Monday, March 18, 2013

Trail Time

The East Coast flying didn't pan out. The winds remained too high and the skies too wet. Tomorrow, I start the first day of many on a very long hike. I intend to complete the entirety of the Appalachian Trail.

I've got a video from the most recent Oregon flights in the works, but it will wait until I return to Maryland around the mid-point of my hike in ~3 months.

Until then, farewell.

Return to Oregon (part II)

With my glider freshly treed, retrieved, and visually inspected to fly again, I headed out the next day for my first flight at Yaquina Head since I had left for Hawaii. As I stood on launch in gentle 6 mph winds from the south, I couldn't stop thinking about whether my glider was good for flight or not. The treeing event of yesterday lived fresh in my mind. I was unreasonably and unusually nervous.

Ryan getting ready to launch
Ryan launched first into a sledder. I waited until conditions strengthened. As they did, the wind became more westerly, which was bad for the site. After I felt the base winds were strong enough, I launched. I had to kite the wing for a few minutes before I was confident enough to turn and commit, but airborne I became. The lift band was narrow and small, really small, but that didn't stop me from reveling in the coastal air. I turned and played with break control until Ryan returned to the air. With two gliders in such a small lift volume, we were nearly flying on top each other as we struggled to both stay airborne. Then a sudden bout of turbulence accompanied an abrupt change in wind direction from more south to more west. The lift band shifted toward the west face of Yaquina Head. The lift band also widened and grew.

Ryan thought the very westerly winds meant he could soar the smaller, west facing ridge toward the south. He tried to go cross country along the ridge, but sunk out a half mile down the coast. I stayed over Yaquina Head trying to take in as much as the flight as I could. A red-tailed hawk flew beside me a bit. He was more interested in looking toward the ground for his next meal than me and I had to squawk at him to grab his attention before an eventual near miss.

I eventually headed toward the beach to land. I, however, found the wind had grown a bit stronger and the ridge was now soarable. For over twenty minutes, I worked the twenty foot berm and was delightfully surprised that such a small feature could be giving me lift. After over an hour and a half of airtime, my legs were becoming stiff with cold and other bodily functions needed to be addressed. I landed to Colin and Ryan working on their ground handling.

The flight left me tired and cold, but my nerves had healed. My fear of flying would not cripple me that day. I'm under the firm belief that one needs to get back in the air as soon as possible after a significant incident. The potential for that fear to grow into something prohibitive is too strong and the appeal of safety too great. Standing on the Yaquina launch, I felt as many emotions telling me to not launch as I had saying to launch. Despite the fear and fresh memories of yesterday, I was still left with only one simple decision - to launch or not to launch. The answer that resounded as my feet left the earth was one filled with pride.

The next days brought about several flights at Peterson Butte. Some days only held sledders, others had soaring conditions. The hike to the summit provided me with an excuse to train for the Appalachian trail with a 50 lbs. pack. Peterson Butte, I quickly discovered, has a high density of bald eagles. Every visit brought a few eagle sightings with it. Flying often meant a bald eagle sortie coming to check the wing out for just a few minutes. I was also amazed with the sheer beauty of the site once in the air and above the butte. From the ground, the farm fields of the Willamette lowlands, a view that reminded me of where I grew up around the farmlands of Frederick, were visible. From the air, the Cascades skyline's prominent snow covered peaks stood out against the blue skies. Over those days of flying, I found myself realizing that flying Peterson Butte was strikingly familiar to the Appalachian flying that got me started with paragliding. It was relaxing and a little nostalgic.

Northerly view from Cape Kiwanda
A new friend in flight, Levi, and I headed to Cape Kiwanda for a day of kiting. Conditions strengthened from nearly a dead wind on the saddle until the cape was barely soarable. I was only a few feet above the ground, but I took advantage of these prolonged Kiwanda flights to practice landing approaches, tight turns in rotor, and, in general, benign crashing. The term sheer play best describes how I felt each time I ate sand into the side of Kiwanda.

Levi also offered to swap wings for a bit, which I was more than happy to do. For the first time in over a year, I took control of something other than my Ellus 2. The Rush 2 from Levi was a pleasure to kite. It was lighter, wanted to inflate itself, and rose effortlessly over my head, where it waited for some direction. I was reluctant to return his wing, but I was pleased with its performance and grateful to have had the opportunity. I am that much more excited to be buying a new wing in the fall.
Sunset at Cape Kiwanda
As the sun was setting, the winds died. We packed up and headed back home. Cape Kiwanda again lived up its reputation as a flying playground, where mistakes, though sometimes serious, are often forgiven.

My final flight in Oregon came a bit unexpectedly. Per usual, I brought my wing with me as I left the valley on a ski weekend to Mt. Bachelor, but flying Mt. Bachelor, especially this time of year, is highly improbable. High winds and low cloud cover on the summit usually preclude the possibility of flight. Nevertheless, Steve R. let me know that conditions looked favorable for flight that Saturday. I told him I would be ready and made sure I was prepared in every capacity for a flight I may never have again.

