The Kite Runners

Originally published in the Financial Times

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It sometimes feels as though there isn’t much ground being broken by the new wave of outdoor thrill seekers. Kite surfing is arguably little more than self-piloted water skiing; volcano boarding is snowboarding on blankets of ash. Canyoning? Carpet skating? It’s hard to take a step in one extreme sport without treading on the toes of another.

Not so with speedflying, which manages to fuse the air and land sports of paragliding and freeskiing in a way that is exhilarating to experience and stunning to behold. If you’ve visited the Alps these last few winters you’ve most likely glimpsed its practitioners at work, their colourful kites guiding them over powder fields and rock faces, their skis touching snow every few hundred metres before they surge skyward once more. Chances are you’ve deemed them minority daredevils in the mould of free solo climbers and people that leap off cliffs in wingsuits. But speedflying is a sport that is taking off in more ways than one, and nowhere more so than in France, where an estimated 3,000 people take part annually and a range of specialist schools are sanctioned by the French Free Flight Federation.

The resort of Les Arcs is something of a crucible for the discipline thanks to the efforts of François Bon, 37, who designs what are now considered industry standard kite packs and is seen as having piloting speedflying through its formative years. François’ passion is stoked by more than just a boyish lust for quick adrenalin fixes; in pushing the boundaries of the sport he has taken kites to mountains as mentally and physically exacting as Mont Blanc (a less than four minute descent) and Argentina’s Aconcagua (an eleven day hike followed by a five minute flight down), feats that led National Geographic to name him one of their Adventurers Of The Year in 2008.

Bon is a certified local hero – skipping through Les Arcs lift queues alongside him is like grocery shopping with George Clooney in terms of the endless procession of admiring handshakes – but at the top of the 3,226m Aguille Rouge, François shifts into business mode. He’s brought me here to watch him test fly off the rock-scarred, near vertical face that in a few days will serve as a backdrop for his Les Arcs Speedflying Pro competition, now in its fourth year. Just watching him traverse the narrow spine of ice and peer over the wind-whipped precipice is enough to set off an avalanche of discomfort in my stomach, and it’s something of a relief when he turns and shakes his head. “Too windy,” he says. “But it should clear up in time for your lesson tomorrow.”

Sure enough, the next morning brings an unbroken blue sky and mountains drenched in sunshine – a far cry from the howling black clouds through which I passed the night plummeting in dreams, kite lines tangling uselessly behind me. I meet Arnaud, my instructor, at the speedflying school’s wooden hut high on the slopes above Arc 1950. While he readies our packs I find myself chatting to a British kid, Max, who has abandoned his parents for a day’s solo speedflying tuition. Max says it’s something he’s wanted to try since seeing it on television a few years back; he feels he’s hit a wall with skiing, and views taking to the air as a way of opening up new challenges.

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François Bon is able to make descents unthinkable on mere skis

“That’s a pretty typical attitude,” says Arnaud, hefting me a kite pack big enough to carry a double duvet as Max darts off excitedly behind his instructor. “People who’ve never skied before think speedflying is crazy, but serious skiers recognise it as a logical progression from freeskiing. It allows us to access the whole mountain – including parts that would normally be unthinkable due to cliffs or crevasses. It’s not that hard, provided you can ski competently. And the speed is like nothing you’ve ever known.”

My gear check takes place on a flat powder field a few metres off an easy blue run (speedflying is barred on public pistes), and involves Arnaud initiating me into the features of my François Bon-designed rucksack. The bag is first unzipped to reveal a kite carefully wrapped around its lines, then reversed and strapped on as a body harness. I’m encouraged to practice folding and packing the kit – a job that Arnaud says should leave it looking like a tight mushroom, though mine resembles a prehistoric jellyfish – before we saddle the gear and begin our traverse towards the lowering Aguille Rouge.

Arnaud tells me that we’re going to perform a simple test run on the shallow base of the mountain – the landing strip on which François’ competitors will be ending their 1,200m descents. We position ourselves a few hundred feet upwind of a café in which I’m already picturing myself weeping with gratitude into a cold beer. Arnaud hands me an earpiece so that he can bark steering orders during the flight; I throw my kite on the slope in front of me – checking the lines are untangled and the inflatable air pockets facing upwards – grasp my bright red brake handles and offer a silent prayer to whatever lays beyond that pale Alpine sky.

At Arnaud’s signal I point myself downslope and zip past the kite. One moment there’s only the sound of my breathing and the swoosh of my skis on snow; the next there’s a sudden rush of air, and I stare in disbelief as my shadow is joined by that of the kite rising steadily above me. Arnaud shouts for me to pull down on the left brake to level the kite – over the roar and flap of the fabric it becomes clear why the volume on my headset is so high – and it’s then that I feel it: a small but undeniable lifting of my skis off the ground, a momentary soaring that manages in a heartbeat to suggest the endless possibility of flight.

A few seconds later I’m performing a semi-controlled crash at the bottom of the runway – an action that leaves me trussed in kite lines like a roasting joint, the canopy fluttering slowly on top of me like a belated burial shroud. I look back up the slope to signal my approval to Arnaud, but my gaze falls instead on the distant figure of François Bon making the test flight he’d abandoned the previous day. It’s a line he clearly knows back to front, but even so the speed and style of his descent is astonishing – carving slashes out of vertiginous powder fields, launching himself over rock bands and soaring down jagged couloirs before coming in to land beside Arnaud with the grace of a golden eagle.

It’s a display that manages to single-handedly justify the excitement surrounding speedflying, and marks it out as one new sport for which the sky may well be the limit.