Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Tasks 1-3: Dust to Dust

It's hard to find time for reflection when you are so busy at grown-up summer camp. A crazy summer camp of flying, drinking, swimming, and more flying, in a lake resort oasis in the middle of the baking hot, dry, dusty desert farmland of eastern Washington. So much has happened over the last four days, it's going to be tough to recall. Plus, I'm a few brain cells down. I mean, because of all the, you know, sun. But today’s flight was tragically short, and I’m back at the motel early, so I finally have a little time.

On Saturday, we had a practice day scheduled. Even though it was windy, they shuttled us all up to the butte, to see if it might work for a practice task. But it turned out to be pretty blown out, and only a few hardy souls thought it was worth an introduction to the air here. Out of our group, only Dave braved the windy conditions for a little bumpy bubble surfing before heading to the soccer field. And almost making it. So unfortunately, the windy conditions meant that on the first task day, many of us would be experiencing this big air for the first time. For me it would be the first time since I was a thermal newbie in 2001. Though I’m finding I’m still quite a newbie. I think that’s why I come on these adventures: to humble myself, and reacquaint myself with real paragliding greatness.

The first task day, Sunday, dawned clear and beautiful in the valley. We had been told to expect epic conditions, and it sure looked like great things would be in store. There was still quite a bit of wind left over from the previous day, so they called a downwind task just over 100km. There were beautiful clouds streets everywhere. Thom sank out right after launching and dirted below launch, at a place called Dead Coyote Flats, short of the bomb out LZ at the soccer field.

I had a great time thermaling the broken windy bubbles up above the butte, with the rest of the enormous gaggle, and a few times I found myself at the top of the stack with the luminaries of the paragliding world. But by the time the start window opened, I had somehow hit a sink cycle, and I was two grand below the pack, maybe around 6,000 feet. 100 gliders that were specked out above me headed out like an armada, but I figured I was too low to leave without getting higher first. But all the stragglers around me headed out over the river as well. I knew it was too low to go, but didn’t want to be left alone, so I went with them.

I managed to get myself over the river and the power lines for the first time, ever, but I couldn’t climb very far out, and I ended up surfing blown out frisbee thermals low over the ground, to a point pretty far downwind of the power lines. A few of the stragglers got up and away, but most of us ended up in the dust. I landed near a road, after an hour and a half of thermaling, and packed up to wait for retrieve. A car came by with some older local ladies who had picked up another nearby outlander, and we rode together to a third pilot to get consolidated for retrieve. Nice local people! So while it wasn’t an epic day for me, it was a pretty good practice day.

Later we found out that Dave and Jorge had made it almost all the way to goal. Dave said it was super lifty once you got high over the flats. Doug Hoffman showed up and flew the task just for fun, and afterwards kept going downwind all the way to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, over 150 miles. I know many of the comp pilots were jealous that he had the chance to keep going. He had students ready to pick him up wherever he landed! But it’s certainly amazing what a great pilot can do with a windy cloud street kind of day.

The second task day, Monday, was cloudless and blue, and still as the grave. That’s not a portent of the story to come, I promise. Okay, maybe just a little. They called another task just over 100km. There was a huge brush fire on a mountain a couple valleys away, and the smoke was drifting in the light flow over the river to the flatlands, creating an impenetrable milky white wall right across the course line. Today’s start cylinder was out over the flats, so the plan was for everyone to get up and head over there as soon as possible to get up and wait for the start gate to open. I launched and got up nicely, and headed out over the river with a few other guys.

This time I came in a lot higher, but somehow I got separated from the others, and I found myself hunting thermals all by myself. It wasn’t easy but I got a few good ones and benched up super high outside the start cylinder. Finally the window opened, just as I hit my highest altitude in a thermal, over eight grand, and I charged through the 7km cylinder toward the center, which was the first turn point. I could see a lot of gliders deep inside, who I guessed would have to exit the cylinder and re-enter, and I hoped to join them. But somehow my line was terrible, nothing but sink, and I dropped to the ground in minutes. I landed near a paved road, after two hours of thermaling, most of the time completely alone. I folded up and waited there for quite a while in the hot baking sun, watching tons of gliders flying to the turn point and then disappearing, before the retrieve van showed up.