For the uniformed, Mt. Bachelor is a 9000' peak in the Oregon Cascades. The composite shield volcano has relatively steep slopes and stands out as one of the prominent peaks of the Cascades skyline. The mountain has operated as a ski resorted for decades now, giving us easy access to the top of the mountain.

I met Steve and others at the LZ the next day. Conditions were still favorable. Rick, another pilot I met that day, talked and walked me through getting my glider on and off the ski lift. Walking the lift lines with my glider made me feel like the prettiest girl at prom. Everyone, skiers, boarders, lift attendants, even ski patrol, was eager to chat briefly as we passed. After departing the summit lift, we began our hike.

Summit lift after walking a few minutes

We climbed higher nearing the summit

As we crested the summit of Bachelor, I knew we would be flying that day. The wind was ideal, not too light, not too strong. Still, I waited for Steve, the site guide, to arrive to the top. I wanted his OK, not for my own safety, but more as a sign of respect. I could tell that he was a little uncertain if letting me join was a wise decision. Steve and I had corresponded by email since the previous summer. We had even been in the air together, but had never spoken face to face until that day at Bachelor. Mt. Bachelor is a P3 site because of its high elevation and restricted LZ. Even more so, Mt. Bachelor isn't a Cascade Paragliding Club site. The Desert Air Riders are in charge of Mt. Bachelor flying. I was a visiting pilot and, as a guest, I didn't want to overstep my welcome. Therefore, waiting for Steve's approval was a sign of respect. When he gave me the green light, I immediately began launch prep.

That feeling when you know the wind is perfect
I had many concerns. I had never launched on snow. I had never launched at 9000' nor had I ever landed at 6000'. My hands fought the cold as I unfolded the glider, checked my reserves, cleared my lines, and inadvertently deposited some Cape Kiwanda sand on Mt. Bachelor's summit. I buckled, clipped, and snapped everything in to place. Checked my fittings and then rechecked them again. Our launch area was wide. Rick had already launched. Everyone else was still grounded. I kited toward the edge, brought the wing to rest, and then with a single pull, brought the glider above me, turned and ran.

My launch
Rick was landing as I was launching. I knew this was going to be a sledder. The other pilots told me Mt. Bachelor flights were, more often than not, sledders. After launching, I found no lift. I scratched the side of Mt. Bachelor before setting a glide toward the LZ, which seemed too far away. While there was no lift, the air was extremely smooth and the surrounding mountains were beautiful. I played with the speed bar, trying to maximize my glide ratio in the head wind. I arrived over the LZ with an extra 1000'. I couldn't resist the prospect of a few 360s before setting up to land. The landing itself was perfect. I gently glided to the center of the LZ where my feet touched down as soft as a feather. It was fast, but the well timed flair did its job.

I packed as a college buddy, who had seen me land, skied up to me. An hour later, I skiing with him and my girlfriend on the mountain. I took one more picture of Mt. Bachelor from the top of one of the ski lifts and gave it a new name.
The one that was
Looking to the south, I saw the Three Sisters and decided at least one of the peaks had a new name as well.

The one that will be

The next Tuesday, I boarded a plane for the East Coast, and headed to the land that taught me to fly.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Return to Oregon (part I)

Returning to Oregon was a weird feeling. Everything was familiar and, while it felt like I had been gone a considerable length of time, not much had changed. The first few days after my arrival drew to snow shoeing around Mt. Bachelor.

On the way back into the valley Sunday, I glanced toward Peterson Butte and, sure enough, no less than five gliders were in the air. As I approached, the five turned into ten. I was hiking up to launch less than twenty minutes later. A local hang glider pilot on the ground gave me the short-wave frequency, which I had forgotten and I was soon on the horn. Ryan was in the host (the collective term for paragliders in the air) above, as was Matt Henzi. The steep hike of Peterson quickly winded me, but looking up to the soaring wings above pushed me forward. Ryan landed at mid where we exchanged pleasantries along the lines of "Hey." "Hey." "The air's good. Let's catch up later." and then Ryan went airborne again. I ran launch prep at mid and was soon airborne too. I benched up and returned to my friends in the air. It was a great feeling. The thick wet air of Peterson Butte was cool to fly through, but the sun was warm and shined off the wet grass in the field below. A few pilots radioed in "Welcome back."

A pilot on glide from Peterson Butte
The thermals rolling up the butte were gently but noticable. The air was calm as it could be and still be thermic. Kealakekua had done well to prepare me. I know Peterson Butte's thermals are not the strongest or sharpest I'll find in this world, but after wrestling with tigers over Captain Cook, I found kittens in the Williamette Valley. The relaxing flight gave me time to practice my spirals. I flew with three bald eagles and the snowy foothills and Cascades peaks stood out clearly along the eastern horizon. I flew for 90 minutes that day. Eventually, I decided to land, though conditions were still soarable.

