In Switzerland’s Jungfrau Region, two skiers with an unexpected connection pioneer a radical new sport.
Chris Patterson, director of No Turning Back, positions himself on an innocuous-looking patch of snow just off the piste below the Birg tram station, the halfway point between the Swiss village of Mürren and the 9,744-foot summit of the Schilthorn.
It’s late-season and midweek, so the crowds are small, and few people notice when J.T. Holmes skates toward him. Instead of poles, Holmes holds small plastic spheres attached to lines that quickly straighten as he gains speed. The lines are attached to a small, white rectangular parachute, or wing. As the lines gain tension, the wing levers up behind Holmes and settles into position above his head, just as he carves a right-hand turn away from the camera and … disappears.
The tram station sits atop the kind of enormous cliff that makes Americans stare and say, “They put a tram there?” It’s so scary, resort workers saw fit to cordon it off with ropes, rarely used anywhere in Europe’s sprawling, cliffy ski areas. And Holmes just skis straight off it, hoisted aloft by his wing.
As soon as he leaves the snow, Holmes banks a hard left turn and soars alongside the cliff, slowly losing altitude until his skis reconnect on a face that can’t ever have been skied before because it ends abruptly at a cliff band as big as the one above. Holmes carves four large turns and disappears again. When he reappears almost a minute later, he’s more than halfway back to Mürren, a tiny orange speck hanging from a scrap of white.
Back at the Birg tram station half an hour later, Holmes emerges on the deck amid a small crowd of beer-drinking spring breakers. Aside from the bulky backpack, he blends right in. Holmes is one of the most accomplished BASE jumpers in the world, but unlike many of his brethren, he exudes a calm that defies the insanity of his death-defying feats. And if anyone on the deck notices this American Icarus, they make no fuss. This, after all, is Switzerland, and they’ve probably seen speed riding before.
The Schilthorn defines the southwestern corner of the Jungfrau Region, two distinct valleys running south from the resort hub of Interlaken. The area is bordered to the east by a trio of infamous 13,000-foot peaks—the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau—that figure prominently in the history of European alpinism. Grindelwald is the largest town, surrounded by cow- and chalet-dotted hillsides ambling toward treeline. While Grindelwald is bucolic, Lauterbrunnen is dramatic—barely a half-mile wide in most parts and walled in by neck-cramping, sheer cliffs that rise thousands of feet straight up. The Jungfrau Region may just be the most Swiss-looking place in Switzerland.
It’s also ingeniously, relentlessly interconnected. There are 45 individual systems—trains, trams, chairlifts, and a funicular—from Interlaken to the 11,332-foot Top of Europe station, which sits between the summits of the Jungfrau and the Mönch and in turn connects to 132 miles of groomed pistes in three distinct ski areas. On any given winter morning, these systems are filled with slack-jawed Japanese tourists, stylish locals on their way to work, British families on holiday, spandex-clad ski racers, and leather-faced mountaineers nicely accessorized with ice axes and crampons.
It’s those last guys, maintaining the region’s centuries-long tradition of high-alpine exploration, who have lately been taking their exploration even higher—into the sky.
The dream of a land-launched mode of flight using equipment that could be carried in a backpack dates back to the ’60s, but it took about 20 years to perfect various parachute designs. As a rule, paragliders are interested in flying out and up, which means they launch from steep mountain terrain and fly out over the valleys. Once airborne, a paraglider searches for warm, dense columns of air, known as thermals, which provide lift. The wings are large—usually between 65 and 80 square feet—and an experienced paraglider can fly for many hours at a time, often traveling from one mountain valley to another.
As happened with other seemingly impossible sports before it, Europeans took to paragliding with a particular zeal, and competitions and schools popped up throughout the Alps. Interlaken, conveniently located within a short drive of about a gazillion practical and picturesque launch points, became one of the sport’s most active hubs.
By the mid-2000s, paragliding’s next evolutionary phase was under way, led by a small cadre of pilots who were less interested in soaring thousands of feet above the valley floor and more interested in tracing lines down the mountains they launched from. “Speed flying,” as the pursuit was initially called, took place without skis but in thrillingly close proximity to the mountainside at speeds that made the idea of “gliding” seem quaint. Because many of these original speed-flying pilots were inspired by the big-mountain ski and snowboard descents they made all winter, it was a short jump from speed flying to “speed riding,” which combined the two.
In 2006, Ueli Kestenholz, a professional snowboarder from the town of Thun, just west of Interlaken, decided to retire from competition. Over the previous 10 years he had racked up the kind of résumé that earns you celebrity status in winter-sports-mad Switzerland: a bronze medal in GS at the 1998 Nagano Olympics, two World Championship titles, and two Winter X Games boardercross gold medals, with a smattering of big-mountain snowboarding titles thrown in for good measure. But he was increasingly interested in skydiving and freeriding, and the more he heard about it, the more interested he became in speed riding.
“When I saw the first images of speed riding, it was mostly of Mathias Roten, a guy living in my hometown,” says Kestenholz. “Once I saw those images, I knew this was my sport. I contacted him. I just thought we were the perfect match.
