BBC Home > BBC News > UK

Flying over the top of the world

17 May 07 17:10 GMT
Billi Bierling
Mountaineering journalist, Kathmandu

A British Everest summiteer has become the first man to fly higher than the top of the world in a powered paraglider.

Bear Grylls, who at the age of 23 became the youngest British climber to scale Mount Everest in 1998, achieved a feat that had been deemed impossible by many critics prior to the mission.

On 14 May 2007, Grylls and his fellow pilot and inventor of the parajet engine, Giles Cardozo, took off from the small Himalayan village of Pheriche, which lies at an altitude of 4,400m (14,435ft) about 20 miles (32km) south of Mount Everest in eastern Nepal.

For their amazing adventure the two pilots chose the main Himalayan climbing season, which is currently seeing more than 100 expeditions on both the north and south sides of Mount Everest.

'Clapping and cheering'

However, Grylls, who reached the top of the world on 26 May 1998 and has lived through many other adventures, said the challenges of flying a paraglider at such a high altitude were different from mountaineering.

"The propeller, oxygen bottle and all the other equipment strapped to my back weighed more than 120kg (264lbs). It took me three attempts to get off the ground but when I was finally in the air, I noticed the crowd of people sitting on the ridge clapping and cheering," Grylls said on his return to Kathmandu.

After having waited for about two hours for the launch, which kept on being delayed due to technical difficulties, the Sherpas and employees of GKN, the UK-based technology company that sponsored the Everest mission, had started having their doubts whether this ambitious adventure would actually get off the ground.

"I thought they had a 30% chance at best as it meant getting all the equipment to the mountain at the right time and being lucky with the weather. They only had a three-day weather window, which is very tight," said Andy Elson, British adventure engineer and first man to fly over Mount Everest in a balloon in 1991.

"However, I was proved wrong and it was great achievement for Cardozo's paramotor and for Bear's flying."

Technical challenges

Grylls and Cardozo flew successfully to 8,535m (28,001ft) when a fault in Cardozo's engine forced him to abort only 300m (984ft) below the summit. Grylls continued to ascend until he reached 8,990m (29,494ft) at 0933 local time.

"When Giles descended and I found myself alone so high up I was feeling a lot more vulnerable but I knew the weather and wind conditions were perfect."

"It was so amazing to look into Nepal, India and Tibet and all of a sudden these great Himalayan giants looked so tiny.

"It was a very special moment when I realised that there was no mountain in the world above me, especially after having stood on the top of the world myself nine years ago."

Grylls and Cardozo, who is considered one of the top paragliding pilots in the world, hatched the idea about one year ago when 28-year-old Cardozo invented a parajet engine that would carry them up to 8,848m (29,028ft) - the height of Mount Everest.

One of the main technical challenges was to produce an engine that was light enough to carry and generate enough power to fly in the rarefied atmosphere of the high Himalaya.

Few strings attached

"It felt weird just hanging off a few strings with an engine on your back that produces more power than a truck. It was an incredible experience to be up there and to look down at all these mountains. But I don't think we will ever do this again and I doubt that anybody else will either," Cardozo said.

Prior to their mission both pilots and their 14-member strong team had to go through the regular acclimatisation process, which is necessary to survive at high altitude. The team and 3,000 kg of technical and filming equipment flew to Namche Bazaar, the colourful Sherpa capital that lies at an altitude of 3,400m (11,154ft).

From there they took three days to walk to Base Camp at Pheriche, where the density of oxygen is only 60% of that at sea level.

The pilots were also taking Diamox, a drug that reduces cerebrospinal fluid formation and helps the human body to acclimatise more quickly.

Related BBC sites