Thursday, August 14, 2014

Pete and Mark's 2014 Summer Epic to Canadian Nationals

Mark and Pete -- 2014 Summer Trip Summary

The Toshiba Memorial Tour

Mark Gardner is responsible for it all.  A few months earlier, Gardinator had suggested going to Golden, British Columbia to fly in the Canadian Nationals.  I procrastinated, but Golden fit in with my intention of flying new sites.  So, eventually, I said, yes, I’m in.

A brief look at the map will tell you that Golden, BC is a long way from Pittsburgh, and by extension there are a lot of flying sites to be found along the way.  Mark had an unaccustomed three weeks of vacation, and the Canadian Nats were only one week long, so even with the long drive out we still had considerable time for flying sites along the way.  After briefly considering a huge southern detour through Arkansas and Oklahoma, we decided to pass through Wyoming/Idaho/Montana to get to British Columbia.

But before leaving we had one other decision to make: which vehicle?  My little Toyota RAV4, the “clown car” in Gardinator-speak, or his Toshiba-owned Chrysler mini-van with gobs of room and a company gas card?  It was an easy decision, and after picking me up in Pittsburgh we headed west on I-70 before jogging north towards I-80 at Kansas City.  Exploiting the mini-van’s roominess we drove straight through, with one person sleeping in the back while the other drove. 

Our exact itinerary had been left loose, and the first decision point was reached at Cheyenne in southeastern Wyoming where we could have taken a right on I-25 towards northeastern Wyoming and the Sandturn flying site which I had not yet flown.  Or, we could continue westward on I-80 towards Rock Springs, WY where I had spent five summers of fabulous flying.  On the one hand, going there would violate my intention of flying new sites, but on the other I had good friends there and the promise of a tow rig from which to fly.  I can’t remember how Mark felt about it, but that’s where we went.

Aspen Mountain and into the Red Desert
Rock Springs is a town at the southwest end of Wyoming’s Red Desert, and one of the world’s truly great cross country areas.  Unfortunately for Mark, most of that potential is experienced from truck-tow launches, and Mark doesn’t like to tow.  Fortunately, the first day after our arrival had WNW winds that were suitable for launching from Aspen Mountain, the only really good foot-launch site in the area (there is also Death Ridge, but that’s another story).  My great friend Johnny Dawson (from Seattle) and our local friend Richard Brickner (a wonderful Tennessee redneck transplanted to Wyoming) chose to drive for us.  This is a part of the world where a driver is essential.  It is an unpopulated semi-desert with scarce roads, and scarcer people.  You need retrieval. 

Mark and I finally launched off the 2,000 ft. vertical hill in fairly strong winds and I soon climbed out at 600 fpm.  Mark had a bit tougher time, but eventually, about 20 miles to the east we began to fly together.   Soon I had to watch him gliding above me after he had hooked a monster climb to near 18,000msl.  Our original plan had been to head southeast along a road into Colorado, east of Dinosaur.  However, the early winds aloft proved far more westerly than forecast, compelling us to take an easterly course through the boonies towards I-80 and the Red Desert.  We had little choice of route as the roads are few, and that really was the only option.  As I had never flown that route (and had forgotten to load western maps into my Garmin) we were lucky that Johnny and Richard were driving (and navigating) for us.  I was sufficiently disoriented that I mistook a distant rail line for I-80, however the rail line was going in the right direction and it all worked out.  We finally made it into the wonderfully colorful buttes at the south edge of the Red Desert, and just south of the interstate.  Unfortunately, as we approached the sixty mile mark at Wamsutter Mark got low and landed.  I managed to climb back to 17K, however the winds had by now switched considerably towards the north which would have compelled me to head south into Colorado along the one available road.  Instead, I burned off ten grand to fly back and land with Mark and the others south of Wamsutter for 62 miles.  It was our first day and I figured we would see plenty more good ones like it.  Mark had gotten about 2:45 and I had 3:20.

