It’s called the world’s toughest endurance race, and the visuals are spectacular.
The ninth edition of the Red Bull X-Alps paragliding and hiking challenge is scheduled to begin Sunday, June 16 near Salzburg, Austria.
Ketchum-based river guide Willi Cannell, 32, is one of 32 paragliders in this year’s field. Another competitor with local ties is Gavin McClurg, 47, who is racing his third X-Alps.
Paragliders from 20 nations, average age of 35, will attempt a more-or-less straight-line course over the Alps from Salzburg to the Mediterranean Sea at Monaco covering about 1,138 kilometers or 707 miles.
They fly over Kronplatz, Davos, Eiger and St. Hilaire.
On a good day, they fly 95 to 125 miles. They hike and walk long distances to arrive at their next flight point. They carry a pack weighing 22 pounds. They can consume more than 6,000 k-calories per day, the equivalent of 80 scoops of Italian ice cream or 15 German curry sausages.
An airplane covers the distance in one hour. Red Bull X-Alpers do it by air and by foot.
Red Bull organizers said, on the average, only 14% of the starting paragliders reach the Monaco finish by the cut-off date of June 28. Record snowfall in the Alps this past winter may pose great challenges.
The event was launched in 2003 and has been held in odd-numbered years ever since. Swiss paragliders have won all eight Red Bull X-Alps, although there have been 218 athletes from 36 nations attempting the race since 2003.
Cannell, a wilderness river guide, is one of 15 “rookies” in the field of 32 athletes led by five-time defending X-Alps champion Christian Maurer, 36, of Switzerland. There are two women, both rookies, from New Zealand and Poland. Two years ago, Maurer won X-Alps in 10 days, 23 hours and 23 minutes. His personal record time, in 2013, was 6 days, 23 hours and 40 minutes. It all depends on the weather.
Wednesday, Maurer tied for first place (55 minutes, 31 seconds) in the Red Bull X-Alps prologue race, a 3-kilometer hiking ascent over 3,782 vertical feet of Griessenkareck mountain near Flachua, Austria. McClurg (1.04:55) placed ninth and Cannell (1.08:43) 16th of the 32 athletes. Most of the paragliders flew down after to a grassy goal field.
Cannell learned to paraglide in 2014 and soon became obsessed with free flight. “I love flying in Idaho,” he said during his Red Bull interview. “The high desert mountains are so spectacular and flying high over the vast wilderness areas is really a great part of the experience.”
Last year, Cannell competed in the fourth X-Pry adventure race, a 567k (352-mile) flight over the Pyrenees Mountains from the Bay of Biscay to the Mediterranean Sea. He placed 13th, the top American. The winner was Swiss ace Maurer.
McClurg, the 2015 U.S. national paragliding champion, holds the foot-launch distance record in North America, set in 2013, a total 240 miles from his hometown of Sun Valley.
He crossed the Canadian Rockies in 18 days five years ago. In Red Bull X-Alps, McClurg finished eighth overall in 2015 and 14th in 2017.
To track the race, visit the race link redbullxalps.com.