Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Owen's Valley (part 4)

Over an hour passed, and the miles seemed to drag by. The thermals were strong with very defined edges that sent me over the falls when my concentration waned. The phrase “over the falls” means unintentionally flying out the edge of a thermal - feeling as though one is flying one’s glider over a waterfall. In this case a very big waterfall. Typically, it’s somewhat easy for a veteran thermal pilot to stay in a nicely defined core, but often thermals consist of multiple cores and are therefore complex by nature.

The air was becoming rougher, especially as I was gliding toward the southwest aspects of the canyons. My climbs were great, typically topping out between fourteen and sixteen thousand feet asl. However, once I left the thermals, my glide was poor, leaving me lower than I cared to be, and at times deep in the canyons. The texture of the air and my slow progress were both indications that I was bucking a light headwind coming from the northeast. Now five hours into my flight, I was tempted to turn the glider toward the flats, find a nice field to land in, and call it a day. But I decided to give things a bit more time and continued to drive north. From time to time, generally at or close to the top of a climb, Boundary Peak was clearly visible. Its faint reddish outline marked the end of my hundred-mile journey and fueled my motivation to stay the course. Twenty miles out from Boundary Peak, the turbulence intensified. I found that when I was high, the air seemed a bit more tame. It was only when I was below the peaks and to the west that the air was intolerable, which made sense as I was on the west side of the Whites – the lee side. My next climb maxed out at sixteen thousand and some change. My strategy changed. Cumulus clouds began forming marking the top of the thermals. The lift was strong enough to allow me to cruse from cloud base to cloud base without losing to much altitude. It also permitted me to remain well above the peaks and out of the turbulent mess below.

At six o’clock pm I arrived over Boundary, well above its summit. As I flew out from its massive peak, the turbulence subsided and the air became silky smooth. Now at fourteen thousand asl, roughly eight thousand feet above the ground, I could barely make out what appeared to be a complex of buildings with an airstrip close to highway 395, a perfect place to end my seven hour flight. After almost thirty minutes of circling in the velvet-like air, I was low enough to begin setting up an approach for a landing. Conveniently, the airstrip was real, complete with a huge orange windsock. I raised my body in the upright position, kicked my legs out of the harness boot, and gently turned the glider into the cooling evening wind. The glider settled in ground effect and slipped along the groomed dirt strip until at the right moment, I flared hard. WHACK! My spent body flailed against the glider’s control bar uprights, coming to a stop in a cloud of flying dirt and dust.

After partially breaking down my glider, I walked over to the main building in the complex with the intention of trying to contact my driver. It had been over two hours since I had lost radio contact with Bob, and though he had a good idea where my flight was going to end, I wanted to call and gloat - as well as give him my exact location. The sign over the door of the main structure read “Janies.” The building was actually a dozen or so double wides hacked together in the crudest way. Yes, I was in Nevada, and yes, it was a bordello. After phoning Bob, I returned to my glider , finished packing up in the waning evening light, and continued to gloat.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Owen Valley (part 3)

Prior to this particular flight, I had spent a few summer weekends in the Owens Valley flying from Gunther launch on the White Mountains. Everything about the sixty-mile long stretch of mountains from south of Bishop to Boundary Peak is exaggerated. The enormous Canyons, peaks and alluvial fans are on the grandest of scale. The thermals, wind, dust devils and weather in general can be truly extreme. For the most part my flying time in the Owens has rewarded me with unbelievable memories with only a few terrorizing moments.

Almost a year before the date of my 100+ miler, I had a similar flight from Horseshoe Meadows in the Sierras. Only a few miles short of the crossing point, and close to Middle Palisades Mountain, what begun as milk run quickly became my most desperate moment hang gliding. Usually the morning’s convective heat expands in the valley and blows gently up the east facing aspects of the Sierras. This east flow allows soaring pilots to fly the length of the workable Sierra range and cross to the Whites before the afternoon Westerlys kick in. Once the predominate westerly flow arrives on the Sierras, the severe lee side flow creates extremely dangerous rotors and descending air. A place no aircraft of any sort would want to be. So there I was, just barely above the lower and most forward peaks of the range when the predominate westerly flow hit early. At first the air just seemed different and rough. Hard to put a finger on exactly what was going on. My mind raced through a list of possibilities. My glider? Is there something wrong with my wing? Maybe the thermals have gotten stronger. Or possibly it’s my location on this particular mountain. Suddenly my glider surged forward in an uncontrollable dive. I eased forward on the control bar and the glider responded nosing up and regaining it’s normal flight attitude. Within seconds the glider violently pitched forward again, and the following moments were sheer survival. I fought to keep the glider flying, but each time I corrected the wing the glider was thrown uncontrollably into a dive or some other awkward attitude. After only minutes, but what seemed to be an eternity, I had lost thousands of feet of altitude and was quickly coming up on the ground. Finally out of the rotor and in somewhat of a stable glide, I headed east toward a field close to highway 395 and safely landed.