Daniel, WY Truck Towing: Gardinator the Tow Driver
We spent the night in Rock Springs, and the following day Johnny, Mark and I drove about 120 miles north to Daniel, WY where we met a very rare individual: an enthusiastic, self-taught, young hang glider pilot who possesses both infinite enthusiasm and an ATOL tow rig.   Nathan is a wonderful tonic for someone as cynical as I am about the sport’s future.  He’s a nice guy and good pilot, and was very happy to have someone to play with. 

 As Mark didn’t want to tow, he was volunteered to be our tow driver for first Nathan and then Johnny.  However, Johnny’s tow was interrupted by a line break that required considerable time to fix.  He kindly decided to pass up his turn to tow again, and let me go.  Of course I then had a line break just off the truck.  It was by now getting very late, Nathan was long gone and I was disgusted.  It was a blue day anyway and by the time I reluctantly got back on the truck it was already 5:35.  

This time I had a good tow and slowly climbed out; unfortunately drifting in the wrong direction to chase Nathan.  I barely controlled my urge to say “the hell with it” and land back at the truck.  That proved fortunate for while the lift was generally only 150-200fpm and never went very high I managed to stay in the air for three more hours, ultimately landing at 8:30 at Nathan’s lz sixty miles to the southeast. 

The most interesting thing about the flight was the last twenty minutes.  It was already eight o’clock and the weak lift was still there, but surely couldn’t last much longer as sunset was near.  I was desperately hoping for one last decent climb to enable me to reach Nathan’s lz when to my surprise I did encounter lift, but not just the weak garbage I had been working, but a core that had long periods of almost 500fpm.  But just as I was relaxing, the thing abruptly slowed down and then became distressingly, spookily turbulent at only 11,000 msl (less than 4,000 agl).

And with that I began the final glide that did in fact get me to Nathan’s lz.  I got there with a thousand feet to spare and began to set up my landing, anticipating landing into the northwest wind I’d seen the entire flight.  However Johnny (who had decided to drive for Nathan rather than fly) reported that the wind was from the east, and getting stronger.  By the time I landed the wind was perhaps 15 mph from the east, and may have provided the answer to what had been going on with that remarkably strong last thermal which had ended so turbulently.  When it occurred, I had been flying parallel to, and about fifteen miles west of the high Wind River mountain range.  It would appear that the big mountains had gone katabatic approaching sunset, and that the easterly outflow from the mountains had triggered that remarkably strong late day thermal.  All in all, it would prove to be my most enjoyable flight of the trip: difficult, rewarding and with an oddly interesting end game.  Better yet, Mark was there within minutes of my landing and we were only about 45 minutes from Rock Springs as I had been flying towards home.


The following day Mark and I drove up to Jackson Hole, WY where we were hoping to fly the magnificent Grand Tetons on the next day.  The difficulty with flying off the top of the mountain is that the site faces south, while the prevailing winds are westerly.  It is a big lee-side rotor, and if one doesn’t encounter one of the rare southerly days, it can be either un-launchable or so turbulent that you’ll wish that you hadn’t launched.

After going to Teton Village to learn the details of getting our gliders onto the tram the next morning, we went in search of lodgings.  For those who’ve never been there, Jackson is one of the fanciest, busiest and most expensive summer resorts in the western US.  Even the (booked out) Motel 6 was getting $160/night.  So we wound up having to go about thirty miles out of town to even find a campground, albeit one with a spectacular morning view of the Tetons as we drove back to the tram. 

We and our gliders rode up to the 10,500 msl launch on the first tram of the day along with a horde of tandem paraglider pilots and their touron passengers.  It was quite remarkable to see how many tandems there were, and how they managed to safely launch into the sketchy, crossed and light early conditions.  Mark and I chose to wait until later in the day in the hopes of finding safely launchable and soarable conditions.  It was to be a long wait.

Only much later in the day did we finally decide to set up and launch on the mountain’s back side into the now strong west wind.  Mark got up pretty quickly, while I wound up being flushed off the mountain, through the rotor and into the valley.  I was spooked, and while I eventually got back up well over launch (12,500 msl) in the valley I was having no fun and just went to land after an hour.  Mark, on the other hand, wasn’t rattled and flew around for nearly two hours before joining me in the lz. 

