Lessons Learned from X-Red Rocks 2021

Some lessons learned from my first hike and fly race

By Pam Kinnaird 10/18/2021

Hi, I'm Pam, a paraglider pilot from the San Francisco Bay Area. This past weekend, I ventured into the realm of hike & fly racing in the XRedRocks 2021 Adventure class held in Monroe, UT! I hope sharing about my experience might be helpful for other pilots (especially female pilots) interested in this incredible adventure sport.

First, a bit of context: I'm a small gal in my mid 30s, 115lb and maybe 5'1" after a good visit to the chiropractor. I've been flying for about 3 years and just started progressing into XC and competition flying in earnest this season.

Recycle bag ✅. Switching harnesses saved me close to 3kg or roughly 20% of my final pack weight.

I signed up for the XRedRocks on a bit of a whim, moments after I read the announcement in late July. The decision was fueled by the elation of having completed my first big task at the Ozone Chelan Open. Although I felt I was getting in over my head, especially given the short timeline, I decided to take the plunge anyway and see what having an even bigger goal would make of me.

Before signing up for the race, I exercised two to three times a week. I’d hiked up to launches a handful of times, but more often than not took the easy way up in a vehicle. I’ve been backpacking a couple times as an adult and wanted to cut my feet off after hiking a few hours with my pack. Not exactly a couch potato, but I wouldn't have felt comfortable calling myself an athlete or mountaineer.

I knew I'd need an order of magnitude increase in my fitness level to even be able to do the initial hikes up to launch, so I reached out to Ben Abruzzo (Gavin’s trainer and supporter for 4 Red Bull X Alps). Over the course of the next two months, I hiked roughly 160 miles and 45000' vertical with my 25lb pack. Given the typical summer conditions here in the Bay Area, that's a LOT of sled rides!

Reaching the top of Ed Levin 1750’ during one of many training treks up this particular “mountain”. Cove, Edna and Monroe make my mountains look like molehills.

Below are some of the biggest lessons learned from this amazing experience, many of which apply beyond the context of hike & fly. I made a number of rookie mistakes, especially on the first two days, and have had to learn quite a few of these lessons more than once! I’m reminded of a quote along the lines of “Success is not the absence of failure; it’s the persistence through failure”... I’ll take it!

  1. Altitude is no joke! This was the biggest X factor for me going into the race. All of my training was done at sea-level. The launches for this race ranged from 8700’ to 11700’, with the hikes starting at least 2000’ lower. The altitude had a significant effect on me and I didn’t feel fully myself until day 3 of the race.

    1. Train at altitude and plan to acclimatize before the race if possible.

    2. Be familiar with the effects of altitude on your decision making and stamina. Increase your margins as necessary.

    3. Develop guidelines for dealing with the effects of altitude (e.g. avoid caffeine and alcohol, increase estimates for hydration/nutrition needs, dial back exertion as altitude increases, use O2, etc.).

  2. Secure all key equipment to your body and/or pack while hiking. I’m well versed in tethering ALL the things while flying, but was lax about this on the first hike of the race. I dropped my phone during an early pit-stop and realized what had happened ¼ mile farther into the hike (thank goodness for the Apple Watch notification). I lost my group and ended up hiking alone, off-road and in unfamiliar territory. If the flying conditions had been on earlier that day I may have missed the optimal launch window.

  3. Level up your way-finding skills before you need them. By always choosing to hike up known trails during training, I never tested this ability. Most of the hikes for this race could be done by following a road, but in every case, that was one of the least efficient routes. I took the road ⅔ days and was often one of the last ones to arrive on launch. This caused me to miss out on good flying conditions and, more importantly, the best snacks had already been gobbled up by the crushers.

    1. Download offline maps (I primarily used Google Maps and Gaia).

    2. Get familiar with reading topo maps and using map apps to make real-time route decisions.

    3. Scout out potential hiking routes ahead of time using Google Earth/Gaia and in person if possible.

  4. Develop and practice a methodical launch prep routine. Mine was scattered and slow which led me to rushing my pre-flight checks on the first two days. On day 3, I spent most of the first hike visualizing my routine and had a much better day of flying as a result.

    1. Have a specific and consistent place for each item while hiking, prepping and flying.

    2. Consider relative placement of pack, harness and wing when unpacking and packing to eliminate the need to reposition things.

    3. Follow a logical order of operations to avoid having to unpack something you might need later. For example, I always wait until the very last minute to pack my pee funnel because I usually need it right before I launch.

