Hong Kong restau­ra­teur Mal­colm Wood ex­plains why he en­joys throw­ing him­self down moun­tains in pur­suit of the ex­treme sport of para-alpin­ism.

The Peak (Hong Kong) - - Contents - STORY NISSA COR­NISH

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

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