We next drove to Missoula, MT in the hopes of flying the site above town that is often seen in Jeff Shapiro photographs.  A number of phone calls secured us a ride up the hill and through the locked gate to launch.  Unfortunately, while our host chose to fly, neither Mark nor I liked the conditions and we chose to break down on top and continue our journey north towards Canada.    Further phone calls put us in touch Greg Braugh, the one pilot remaining in Whitefish, MT, but after meeting him for breakfast next day he informed us that conditions were unsuitable for the local sites. 

It was time to begin the last leg toward our destination of Golden, British Columbia.  The last 150 miles of the drive from the Canadian border gave us an inkling of what lay ahead as we were driving on the west side of a very large mountain range (10,000 vertical feet above the road at some points), the one along which we would be flying during the contest. 

We arrived in Golden at the campground, lz and meet headquarters around dusk, just in time to move into the round, tent-like Tibetan yurt that would be our home for the week.  The campground is clean, modern, eco-friendly, and, best of all, owned by a pilot.  He bought and developed the property as part of a move to secure the huge lz for future generations of hang and paraglider pilots.   The enormous lz is flat, unobstructed and liberally endowed with wind indicators.  It is also at only 2,500 msl which is quite an improvement from the high-temperature 7,000 msl landing fields in Wyoming.

Practice Day
The following morning we arranged a ride up to the Mount Seven launch, 3,600 feet above the lz.  The various launches are all fairly benign, and in the light conditions we had it was a piece of cake to launch off the appropriate ramp.  Both Mark and I easily got up in the somewhat trashy, high pressure conditions that would mark the entire time of our stay.  I only got to 9,000 msl, while Mark encountered a rogue thermal that got him to about 13,000 feet.  I went out to land after about an hour and a half as I was discovering that I really am becoming a flat-land tow-woos.  The trashy lift and the proximity to rocks was un-nerving me a bit, and my hands were cramping from holding on too tightly.  On the other hand, Mark was enjoying himself and stayed up for quite a bit longer than I did. 

Day One: Invermere Goal Flight (65 miles)
In leisure mode, Mark and I both launched quite late, having set up near the end of the line.  As a result we both missed the last start clock and were late getting on course.  Conditions were better than the previous day, not quite as trashy and lift was both stronger and generally went higher.  We both got over 13,000 as we headed down the enormous mountain range.  I was far, far too tentative and correspondingly slow due to my wariness of ever getting low in the rocks.  Still, I finally arrived at goal, albeit last for the day and with a crappy landing to top it off.  Mark made it about 45 miles towards goal before landing and was quite happy with the day.  We had both been in the air for about three and a half hours. 

Days Two to Five:  To Hell in a Handbasket
The first two flying days had been marked by high pressure conditions, but the flying had still been good.  However, forest fires throughout the state began to bring such remarkable amounts of smoke into the valley that it was shading the valley floor and mountain slopes.  Soaring conditions became simply awful as the smoke (sometimes abetted by high cirrus clouds) shut down thermal activity. 

The second day was finally called off due to utterly dead conditions and the entire field jumped off the hill for sled rides to the lz. 

The third day was little better.  Mark and I both managed short, losing scratching flights on the way to the lz.  I managed a moral victory of thirty-nine minutes, and Mark had a similar time.  Miraculously, one pilot actually made the day’s 45 mile out and return task.  No one else got more than ten miles.

Day four was called off at launch, just in time for us to break down in a gust front and pelting rain storm.  Our gliders were muddy messes by the time we got them in the bag.  The main landing area later became a vast glider wash site after we had driven down the hill.

Day Five was another funky high pressure day, and Mark did quite well, flying 26 miles and almost to the task’s halfway mark.  I began really well, and then pulled a truly boneheaded move.  The first third of the field (including most of the best pilots) had launched ahead of me and all of them landed in the lz.  Seeing them in trouble I chose not to launch, biding my time until after they had landed and I judged that conditions had improved.  Launching alone I struggled at first but then got up well and was the first person to go on course.  Watching behind me I saw more people launch, struggle and land, and stupidly figured no one else was going to be coming behind me.  In other words, as the day would have no scoring value I just started screwing around.  

