X-Alps
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When sharing my experiences with other pilots, they are likely to mention the X-Alps. More specifically, they like to know whether I (would like to) participate. Here is my answer.

Competition has the tendency to turn something beautiful into something ugly. The X-Alps is a competition. It is a race that has nothing in common with vol bivouac, except the flying and hiking. In vol bivouac you do everything by your own, or possibly with a few mates when flying as a group and sharing the experience. Being thrown back onto yourself is the main aspect of vol bivouac, and the most challenging one as well. The toughest competition is with yourself, not with a stopwatch or other pilots. An X-Alps participant wages a war against time, nature, other pilots, and especially himself (no women compete in the race). Only the participants way down the field are likely to cooperate, since they can not win the race. They might seem losers to you, but are probably winning something far more precious than the race itself. Finding out that there is more time to enjoy the event when you are not racing. To tandem up for a hike across a glacier, to share a meal, to talk, to laugh together. All those things that make being human so wonderful. The X-Alps reminds me of tourists racing through a country or a continent in order to see all the 'must see', while in fact they see nothing because they do not have the time to observe, enjoy, and digest it.

For me, vol bivouac is about beauty and discovery. It is about finding my way in nature and enjoying it. It is about going to sleep in an empty field on a mountain, and waking up with twenty ruminating cows surrounding me. Curiously looking at me and wondering what strange creature has landed in the middle of their room, covering underneath a pile of ripstop nylon. It is about finding clear drinking water when I am thirsty, but least expected it. It is about hearing the bouncing of bouquetins in the distance, balancing their powers. It is about quietly sheltering underneath my (camouflaged) poncho in torrid rain, and suddenly seeing a deer pass right in front of me. It is about seeing cute young foxes playing nearby, while mother is away shopping. They see me, but have not yet been programmed to fear humans, so I can observe them up close. It is about quietly strolling through the forest and stumbling on wild boars hiding in the bushes. Luckily they are just as frightened as me by this sudden and unexpected encounter, and run away as fast as they can. It is about flying past an icy mountain peak at over 4000 m and greeting soul companions that are resting on its top. Enjoying the view and gathering energy for the descend. It is about looking down the crevasses, when flying over the glacier below that same peak. It is about walking up to take-off and seeing the imprints of hares in the first snow that has fallen in autumn, as well as the imprints of the fox looking for them. The snow that finally announces the end of the flying season by crunching underneath my feet, while my thoughts and emotions of the many memorable events this year pass by.

Vol bivouac is a dance with nature. As is life itself. The purpose of dancing is not to get you from A to B on the dance floor, let alone in the fastest time. Have you ever tried dancing when tired? When exhausted? Your timing will be lousy and your once graceful movements will have degraded into clumsy robotic spasms. The secret of vol bivouac is not to get too tired, in order to keep on dancing gracefully. To enjoy the experience and make clear and healthy decisions. Being tired is a major cause of accidents. Do not let it catch up on you.

Because time is the criterion for wining the X-Alps, pilots are automatically driven to exhaustion. Contrary to what it may look like at first sight, the X-Alps is not about who flies or hikes the best (whatever that may be). It is about who is able to handle exhaustion the best. Up till now (summer 2009), the X-Alps has been set up in such a way that it allows, invites and even enforces participants to take disproportionate risks to get ahead in the game. Participants have confessed to having taken decisions that they never even would have considered during a regular competition, let alone during an ordinary cross-country flight. The chosen competition format of the X-Alps drives them mad, mad to win. The more sensible but 'weaker' pilots fall behind in the process. Driving someone nuts with sports such as soccer, steeple chase, rugby, sprint, tennis, beach volleyball, bridge, or chess is probably reasonably harmless. In paragliding or hiking it is likely to be deadly.

I guess the race must be fun for the pilots who participate. Still, it is often unclear to me why they participate at all. I can remember a French pilot, saying that he was "Fucking dead!", right after finishing second in the first edition (2003) and having shown some amazing performance flying. When his mental sanity had returned later on, he told an interviewer that he regretted not having been able to really rejoice in the beauty of those amazing views and experiences during the race. The constant pressure to keep on going, going, going in order to win, spoiled it. When a Dutch participant was asked for his most beautiful experience in the last edition (2009), he replied that having a view of the Marmolada at six o'clock in the morning, knowing that he was going to fly there a little later, was so special. Why gentlemen? Why do you need a race to find out what is so obvious? Wake up!

I do not intend to participate in the X-Alps, nor any other competition for that matter, unless the objective(s) change for the better. And if you think I am just being jealous, you are free to come and fly with me to find out I am not. You are even more welcome if you do not thinks so, since you probably already understood what I am trying to tell you.

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2010-01-24