John Jackson, Kazu Kokubo and Blair Habernicht are all staring at me over half eaten pizzas, open-mouthed. It takes a pretty impressive story to illicit this reaction from professional snowboarders as experienced as these. But what I have just told them – and the story you are about to read – is that impressive: Xavier De Le Rue has rewritten the rulebook for backcountry access.
Words by Ed Leigh // Photos by Tero Repo
In 2014 I was invited to the Arctic wilderness of Svalbard with Timeline Productions for the first trip of their Degrees North film project. It was designed for them to take their first tentative steps into the world of paramotors. If you haven’t come across them before, paramotors are paragliding wings, but with the added bonus of a small two-stroke engine that powers a propeller strapped to the pilot’s back. This means that the wing no longer needs the help of thermals and can gain altitude independently – even with two people hanging under it.
You can read the Svalbard story here, but suffice to say it was a huge success. The paramotors were used to scope terrain and film lines – an idea De Le Rue had first explored in 2011 when faced with limited resources for his expedition to Antarctica. During that process he met Christophe Blanc Gras, one of France’s most talented and experienced paragliding pilots, and together they started to realise that paramotors could reveal lines you can’t see from the base of a mountain. Inevitably this opened up an entirely new world of possibility for Xavier, who has the very rare gift of being able to match an active imagination with a skill set and determination to literally turn flights of fancy into a reality.
“Xavier matches an active imagination with a skill set and determination to literally turn flights of fancy into a reality”
De Le Rue’s plan is to use the paramotors like helicopters. He wants to fly tandem up to a peak and then jump out from under a moving canopy onto the face below. It sounds utterly ridiculous, and indeed many people laughed openly in Xavier’s face. But they obviously don’t know the Frenchman very well.
Almost exactly a year on from Svalbard I am back with the crew in Alaska. We are sat on the tarmac at Haines airport. I say airport – in reality it has a perimeter fence, a porta-cabin and a decent sized runway flanked by towering peaks, though right now no one is admiring them. Xavier De Le Rue has lost his cool. If this were a regular occurrence then I’m sure people would be looking distracted, trying to find banal things suddenly fascinating, but everyone is transfixed. No one has seen the famously calm Pyrenean angry, and all of the crew are staring as De Le Rue’s tantrum gains momentum. He is swearing and pacing and no one is quite sure how to react so they are giving him space. He is a big man and this is unfamiliar territory.