Eventually, just for the helluva it, I flew way out into the valley to see if I could get up there, and didn’t.  After landing fairly near the turn point I started hearing others on the radio and still in the air.  One of them was Mark who got past me by a couple of miles and a couple of other guys who made the turn point.  That would not have been too bad, but for the fact that two guys actually made it all the way back to goal.  I felt like a complete fool for having squandered an excellent chance to have easily won the day.  Ah well, it was still a lovely day and I hadn’t been spooked or flushed into the lz.  But it sure was stupid.

Back to the States
That was the end to our comp.  Two more competition days were scheduled, however rain was coming in and we decided to head south in hopes of better weather and a chance to escape the increasingly heavy smoke.   Apparently we missed nothing in Golden as the last two days were in fact cancelled, but our escape strategy didn’t work quite as planned.  On the one hand we did not get rained on as we drove south, but on the other hand the smoke was, if anything, worse in Montana and Idaho than it had been in British Columbia.  It was extraordinary; it was as though the northwestern states were all on fire.  Our telephone calls to various sites were all met with the news that they too were in the smoke.  Continuing south, we finally decided to try and fly in the Salt Lake area, seven hundred and fifty miles south of Golden. That had to be free of the smoke, right?

Inspo (Willard Peak, Utah)
Our phone calls had put us in touch with Ryan Voight, the well known Ellenville pilot, but who happened to be in the Salt Lake area on vacation.  He and local friends were going to be flying that day at Inspiration Point above Willard, UT.  As Mark and I arrived late in the afternoon we had to drive up by ourselves, trusting that Bitchin’ Betty our Garmin Nuvi had the right location.  It is a long drive up the backside of the mountain, going from near desert at Willard (4,300 msl) until one arrives in beautiful alpine flower meadows near launch (9,000 msl).  It was a remarkable contrast to the rocky desert land below launch.  The view would have been spectacular…except for the damn smoke.  We quite literally could barely see the Salt Lake which was only four miles in front of us.  

Still, it was blowing in on launch and we were there.  However, as we had no driver we had to flip a coin to see who would fly/drive.  I won the toss and set up quickly as it was getting to be quite late.  As I launched Ryan and local legend Dangerous Dave Gibson were still in the air taking videos and doing aerobatics (there’s a picture from those flights in a recent Hang and Paragliding Magazine).  It was utterly soarable, but rather ugly and a bit disappointing in the murky late afternoon haze, so I landed after less than an hour in the air.  The lz was a field next to the Mormon church outside of town.  Their green lawn was a lovely place in which to breakdown, however it did have the disadvantage of not allowing beer to be consumed after a flight.  But that was small price to pay for the shady grass.

In Search of Smoke Free America
The following morning Mark and I went to Point of the Mountain’s Southside where there were a number of pilots playing/training on the ridge.  Oh, yes, and we also got to see the world’s only flyable B-29 bomber fly by at low altitude while giving rides at an airshow.  The Southside was soarable, but neither Mark nor I had any desire to set-up our gliders, and after saying our goodbyes to Ryan and others we began the long drive to Colorado where we’d decided we would try to fly at Telluride.  Mark had once flown there in a drizzle and I figured he needed to get a proper Telluride flight as that is one of the special experiences available to a hang glider pilot.  I had called my friends Nick and Betsy Kennedy, and they told us we could stay at their wonderful house, itself quite a treat.  It is located in an aspen grove at 10,000 msl on the side of a mountain above the main valley.  The view is simply astonishing, and the house which Nick (a contractor) built himself, is wonderful.  They are two of the nicest people I know, and I just love visiting them and their little son Tom in that piece of heaven.

But before going to bed that night in Telluride, Mark and I first went into town for a quick bite to eat.   I remarked on the unusual number of milling pedestrians as we came into town, and our waiter informed us that we had arrived in time for the annual nude bicycle ride that exists to remind the locals that their stoner hippie roots are not entirely lost in a town where the millionaires are being turfed out by the billionaires.  And sure enough, as we waited for our meals a stir passed through the crowd, followed by a flood of naked male and female bicyclists racing up and down the main street.  And they were not all ugly.

