing through the darkness and filling the valley. I gather my thoughts and remind myself that we are on high ground, in a safe position, then climb out of the tent to find out what’s going on. De Le Rue, Backstrom, and Anthamatten are staring at Grandma’s Wrinkles with a mixture of shock and relief on their faces. A cornice the size of Shaun White’s Malibu mansion has cracked off above Grandma’s Wrinkles and cut a slab a quarter of a mile wide off the mountain. There are combine harvester–size ice boulders bouncing through a torrent of snow that is raging more than a mile down the glacier and out of sight. No one says a word.
Eventually Anthamatten turns around, I mutter something about that not being the ideal start, and he says in his fantastic Swiss deadpan, “It’s like Roger Federer warming up for the final of Wimbledon and the stadium collapsing.”
If I had a mouthful of tea I would have spat it out. To find humor in a moment like this speaks volumes about Athamatten and the rest of the crew’s experience in this environment. Despite Athamatten making light, there is still visible shock written on everyone’s face at the sheer size of this slide, but there is also relief because it has happened now, before we entered the mountains, and it will act as a sobering reminder to everyone to tread carefully.
But giant cornice falls aside, the snowpack is stable, and with clear skies we all set off at 5:00 a.m. across the glacier for the first time. It’s a gentle hike and climb that lets the boys test the glacier and ridges, like watching dogs sniff each other’s bums. The first runs throw plumes of powder into the Alaskan equinox sun making impossibly beautiful collages of pink, purple, and orange hues against the snow and through the shadows. Unfortunately for De Le Rue, he’s busy making his own collage, and it’s brown. Mid-climb he’s forced to stop as his guts stage an uprising against the vast quantities of mussels he consumed from the Chilkat River in the last week. After the second run, he returns to camp where he will stay for the next 48 hours, his only excursion being a shivering limp to the toilet, a journey he would ultimately take 22 times in that period.
While De Le Rue is laid up, Backstrom and Anthamatten snag lines. All bets are off on the weather, so they need to make hay while the sun shines and get into some of the shorter pitches. I follow them on a couple of smaller lines and get a stark lesson in the difference between Alaskan tourist lines and professional filming lines. I don’t care where you’ve ridden before, there is nothing in the world like Alaska. The volume of snow means there are no trees or rocks to orientate yourself with, and you have to memorize slope features because it’s so easy to get lost in such huge terrain. I was privileged to quiz Tom Burt during the Freeride World Tour in Alaska three weeks earlier, and he explained what he calls “the bowling ball effect,” which happens on convex rolls synonymous with Alaskan mountains and means you always enter the run blind. He said that “to get comfortable with blind entries you have to indentify smaller features in the snow that will act as your signposts. Not too many, otherwise you’ll lose your focus, but enough to get you in where you need to be.”
I have tracks to follow and the luxury of splitboarding in, so I have time to study the face on the way up and watch the key terrain features change as my perspective changes. But terrain in the 45- to 50-degree region presents an entirely new set of challenges, and if you’re not comfortable with your foot glued to the floor, then you’re going to struggle. Things happen very quickly at that gradient and stopping isn’t really an option—once you commit to a steep face in Alaska, you’re going whether you like it or not. After reaching my limits in two runs, I sit back to watch the others step it up and begin to contemplate not just riding these lines but the prospect of jumping out of paraglider doing 25 miles an hour into them. I laugh out loud.
To be successful you always a need a fair bit of luck. Whether you make your own luck is up for debate, but Timeline is a lucky crew. On the fourth day after a gray start, the cloud lifts, De Le Rue stops shitting, and the wind drops. Blanc-Gras, the paramotor pilot, is straight into action. His mass of unkempt blond hair, wild eyes, and babbling chat give the impression of a classic impulsive and passionate Latin man. But the moment flying is on the menu, he settles. He’s the opposite to everyone else who you can see steeling themselves for action, moving into fight-or-flight mode. He is the perfect antidote to all the adrenaline, calm and methodical as he prepares the paramotors.
Fully fueled, the 285cc engine, three-blade propeller, and seven-liter fuel tank weigh in at 93 pounds. Blanc-Gras heaves it onto his back and stands astride Anthamatten—the smallest of the three passengers and therefore the easiest to get airborne—and clips him in. I yank the pull cord and the motor stutters to life. The throttle is attached to Christoph’s finger, and after a delicate dab he signals for me to take the bar that runs around him and Athamatten, and I begin to sprint down the glacier dragging both men and the rapidly inflating 134-square-foot wing behind me. The two-stroke motor hits its powerband and starts to scream. This is the critical point—as Blanc-Gras applies the power, the wing has to be stable, otherwise everything collapses in a tangled heap. It’s perfect, and within 30 feet the pair is soaring over the crevasses and potentially toward history.
