In these days Xavier and I really discussed a lot the potential routes for XANDES. He really did not have great things to say about XALPS and believed that athletes there were just pushed too far for the sake of selling their energy drink.. He predicted a tragedy ion the making there. " They are so tired, they fall asleep walking, how safe can that be ? " I recalled his words . From this point on I really wanted to scale down any potential hazards around the XANDES race to be held next June 2012. I now saw it more as a FLY IN , perhaps a flight to goal , with minimum turn points, rather than forcing a tight agenda on participating athletes. One thing we were learning fast is that winds and conditions could, and would change rapidly every day. Thus mandatory turnpoints would force pilotrs into situations which may be dangerous as far as the topography , rotors etc. After all it was my aim to just popularize Huaraz for great everyday flying not celerbrate some superhuman event.
Glenn Bitterman was so great with this. He gave endless tandems in his non chalant humble way, to everyone from the media to regular Huarazino residents we met along the way. Glenn also held several ground handling clinics and became such a wonderful ambassador to our so often scrutinized sport. I also have nothing but words of praise for Yamid, our Colombian pilot . Yamid was a responsible and very fit 24 year old Colombian pilot who took it upon himself to help Andy (our paraplegic pilot)n as in piggipacking him to and fro from taxis, as well as helping him launch many of the days there. One day he sbewildered us all by riding a rented mountain bike just an hour before we left and arriving at launch fifteen minutes after us, just in time to launch and fly with us to the valley. Xavier ended up riding his bike back to Huaraz as Yamid out landed on the other side of the river.
We even pondered about giving the 2012 XANDES paraglide pilots a mountain bike leg for the last part of their journey, maybe making it not competitive, but rather just ending in Huarmey itself , with maybe just a fun,ride. We mulled on various possibilities, like just keeping the race portion in The Negra and Blanca with only two turnpoints and giving flyers an option to head south via either the Blanca or Negra depending on their choice and prevailing winds at their time of flight. James also suggested ytop keep all celebrations in Huaraz with perhaps just a seperate celebration in Huarmey with some exhibition dunne flying, a mountainbike rally , maybe some surfing , with films and presentations by night. The Blanca and the Negra (White and Black Ranges) are two ranges running north south along the Huaraz Valley . The Negra reaches high points of maybe 5000 meters while the Blanca is dotted with over 14 , 6000+ meter peaks.
On June 29th, and the first day of the Semana Del Andinismo (Week of Mountains or Andinizm Sports), we found ourselves in the middle of Plaza des Armas in Huaraz and a fine welcoming opening ceremony. There were many speeches by various Mayors, Alcaldes and Tourism evangelists. I was asked to say a few words, which I did , fumbling with my Spanish grammar , trying to keep it proper . It was a late start for our planned flying outing , but we got the whole gong show and caravan to drive up to Wilcacocha for a planned day of paragliding and a picnic lunch. Well, the the winds picked up and although we were tempted to fly , we opted for some ground handling for the press instead. THe Mayor of Huaraz even got out there, his dress shirtsleeves up, kiting his first glider and did a rather nice job of it all.
June 30th brought smaller flights,with a recon trip to the Negra, some flights off the pass to Casma on the second day of the Mountaineering Fest in Huaraz. Benca was kind enough to give us a bus to launch. I botched up my first launch attempt as Hubert and Yamid ran faster past me and managed to launch. Later I tried again but with a sidewind, and my bad ankles, I just coul;d not run fast enough and augered in with a frontal ,hurting my wrist and arm as a result. Hmmm, my launches again , It thought. Xavier and I often joked how we were the only few old schoolers left out there that stuck to their forward launches despite all.
Finally, Friday , July 1st arrived . It was a glorious bluebird day . This was scheduled buy Benquello Morales as a day for paragliding competition as well as a rafting day. Since only one pilot from Peru showed up , our XANDES team would provide the media with a demonstration for Local, National and International Press gathered at a launch we found earlier thanks to the director of Tourism in Caraz. I could not fly this day since my arm hurt too much to maneuver my brakes. I opted just to take pictures and ran around taking care of that task.
