Expeditions: Fly the Unhinged Skies


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Outside magazine, January 1994

Expeditions: Fly the Unhinged Skies

Off on a “crazy” hopscotch of the Andes, it’s Didier Favre, sky pilot
By Brad Wetzler

“‘Crazy’ is better than ‘insane,'” says Swiss hang glider Didier Favre in his hyperactive French accent.

Favre, 46, offers this murky clarification regarding his Insane Crossing of the Alps, the title he gave to an expedition last summer in which he became the first person to traverse those mountains via hang glider, flying 750 miles across Italy in 30 days along a jagged Monaco-to-Slovenia path. Favre dubbed the trip “insane” to begin with, but he’s decided “crazy” is more apt.
Why? “It was crazy because I got to fly around, meeting with animals and shepherds,” he says. “Also because no one had done it before.”

This month, if all goes well, the eccentric Favre–a lean man who favors lumberjack plaid and calls himself the Vagabond of the Air–should have the best of everything: a crazy trip with the insane-sounding title of Chile Bivouac Wings. In this outing he’ll glide nearly 1,000 miles, following the 17,000-foot-plus spine of the Chilean Andes from Valparaiso to Iquique.

Glider pilots have traveled long distances before (the world record for a continuous flight is over 300 miles), but after taking off from a high bluff or peak, pilots typically land on flat terrain. Favre’s innovation is to alight on high mountainsides, sometimes on slopes with dicey 30-degree pitches. He then camps, waits for good flying weather, and takes off again. Linking
these hops, Favre can move across an entire mountain range. “We are stupid for not traveling this way more often!” he insists.

That’s a minority opinion; Favre appears to be the world’s sole practitioner of this sport. A former European hang-gliding champion who helps pay for his jaunts with earnings from a security systems company he once owned, he turned to “bivouac flying” full-time after an intense epiphany during a 1991 flight in the Alps. “I landed on a mountaintop where a woman was living in a
cabin,” he recalls. “I wanted to stay longer, but Ihad to get back to my business. I decided that night to give up my company and become a bivouac flyer.”

So far the only wrinkle, as Favre cheerfully admits, is that he’s landed in the hospital twice. In 1989, at the end of a five-day flight from Chamonix to Nice, he crashed on a rocky mountainside, breaking his collarbone. He suffered a worse bang-up in 1992, as he “showed off” for reporters on hand to cover his first attempt at crossing the Alps. “I ran downhill and my glider
started flying, but I kept running,” he explains. “You see, I forgot to attach myself to the glider. I fell off a four-meter drop and broke my arm. After that I say, ‘Didier, you have to change.’ Now I’m a vagabond.”

On those days when all goes right, Favre sets out at noon, when thermals are percolating. Later, having covered 20 to 30 miles, he scouts a landing site. Like any good hobo, he spends his evenings cooking soup, playing the harmonica, and when possible, partying with the locals, on whom he relies for assistance. “Without the shepherds,” he says sincerely, “I cannot do bivouac
flying.” At the behest of his worried family, however, his $25,000 Chilean expedition will feature an EPIRB emergency beacon that he’ll use if he’s seriously injured.

In Chile, Favre will walk his delta-wing glider up the highest mountain he can find, fasten in, and break into a downhill trot until he feels his wings catch a breeze. How long will the trip north take? “I don’t know,” he says, displaying a vagabond’s annoyance at detail. “Two weeks? One month and two weeks? I hope it will be long enough.”