Kestenholz’s hunch was right. Over the next two winters, the two men pushed the sport to new levels. They pioneered techniques that helped shift the balance from what was initially a form of paragliding that occasionally and briefly made contact with the snow to a form of freeriding that often and spectacularly took to the sky. Following in the tracks of extreme skiers before them, they notched first descents across the Jungfrau Region, none so celebrated as their successful rides down the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau in a single day.
As happens in any young sport, the athletes were in a constant state of calibration, mastering what was possible with existing equipment and then tweaking it to push the boundaries. When a knee injury sidelined Kestenholz during the winter of 2008, Roten pressed on, focusing on new wing designs that could better control the natural lift created by full deployment. The goal was ever-smaller wings that would fly unobtrusively overhead until the precise moment lift was needed—more riding, less flying. That March, Roten was killed during a solo test flight of a new wing design.
“It was a big shock,” Kestenholz says. “I had a big question mark about whether I really wanted to continue doing the sport if my good friend, and maybe one of the best in the sport, was gone.”
Back in Grindelwald, where we’re staying, Holmes and Patterson are caffeinating in the lobby of the Hotel Belvedere when Kestenholz strides in with a local guide named Martin. Kestenholz’s appearance sets the hotel staff buzzing; even if he weren’t a local hero, with his flowing blond locks and chewing-gum-commercial smile, Kestenholz would be hard to miss.
A few days ago, Holmes and Kestenholz chased each other around the Schilthorn with their wings, and it was the first time Holmes, who’s been coming here for years, got to follow a local speed rider.
“I literally followed Ueli’s tracks for years before I met him,” Holmes admitted earlier in the week, describing how he kept seeing tracks around the Jungfrau Region that blew his mind. “I always thought, ‘Man, whoever is laying these down has some skills.’ Then I heard through the grapevine it was this Olympic snowboarder.”
The guys head out onto the hotel deck to assess wind conditions and scope a handful of the possibilities accessible from the nearby train. Then they go back inside, and Martin and Kestenholz pore over a topo map on a laptop. They natter on in German, the only recognizable words being the names of local peaks, and even those begin to blur into a guttural slew of Schpitzes, Schrecks, and Horns.
“That’s what I was thinking,” says Holmes, raising his coffee mug in a mock toast before heading back outside to sit in the sun while the locals figure out the day.
A half hour later, the crew piles into the train at Grindelwald station for a typically ear-popping morning commute. With all their gear—and Kestenholz—in tow, they draw plenty of attention. But 10 minutes later at 11,000 feet, as the infamous Eiger Nordwand rises menacingly over the train’s left side, all eyes turn to the spectacular scenery on both sides of the track.
In the mid-2000s, at the same time speed riding developed in Europe, Shane McConkey was marrying his passions of big-mountain skiing and BASE jumping. The goal was similar to that of the speed riders, but the formulation was more blunt. McConkey wanted to use BASE-jumping equipment to ski lines that didn’t “go” because they ended in cliffs that were far too big to safely jump on skis. For a guy who won big-mountain skiing titles by consistently finding lines in the venue no one else could see, ski-BASEing made all the sense in the world.
While there’s a psychotic elegance to ski-BASEing (point it off huge cliff, toss poles, toss pilot chute, ride adrenaline all the way to safety), it’s a one-shot deal. Because it must be packed into a relatively small backpack, the chute itself is small. Once it’s deployed, the skier is limited to piloting it toward a safe landing. Speed-riding wings, while smaller than traditional paragliders, are larger than BASE chutes, letting pilots cover more ground laterally while they look for something below to ski. Once speed riders are reconnected with the snow, because the wing remains deployed overhead, they can take to the air either by flying off another cliff or just inducing lift through a process of inflation. With a speed-riding wing, you can actually stack multiple ski-BASE lines within a single run. And the Jungfrau Region has no shortage of likely lines, some comprising as much as 7,000 vertical feet.
There’s also a significant difference in safety. Deploying a ski-BASE parachute is a multistep process, and every step contains the potential for error. Between the moment the pilot chute is tossed and the moment a skier is under a fully controllable chute, a lot can go wrong. A speed rider’s wing is always deployed, thus removing a lot of the danger. And because they can pretty much take off and land at will, speed riders can actually fly away from a fracturing slope as an avalanche begins to propagate.
“It’s 3-D skiing,” explains Holmes. “We get face shots, we can do high-speed carving turns, we can jump off little cliffs, but we can also jump off big cliffs. Or we can fly ourselves from an undesirable section of snow to a perfectly desirable one. A lot of hazards don’t apply to us. It’s like skiing on steroids.”
Holmes, McConkey’s skiing and flying partner, was instrumental in incorporating wingsuits—a sort of full-body wing—into ski-BASEing. They allowed radical body flying between the skiing and the deployment of the chute. Just as Roten and Kestenholz developed ever more aggressive wings for speed riding, Holmes and McConkey were constantly tinkering with equipment to facilitate their ideas. It was the failure of this equipment during a ski-BASE wingsuit jump that killed McConkey a year after Roten died, and Holmes was there, having just completed the same jump moments before.
