Rare Air: Paragliders Fly K2

In the next few weeks, over 100 climbers will try to summit 8,611m K2 and 8,047m Broad Peak. Tom de Dorlodot, Horacio Llorens, and Ramon Morillas have already made it as high as 7,000m using only thermal currents and their paragliders.

First flight

On Sunday, de Dorlodot, Llorens, and Morillas carried out their first flight. They are the first people to fly to K2, rather than from its slopes. De Dorlodot and Llorens reached 7,010m and Ramon Morillas 6,500m.

Having already soared up the Baltoro Valley, they could potentially still go higher over the next two to three weeks.

They might even try to fly over the Savage Mountain’s summit, which would be a world first. “It seems impossible but we are always trying to dream big…if conditions were perfect, we might try. It is not our main goal, though,” they note.

Ramón Morillas, Tom de Dorlodot, and Horacio Llorens take a selfie at a Pakistan airport.

Left to right: Ramón Morillas, Tom de Dorlodot, and Horacio Llorens arrive in Pakistan. Photo: Ramón Morillas

 

The paraglider altitude record was set last year on Broad Peak. Antoine Girard of France flew above the summit and broke his previous record.

Ground start

There have been several attempts to climb K2 and then paraglide from the summit. In 2019, Max Berger paraglided from nearly 8,000m. Berger has also flown from Camp 3 on Broad Peak.

But unlike Berger, Llorens, Morillas, and de Dorlodot specialize in “cross country paragliding”, which involves taking off from the ground, and then taking advantage of ascending thermal currents to gain altitude.

Their starting point was nearly 50km away from the peaks, at the entrance to the Baltoro Glacier. Before their flight, they told sponsor Red Bull, “The plan is to leave the tents at 3,300m, hike to a launch at 4,000m, and then fly 40km towards Broad Peak.” 

The paragliders flew up in circles like vultures, gaining height. The problem is that these ascending currents rarely reach higher than 6,800m. The end of a thermal current is usually marked by a cumulus cloud.

How to fly up a mountain

“Climbing to the top of an 8,000’er requires thermal and/or strong wind in the axis of the slope to climb soaring,” current record-holder Girard told ExplorersWeb in a 2016 interview. “I have never observed a cumulus over a summit of 8,000m, which proves that [these] thermals are rare.”

The paragliders will approach the mountain flanks until they get hold of the winds that hit the frozen faces, helping them to soar higher.

Horacio Llorens flys his paraglider over a huge Pakistani mountain on a perfect blue day.

Horacio Llorens is also an acrobatic paraglider pilot. Llorens is pictured here on a previous trip to Pakistan. Photo: Horacio Llorens

 

“Soaring requires a very strong wind because the air is light at this altitude,” Giraud explained. “The concern is that the wind we want to carry us to 7,000m will be much too strong at 8,000m!”

After the paragliders reach as high as they are able using the thermal currents, they must fly back to familiar ground. There are no landing spots on the broken Baltoro Glacier. Even if a pilot survived landing there, they might need days to get out of the maze of ice, crevasses, and seracs.

A paragliders’ paradise

Tom de Dorlodot has flown in Pakistan six times before. In 2011, he broke the Asian distance record, flying 226km with Horacio Llorens. This will be Llorens’ third paragliding expedition in Pakistan.

The third team member, Ramon Morillas, is a paramotor pilot who will be in charge of filming the flight. In 2009, Morillas broke the paramotor altitude record, flying to 7,821m over Masherbrum.

“Pakistan is for paragliding what Hawaii is for surfing, or what Alaska is for skiing,” de Dorlodot said.

Angela Benavides

Angela Benavides is a college-graduated journalist specialised on high-altitude mountaineer and expedition news. She has been writing about climbing and mountaineering, adventure and outdoor sports for 20+ years.

Prior to that, Angela Benavides spent time at/worked at a number of local and international media. She is also experienced in outdoor-sport consultancy for sponsoring corporates, press manager and communication executive,and a published author.