X-Pyr: Chrigel Maurer and Thomas Theurillat Interview

There’s still thousands of things to learn and improve!

Chrigel Maurer and Thomas Theurillat have won the X-Alps three times and entered the X-pyr for the first time in 2014. The X-pyr is an adventure race based on the X-Alps, where competitors must traverse the Pyrenees from Atlantic to the Mediterranean by walking or flying. This year the race was 440km. The CTR around the dropzone at the Empuria Brava skydiving centre meant that there was a 30km hike at the end of the race. 

In his article Flying is like an Iceberg he talked about using this race as a learning experience. We caught up with Chrigel and Thomas just after they landed on the beach in Port de la Selva and asked them about the race, what they learnt and what the future holds.

JM: Congratulations on your excellent win. Can you tell me a bit more about the race and how it went?

Chrigel Maurer: Yeah, it was exciting. It was a strenuous five days. A wet start, then good flying conditions and then a long walk to the Mediterranean. It’s also pretty hot. I am happy to be here. 

Judith Mole: The last 30km walking must have been a bit annoying?

CM: I knew it was coming. If you know what to expect then it isn’t so bad.

JM: What do you think is the difference between the X-Alps and the X-pyr?

CM: The scenery. The competition is identical. The rules are the same but the terrain is completely different. There are more hills, less steep valleys, the roads go up and down in zigzags. In the Alps there are long valleys. This is the main difference and this makes the race more difficult and tactical.

JM: How did you prepare for the race? I saw a video of you where you said you had flown in Ager before, but you Thomas have never been in this area before. So what did your preparation involved?

Thomas Theurillat: One aspect of our preparation was that we didn’t do any preparation. In a competition there are two aspects: the process and if you make the process good then you get a good outcome. We need to improve the process. So you need to make good decisions and to improvise well and we thought about these aspects a lot. We thought about what we don’t need. 

Chrigel did a lot of extreme sports training in the winter so that it was physically possible for him to achieve this feat. One thing you can’t influence are circumstances, so it’s not worth even worrying about them. The wind, weather and terrain and the situation are as they are and with those factors you have to try to cover distance. This is what interests us.

JM: You said in your article “Flying is like an iceberg” that you want to use the X-Pyr as a training opportunity but you didn’t elaborate on what you actually wanted to learn. Can you tell us more now?

CM: Fundamentally I think it’s important to have new learning goals all the time. To do new things and to improve all the time. And we thought to ourselves, if we are in a new area, with a new challenge, we’re learning how to respond to this challenge. We thought about how much we need or how little stuff is required to fulfil this challenge. For example, I arrived here by train, with two rucksacks. I have two pairs of shoes and my paraglider and it was exciting to see if it would work.

TT: Also, since 2009 we have been examining how we can optimise all these small aspects that make this complicated adventure. And we kept doing more. For example, we took ten pairs of trainers and this time only two. The reason is that we wanted to know if it’s better if we have more of everything or if it’s an advantage to have less. We wanted to take the risk. I only brought one pair of trainers. In the morning I don’t need to make a big decision… I just put on my shoes. That’s on the equipment side, but for example in terms of getting information… if you are in an unfamiliar area you need to get info on where you are. Before we carried 50,000 maps. This time we had three. And we still managed to find the way.

JM: Well, yes, you’re here!

TT: Yeah! We did it without a box crammed with 200 maps. I could give you a long list of things we changed. We just looked at the barriers we were facing and worked on those. And next week and the week after we will analyse this trip and see how else we can improve.

CM: For me one of the most interesting things, and where I learnt most, was in the flying. I do coaching and personal training where I teach pilots how to fly efficiently. But it’s very difficult, so I wanted to try to fly like I tell people to fly. For example, when you are low and you know you need to get high, but you carry on flying and then have to land, you need patience in that situation. Or searching for lift and thermalling efficiently, using speedbar, all these things can be done more efficiently. This was something I wanted to learn when I was in the air. 

TT: There are so many aspects to this. A long time ago we both agreed that Chrigel needs to fly and can’t take responsibility for me. I have to know if I am good enough or not. Like an hour ago when we were on an unfamiliar take-off and I did the classic thing of thinking ‘ah, I don’t need to think about this, I have Chrigel with me’. For my safety, it’s better for me to imagine he is not there. I mean when he isn’t there I have to make these decisions myself. So it’s important to me that I check the terrain myself, because that is what we agreed. Everyone has to look out for themselves. Like if I am on a launch and the wind is wrong I have to just blend Chrigel out and do a good take off. And in the air if I don’t like it, I go and land. I don’t have to carry on flying just because he’s still playing around. There’s thousands of little things like this… too many to list.

JM: So did you see this as a successful learning experience?

CM: Definitely. The weather was so changeable. One day we had a lot of rain and mud, one day with extreme heat. One day I flew all day, another I had short flights but lots of them. We had it all. Five days where we had all kinds of weather except snow. We didn’t use crampons, but we needed everything else! It was the ideal situation for us.