After McConkey’s death, Holmes left the skies alone for a while and focused on skiing. He returned to the big-mountain competition circuit, chasing a new generation of skiers through the sorts of lines McConkey had skied to win contests 10 years earlier. But in the back of his mind, a seed had been planted.
The year before McConkey died, Holmes had spent a day backcountry skiing in Chamonix. It was a typical day for a skier of his caliber: a lap on the 3,000-vertical-foot Glacier Rond, followed by one down the infamous Cosmic Couloir. “I was at the mid-station, just completely parched and exhausted, thinking I’d had a pretty good day of skiing,” Holmes recalls. “Meanwhile, I was watching these speed riders raging the north face of the Aiguille du Midi. They’re doing 15-minute turnarounds and must have gotten 10 laps that day.”
In 2010, Holmes started playing around with speed flying in Utah. The following winter, he made his first trip to the Jungfrau Region, and he’s been back every winter since.
Below the deck at Eigergletscher, the last train stop before the Top of Europe, Holmes and Kestenholz preside over what’s known in industry parlance as a Gong Show.
Gear is everywhere. Pelican cases with tens of thousands of dollars of Hollywood-quality digital cameras are strewn about next to Holmes’s BASE-jumping rig. Speed-riding wings are laid out on a small snowbank, connected by an endless tangle of lines running to harnesses on Holmes and Kestenholz, who are more concerned with the GoPros. There are so, so, so many GoPros.
“Will this be enough to cover you?” Kestenholz asks Holmes, and it’s not clear if he’s kidding. He himself sports four: one strapped to his chest, one on his ski tip, one on a splint shoved into the tongue of his boot, and one mounted on something dubbed the Unicorn, a 14-inch bracket that extends from the top of his helmet to cover his face and upper body. Holmes has three: one on the front of his ski, one on the back, and one on top of his helmet. Whatever happens next, there will be ample coverage.
A crowd gathers around the group to watch the proceedings. One spectator sizes the speed riders up, then removes his own helmet. He stares forlornly at the single GoPro stuck to the top and his shoulders sag just a little.
After nearly 45 minutes of Gong Show, the group is finally ready to move. Holmes and Kestenholz, carrying their speed-riding wings bunched in their arms like huge neon bedsheets, ski down a wide fin of snow that gets bigger as the piste drops away and, rather suddenly to the camera crew following them, all evidence of the ski area vanishes. Pistes and lifts are visible in the distance, but Kestenholz and Holmes are totally alone on a snowfield that rolls away from the mountain’s fall line and seems to drop gently half a mile or more into a cirque below Top of Europe.
Of course, it does nothing of the sort. Anyone heading toward that false horizon line would be rudely interrupted by a huge cliff so sheer that they would realize, a few feet out, like Wile E. Coyote, that they were more than 100 feet in the air.
With no fanfare other than a quick burst of radio chatter, Holmes skates toward the cliff, his wing inflating above his head. Kestenholz falls into line just behind him. They quickly gain speed, the wings sounding like boat sails under full wind, the noise of which is soon drowned out by the men themselves. Except they don’t sound like men—more like giddy boys about to launch water balloons into a group of girls.
“This is gonna be so fun!” Holmes shouts at Kestenholz.
“Ha! Yeah!” Kestenholz laughs.
And just like that they’re both gone, soaring straight into space toward the cirque while gravity-bound snow tourists make lazy spring turns far below, totally oblivious to the flying skiers above them.
After Roten’s death, Kestenholz didn’t speed ride for nearly a year. He was lured back by the same thing that drove Roten: the chance to experiment with new designs and push the sport forward. But even as new wings created ever more control and made the dream of more skiing and less flying a reality, Kestenholz kept finding himself speed riding alone.
It wasn’t for a lack of potential partners—the Jungfrau Region teems with experienced speed riders who would love to ride with him. Rather, Kestenholz wasn’t able to re-create the dynamic that two athletes develop when they work together to propel their sport onward. That’s a bond few ever experience, and the loss of it created a melancholy that his passion for riding and flying has had to grow around.
Kestenholz reflects on this the next day. He’s sitting in a small stand of trees at the base of a huge cliff outside Grindelwald—just the sort of cliff he might otherwise be flying off. “If you’re doing something so intensely with one person and you understand each other blind, to find somebody else to take that spot is almost impossible,” he says. “It was nice to have J.T. here and to share that passion. He lost Shane, I lost Mathias, so to connect together while doing this sport was intense. It was a good time.”
As it happens, Holmes’s visit to the Jungfrau Region coincides with the fifth anniversary of McConkey’s death. On the train down from Kleine Scheidegg, he explains his emotions in the same even tones with which he describes skiing off thousand-foot cliffs.
“People always ask me if this time of year is hard,” he says. “Nothing could be further from the truth. Late-season was when Shane and I did our coolest trips. Yeah, I miss him all the time, but just look at what we did today. I’m in Switzerland, speed riding around the Eiger. This is still the best time of year.”