Back on the ground, Collin arrived. He, I, and Ryan chatted. I was once against faced with the same paradigm that has followed me most of my adult life. For Ryan and Collin, five months had passed. For Ryan in particular, the flying in those five months had been pretty bad. I, on the other hand, had just experienced an epic five month journey in flight. On that journey, I experienced new conditions and shared flights with many, many new pilots. It was difficult to relate. That's not to say Ryan had grown rusty. He had put several hours of kiting in and rocked his Gradient Aspen on the ground and in the air. Collin to was finishing his P1 training with Matt and had considerable kiting skills to boot. This contrasted strongly with me and my wing. Kealakekua had been great for baptism by fire thermal training, but the short cycles rolling through launch were never long enough or strong enough to kite my canvas-like glider. Without running forward there, it was nearly impossible to keep my glider inflated. I hadn't kited in over five months and it showed in my ground handling confidence.

The next day, Ryan and I traversed the coast from Cape Kiwanda to Cape Lookout trying to find a site to fly, but the wind was strong everywhere. Eventually, we met up with Steve S., a hang pilot, a site not often used by paraglider pilots - Tierra del Mar. I kited the beach for a bit before Ryan climbed the hill and launched into the exceptionally strong winds on the hill. I should have stayed on the beach. Ryan showed little penetration as he flew. I should have stayed on the beach. I had already written the launch as too strong to safely launch. I should have stayed on the beach. I climbed on the hill and tried twice with failure to launch. Each time, the wing would drag me back into the brush and I had to pick my way out. Did I mention I should have stayed on the beach? Around 5:00pm, I tried to launch a third time and was picked up backwards into a flight that was no longer than three seconds. In that time, my wing never gained positive ground speed. I tried to steer my glider toward the only opening toward the beach behind launch, but the wind was just too strong. I found myself in a tree. I was fine. Physically unhurt. Mentally, I was frustrated as I faced my wing in a tree for the second time in my life. I should have stayed on the beach. I had known better.

Ryan flying over Kiwanda before the site turned off
I radioed that I needed assistance but that I was physically unharmed. I looked around and saw I was somewhere between 20-30 feet above the ground. My harness and I hung on one side of the tree's canopy. My wing hung on the other. Extraction was going to be terrible. I unbuckled and lowered myself gently to a large branch below and walked below the mess to the center to figure out just what I had to do. There was no way of knowing how damaged the wing was, but I intended to treat it as though it was unscathed. Despite all the short-comings of this wing, it had survived a treeing event before without damage. I thought I might be lucky a second time.

View from the beach before trying to fly. Why would I leave this?
My plan was simple. Detach the harness from the wing. Finagle the risers from the far side of the tree to the wing-ward side. Starting stuff the closest side of the wing and lines into the stuff sack and work along the canopy until I had recovered the whole wing. I detached the nearest risers from the harness and got to work. Ryan appeared and helped. Progress was slow and exhausting. It was hard to stay in the tree and hang onto the bag at the same time. I returned to the dangling harness and, with much effort, detached the other set of risers to send the harness plummeting to the seacliff floor before. I was higher than I had originally realized. Ryan, thinking this was an emergency until he had arrived, left to go pack his gear - a decision I supported. His stuff was on the beach easy able to be stolen. There was no reason to risk two gliders to try to save one. A feeling of hopelessness rose within me. The sun was setting and I didn't even have 15% of my glider in the stuff sack. After the sun set, I wouldn't be able to do anything and wings do not fare well in trees on the coast. The evening winds would likely shred the glider, or worse, send it out to sea.

The problem, was that I had to work above the trees' canopies while balancing on branches I couldn't see below. To add to the difficulty, I couldn't use my hands to balance as they had to work the wing and untangle lines while holding the stuff sack. Furthermore, one set of risers was firmly snagged on the far side of the tree from the wing with no supporting sub-canopy branches to allow me access to the snag. With the current system failing, I began to wonder if the canopy alone could support my weight. I applied more and more weight and discovered that pine canopy could support my 135 lbs so long as I laid out like I was doing a back stroke. If I tried to put a hand or foot down, however, that hand or foot would easily punch through to the dark hollows below. Using a weird backstroke-esq motion, I moved toward the risers, worked the lines until the set was free and returned with them to the wing. Laying on top the canopy, I was able to move more quickly devoting most of my attention to untangling lines. I could even rest the stuff sack on the canopy surface. The sun was mostly gone now, but I had over half the wing. This was working. The stuff sack was filling. Soon I only had a few cells of my wing left. Then those were gone too. The mess was all in the bag, which I tied firmly closed. Ryan returned exactly at this time and I passed the bag to him.

It was the darker side of twilight now. Ryan carried glider in its bag through the thick underbrush back toward launch. I carried the harness and was surprised at what I had flown over in my short flight. The bushes were well over my head and I had to fight to keep forward momentum, but after the hour long ordeal of rescuing the wing, it was nothing. Ryan took the wing to the beach and I went to the car to grab some beers. The sun was below the horizon now. Back on the beach, we made short work of clearing the lines. I inflated the glider. It felt normal. Ryan inflated the glider while I inspected it. To my mild amazement and relief, I found no apparent damage. I packed everything away. On the way back to the car, Steve appeared with some gardening tools, but I was happy to inform him they were no longer needed. The three of us chatted well past dark before we seperated. I was exhausted and glad to be heading home ending my second day of "flying" back in Oregon.