The first hang glider flight off Everest…

Posted 2 months ago
Written by Craig Calonica
The first hang glider flight off Everest…
Craig Calonica tells us about the first Hang glider flight off Mt. Everest. It was an historic event that took place on the Tibetan side of Everest on it’s north face. He was one of the lead climbers and along with his friend Steve McKinney one of the organizers of the expedition.

I was up fixing ropes up to the west ridge of Everest when I got news over the radio that the first flight was about to take place down at base camp. Knowing they were going to fly that day, I turned the radio on and attached on the top of my pack so I could hear how the flight went. 

I was leading with 500 ft. long static ropes fixing them as I went along. I was out about 400 ft. on this steep 70 degree waist to mid thigh snow slogging pitch, there was no way to put any protection in and no need too. Near the end of the rope length, the face I was climbing on got much steeper and it went down to knee deep snow with smooth rock underneath my feet. I couldn't get any thing in nor were there any hand holds or an ice axe placement available. I had no choice but to continue upwards while balancing on the front points of my crampons scratching away on smooth hard rock underneath the snow. There was very little keeping me there, my situation was extremely unstable and I was on the verge of taking a 800 ft. fall. I was desperately looking for a way to get through this section when I noticed an old fixed rope left behind from an expedition the season before us off to my right, and so I started to traverse over to it with the hope that the rope and anchor would still be OK.

He is about to take off...

Right then, the radio came alive and I heard someone say he's about to take off... and I was thinking to myself, funny the first flight is about to take place down at base camp and the first flight fixing ropes up on the West Ridge is about to take place at the same time, as I was on the verge of taking a big ass screamer.

The radio silenced and I continued to scratch my way over to the old fixed rope, I was about 10 ft. from the rope when I hear a scream on the radio saying “Oh god he crashed” I almost went flying off the rock face from the jolt of the comment.

After a couple minutes I calmed down, refocused and scratched my way over to the fixed line. I could see that the rope was bomb proof, and so I clipped my jummar onto the rope, took off my pack grabbed the radio and called down and asked who “he” was as there were three pilots on the trip and they did not mention any names over the radio. When they told me it was Stevie I almost shit, but they were quick to say he was OK. 

So, fast forward, Andy Politz (we were the two out ahead fixing ropes) and I continued fixing lines up to the top of the west ridge at 8,400 meters. About 5 days later, Stevie and the rest of the team show up at our advanced base camp, and Stevie comes running over to me saying Craig, Craig... they don't want to let me fly again, they are paranoid and saying I'm going to kill myself. I asked him what happened and he told me he was using Dan Racconeli's harness (he was supposed to come on the expedition but he died two weeks before we were leaving for the expedition) which he never used before and he clipped into it wrong, and so his CG was off. He told me that he knew the right way to clip into it now and he would be OK. Then he said the two other pilots are going to tell me that no way should he fly again. I asked him if he was sure that was the problem and he confirmed that it was, and so I said OK, I'll go talk to them.

You have to pay to get to the level we were at !

When they showed up, they came running up to me frothing at the mouth telling me that Stevie can't fly again. In return I told them I talked with Stevie about it and that he realized he clipped into the harness wrong and that he said he'd be OK now... with that they started screaming at me saying your going to let your best friend commit suicide, you weren't there, you didn't see the flight, no way, no way… he can't fly again.  

On that note I told them that Stevie and I have taken many beaters over the years getting to this point and each time we did we figured out what we did wrong went back up and pulled it off, it was part of the learning process and dues you have to pay to get to level we're at.

I then reminded them that Stevie and I were the ones who organized this trip, and when we did that we bought everyone round trip tickets, and if they didn’t like the way things were happening, then they can leave anytime they wanted too, because Stevie's going to fly again, end of conversation. They knew I wasn’t bluffing and with me supporting Stevie, they had no more to say, and so it was settled Stevie would fly again. 

The plan was to have Stevie fly from camp II which was around 22,500 ft. and do a sleigh ride down to Camp I. at 20,000 ft. Afterwards the other two would get their chance to fly from the beginning of the west ridge around 8,400 m and from there try to catch the wind blowing up the north face and do a touch and go from the summit and then fly back down to Camp I. 

Stevie's flight

The day came for Stevie to do his flight, and I could tell he was a bit tweaked and was probably questioning the clip in point and wondering if that would make the difference because he hadn't been able to try it yet. He also was going to take off with skis, which he had never done before, and he was taking off at an elevation no one had ever flown a hang-glider at before, so he had that to deal with those things as well, but in true Stevie boldness, he overcame the mind parasites went up there and pulled off a perfect flight. You can imagine the look on everyone’s face that questioned us, it was a look of total disbelief. After the flight we didn't say a word, no see I told you he’d be OK, no I told you so’s… we said nothing to that fact, we just smiled at them and said, OK, your turn. 

After Stevie's flight, the weather changed for the worse. I took one of the pilots (Bob Carter) up to Camp III at 8,400 meters so he could try and fly to the summit from there, but the wind was blowing so hard, we couldn’t even stand up. We waited up there for 3 days but the wind never let up and so we came back down and that was it, no other flights were attempted and Stevie walked away with becoming the first and only person to fly off Everest with a hang-glider.  

Click to watch : 1986 Everest Hang-gliding Expedition

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