Monday, July 14, 2014

Task 6: The Perfect Out and Return

Now this was getting ridiculous: we had another day of perfect weather. After four hours of sleep, I woke up to hear they’d postponed the start of the day by an hour. Thank god for small favors. I snoozed a bit more, and then Thom and I rode up the hill to see what kind of devilish torture the task committee would devise for us after yesterday’s massive flight. Today a slightly less ambitious 93 km out and return task was called, to Sims Corner and back. They said it was the perfect out and return flight. Well that’s not a short distance by any means, but at least the retrieve would be simpler! Apparently a couple of retrieve volunteers had quit after the previous long day, and no one could really blame them. But they found a couple more helpful folks to fill in.

Once again the range fires were creating a massive wall of smoke that was drifting out over the flats, and once again it looked we’d be flying through it at some point. I got nice and high and crossed the river with Thom again today, and also with Chris Langan. So cool to fly a strange place like this with familiar faces nearby! We got up nicely above the power lines and headed towards the single turn point of the task. It was really, really far away! But I was able to stick with several small groups of pilots on the way and it really helped me to find some nice thermals. After yesterday’s long day I felt like I had finally started to dial in the thermaling in this place. I was climbing higher than before, focusing on trying to find the cores of the thermals to get as high as possible. Of course there were still plenty of people higher at every point in the flight, just like every day of this event. But today I got my highest, almost thirteen grand. It was super cold up there! I had to pull my gloves out of my harness pocket for this one. I hate wearing them, but the alternative was frostbite!

So I was on glide and looking good to make the turn point. I looked down and saw poor Thom ridiculously low but refusing to set up for a landing. That guy is a bulldog. I saw his wing almost touch its shadow, very near a good landing spot at the corner of a field near a road. But he was turning. And turning. And he slowly, slowly climbed out of there. Even from my lofty vantage point I could see that he was pulling off a miracle.

I turned my attention back to my own progress and made the turn point, and got nice and high shortly afterward, but then coming back into the headwind was a real struggle. Just as the task committee had explained. So I took my time, trying to get high enough on the way, but each thermal was drifting back and I didn’t feel like I was getting anywhere. I was stuck over this remote corner of the desert, with a few other pilots in the same boat. But finally we started to climb higher and push out of there, helping each other to locate good thermals. Whew! My wingman at that point was Doug Hoffman’s recent student Daniel, an amazing young pilot flying as a wind tech in this event after only a year under his belt, and crushing it, flying complete tasks on some days. On an EN-B glider!

Now the trickiest part of the whole day loomed before me, in the form a massive white wall of range fire smoke. There was a pilot visible ahead of me who pushed right into it and I saw him climb out in a huge strong thermal, way above the smoke, to continue on towards goal. I really didn’t want to fly into that thick smoke but I was hopeful I could climb out and above like that guy. Well, turns out I couldn’t. I was deep in that stuff, looking for lift but not finding much, just bubbles, and it was so thick I could barely see anything but the ground below, and even that was hazy. Thom followed me in there and I lost track of him in the haze.

I knew that in order to make goal I’d have to climb high enough to get above the river canyon rim, but I couldn’t see the rim or the butte! I was pushing in the direction my GPS told me, and watching the ground, and peering ahead to glimpse the rim. Finally I saw a dim outline of the rim, and it wasn’t that far below me, so I kept trying to climb a bit higher in the smoke bank.

As I got closer to the rim, the smoke cleared a bit, and then I had a new problem. Suddenly the headwind had turned into a crosswind. A really strong one, and it was keeping me from making any progress. I pressed full bar, and found myself just sinking, behind a tall part of the lip of the canyon. I tried changing my tack slightly, slightly off the wind, and I made a bit more progress but if I made it into the canyon this crosswind would push me miles away from the soccer field goal. I had no idea what landing options I might have in that case.

But I continued pushing, while also trying to get a report of conditions from goal over the radio. Finally Kari Castle, the meet director, responded laconically, to say that conditions were 0 miles per hour at no direction. What the?? That didn’t even make sense. I almost didn’t believe her. But as I continued to press on, bar engaged to the limit, barely high enough to feel safe over the terrain, wondering if I was going to get pounded by rim rotor, I began to feel some forward momentum. I was moving. Clearing the rim, and then over the river, and sure enough, there was no wind there at all. I made lazy S turns and wing overs to get down to the field, and came in for a fast no wind landing. At goal!!! My first ever chance to make goal in this class of event. I had beat the goal close time by only 30 minutes. I think only a couple of people came in afterwards, a couple minutes later.

Just as I had always imagined, the goal field was a magical place, full of unicorns and butterflies and flowers, heroic pilots reclined in the sweet grass of the meadow, backlit by the rays of the setting sun, drinking deep of the sweet ambrosia of the sky gods, under the shade of a majestic verdant canopy of leaves. I had to pinch myself to realize I wasn’t dreaming.

I found out later that Thom had been denied at the rim. He had seen me climbing in the smoke, and he wondered why I thought that was necessary. He thought I was just showing off! But I needed every inch of that climb, and he realized too late that he didn’t have enough to get over, so he landed safely in the fields up there, to await retrieve. Later on we met for a celebration of our flights, and he treated me to a tasty glass of scotch at the resort, in honor of my first goal. It might also be my last, for all I know, but I will remember it as the sweetest!

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like at the end we had arrived at a good time to get home and write a story. It was past 10pm when we had the scotch, but we also got enjoy a local singer, she wrote her own music, had the voice of an angel and was gorgeous. Perfect ending of yet another long day, Alex didn't feel it he was a Goal Man. I was happy to get where I got and land safely. I improved everyday.