At first, two tandems launched with the press, thanks to Glenn Bitterman's relentless generosity and Hubert from Lima. Then, James Oroc, Xavier and Jeff Cristol launched and quickly began their ascent using a convergence lift quickly gaining height. This was around 12;30 pm . By one oclock James spotted Xavier high above him and over 5000 meters heading past Huandoy and Llanganuco Quebrada. James felt a little rough and landed in Yungay. He said the air was getting rather turbulent. Jeff opted to land in Caraz as did the two tandems, also in rather strong conditions at the football stadium. Yamid went hiking and did not fly with us that day. He said the wind was not too bad but over 20K and needed some speedbar to penetrate back to Caraz.
We gave Xavier that night to get in touch as we all often outland and have to walk out so we did not wish to create any panick as of yet .First thing in the morning I sounded an alarm and began calling the Rescue services in Huaraz including the Policia Nacional in Yungay . By noon they sent a first crew up towards Llanganucko to see if anyone had seen a paraglider there. This was Saturday July 2nd and a big day with ski and snowboard races with everyone attending on Pastouri Glacier for www.semanadelandinismo.com , By Saturday night, we contacted Heinrich Berg from the Peruvian Paragliding Ass and asked him to get in touch with The French Embassy about Xavier missing and began rallying for an aircraft to search the area.
Sunday July 3rd, I spent the night and morning taking calls from French authorities. There was a private plane company, UNISTAR, which was willing to start a search, if there was an official request from the French Embassy. Meanwhile bureaucratic infighting and problems with Unistar’s accreditation, grounded the plane for the next two days. I spent the rest of Sunday doing interviews on radio and TV in Spanish, having them translated to Quechua, and asking for any sightings of a glider south of where Xavier was last seen by James Oroc on Friday at 1pm. We kept the glider color a secret thus hoping this would seperate any bogus reports from the real and credible ones
By Monday, July 4th, late morning, a second plane was dispatched after pressure from us , the French Embassy , Foreign Affairs on the Insurer. Another aircraft from the Ejercito (Army) of Peru was dispatched. James, Jeff , Glenn , Yamid and I spent three hours and 459 km in the plane searching primarily the flanks of Huandoy and Huascaran , below glacier level, as cloudbase had built up higher. We did five passes with the plane . The visibility was good at this elevation and a whie paraglider would have surely shown up on the dark grass . Since weather was bad Saturday and Sunday, so we did not lose the valuable airtime and delays due to the beaurocracy which appeared on the scene.
Mike Christiansen arrived on Tuesday July 5th to take over all Search and Rescue efforts . Upon his landing with a small plane Tuersday morning, at the Huaraz airport, we had a bit of a fallout and expressed our differences as far as flying in general in the Huaraz area, Nevertheless, I was glad to have him take over the more military like skills of Search and Rescue co-ordination, leaving me to more familiar duties such as dealing with the media and seeking sightings of Xaviers glider from the villagers, dealing with Tourism and Municipality liasons and communicating with my own crew as well as friends which were now all in a state of shock over the entire incident.
Mike Christiansen in the meantime went into full rescue mode and with two more days of flying, July 6th and 7th, Xaviers yellow reserve was spotted by Alfredo from the Casa Del Guisa on July 7th from the air.
I had been doing everything to try and change my airline ticket to stay longer if need be as my departure home was approaching quick shortly after midnight on July 9th. I stayed an extra last day in Huaraz till the eve of July 7th and was with Benca when we heard the news that Xaviers body was found and was being taken down to Yungay that night. NNobody informed Benca and I and we just missed the press conference at the Casa Del Guias , but managed to find everything out. I did a quick national TV interview, then hopped my overnight bus to Lim,a with Glenn Bitterman. There I spent a day of saying goodbye to various friends and XANDES associates as I settled into my jetliner bound for Toronto and Vancouver. It became a very long 48 hours on my way back home towards Pemberton BC.
Before I end, I wish to thank my friends for their support and understanding , it has not been easy. Peru remains very close to my heart (perhaps too close) and I have a whole other history there including my own lifesaving rescue. But thats another rather long story...