As the whine of the motor becomes background noise, we all exchange nervous but optimistic glances. De Le Rue, Backstrom, and Anthamatten have all drilled this at a house in Haines. They hung a harness from the rafters and practiced jumping out of the bucket seat and getting their weight forward ready to meet the face. Now we watch as Blanc-Gras plays with the wind and Anthamatten calibrates the drop and speed as they pass across the Saddle between Rainbow Peak and Peyote. On the fifth pass, Athamatten’s body weight shifts forward and he goes for the jump and then stops, dangling out of the front of the harness. Fifteen feet has become a hundred in a heartbeat as the gradient of the slope pulls the mountain out from under his feet. In seconds, the drop is over three hundred feet, but Anthamatten, who is one of the world’s best all-round alpinists and has the strength-to-weight ratio of an ant, hauls himself and all his gear up and back into the safety of the harness. Blanc-Gras releases the handles, and they descend across the glacier and back to camp. In the debriefing, Anthamatten tells us that his pack got caught on the webbing and luckily held long enough for him to recover. De Le Rue takes it all in, removes his pack, and straps in in front of Blanc-Gras.
The turnaround takes less than 10 minutes, and soon we’re watching the wing swoop across the saddle under Rainbow Peak. On the third pass, Blanc-Gras has positioned the paramotor perfectly and cuts diagonally across the convex roll of the slope. De Le Rue pops out, and for a second there is an impossible shadow cast on the snow beneath them of a paraglider and a snowboarder in close proximity but not connected, just hanging there. And then the moment is gone. De Le Rue touches down at 20 miles an hour and arcs a turn onto a spine line as Blanc-Gras wheels up and away. It is a surreal sight, and the seemingly easy manner in which they’ve executed this incredible feat is almost underwhelming. But make no mistake, the complex and stressful preparation in the harness is something no amount of practice back at the house could have prepared them for. It’s like Houdini and Stephen Hawking working in unison to solve an elaborate problem. First you have to undo heavily tensioned harness fastenings with loose gloves in an unstable seat hundreds of feet above the snow. Then there is the art of timing the drop, agreeing where it will take place, determining the height and axis of the wing, and then committing to the drop in a split-second window.
To put it in perspective, after five years of planning, research, and preparation, De Le Rue, who has just spent two days prone with food poisoning, has just leapt into the history books and changed the way people can potentially access big-mountain terrain forever. Initially the idea had been to open up new terrain with the paramotors. ‘That was our Eldorado,” he says. “But slowly, as we realized the paramotor drop was possible, the exploration became secondary and the paramotor became our Eldorado.”
With the seal broken, rotation speeds up. Anthamatten gets back in the saddle, this time without a pack. Quickly and seemingly effortlessly, he repeats De Le Rue’s feat. Next is Backstrom. It’s the first time he’s ever flown under a wing of any sort, and he’s going to try and jump out of it. I can’t help chuckling to myself. Understandably, Backstrom doesn’t look 100 percent comfortable, but the Tahoe native does look determined as we go through the takeoff procedure. He’s a big unit, close to 220 pounds, and as Blanc-Gras gently pulls the handles to lift them off the glacier, Backstrom misses his cue to sit back and finds himself hanging out of the harness. He’s still clipped in so he’s safe, but his strength-to-weight ratio means he can’t pull himself up and back to get into the harness. Blanc-Gras quickly lands, and Backstrom, unfazed, resets himself on the takeoff hill.
The second attempt is the charm, and Backstrom makes the drop perfectly. Rather than take the easy route down, he charges the face with all the power of a rampaging rhinoceros, unleashing all his adrenaline from the flight and drop into every turn. And like that, the future became the present. De Le Rue’s grin is the first thing I see as they hiked back to camp. A fire burning in his eyes, he announces, “That was just the beginning, now it gets serious, now we start the big lines.”
The next round of flights sees each of the boys turn on the saddle next to Moby Dick, a giant, precarious line with an equally challenging climb. Using less than half a liter of fuel for each flight, Blanc-Gras ferries the three riders over the Glacier to a flat spot on the saddle next to the line. On the first pass they drop their packs, and on the second pass they jump out, ready to begin the short but critical ascent. After one of the drops, Blanc-Gras has less than three feet to pull up and away from the slope, a stark reminder that the risk is weighted heavily on the pilot’s side of the operation. Landing such a huge, cumbersome wing with only one person takes a lot of skill and nerve. The turbulence over ridges when flying at such low altitude, even on windless days, can create all sorts of problems, the most obvious of which is lifting the wing abruptly off the snow so the drop can double in size.
But patience and communication keep everyone safe, and slowly the seemingly inexhaustible supply of descents start to dwindle, until everyone has conquered the lines that had filled every waking moment for the last 10 days.
Five years of research and planning by De Le Rue has been vindicated.
“It’s been so amazing to have this dream,” he says. “I told people about it, and most of them laughed saying it was a great idea but quite unrealistic. Now we’ve not only accomplished it, we’ve surpassed it!”
The expedition was an unprecedented success with riders and pilots who have learned to trust in each other’s skill and judgment working perfectly together. Of course, the release of Degrees North will undoubtedly change the way people regard access to remote backcountry. But collecting the immense skill set each individual requires means it will be a long time before we see this become common practice. So enjoy these images and the film, because they are very rare sightings of a group of brave pioneers plying their trade in their element.
Check out Xavier De Le Rue's 'Degrees North' Movie Trailer.