Telluride, Gold Hill 12,200 msl
Telluride is one of the truly fabulous hang gliding venues in the world.  One launches off a west facing grassy slope above the treeline at 12,000 feet.  Access is obtained by contacting local Telluride Air Force pilots who run a morning and, weather permitting, a five o’clock evening shuttle up the mountain, using one of the club’s two heavy duty pick-up trucks that are eminently suited for the very steep drive up what is now a remarkably well maintained road.  At the present time there are almost no hang glider pilots flying there, so one is usually going up with the paraglider pilots who are themselves not very numerous.  In any event, at eight am Mark and I signed our waivers, paid our money and loaded up with a few paraglider pilots for the drive to the top of the world.  As it was still early, the paraglider pilots launched off the eastern, Bear Creek, side of the hill while Mark and I elected to set up on the crest in order to launch to the west later in the day. 

Conditions were not ideal, being crossed from the left and a bit strong. When I finally did launch it was into somewhat rotary conditions.  However, I got up quite quickly which spared me the worst of the turbulence as climbed at 700 fpm above the mountain ridges and into clean air.  As I had no oxygen with me I pulled out of the climb at 16,500 feet and began pushing upwind towards the west and out of the mountains.  After a while I noticed that the clouds were beginning to blow up over the mountains behind me, so I decided it was time to glide back and land quickly.  Gust fronts associated with storms are very dangerous in those valleys, and I wanted no part of them.  I glided back eleven miles and then quickly spiraled down to land.  I was somewhat apprehensive as the winds were light and switchy, and Mark had already whacked hard in the lz. The flight was an hour and twenty minutes long.

Mark had launched a bit after me and had at first struggled to get up before finding the mother of all thermals on a lower ridge.  He reported seeing something like 1450 fpm on his vario in that thermal and eventually pulled out of the thermal before it got him too close to the clouds.  Like me he then soon decided to land due to the deteriorating weather, but landed in the wrong field and possibly in a tree-line rotor that resulted in a hard whack.  Fortunately, both Mark and the glider undamaged.

Gold Hill, Day 2
Once again we rode up the hill with the paraglider pilots, and good ones at that (Jeff Cristol is really good).  They launched into the spooky looking Bear Creek while we again chose to wait for the later west launch to turn on.  Unfortunately, once we began to set-up Mark had one of his glider’s sprog zippers blow out, thereby preventing him from flying.  This created a problem as the truck was gone and Mark now had to walk halfway down the mountain to catch the tram into town to see about getting a vehicle up onto the mountain to retrieve his glider. 

While Mark walked, I finished setting up and then went, alone, to wait on launch for a cycle.  I had made a bad mistake by not choosing to go earlier in the day with the paraglider pilots as conditions did not want to turn around to the west as they normally do.  I sat for a long time on launch carefully watching for a suitably reliable, light up-cycle in which to take-off.  I feared I might be stuck on the mountain. 

Finally, a cycle did appear and I ran off into the thin air.  Very soon I found myself in a staggeringly strong thermal that averaged 800fpm for almost six thousand feet, and showed bits of 1,300 fpm in it.  As it went through 17,000 msl I left it and ran away to avoid being sucked into the cloud at near 20,000 feet.  And as I glided away at high speed I looked back to see that once again I had waited far too late to fly as the clouds were already dumping rain further back in the mountains.  It was time to land, asap.  I immediately began searching for sink in which to get down.  After having then spiraled down low enough, I thought, to just glide back to the lz and land, I left the sink and began to glide…but then ran into a patch of lifting air that caused me to gain back a thousand feet while flying in a straight line.  Finally, I found another patch of sink I spiraled down 4,000 feet at 600 fpm to land uneventfully after only fifty-nine intense minutes in the air.

The day was not yet over as we still had to go back up the mountain to get Mark’s glider.  But in that we were lucky as the paraglider pilots were once again going up, gambling on a late evening flight after the storms had abated.  We therefore could retrieve Mark’s glider and pack-up for the drive to our last flying site before heading home.

