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This Paraglider Soared Above the World's Tallest Mountains

Battling through storms and lightning strikes, Antoine Girard glides to 8,157 meters—higher than anyone has ever flown. Get to know all 10 honorees, then vote every day for the People's Choice until December 16, 2016. The winner will be announced in January 2017.

On July 7, 2016, 36-year-old French paraglider Antoine Girard set off on foot from Skardu, Pakistan, with little but his tent, seven days’ worth of food, and a paraglider, all stuffed into a backpack weighing 70 pounds. His goal was to travel at least a thousand kilometers through Pakistan’s high peaks in a method called bivvy flying, a combination of paragliding and camping.

The trip had already gotten off to a rocky start. Girard’s teammate, Nelson De Freyman, had a visa snafu that caused him to cancel just five days before their departure date. Now, with trepidation, Girard was heading off into the Himalaya and the Karakorum, the tallest and most dangerous mountain ranges in the world—by himself.

“I’ve done a few solo trips and adventures, but I’ve always been mentally prepared,” says Girard. “It wasn’t easy, with so little lead time, to make the decision to leave on my own. Soon it was just my camera that became my friend and confidante.”

Over the course of what turned out to be an 18-day trip, Girard encountered grueling challenges. Near Nanga Parbat, a sudden storm pressed him to land at 4,400 meters in an area surrounded by glaciers. For two hours, the winds forced him to huddle behind a rock before a break allowed him to hastily set up his tent. For the next 60 hours, the storm battered the walls, howling and hissing, and Girard hunkered down, rationing his food.

At other times, he was forced to fly into cloud banks to make it over tall passes and glaciers, navigating by GPS and blind hope that he wouldn’t hit anything. He soared over areas so steep that if he had had to emergency land, he might not have been able to take off again. Sometimes, he came perilously close to hitting ground. He squeaked a mere 10 meters above 5,399-meter Mazeno Pass, all shrouded in clouds. All told, he traveled some 1,250 kilometers through the most fearsome mountains in the world, including K2, Rakaposhi, Masherbrum, and Gasherbrum IV, but the pinnacle came on July 23.

I even tried to touch several of these legendary summits, like the Trango Towers, with my feet.
Antoine Gerard Adventurer of the Year Honoree

Near the slopes of Broad Peak, Girard was hoping to climb above a glacier, then soar as high as he could—though he didn’t have a world record in mind. As he glided over the 12th highest mountain in the world, he realized that the complicated thermals coming off the high rock faces would in fact allow him to travel higher than 7,000 meters, a rare feat. While ascending, he tried to connect his oxygen, but because he had forgotten to connect a key tube, it didn’t work. He proceeded anyway with the vow that he would turn around at the earliest sign of altitude sickness.

Making use of a powerful thermal, he wound his way up, past steep ridgelines and gargantuan faces, and eventually higher than the peak itself. Below, the jagged white mountains and the sinuous lines of glaciers spread out beneath him, sparkling and clear. Finally, he topped out at 8,157 meters, high above the peak, higher than anyone has ever gone in a paraglider, setting a new world record. Somewhere far below, climbers were still trudging up the mountain after watching him pass overhead, wide-eyed.

“In any sport, every once in a while someone comes along and redefines how you look at things,” says Nick Greece, a spokesman for the U.S. Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association. “Antoine went out with a true artistic creative mind and said, ‘Sure the cloud base stops there but this rock is heating above these clouds and there has to be some force propelling up it.’ It’s opened all of our eyes to a whole new way of thinking about an art and discipline that’s been around for 30 years.”

Girard flew a total of 120 kilometers that day, even with fingers terribly frostbit from the altitude. The next morning, he left the mountains to find medical treatment and head home to Valence, France, but in the meantime, even the pain of frozen fingers and hunger—he lost 15 pounds over the course of the trip—weren’t enough to dampen his elation.

Adventure: How did you feel embarking on such an ambitious trip alone?

Girard: The trip was intensely emotional. Being alone in the middle of nowhere surrounded by tall mountains can definitely be difficult at times! You have to concentrate constantly. A simple sprain becomes a really big deal because there’s no way to communicate. You have to keep an eye on your food, your water, and the weather, which has a mind of its own. I’ve often been hungry, cold, and sometimes even afraid. Many times I’ve asked myself what I was doing, but the breathtaking view of the stars always comforted me. Then, in the morning, I would once again realize that I was the luckiest person in the world to be able to watch the sun rise over the mountains.

How did you manage the weather challenges that came up?

Twice I found myself in trouble. There were storms on the sides of Nanga Parbat that held me up for 60 hours. The stress was constant, because my food supply was dwindling fast and I had no idea how long I would have to wait. There was no way I could flee on foot because I was on a glacier and there was no trail. The only thing that kept me going was the hope that the next few hours would be better.

The second problem I had was near Booni, 50 kilometers from the Afghan border. There I experienced the worst storm of my life, lying in my tent at almost 5,000 meters. There were at least four lightning strikes less than 100 meters from me. The noise was terrifying, and the ground was trembling. The only way I could forget where I was—and the danger—was to put on my headphones so I could have some music in the background.

What was the most difficult part of the trip for you?

I find that the hardest part of trips like this is getting authorizations and financing! The rest is just pleasure and passion, with the difficult moments soon turning into either good or bad memories, with the bad memories disappearing fast. As I recall, the weather didn’t make it easy on me. Only two of the 18 days I spent in the mountains were free of rain or snow. It was an effort to keep my hopes up, since I was in despair because of the wait [for good weather]. And the decision to go home was hard to accept. The good weather I’d been waiting for had finally arrived and there were 10 possible days left for the trip. But all my fingers were frostbit and swollen, and I could no longer work the zippers on my tent, sleeping bag, and clothes.

What were the most memorable parts of the whole trip for you?

There are a lot of memorable moments, especially the flight over the Deosai Plateau, a wilderness plateau, 4,500 meters high, populated with brown bears, snow leopards, gray wolves, and ibex. Crossing a huge valley to Baltoro was very challenging, with 70 kilometers of glacier and no escape route. And the ascent up the Baltoro Glacier was magnificent. I was flying among summits that I’d been dreaming about for years. I even tried to touch several of these legendary summits, like the Trango Towers, with my feet.

And what about flying over Broad Peak?

Yes, to top off this terrific experience, I flew over Broad Peak. I have always dreamed of flying over an 8,000-meter mountain, and it was pure chance that it was a summit I had attempted in 2008. Nobody had successfully reached 8,000 meters, and there had been just one flight that made it up to around 7,700 meters. I had such a strong impression that it was impossible that the next day I almost thanked my frostbit fingers for reminding me that it hadn’t only been a dream.

This interview was translated from French.

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