News and Events

Wanaka Hike and Fly
9 June 2022

(From Airborn Magazine, issue #222. Written by Lorraine Johns.)

When race director Kinga Masztalerz told me she would be running the second edition of the Wanaka Hike and Fly on 11 to 13 February 2022, rain or shine, I wondered what the chances would be of needing a reserve repack after trudging through three days of downpours. Nobody had much to say about the forecast for days two and three of the competition. However, on the eve of the race, our weather guru Louis informed a roomful of eager pilots that the forecast for day one was one on which “records could be broken”. The resulting standard for the podium was demanding, with third place getter Bradley Franks flying just short of a 100 kilometre triangle on day one, and a single point separating the winner, Ben Kellett, and runner up, Aaron Ford. Having worn wounds into my feet from walking, I was keen to talk to our champions to find out the usual things, like where they flew, whether it was fun or terrifying or something else entirely, what all their race secrets are, and just how tech savvy a champion pilot must be. Ben is the first person to have told me that they got into hiking because they got into flying. It’s not unheard of for trampers to convert when they realise that it’s not just wishful thinking to imagine they don’t have to walk down. However, for Ben, cross-country flying was what lured him into adventuring by foot. Ben had no grand plan when he took up paragliding – just a bit of spare cash and a need for a new hobby. After an intro day on the training hill, Ben was promised a flight off Coronet Peak if he came back the next day. The addiction was instantaneous, “F*** yeah, I guess I’ll see you guys tomorrow”.

Brad also came to paragliding in a spontaneous way – a 30th birthday present while travelling around South America presented another opportunity for adventure. At first, he mostly flew new sites, travelling to fill his logbook with hours. It wasn’t until he moved back to New Zealand (to Queenstown), where for the first time he lived in a place with a flying community, that things really took off. Like Brad, Aaron comes from a climbing background. When asked about his motivation for taking up flying, Aaron doesn’t hesitate, “I could climb peaks and not have to walk down”. He found himself one day watching a speed flying video of people flying through a gap in cliffs, leading him to google “learn to paraglide” mid-video. By the time everyone was through that gap he was on his way to joining their ranks.

Sanae above Mt Roy, Lake Wanaka in the background. James Gibson ©
Athletes: Aaron Ford, Ben Kellet, Bradley Franks, Chris Wright, Damian Chapparo, Darren Hassett, Dave Butson, David Cleary, Doug Patterson, George Fraser, Jesse Dhue, Jessica Schofield, Leo Jesus, Mark McInityre, Sam Lees, Sanae Noguchi, Thomas Wright, Ulises Cabrera, Lorraine Johns. RaCe COMMIttee: Kinga Masztalerz (Race Director), James Gibson (Photographer), Tobias Joechle-Rings (Safety Officer), Doug Patterson (Technical Officer), Alexis Perez (Race Assistant), Louis Tapper (Weather Guru), Ross Desmond (Scoring and IT), Lorraine Johns (Race Secretary)

Neither Ben, Brad, nor Aaron set out to become XC addicts, with Ben and Brad attracted to the adrenalin of acro and Aaron focused on getting back down hills as quickly as possible. For Ben it was a hike and fly with Aaron from Sugarloaf up to Pluto Peak and Mount Earnslaw/ Pikirakatahi that “lit the fire”. As Ben says, it was a defining “Holy S***, what just happened? That was spectacular!” kind of moment.

Ben was among the first to get away on day one, quickly taking advantage of the cloud street leading from Wanaka to Queenstown.

“The first day looked good to go anywhere, but the best and easiest place to fly when it’s that good is in the Shotover, as the thermals are great and you can fly higher without breaking airspace.”

Ben had entered a 200 kilometre task into his instrument and the idea was to just keep going and do as much of it as possible over the three days. Ben and Aaron kept company for much of the day, a memorable moment coming early on when flying together for the first time over Mount Aurum. As Aaron observes, Mount Aurum is in intimidating and spectacular surrounds where the mountains are bigger, the valleys deeper and gnarlier, the airspace is low, and “there is a fine line between breaking airspace and being flushed into one of the many gorges.”

Bypassing a stable-looking Coronet Peak, Ben and Aaron flew to Glenorchy with Brad close behind. Some of the race turnpoints required “feet on ground” and another great moment for Ben was surprising some tired trampers on this stiflingly hot day, when spiralling down to land next to the hut on Mount McIntosh. He recounts that he spent twenty minutes trying to get down to snap some selfies, then couldn’t get a climb back up until he pushed over to Mount Larkins where it was “going off like a fish milkshake” at 7.5m/s.

Aaron and Ben parted ways at this point, with Aaron continuing on to Cascade Saddle while Ben flew back via Moke Lake to Coronet Peak.

“I haven’t flown that line before and it is right on a line between controlled airspace to the south and airspace to 9,500 feet on the north, so it felt very naughty”.

Ben landed in shade at six that evening to claim the Roses Saddle feet on ground turnpoint, assuming there would be no way to get out from there, other than a glide out the Motatapu. However, to his surprise, the air was still working.

“I thought no way will I get a climb here, but I went up again! It wasn’t super strong; just nice, wide, and smooth lift at 1m/s right up to seven thousand feet. I knew that with every climb I had from there, the walk back to Wanaka would become shorter.”

Gentle climb after climb took Ben all the way to Middle Peak meaning that no walking at all was necessary to make Wanaka, and he went on final glide to the Mount Barker turnpoint after a mega six-hour flying day.

“I didn’t feel at all tired, so I boosted it to the bottom of the Mount Maude track ready to get the waypoint the next day.”

In the meantime, Aaron was blasting his way through Mount Aspiring National Park carrying out his “crazy, far-fetched” flight plan through terrain so incredible that it completely distracted him from tagging some of the turnpoints.

“The day didn’t seem good at first. Normally there are a lot of birds soaring, but it was stable and there was wind on the lake. It was an awesome moment when I realised that it was working and we would get to fly. It was amazing to chase after Ben, flying above the clouds and through gaps in them.”

Like Ben and Brad, Aaron was after a great line rather than worrying about making it back to the finish. On his list were several personal paragliding firsts including Mount Aurum and Lochnegar. However, it was perhaps his flight through the rocky moonscape of Reef Saddle and the Centaur Peaks with a cloudbase of 10,500 feet that left the greatest impression.

“To me flying through there is just world-class paragliding; definitely epic.” Aaron’s dramatic line from Glenorchy to Cascade Saddle, on to the Buchanans, then over to Hawea earned him the “Best Flight” award. Aaron describes the route through Cascade Saddle as complex, with massive peaks, rocky spines resulting from glacial recession, and big gorges all culminating in a pressing need not to land.

Aaron thought that finishing by crossing Lake Wanaka “would be an awesome move” but figured it would be too windy with the forecast northerly. However, “the lake was glassy with a light southerly and no sign of the northerly – it was a beautiful glide across the lake following a line of convergence.”

Aaron finished his day’s point tally by top landing on the feet on ground Mount Maude turnpoint, only to encounter a tail wind when relaunching. After six attempts he made it off the hill and glided to the opposite side of Lake Hawea.

Kinga and Alex setting up the start line. Photo James Gibson ©

Meanwhile Brad was busy finishing his “dream flight” to Mt Aurum and back up the Richardsons. Brad says he started by bouncing round the course collecting turnpoints, but by the end of the day became more focused on closing the 100 kilometre triangle that was in reach. Although he studied the turn points at length before the race, he didn’t have time to download them – he ended up getting them from Ben just before the race started, in alphabetical order, resulting in a jumble of lines across the screen of his instrument.

“I had to keep changing between flight and map mode and going into the Wanaka Hike and Fly webpage to load Google Maps and work out which points required feet on ground and which didn’t, all while trying to manage pretty active air.” He adds he had been too busy leading up to the race to get everything sorted, so just rolled with it, using a pen in flight for his touch screen.

Ultimately, it was the lure of four points for tagging Mt Aurum that enticed him on glide over the Shotover. Like Ben and Aaron, flying over Aurum for the first time was one of Brad’s most special moments, “the stakes there are high, but it is stunning”. As additional wow moments, Brad cites thermalling with a sailplane to 10,500 feet in open airspace “in the middle of nowhere”, then flying over Vancouver, due to the stunning visual of the clean consolidated sheer shist, worn away to one lingering layer.

“I thought that the sailplane pilot must be thinking ‘what’s this nutter doing so far from home’.”

Brad eventually bumped back into Aaron. Together they forged their way over to the Shark’s Tooth through significant wind in some places and along beautiful lines of convergence in others, before parting ways as Aaron continued his ambitious line north while Brad followed the convergence home with a 15 kilometre final glide.

Ben thermalling up with Mt Aspiring in the background

Ben, Aaron, and Brad all agree that it was a day of “big air” with Brad adding that “it was definitely hold on to your pants at some stages”. For all three, the biggest problem, however, was simply not breaking airspace. Ben recalls watching Aaron glide down the Harris with big ears and speed bar on.

“It was some of the strongest conditions I’ve flown in. Lake Luna was white capping but when I looked down at Lake Wakatipu, it was still. Lochnagar was also white capping. The mountains were pulling all this air in, showing how much power they have to make something like Lochnagar white cap!”

Brad had to fly away from Soho as the huge cloud on it “looked like an airspace breaker” and by the time he got to Roses Saddle “I was going up so fast I didn’t know what to do – I had to fly away before breaking airspace”. He adds that while it was a big day, he didn’t get any collapses and “the air was very uniform – if it was going up it was going up fast, with big areas of sink – it knew what it was doing”.

Brad finished his day in style, receiving a sportsperson award for landing at his car at Roy’s Peak (as he had no support crew in attendance to pick him up elsewhere) then driving to Lake Hawea to pick up Ben.

As the first day closed, Brad was back at the starting line near Roys Peak, Ben was below Mt Maude, and Aaron was at the base of the Pakituhi Hut track, with all three planning to walk to the hut the next day to claim the night turnpoint and enjoy the party. Joining them there were the race committee and a couple of additional competitors.

Ben spent day two nabbing the Mount Maude, Grandview Mountain, and Breast Peak (that one without realising) turnpoints on foot with Chris Wright. Aaron simply popped up to the hut via the Breast Hill turnpoint not realising the race with Ben was so close (both seemingly having had unbeatable flights the day before).

Brad told me that he had been following me from Wanaka, but I hadn’t looked at High Cloud to see where everyone was because I was trying not to use my phone in case I accidentally stopped my tracklog (which, of course, I did anyway). If you want to track on Flyskyhy you have to be able to run at 10.8 km/ hr (3m/s) for 10 seconds to get it started, which doesn’t always feel possible …

Racing started again at 6:30am on day three. I had been awake early dreading getting Flyskyhy started in the rain with stiff morning legs and severe blisters. I thought I might be the first one to leave but I didn’t count on Ben getting out of his minimalist sleeping bag and walking straight out the door (he explained later that he is “not a breakfast dude”). I ate breaky while our race photographer James generously started my tracking for me.

I felt like a diva when I wandered outside to discover Brad and Aaron sprinting through the mist to get their own tracking started. We discovered later that Ben didn’t realise Flyskyhy could track on the ground and the hardest part of his race ended up being a scramble at the finish to convert his topomap log to an approved aviation file format.

Aaron was the only one to fly down from the hut on the last day, taking off from the Grandview turnpoint in a lull to avoid gusts in excess of thirty kilometres.

“It was pretty exciting in the air – one of my more exciting moments. My wife Sally was on the ground to report conditions, I could see the lake, and I knew what the wind was doing. I knew it was coming and it wasn’t far away, but I had all the information I needed and was pretty stoked to be in the air.”

There is no doubt that Ben, Aaron, and Brad flew through extremely demanding conditions with great aptitude and strength of mind, and I wanted to know more about how they manage to stay calm and fly such a skilful race under such pressure.

Both Ben and Brad credit their background in acro, which they describe as advanced glider control, for their comfort in thermic turbulence. Ben is thankful he started with acro before coming to cross country.

“It would be exhausting to fly in the mountains if I didn’t have a solid background in acro. I’m comfortable flying in pretty turbulent conditions. I don’t think about it too much and that allows me to focus on other things, such as my next move and looking for the best place to find a climb.” He also reflects that next year he will get a “way nicer pair of socks” to replace the old pair of budget socks he was using.

Winners Podium L-R; Lorraine, Jess, Brad, Ben, Aaron

For Brad, his background in acro means that “it doesn’t matter where the wing is; you’re never scared of what it’s going to do next because you already know. As Brad says, stalling is something he does a lot so it helps when “a stall is not something you think about – it’s as normal as taking off.” When asked what he might change for next year he concedes, when pressed, that he will “perhaps sort the tech”.

Aaron’s top tip to future competitors is to be prepared and stay focused.

“A big part of it is being able to use your instrument to see where the turnpoints are and the radius of the cylinders. Plan ahead, watch the sky, and don’t give up. Keep flying until it stops and you land!” He also had three pairs of shoes for the race and much better socks than Ben.

All three plan to return next year for the third edition and we can’t wait to see how they go.


First overall: Ben Kellet; Second overall: Aaron Ford (also Best Flight award); Third overall: Bradley Franks; First woman: Lorraine Johns (also Mad Hiker award); Second woman: Jessica Schofield (also Best Adventure award); Sportsperson awards: Sanae Noguchi, George Fraser, Bradley Franks; Best Content award: Damien Chaparro.

Above; Lorraine and Kinga at the finish