Colder but wiser after the ice box
Bear Grylls undergoes freezing wind trials in preparation to fly higher than Everest
These past few weeks have been a blur of frostbite, sore backs and oxygen deprivation... and we still haven’t left Britain. We are pretty bushed but, let’s hope, finally ready. We set off next week and, if I am honest, I am a little scared.
This month we have taken our first flights on the new machine. Bear in mind that taking off with our normal 20hp machines on our backs can be quite an undertaking, then imagine what it is like with a 100hp engine. I needed two other people just to help me to my feet and support me.
The tandem-style wing, when laid out carefully on the ground behind, is vast and requires twice the effort and running speed to get it inflated. After three aborted attempts in a field in Wiltshire, I was pouring with sweat and completely exhausted.
On my fourth attempt, the parajet wing came up solidly above my head, I opened the throttle, a noise similar to a racing car leapt from my back and the parajet literally blew me off the ground. I was airborne. I had to hold the engine back to about a quarter throttle, but still I was climbing at more than double the rate that I had ever climbed before — more than 800ft a minute. Under parachute, going up, that is fast. Gilo, my fellow parajet pilot, then took off and almost broke the world altitude record with it. (The current powered paraglider world altitude record of 6,102m (20,019ft) was set by Ramon Morillas Salmeron over Spain last year.)
Since that flight our confidence has grown. We have taken off many, many times with ever-increasing amounts of fuel, kit and weight. Now all that remains is to be able to do it at 15,000ft, five miles south of Everest, and probably at night, when the winds are lowest. Time will tell.
Last week we also went to MIRA, a car-testing facility in the Midlands, where we strung ourselves, and our paramotors, up in a wind chamber. It is effectively a giant deep freeze with enormous fans. For two hours we were blasted by winds up to 80mph with temperatures reaching -75C. I have never experienced such penetrating, heart-stopping cold. Even with two balaclavas, helmets, three sets of gloves and four sets of thermals, the wind and cold sneaked in everywhere. Discomfort was the order of the day, even to the extent of having anal probes inserted to make sure our core temperature didn’t become life threateningly low. At the end, we had to be helped out of our harnesses, blue and numb. Colder but wiser. We have since upgraded boots, gloves and everything.
We have also now packed up all the kit and shipped it off to Nepal. Gilo’s Parajet factory in Wiltshire became a heaving mass of boxes, oxygen cylinders, parachutes, radios, helmets, down suits, flares, lightweight ice axes, crampons, tents, sleeping bags, food, oxygenated fuel barrels, you name it... oh, and two remote-control aeroplanes, just for fun.
The only items held back by us were the Everest parajet machines themselves, which will follow this week. We needed them here until the final moments, to give us as much time as possible to continue testing them in the hypobaric chambers, to tweak the fuel-management systems and on-board computers and make sure all the wiring is insulated to survive the sub-zero temperatures. (In the wind tunnel the engine actually cracked with the cold... it has since been modified.)
This is the most ambitious and dangerous project I have undertaken. But, despite the nerves, I have confidence in our preparations, so if we keep our cool, make good judgments with the weather, cover all our emergency plans, then give it our everything, I believe we can meet the challenge. But whether we do or don’t, at least no one can say we haven’t pulled out all the stops.
What I know already is that I am so proud of my team. To have reached this stage is a huge initial achievement. My next report will be from base camp, in the shadow of Everest. Pray for us, if you have time: for good luck, good weather and a safe homecoming. © Bear Grylls/Telegraph Media Group Ltd 2007.
GKN Mission Everest aims to raise $1 million for charity, half for local communities in the Americas, Europe and Asia, and half to children’s charities in Africa. (www.gknmissioneverest.com).
Parajet lessons: 08700 116618; www.parajet.com. A taster day costs £120, all equipment included.
Chamber of horror: Bear Grylls and Gilo Cardozo endure a temperature of -75C to test their kit