Question: What do you get if you take 1 professional multi-extreme-sports athlete, 1 blind non-skier, 1 tandem speed riding wing, and 1 set of skis?
Answer: A world first!!
Ueli Kestenholz is a Swiss, fully sponsored professional multi-extreme sports athlete. As well as being the first ever winner of a medal for snowboarding in the Winter Olympics, Ueli also mountain bikes, flies a wing suit, surfs, and kitesurfs, (just to mention a few things). He is also a pioneer in the sport of speed riding.
Speed riding, (aka speed flying), has evolved from the sport of paragliding. However, where a paraglider aims to travel forwards, and possibly upwards, at a civilized pace, the speed rider’s goal is the exact opposite. Not only do they intend to travel downwards, but they aim to do it at great speed, and at close proximity to the mountain or cliff they have just leapt off.
Speedflying and speedriding are very similar sports. The difference is that speed-flying is when the speed wing is foot-launched, while speed- riding, (or ski gliding), is a winter sport done on skis.
Ueli and I have been in contact, via email, since around 2008 and often talked about different challenges. In January 2013, we were talking about Ueli’s latest speed riding Trilogy video. Whilst chatting I asked him if a tandem speed ride would be possible. Knowing that I was a non-skier Ueli told me that he didn’t think it would be possible. There were a handful of people who had done it, but they were all excellent skiers and none of them were blind.
Over the next few months an idea crept into Ueli’s brain, and in late September 2013 Ueli emailed me and asked “if I can fix a way of getting you to tandem speed ride, would you be interested?” If you know me, you know what my answer was.
Diaries were checked and the date was set. Rhona and I would fly out to Switzerland on the 10th of January 2014 and we would make our attempt between the 11th and 13th. And to add to the excitement, Ueli hoped that there would also be time for Rhona to get airborne!
Ueli told me that there were 2 options for us doing our tandem speed ride. The first was that I learnt to ski and we could then work on coordinating our landing and take-off. Unfortunately we had no ski-able snow in Scotland at that time, so we would need to look at option 2.
Option 2 would be totally experimental. Ueli thought that if he could attach a set of snowboard bindings to a wide pair of his skis, we could then both ride the one set of skis. Thus meaning that my skiing ability would need to be minimal, and this could be done on the job in Switzerland.
I spoke to Cally Gordon of Blairgowrie Ski Hire and explained to him that I needed to hire a set of ski boots for the challenge. He very kindly did me a great deal. So with our rucksacks filled to busting with ski boots, helmets, and our winter kit we headed off to Switzerland.
We arrived at Ueli’s house on the evening of the 10th and the next day was spent in preparation and rehearsal. First Ueli had to add the snowboard bindings to his skis. Then we practised the take-off, flight, and landing positions. The first two were fine, but the landing proved to be tricky. The idea was, as we came into land, the first thing to touch the ground would be the tail of the ski. Once we felt them make contact with the ground, we would then bring the rest of the ski down, with the nose of the ski being the last part down. Doing this solo is straight forward, but doing it two-up on one set of skis was much harder. We had to make sure we got this right, as if we didn’t it could end up with us doing a somersault at speed, and this could be potentially lethal!
To make matters worse, I have damaged both of my knees over the years, and walk with my heels pointing in and my toes pointing out. (Sometimes known as a “duck stance”.) With skiing you need to keep your skis parallel, but I didn’t do this naturally. If we were to land with me in a duck stance, this again could cause problems, as the skis would want to go in different directions. To help me work on sorting this, Ueli thought it would be good if we headed out for some basic ski tuition.
We did this at a beginner’s slope at the wonderful town of Grindewald, where we were just across the road from the mighty Eiger.
We started with me on a single set of skis, with Ueli instructing me, and finished with us two-up on the skis we intended to fly with. Through this lesson I learnt to understand how to feel what the skis were doing and how to do basic corrections. It also built up a good connection between Ueli and I when we went on the skis together. I could feel how we were moving the skis, and I could hopefully respond in the right way. By the end of the day, we were coming down the slope at what I felt was great speed. Ueli then told me that when we did the flying, we would need to take-off at 3 times that speed!
The next day, (the 12th of January), the weather looked perfect, so we headed on up to the ski resort of Lauchernalp to see if we could fly. After 2 or 3 chairlifts and 2 cable car trips, we were at our launch point, around 3,000 metres high.
Ueli started by making a small snow platform where we could get into our skis without them sliding off. This was at the top of a steep 30m slope that fed into the main ski run. He then opened the wing and laid it out in the snow behind the skis. I then climbed into the snowboard bindings whilst Ueli started to attach all the relevant bits to my harness. Whilst he was doing this, I occasionally felt the skis move, and I had visions of taking off down the slope with the wing attached to me and Ueli not! With this in mind I started to take things very seriously and even made some contingency plans for if this happened.
Once Ueli had everything connected, it was his turn to climb into his bindings behind me. As he did this, the skis moved again, but fortunately not far enough for any of my contingency plans to be brought into action.
A minute or so later, Ueli was all set, and we were about to see if this thing was going to work.
With a couple of small movements of the skis, we tipped over the edge of the slope and started downhill. As we started to move, Ueli reminded me “strong legs.” I leaned forward slightly, as I had been told to, and kept my feet parallel. A second or two after we started moving, I felt the wing fully inflate above us, and pull us upright. A few seconds later we were airborne, and I could sit back and enjoy the ride.
I was very surprised how smooth and quick the take-off had been. I had thought I’d have trouble with the speed and lift, but not at all. It was amazing.
