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.

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