Finally the waiting was over and the real race was here. Everyone was high on a cocktail of adrenaline, serotonin and other bodily produced happy drugs. The weather for day one looked phenomenal, there was no doubt by anyone that the Dachstein turnpoint was going to be reached by air. The question seemed more who would make it all the way to the Kampenwand in Bavaria, turnpoint two.
While Dave and other athletes got driven to the Mozartplatz in Salzburg, the rest of us supporters left the camp soon thereafter, since we didn’t want to get stuck in traffic up the Gaisberg, the road is already narrow and the traffic of the X-Alps enthusiasts later on wouldn’t help.
My passport shows I’m swiss, my hyper punctuality too. The Gaisberg was empty and I was way too early. But I think I needed that in order to calm down my nerves.
When the race finally started, the mobile network on the Gaisberg was down. Perfect timing I’d say. So no one had any idea how the race was going on. It just made things a little more old school and people would just be waiting at the end of the trail to welcome the first athletes.
Now came the time for my biggest faux-pas in the whole race. I had locked our Team Vehicle, had put the key in a pocket in my pants and… lost it. In between what seemed like a million people. Obviously I started freaking out. What better time could there be than right now to lock yourself out of the car with the spare key trapped inside, while the athletes are running up the hill, after months of preparation and the whole world of paragliding looking? I wanted to start crying, put my head in the sand or run away. While other supporters were already standing ready to smash in the windows of my poor little van, I went on to look for the key. And sometimes there is an angel send by the heavens who found it and returned it to the serving lady in the restaurant. Close one. Thanks God. You heard my prayers. Now back to being a pragmatic atheist.
Dave hates running, so I knew he wasn’t going to be first up the hill. But he’s also a relentless fast walker, which would put him in the first third for sure. I was right. He was something like 8th position when he reached the top. Temperatures were soaring somewhere in the upper 30’s and he was drenched.
This was the point where the race actually did start for me as well. Fast acting and decision making would from now on be the name of the game. Together we ran to the launch, through myriads of excited fans of the race. The atmosphere was exhilarating and you could feel the energy of the teams vibrating on launch.
Nick Neynens was first off launch even though not a cloud was to be seen in the sky. Poor Louis Tapper, supporter of the New Zealand team. He looked like he sweated blood. I must admit here, I’m a little fan of the truly independent kiwi. Second to go was three times champion and undisputed master of the skies Chrigel ‘the swiss eagle’. He took one turn, realised conditions would bring him to the moon and beyond. So nonchalantly he started doing wingovers close to all the gawkers and admirers. Someone shouted ‘show off!’ with a swiss accent, don’t know who that could have been… must have been a real douche…
Soon all the athletes were circling way up high above launch, already pulling big ears to not get into the airspace above. Only an issue for a couple of kilometers and then they could go as high as they wanted. Now it became a true air race to the Dachstein, since conditions were extraordinary and booming.
Now I got a taste of what the next two weeks would consist of. Very stressful moments looking at the live tracking (oh god!! he’s sinking! hell yeah! he’s climbing!), while trying to not get pulled over on the road due to excessive speeding.
Like expected everyone made turnpoint one in good time by air. No one had to tackle the long climb up the via ferrata to the Dachstein like in previous years. Now things turned technical. A large valley crossing over Bischofshofen lay ahead and had to be carefully negotiated to not get caught short by the rising terrain and connect with the Hochkönig. Dave came over a little low and in a bad cycle. While I was driving up next to the Hochkönig, I noticed Dave suddenly appearing right next to me landing in a field. Good timing. I was right there to help him pack up and get all the excess gear of him and fill up his water supply. Obviously he was a little bummed that he came short on such a good day, but this is how the race goes and you can’t let this things get to you. The more risk you take, the higher the chance of not managing a crossing. There were other athletes landing close by, Nick Neynens for instance had a special plan and landed way back in the boonies. A mistake which would later nearly cut him off the race.
I was looking for another launch for Dave since the day wasn’t over yet. But the valley wind was stronger through this more constricted part and blew apart the thermals down lower. So it was either the decision to go extended sled riding or go higher up and hope for a lucky thermal. We opted for the first option, while Dawn Westrum USA3 who had landed close by, looked for a different solution up higher. On a little sketchy spot Dave laid out his wing. An interested cow came over and started munching on Dave’s flimsy LM5. Yeah. That’s the Alps for you, Dave. Maybe there’s no black bears and rattlesnakes like where you live, but wing eating brown spawns of hell with bells around their necks roam these parts!
The sledride was short but at least saved the walk up and down the little valley Dave crossed. From the preparation we knew of another spot that wouldn’t require any walking uphill and is also a good spot for an extended sledride towards Saalfelden. As most of the time I would come along to carry the gear that is not mandatory to be carried by the athlete and then run back to the car. On the way back I ran into Pascal Purin, an austrian athlete. I told him quickly how to get to the same spot as we did and went on my way. I love how there is no excessive competition between the teams during the race. Everyone helps each other out and gives information away without hesitation. True sportsmanship.
Interesting fact. When I met up with Dave, Pascal just landed in front of us. Seems he had caught some evening residue and had extended his sledder a little further. Sometimes it pays out to be a little later. Pascal would take the night pass this very night and came running past us. We looked at each other and thought the same. Running? This early in the race? Mr. Purin will pay for this later. And as a matter of fact he would.
Another interesting line was Dawns. Instead of taking two sledders like us, she waited on her higher spot below the Hochkönig and flew all the way to Saalfelden in smooth evening air. In the end she was only a couple of kilometers behind us, so she didn’t gain, but she also saved legs and nerves. North of Saalfelden we found a good camping spot and finished our first big day.