With this memory still fresh in my mind, I was somewhat relieved to have the crossing behind me, and the more familiar Whites lying ahead.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Owen's Valley (part 2)


Three hours and fifteen minutes after launching from Walts Point I'm crossing the valley, and at nineteen thousand a.s.l. I'm feeling the effects of the altitude. Typically its a good idea to fly with a supplemental oxygen system, however the soaring index for the day predicted moderate thermal ceilings, so I opted to conserve weight and fly without the O2. The good thing in this situation is there's an equal amount of sink verses lift, once you leave the thermal. Even though my time spent above fourteen thousand while ringing out this thermal was less than fifteen minutes, the oxygen depleted atmosphere left me minus a few brain cells. One very obvious indicator of the lack of O2 was looking at my altimeter and finding it difficult to interpret. However, as I descended to lower altitudes I found my self feeling somewhat normal except for a tinge of nausea. Probably the most defining moment as a hang glider pilot was being there in the middle of the Owens Valley. In every direction visibility was a hundred miles. The valleys endless green fields like squares on a quilt turn to pastels as valley gives way to alluvial fans, and the majestic mountains rise like silent sentinels of time.

Halfway across the valley, I realize making it to the other side is going to be close. Not a single thermal encountered so far, only smooth consistent sink. There's the imminent possibility of running out of altitude and I begin scanning the valley floor for a place to land. From above many of the pastures and fields look great for landing the glider, but a closer look reveals fences, power lines and other hard to see obstacles that would make an approach rather tricky. Luckily, with less than five hundred feet of altitude, the glider arrives on the lower flanks of the White Mountains, and with a sigh of relief I bank gently into the first lift since leaving the Sierras.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Owen's Valley (part 1)

40 miles out there's a great place to cross the Owens Valley. A 2000 foot cinder cone serves as a consistent thermal generator that allows a pilot to climb out as high as possible before making the 20 mile glide across the valley to the Inyos. Disattached from the whitish gray granite spires of the Sierra Range, the reddish brown formation appears man made and out of place. It was above this extinct volcanic formation I achieved my highest ever altitude gain.

That morning Bob and I rose after spending the night in one of Lone Pines quaint and rustic hotels. The room wasn't much to speak of, rather ordinary and simple. The Hotel was probably built at the turn of the 20th century and remodeled dozens of times. The freshly laid white paint on the walls could hardly hide the decades old cracks and repaired holes in the plaster. Old metal frame twin beds with creaky springs and soft mattresses, made for an amazingly restful nights sleep. We hurried about the small room that morning gathering our things in anticipation of the days activities. The oak plank floor of our room squeaked and popped as we ferried our gear to the front door of the hotel, and as we emerged into the morning sunlight the Owens Valley welcomed us with the most glorious views of the Sierras. The distant irrigated barley fields mingeled with juniper and pine to create an unforgettable fragrance.

By nine o'clock we had made the 20 mile drive from Lone Pine to Walts Point. An overlook located on the west side of the Owens Valley, nestled above an enormous canyon at the start of the great Sierra Range. Looking east from the 3000 foot launch, one can gaze beyond the Inyos on the other side of the Owens Valley and view the Panamint Mountains and Telescope Peak. On a routinely clear day, look north a hundred miles and make out the faintly reddish outline of Boundary Peak on the California Nevada border.

By ten o'clock there were over twenty gliders at the Walts Point launch. Everyone was busy about the task of setting up gliders and preparing for some of the most demanding and incredible flying found anywhere in the world. July is the best month for cross country soaring conditions in the Owens Valley. The connective forces that develop during the middle of the summer can generate columns of vertical air currents called thermals, that will propel a glider upwards in excess of 2000 feet per minute. On a marginal day, thermals will reach heights over 15,000 feet. A great day may produce greater than 20,000 foot tops. Pilots routinely fly from Walts Point Northward into Nevada with fights exceeding 200 miles.

By ten thirty several gliders had launched and were barely maintaining launch altitude. A few more gliders launched only to find sinking air and a one way ticket to the LZ three thousand feet below. Carving tight little circles , while banking as shallow as possible is a prerequisite for staying up in the mid mornings scratchy lift. Sometimes the thermals are so slight only your vertical speed indicator (variometer) can detect it. A short low pitched beep from the vario indicates fifty feet per minute up or so. The higher and more frequent the beeps, the stronger the lift. Sometimes the smell of the vegetation below and a change in air temperature can accompany a hearty thermal. The first big thermal of the day moved up the massive canyon below and within minutes the gliders out front were mere specks in the blackish blue skies above. A mad dash ensued and within half an hour the set up area at launch was emptied.

"Bob do you have a copy?" "I'm passing through ten five and averaging a thousand up". "Copy Bruce, I've got a visual on you. Think you'll be leaving the hill soon?" " I'll try to squeeze some more altitude out of this thermal then head north." "Copy that. Let me know and I'll start down the hill as soon as you head out." Earlier that morning, given the predicted strong conditions and his limited experience, Bob decided he would scrap the idea of flying for the day and resign to be my personal chase crew.

Another few minutes later I was pushing twelve thousand feet and feeling comfortable about leaving the launch area. The thermal persisted and at twelve five I cut loose and headed north. "Bob this is Bruce . Do you copy?" "Go ahead Bruce". "I'm at twelve five and heading north. Go for Lone Pine. I'll radio you next chance I get." An unimaginable landscape laid before me. As far as the eye could see, emerald green lakes and melt water ponds dotted the mountain terrain. Snow covered peaks and glaciers appeared as brilliant white caps and blankets in the mid days sun. As my glide took me down range I could make out several small towns, Independence and further north Big Pines. I looked down at my flight deck and noticed my altitude was getting close to ninety five hundred. Time to start searching for lift! No sooner did I think that, when a solid nudge hit my wing. I gently banked my glider to the left and my Vario began singing. Pushing out and slowing down a bit to take full advantage of the thermals lifting power I began circling in the massive column of rising air, and within minutes I was passing through thirteen, fourteen and finally toping out with this thermal at fourteen five.

The Sierra range is a spectacular formation. Relatively young, in geological terms, this mountain Range is a massive granatic uplift. Its sharp spires and massive monolithic slabs haven't succumb to the ravages of erosion of yet. Like most mountain ranges the Sierras consist of peaks, valleys and canyons that have been gouged out over the eons by wind, ice, water and glacial movement. The result in the Sierras has exposed massive slabs of granite, typically found on the south face of most canyons. These slabs are great for thermal production because of their optimal orientation to the sun. On a cross country flight, one of the major strategies is to take advantage of these south facing thermal producers.

On this particular flight, the predetermined plan is, launch at Walts Point, fly 60 miles north along the Sierras, cross the Owens Valley at bishop. Use the prevailing westerlys blowing up the west facing Inyos for another 40 miles and land just past Boundary peak in Nevada for a 104 mile flight. So far the plan was working out, and after three hours of some of the easiest cross country flying, success was iminent for a personal best flight. In the distance Bishop looks like a spawling city compared to the smaller towns along the flight path, and just ahead is the cinder cone, described by other pilots as the best location for crossing the valley. After topping out in my last thermal, I'm within gliding range and arrive over this barren cauldron at eleven thousand five hundred feet a.s.l.. Immediately after arriving, I fly into a vertical flowing maelstrom. My Vario is pegged, it's meager chirping is trying its best to register one of the strongest thermals I've ever been in. Within minutes I pass fourteen - fifteen and at sixteen thousand this monster is only getting stronger. My altimeter needles are winding past seventeen thousand as I begin flying a straight line east toward the other side of the valley and hopefully out of this lift.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008


After three + months of non-flying days, today I got out for some Southside flying. It was a beautiful day with moderate winds. As I arrived there were a few lingering bags about. I set up and flew for 20 minutes or so, as Dude and a friend arrived and began unfolding their wings. All three of us enjoyed the early afternoon conditions. There were actually some pretty cool thermals popping through from time to time. After a couple of hours and half a dozen top landing my not in shape for flying body said enough. Spring is right around the corner -good!

Friday, March 07, 2008

The Peak Week

This week my team spent an awesome week at the very top of PCMR resort. We had Great snow, and beautiful clear skies at this incredible spot. A little tour via pics for you enjoyment.