Turns out Thom had made it even further, all the way to the first turn point. Later on we heard that 70 pilots flew long and high to make goal, but it was slow going for all of them. The top guys had flight lasting four hours, and the last few came in to after eight hours in the air. Both Dave and Jorge made it into goal, after seven or eight hours in the air. Dave was using a condom catheter, but it backed up on him, so he had to continue the flight with an overflowing bladder. Amazing dedication.

Meanwhile, Bonnie and Flystrong launched to free fly after all the competitors had launched. And poor Bill took a whack in a strong thermal soon after, resulting in a frontal that show his wing way below him. Then it rushed up in front of him, but because of asymmetric brake inputs, it recovered in a fast spin, and he got multiple twists in his lines, giving him no control over the wing. He threw his reserve, but the handle came loose and that’s all that he threw. He was almost blacking out from the spinning, but finally the reserve just fell out, and after sticking in the lines for a moment, it deployed itself. He drifted downwind to a boulder covered slope, impacting pretty hard. He hurt a rib, and they ran down to help him out of there. It took an hour to get him out, and then he went to the hospital for x-rays. Turns out it wasn’t broken, but the cartilage was damaged. Either way I know it’s painful. But we’re all thankful he was able to get his reserve deployed in time and his injuries were not too bad.

Later that day, Thom, Chris Langan, Mags from Canada and I took a refreshing dip in the lake under the bridge. It was a gorgeous and cool way to wash off the frustration of sinking out. After that Chris exhorted us to rush up the hill to try and score a glass off flight, but the wind never turned on. Chris and a few others took extended sledders, but most of us drove back down.

Today was another blue sky light wind day. We were sorry to see Dave leaving us to join his girlfriend for some family obligations. They called another 100k flatland triangle task like the day before, and while the previous day’s brush fire had been put out, there was a new one in a distant canyon that started to fill the horizon with smoke as we were launching. After about half the field had launched and climbed to cross the river, I got my chance to launch, and I shot super high right away, in a single thermal, and I was joined by some seriously good pilots, some of whom I recognized, like Jorge.

I topped out and realized that everyone was now heading out across the river, and I was right there with them. This was my best start ever, at the top of the stack with a solid group of wingmen. I was only worried that the group I was with was too good and fast, and they’d leave me behind. But I managed to keep up pretty well as we crossed the river, and I was hopeful that this would be my first day sticking with a gaggle.

We arrived over the power lines in a pretty strong sinky headwind, and somehow most of us ended up descending to the dust below soon afterward. Only a few guys got up and away. The rest of us commiserated and packed up to look for a way out of the dusty grid of wheat fields. It was probably my shortest flight ever, at thirty minutes, but it was also my most focused and deliberate, so I had mixed feelings. But I was in good company. Among our landing party there were a couple pilots from Nepal, one from Mexico, and one from Australia. Maybe others from more interesting places. A good crowd to hang out with and wait for retrieve, after we’d waded out through the wheat fields and trudged a few miles down dusty farm roads.

Now Thom and I are back in our swanky motel room, cranking out dueling flight log reports, and wondering what the rest of the week will offer. Sounds like tomorrow might be windy, but the last three days should be nice. It actually might be nice to take a break tomorrow! Hopefully we’ll find more time to post updates for anyone that is interested.


  1. Great read (as always). Thanks Alex!

  2. "He hurt a rib, and they ran down to help him out of there."
    That was yours truly that ran his FAT butt down the 1500' vertical feet to find Bill barely standing and semi-coherent. Then 'We' hiked Bill and all his gear back up the 102 degree temp vertical slope for over an hour back to my Bronco where we promptly delivered him to HQ, and we were off again to rescue some more.
    Which happened to be me as I blew up my radiator in the bronco 7 miles up a very steep grade on the way to goal. Where I spent 1 1/2 hours waiting for a tow truck in 100+ heat. Fun day!!!
    Lucky for me I had a cooler full of beer, and my beach chair.
    Un-lucky for me the bill to fix blown up radiator, fan clutch, thermostat, and new hoses came to a measly $766.00
    Back to work...

  3. Thank you for the much appreciated update! What an adventure! Glad the learning curve is high. Sorry to hear Bill will be in pain whenever you make him laugh. The best jokes surface in times like this. Be safe!! - P.S. If you see Doug… track logs please!

  4. Pete, thanks for the details of the rescue! I glossed over them because I didn't think I could do them justice! Thanks for getting Bill out of there, and for being there to rescue all wayward pilots!