PASSION PLAY: EXTREME LEAPS
Hong Kong restaurateur Malcolm Wood explains why he enjoys throwing himself down mountains in pursuit of the extreme sport of para-alpinism.
Hong Kong restaurateur Malcolm Wood explains why he enjoys throwing himself down mountains in pursuit of the extreme sport of para-alpinism
Waking before dawn, you pack your climbing, flying, and ski equipment in the dark. You have probably waited days for the conditions to be just right, and certainly trained hard for months in preparation. Climbing for several hours with the full weight of your gear on your back, you ascend the mountain, scaling near-vertical rock faces and teetering along narrow ridges covered in ice and snow. Reaching the summit, you check the winds, harness yourself into a thin nylon wing and jump off, gliding to the valley below in a matter of minutes, at speeds of up to 100 km/ hour.
Welcome to the extreme sport of para-alpinism. It’s a relatively new pastime; a Google search for “para-alpinism” returns fewer than 1,500 results, and there are only around fifty serious enthusiasts in the world. One of them is Malcolm Wood, the charismatic founder and managing director of Maximal Concepts, the highly successful Hong Kong-based group of dining and lifestyle brands. A lifelong outdoor sportsman, he took up para-alpinism three years ago and hasn’t looked back.
To indulge in this heady adrenaline cocktail, one must first have considerable abilities in a number of disciplines. Counting off the skills on his fingers, Wood notes that you need to be a “decent” rock climber, mountaineer, and pilot, as well as a “reasonably good” skier – because “if you can’t fly off a summit for any reason, you need to be able to ski back down it”. The truth is that entering into para-alpinism requires an expert level of knowledge in all these subjects, plus no small measure of physical strength.
Fortunately for Wood, it was exactly this combination of skills that he had been nurturing when he first encountered the sport. A skier since childhood, self-taught kiteboarder and casual rock climber, the idea of flying intrigued him, but also prodded at his fear of heights. Eventually, he bit the bullet, and tried paragliding.
“When I came off that first flight I couldn’t stop talking about it, it was so amazing. I thought: I need to do more of this.”
Wood spent the following two years obsessively paragliding, and progressed quickly due to his kiteboarding experience. Still, he craved something that would offer even more challenging, off-piste experiences. Then, in 2014, he read about Dave Turner, a pioneering para-alpinist based in California with a background similar to his own. Wood reached out to Turner, “kind of secretly hoping he’d be my mentor.”
In a truly extreme sport, one needs a mentor if one is to progress quickly and safely, and Wood knew this. Para-alpinism is too new for instruction manuals and courses. “The whole body of knowledge comes from experiences,” Wood explains. “It comes from talking to people, researching, learning, asking lots of questions, going to different places, travelling – and you really do benefit from knowing someone who has the expertise.”
accepted the offer, and the pair quickly developed a friendship. Since then, Wood and Turner have done numerous big mountain trips together, each one deliberately planned to develop a new skillset – such as high-altitude flying, which Wood mastered in Mont Blanc last year. “In high altitude regions,” Wood says, “you’ve got to be constantly aware of everything – the full weather spectrum, the temperature grade, the turbulence. It’s a big learning curve, and if you’re trying to fast-track your learning, like I was, you can go through some bumps.”
One of those early ‘bumps’ – a nearly fatal one – happened on Wood’s first attempt to fly a paraglider over a mountaintop. “It was all going well; we had about 200 metres to push to the summit. I was meant to stay over the ridge, and go up, using the converging airflow. Well I flew too far over – into a rotor [a highly turbulent airflow]. It smacked me down and I lost 300 metres in altitude within two seconds. Fifty metres from the ground I heard the guy say on the radio “Left! Left! Left!” I leaned hard, braked… and the wing popped open and just soared off the ground. That was my closest call. Since then, I’ve never gotten myself into a rotor situation. So, there – you learn.”
Shaken but not deterred, Wood was motivated by the incident to train even harder – and by the time he faced Mont Blanc last year he was ready. The trip was a success, and he was rewarded with an unexpected highlight. With Turner, he paraglided around the entire Mont Blanc massif, starting in France, flying through Switzerland, and covering some of the toughest terrain in the Alps. “The whole ride took four hours. It was a phenomenal day, with perfect conditions, and everything I’d learnt was just clicking and making sense. We ended by landing in this beautiful remote part of Italy, right next to a restaurant, and had this simple meal of bolognese with bread and butter. It was just the best meal ever, after that flight.”
Experiences like these are likely the reason that many para-alpinism enthusiasts are, like Wood, successful A-type businesspeople who are seeking the most dramatic escapes available.
“It sounds cliché,” says Wood, “but I enjoy the entire process of training and preparing for each trip. There’s no part of the journey that isn’t satisfying.” But at the end of the day, Wood confesses that while the thrills and challenges are big draws, para-alpinism is, like many such endeavours, “almost a tool, just to get you to those truly special places.” His gaze drifts out the window to the Hong Kong skyline and green hills beyond. “I’ll never get tired of beautiful mountains and climbing to the top of them, being in nature. Those, for me, are the ultimate moments. It’s what life is about.”
BELOW Malcolm Wood had to conquer his fear of heights before he was able to partake in the extreme sport of para-alpinism
THIS PAGE It takes months of training and preparation prior to each of Wood's para-alpinism adventure