As we started to climb, Ueli asked me if I was OK, and if I was ready for some “speed” riding. As soon as I said yes, we turned sharply and dropped. The ground below was all covered in snow, so I had difficulty in telling what we were doing. But then “black bits”, (rocks and cliffs), would appear, and we’d be flying straight at them. At the last minute, Ueli would pull us away from the ground and we’d head off in another direction. Ueli asked me what I could see, and I tried to explain about the “black bits”. He told me what they were, and then gave me a countdown as we came towards the next cliffs. 50 metres, 20 metres, 10, 5, 1!! We were within 1 metre of the cliff, and again Ueli whipped us up and away.
I don’t know how long the flight had been, but Ueli told me we would be coming in to land soon. My mind swapped from the awesome fun I was having, to “back to business” mode. Out of all of the preparations we had done, the landing was the thing that worried me most. We hadn’t truly mastered this when hanging in Ueli’s garage, and I knew that if I got it wrong, I could kill us both.
Ueli told me that we were about to do our final turn and would be dropping in to land in the next few seconds. Before the turn, he reminded me to bring my knees up, straighten up my feet, bring the skis closer together, point my toes upwards, and get ready with the “strong legs” for the landing. With that, we did a sharp left turn and seemed to plummet towards the ground. (I found out later that at that turn, we were probably doing in excess of 80kmph.)
With knees still bent, feet parallel and toes pointing upwards, I felt the tail of the skis touch-down. A split second later the rest of the ski was flat, and I stood up in the “strong legs” position. We slowed down and came to a stop. We’d done it! The skis and snowboard bindings had held together, we had done all of our manoeuvres right, and we had just become the first people ever to tandem speed ride on one set of skis, (not to mention that one of the riders was a non-skier and blind!)
The flight had gone so well, that we packed up our kit and headed straight back up to the launch point and did a second flight.
As the first flight had gone so well, Ueli decided to push it up a level. This meant that we would fly faster and do more aggressive manoeuvres than on the first flight. We would get closer to the ground and try and stay there longer. We would also increase the air speed, with sharper turns, and bigger drops. It was bloody amazing.
After two flights, it was now time for Rhona to take to the air. Rhona has done some skiing in the past, so Ueli and Rhona would have a pair of skis each.
On her first flight, she told me that she got a shock at how fast the start had been, and ended up falling backwards into Ueli. So on her second flight, she decided she wouldn’t fall backwards again, but instead almost ended up kissing the snow as she really leaned forward.
When Rho returned from each flight, she was buzzing. She had had an amazing time, but decided two flights were enough for her. She had even done a couple of touch-downs!
As there was still plenty of daylight left, Ueli asked me if I fancied a third flight. “Bears” and “woods” came to mind. Of course I would!
Again, Ueli took this flight up another notch. When I had watched Ueli do his solo speed riding, he did a lot of touch-downs during the trip. When we had discussed our planned flight, we had decided that a touch-down probably would not be possible. This was because of 2 reasons. The first was that my skills probably would not be good enough to do it, but the other, and possibly more serious question was “would the skis and snowboard bindings stand up to it.
The bindings had only been screwed into the wooden skis. There was no time to put any metal inserts in to hold the screws, so it was just a matter of time before the screws holding the bindings would eventually work loose. Each touch-down would cause an impact on the skis, and the screws were bound to pop loose soon.
We had had two great flights, so on this third flight, Ueli wanted to see if we could do a touch-down. After several fast turns, some close proximity flights to cliffs, a couple of flights between peaks and some major speed, Ueli brought us in for a quick touch-down, before taking off again. We literally just touched the tail of the skis down before taking off again.
At the end of that flight, Ueli asked me what I thought of the touch-down. I said it felt great, but was over too quickly. This would not be the case on our fourth and final flight.
The sun was starting to drop behind the mountains, and we agreed that my fourth flight would be the last one. So, as Rhona headed off down the mountain with our kit, we got ourselves ready.
Each take-off had been easier than the previous, but I must admit the fourth one was a little bit tough. We’d been on the mountain for 4 or 5 hours by now, and I was really starting to feel it. There was no problem with the take-off, I was just happy that it was the last one for that day.
Again, Ueli was not going to take it easy during the flight. He looked for all of the best bits, got me as close to the cliffs so I could almost touch them, and then it was time for another touch-down. Ueli got me to bend the knees, raise the toes, etc. As I did this, I felt some tension on the skis for a second and then we were off again. We had done another touch-down.
My reaction must have been positive because Ueli then told me we were going in for another touch-down. He had spotted a good patch of virgin snow and he wanted to make some tracks on it.
All of our previous touch-downs had been for less than a second, and had covered less than 10 metres on the ground. This next touch-down was about to change all of that.
This time when we hit the ground, we skied for 3 or 4 seconds. At the time Ueli thought we had covered around 50m. However, when he watched the footage afterwards, he estimated that we had covered more like 100m before taking off again!
The adrenaline surge from that touch-down was so intense, that even now when I think about it, I get shivers down my spine.
Ueli had definitely saved the best run for last. The flights had been awesome, and Ueli was able to give me some statistics about what we had achieved. He reckoned that our average take-off and landing speeds were around 50kmph, our maximum air speeds was between 100 and 120kmph, and our 100m touch-down had been at around 80kmph.
Ueli had laid down the challenge, I had taken it up, and we had conquered it.
I would like to say a huge THANK YOU to Ueli for setting this up and to his family, Petra and kalani for making us feel so welcome in their home. Thanks guys. You’re all total stars!
If you want to find out more about what Ueli gets up to, check out: