Eli Egger paragliding

Eli Egger: the ups and downs of racing the Alps

BY : MALLORY BRITTON  • hike • 25.07.2023

Somewhere between Dufourspitze and Sondrio, at 3,000 metres’ altitude under a canopy of bright white nylon, Elisabeth Egger zips through the air. She wears a weighted vest strapped over her warm base layer and jacket, and a ballast filled with water sits in her lap. She’s been in flight for four hours, with at least three more to go before she can land, stow her paragliding gear in her backpack and hike to that evening’s campsite. Ending yet another day of the Red Bull X-Alps with the essentials. Dinner. A quick physio treatment. And finally, some much-needed shut-eye.  

This is the routine of the 30 or so athletes that compete in the gruelling 12-day adventure race. The goal: run, hike and fly by paraglider more than 1,200 kilometres across the Alps in five countries. A beautiful but punishing course.  

Eli, attempting to become the first female finisher ever, is a firecracker of personality and determination packed in a 53-kilogram frame. A frame which, by paragliding standards, is actually far too small to successfully operate the type of glider needed for cross-Alps flights. Despite the added difficulty on takeoffs, she uses ballasts to supplement her weight so that she can fly a more optimal wing designed for someone 30 kilos heavier. This sense of tenacity was an underlying theme of our conversation.  

Eli Egger paragliding

Hike and fly racing: what it takes 

This was Eli’s first race, and her disadvantages were clear. Although she’s an extremely skilled mountaineer and paragliding instructor, physiologically, Eli is unable to hike or fly as fast as many of the male competitors. And those who fail to reach checkpoints by set times are eliminated.  

By all accounts, no one really expected her to finish. Admittedly, Eli herself had many doubts.  

“I had journalists asking me, ‘Do you really think you’re fit enough to finish this race?,’” she said. “And from male competitors, there was a sense of respect but it was more like, ‘It’s cool that you’re trying, and even if you get eliminated it’s not a big deal because at least you were there.’ 

“It was hard mentally, because when you keep hearing it all the time you begin to think, ‘Maybe I can’t do this,’” she said. “But in the end it made me stronger, because I wanted to prove that gender doesn’t define limits.” 

Having supported another athlete at the two previous editions of the Red Bull X-Alps, Eli was fully aware of the physical and mental stamina she would need to get through the race. Based on that experience, she also developed one key advantage: decision-making.  

“I’m good at collecting information and seeing my options,” she said. “This kind of analytical thinking really made it possible to keep on the route.” Something her male competitors occasionally struggled with: where they often chose riskier flight lines in favour of time, Eli chose strategic routes in favour of safety and ease of flight. 

Eli’s elected team of supporters, a talented mixed-gender group, kept her in check emotionally and physically as she made daily progress towards the finish.  

Eli Egger with fans
Eli Egger with a team supporter
Eli Egger signing the poster

Throughout the race, these individuals took on many roles, often several at once: route planners, physios, photographers, nutritionists, social media managers, coaches, mountaineers, chefs and sherpas. Despite several 4 a.m. wake-up calls, some tears and a few heated moments, the team managed to strike a balance that many others couldn’t. 

“Without them it simply wouldn’t have been possible,” she said humbly.  

After 10 days of racing, Eli made history and became the first woman ever to finish the race.  

“Realising what I achieved, that the dream I had actually came true, it was just awesome.” 

Kitted out and tuned up

We’re honoured to have Eli on the ODLO roster, supplying her with gear for both the ups and the downs of hike-and-fly competition. From 40-degree heat in the Cavalese valley to near-freezing temps at 3,900 metres’ altitude, Eli was kitted out with a selection of ODLO seamless sports bras and warm base layers.

“I kept coming back to the merino bras for multi-hike days because they dry so fast and don’t stink when I sweat all day,” she said. “I also loved the zip on the front of the seamless high-support bras that made them so easy to remove after a sweaty hike.”

Eli Egger hiking
Eli Egger preparing her paraglider
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When I spoke with her, Eli was just a couple of weeks removed from her extraordinary finish, but the buzz hadn’t yet died down. Between answering hundreds of DMs on social media, doing interviews, photoshoots and presentations, and accepting various other invitations, she found the time to talk for a full hour – from a parking lot where she had just completed a training session.

‘The beast,’ as she was dubbed during Red Bull’s coverage of the event, is already tuning up for her next challenge: the four-person Dolomitenmann extreme sports relay in September. It'll be the first time women are allowed to compete. No surprise that Eli is first in line.


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