TT: For me these adventures have a personal angle. These races take up a lot of time, so it has to be worth it for me. Normally a learning curve is roughly shaped like an ‘S’. At the beginning one doesn’t know anything, then you get good, then you have a really steep learning period and then it levels out again. I’m one of these people who is only interested in doing things where the learning curve is steep. When I can do something and I know how it works then I’m no longer really interested. And with us, every time I think I really know how to be a good race supporter, Chrigel and I have a great conversation and my learning curve become very steep again! The level just goes up. And then I think ‘Am I still the right person for this role?’ And I think about how I could do things better and I am learning something again. I mean on Tuesday night I had a moment where I thought ‘I’ve had it with driving and shopping’ and then we had this super conversation and I realised there is still loads of stuff for me to learn and the bar just went up again. I really can still improve things. 

JM: So what’s the future? X-Alps again, but in a faster time? What’s the plan?

CM: First I am competing in the Europeans, work, family and the X-Alps is in 2015, so a long way off. But these fly/hike competitions and adventures are something we need. Being outdoors. No phone calls and emails. I think we will continue.

JM: People talk about an X-Andes or an X-Rockies. Which mountain range would tempt you most?

CM: To me its clear that the X-Alps is dangerous and the X-pyr is even more dangerous. I don’t want to push it any more. In Europe, or in the Alps, mobile coverage is good, which means you can call for assistance and rescue services are well organised. In the Pyrenees coverage was patchy, sometimes non-existent. I don’t know how good the rescue services are. There are other mountain ranges which are even more difficult. And I think it would be irresponsible for me to compete there. If you just go there on holiday, without the competition stress that’s ok. Big XC destinations like Brazil would tempt me but for a competition it’s too dangerous.

JM: You say it’s dangerous. Can you explain more?

CM: For example, I fly into a valley and I have no idea what’s there. If something happens to me and I crash, and it’s not fatal, then I need assistance. And rescue is generally guaranteed in the Alps. In the Pyrenees I don’t know if that is the case but I have been in Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and have seen accidents where help arrived too late. And that makes it too dangerous for me. In the X-Alps we didn’t risk more because the rescue services were more readily available but I think the mix of the task, competitiveness and paragliding makes it dangerous. On the other hand, it’s also dangerous to drive home from here. Driving on the motorway at 100km/h is dangerous. But if you have an accident on the motorway, help will arrive pretty quickly and therefore it is safer.

TT: What I think is important is that we’re at a point that we’ve been very fortunate and privileged that we’re learning a huge amount and have been able to experience so much. I sometimes feel so lucky because of what I have been able to see and experience. And I am at a point where I can move to the next step. For example, we never thought we would give talks or presentations. And then last year we said we’d take a camera along and maybe we’ll tell someone our story or maybe someone might be interested if we held a talk at the local sports centre. We had no business plan or concept. And now that has snowballed into an avalanche. And I find it exciting to do a project where you have to sit down and think about how to convey this to people who don’t have the privilege or fitness or the attitude to say ‘Hey I’m going to the Pyrenees for ten days! Sleep in a field and see what happens’. Maybe they need to escape from their regimented lives and have the feeling of a little adventure. And we try to share our experiences with them.

The X-Alps or the X-pyr is more interesting to the public because it is intuitively clear what the competition is about. And it’s also an outdoor sports event with a clear goal and it is clear to everyone how it works. So in talks to business people, you don’t use people who have invented something and written a book about it, an achievement, a summit or a goal, that is what inspires people. There’s so many possibilities there.

JM: I saw your TED Talk. I was very impressed. It was really good. Both in terms of presentation and content. 

TT: There are business people interested in sport. They are inspired by famous mountaineers. I think the next step for Chrigel and me is to learn something from the business world. There is a study about successful companies where they examined 1,500 businesses and looked at why they are successful. The analysis found that 3% is the economy, 30% is the industry sector, 33% is positioning and that leaves 34% and that is luck. And when I look at the X-pyr and our sport, I can transfer that completely. Economy – you can compare that with weather. Whether it’s good weather or bad weather really makes no difference. It is the same in business – in financial crisis there are businesses who do well and others fail. So it doesn’t matter. Industry sector – you can forget that. Chrigel flies well whether he’s on a hang glider or a sail plane. Positioning – that’s when you can describe in one sentence what you do or produce. Or your contribution to the market. And in Chrigel’s case, if he was a company it would be absolutely clear what he is good at or what he’s selling. So if your positioning is good then you can tackle the 34% luck. And we do that by being in the right place at the right time. I think we can learn a lot from the business world. 

On the second day of the X-Alps in 2009, when we were on the Schmittenhöhe, that was a key moment in the competition. We were in the good position and we knew that Chrigel doesn’t walk as fast as Toma Coconea, so we knew he had to get up the mountain and fly. And when we got up there, he got his 34% luck. There’s still thousands of things to learn and improve!

Chrigel Maurer does XC and flying coaching and personal training. He delivers this in the Swiss Alps and offers this service in English as well as German. To make a booking, check out his web site at

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