Gunnison Gliders: bags, bag repairs and a lot of weed gets smoked
Before Mark could fly again, we had to fix the glider’s zipper, but as it so happened, Rusty Whitley’s Gunnison Gliders shop was two hours east of Telluride and directly en route to our destination of Villa Grove.  We called Rusty who gave us directions and told us to stop by.  In addition to the zipper repair, Mark realized he needed a new glider bag and asked Rusty if he could make one up for him.  I thought this’d be a great time to have a heavy bag made for my Sport 2….and my harness could use a lighter cross country bag…and my flight suit needed new leg zippers.  Rusty said yes to all of it.  Arriving at Rusty’s place we found that he already had the glider bags partially finished.  But there was still much work to be done, and Rusty being the Colorado stoner that he is, that required the burning of much weed.   And while he worked friends stopped by for a chat, and some more weed was burned.   Eventually, and before the weed supply was exhausted, all of our bags and repairs were expertly done, and to our full satisfaction.  So, with thanks, we drove off to Villa Grove.

Villa Grove, CO

I had originally hoped to stay with my friends Jim and Amy Zeiset in Salida, but they were out of town and incommunicado on an Oregon bicycle trip, so it looked like we were going to be camping.  Knowing that, we called Larry and Tiffany Smith whose wonderful house is found below the Villa Grove launch, and asked if we might camp at their place.  They told us that instead of camping we could ‘camp’ in their garage, which is dry and has a shower.  We were set. 

For those who’ve not read the articles on the Colorado Fly Days events, their compound is the core of that affair and consists of a wonderful, modern, electrically self-sufficient house built on a rise above the valley floor and below the 14,000 foot Sangre de Cristo mountains.  There is also an enclosed courtyard garden, the garage, and a grove of trees that Larry has painstakingly nurtured for over ten years, having started their cultivation even before he dug the first foundation.  It’s a spectacular location.

The following morning Mark and I hooked up with my friend Greg, aka Veeger, now a Villa local, but another of Larry Smith’s old gang of Minnesota hang glider pilots.  He and his wife volunteered to drive for us, and we went first drove up to Whale, a 12,200 foot launch on the west side of the valley that can be flown early in the day due to the heating of its east facing slopes.  However, getting up to launch involves traveling the worst long hang gliding road I am familiar with.  Fortunately, Veeger has a suitable vehicle with the power and ground clearance to get us up there.  Sadly, once we got to launch it quickly became apparent that the wind was blowing over the back and that setting up would be pointless.   So, we went back down the Burma Road, drove across the valley and up to the Villa Grove launch where things didn’t look too good either.  There the wind was too light and high cirrus clouds were suppressing the thermal heating.   Eventually we decided to set up, and finally found satisfactory conditions into which to launch.

Mark and I soon climbed out although not before first getting a bit low.  Mark wound up getting to over 15,000 msl in a thermal that averaged 827 fpm.  The problem was, like in Telluride, that the clouds on the mountains were beginning to blow up, while at the same time the cirrus was thickening over the valley.  We were between a rock and a hard place, but I had an objective in mind for these reduced circumstances: the newly legal marijuana store in Moffat, twenty two miles from launch. 

More or less as a joke, I had put the store’s coordinates into my gps before launch, and now that long flights had become unlikely I flew off the mountain and out into the valley in an attempt to fly to Moffat before conditions deteriorated too far.  Mark followed, but we both came up about eight miles short as the sky really started to go to hell.  We were soon picked up by Veeger and his wife and we all then drove to the weed store.  I no longer smoke dope, but I was really curious to see how such a legal business is conducted.  In we trooped, to be greeted by a knowledgeable staff who professionally explained the virtues of the candies, oils, buds, brownies and cookies on offer.  Veeger and his wife left with muffins, and the four of us went back to Villa for a remarkable local end-of-week custom. Every Friday evening many locals gather in the back room of a shuttered local business, bringing twelve packs of beer, rum, and weed for what amounts to a municipal happy hour. The muffins made their contribution to the merriment.  Tiffany too had shown up after work, and we all then went over to the Steel Horse, Villa’s only restaurant, for dinner to conclude a weirdly fun day that marked the end of our long trip.  The following morning we took leave of Tiffany and Larry and began the long drive home in our faithful mini-van.

It had been quite a trip.  Thank you, Toshiba.

Pete Lehmann