  5. Once ready to launch, don't rush pre-flight checks. I missed my brake line “clear-to-pulley” check on day 1. I missed my pod enclosure check on day 2. In both cases, these mistakes cost me the task. On day 1, I had to top land to fix the brake and by the time I re-launched, the wind had picked up enough to prevent me from progressing upwind to the next turnpoint. On day 2, my flight deck was off-angle and I inadvertently locked my main flight instrument screen while trying to adjust it. Since I didn't have enough mental bandwidth or altitude to fix it, I landed low in the valley with insufficient energy and daylight to relaunch and continue along the courseline.

  6. If there is a problem and it doesn't require landing for safety purposes, get high and then try to fix it. On day 2, even though my flight instrument screen was locked, I still had my vario and a decent altitude margin over a landable area. Instead of trying to get my screen back (and losing precious altitude), I should have attempted to climb out to give myself more options.

  7. Before launching, study and visualize the entire task route. This would have helped me make better decisions on day 2 as well. If I’d had better awareness of the next turnpoint and nearby launchable areas (instead of depending fully on my flight instrument), I could have put myself in a better position to re-launch and continue the task.

    1. Identify landmarks visible from launch and on the way up.

    2. Make note of potential cruxes, launches and landable areas.

    3. Have a rough plan for altitude thresholds and overall route strategy.

  8. Optimizing for water and nutrition needs is a much bigger factor in hike & fly racing. This skill is minimally required for entry-level XC & competition flying but is foundational for hike & fly. With Ben’s help, I felt pretty good about how I fared in this area.

    1. During training, gauge how much water you need to hike X miles with Y vertical at Z altitude. I multiplied this by at least 20% to account for my lack of acclimatization.

    2. Be familiar with resupply options so that you can carry only what is needed for each leg of the race (with some padding for the unexpected).

  9. Consider the factors that go into managing your energy levels and optimizing for speed in a multi-day hike and fly race. For me, this is the most fascinating part of the race. When figuring out how hard to go on each hike, where to land, whether to take a steep shortcut, I considered:

    1. Current physical and mental status. Does my body hurt? Am I at risk of overuse injury or blisters? Do I have enough water/food for a faster pace? If I go hard here, will I still be able to launch, fly and land safely?

    2. Weather forecast. What is the expected launch window? Is there a risk of OD? When/how will conditions change over time?

    3. Real-time conditions. How well do they align with the forecast? Is it already on? Is there a visible risk of OD?

    4. Future hiking requirements and potentials. If I go hard here, will I still be able to hike to a future TP/launch if I bomb out? How much gas should I leave in the tank for the next X days of the race?

    5. Way-finding abilities. If I don't keep up with this group, will I risk getting lost? Does that shortcut actually save time? If I land here, will I be able to find my way up to launch?

  10. Pickles are the most perfect snack after a long hike! Thanks Chris and Pickle Rick.

  11. Keep racing! Don't ever assume you're ahead or behind, especially in a race like this when other competitors could be anywhere in the air or on the ground. On day 3, I figured I would be among the last in goal since I'd lost quite a bit of time picking my wing out of weeds at the last turn point before goal. I knew I'd make it by the cutoff time, but wasn't in any particular rush. I even stopped to chat with some friends right outside the goal cylinder (assuming I'd already tagged it). I was completely unaware that 2-3 other pilots were running or flying into goal from different directions at roughly the same time as me.

  12. Having the support of friends and family makes a huge difference. Many people think those of us who choose to hike & fly are a bit crazy, especially when there’s a perfectly good road up to launch. During my hikes, I often agree with them. In those times, knowing I had folks rooting for me kept me going. And it was heartwarming to have a welcoming committee of Bay Area pilots up on launch.

Day 2: Initial hike up to Mt. Edna. By mile 4, I’d resolved to hop in the next truck going up the mountain. There were no more trucks. 🤷🏻‍♀️

Day 2: Hike to goal. Seems like the ground and I were meant to be friends on this day. Didn’t quite hit my target pace of 15 min/mile today nor any day during training. #TrainingGoals

Day 3: 6.5 mile 2000’ vertical hike + valley crossing x 2 + scratch fest over Rodeo Ridge + solid top landing + (really) messy top landing + 2 mile hike = GOAL!

Day 3: Final glide to goal. What a beautiful way to end this adventure!

That’s all I’ve got for now! I’m fully hooked on hike & fly racing and am looking forward to the next adventure. Many thanks to the race organizers, task committee, drivers and Red Rocks Fly-In volunteers for making this truly special event happen. And thank you, Ben, for getting this not-quite-couch-potato into adventure racing shape.