Hood River is supposed to be 'the world capital of kite-boarding and wind-surfing' and maybe there's a clue there. The Columbia Gorge splits the Cascades and funnels air up into and down from the US interior. It can be very windy, especially in summer. You can also get strange layered wind conditions where the bottom hundred feet or so is very windy and above it is relatively calm.
The net result is that Bingen is frequently blown out (even when all the forecasts have been perfect). When it isn't blown out, often the day has no energy at all and only sled rides are on offer. It's a fickle place!
Anyway, for Friday the XC predictions were excellent; only NOAA had indications of possible strong winds. Steve, Dan and I debated where to go; I couldn't leave early, Dan didn't fancy a long drive and we ended up going to Bingen. Top of usable lift predictions varied from 5,500ft to 7,000 ft with light and roughly NW winds. Not an ideal direction, but if the forecast held and we could get off and up a little, all of Eastern Washington and Oregon would suddenly open up for us.
Over on the West launch, there was a base wind and there were gusts, but it didn't feel very thermic. Steve tried to persuade us there were thermals out in front. We got ready slowly and launched almost together. I was first off and didn't find any useful lift until 400 feet below launch; already on the defensive. But the first thermal was decent if bumpy; Dan and Steve joined me and we were climbing fast over launch - things were looking good! But then we all lost the thermal at the same time and we were back, well below launch, in survival mode in small and nasty thermals.
Several times I slowly climbed 2 or 3 hundred feet only to lose it in a matter of seconds in sink. The wind was just breaking up all the thermals and making things very difficult. Eventually the lift improved, but it was just as bumpy. Dan had landed (after heading over to the quarry to look for something better) and Steve was well out front, not happy with the conditions, and about to land. Very slowly I got up to 3,600 ft but couldn't get any higher; the lift seemed to be converted into turbulence (cloudbase was much higher, so there must have been a shear layer). Then I lost all that altitude only to start the process over again.
The third time I got to just under 3,800 ft and I'd had enough. I really wanted to be setting off much higher, but I knew I had LZs in reach. So I pointed my glider east and went with the flow.
At the cliffs east of Courtney Road I got a nice thermal and was able to top up before crossing the Columbia. At one point I was thermalling above the river and wondered how useful my reserve really was!
Over on the South side I headed along the Columbia Scenic Highway towards the launch at Rowena. Less than 1,000ft AGL, I really needed a thermal. I flew through some bumps, expecting a thermal to follow. No thermal, and I probably should have turned back and looked at that point (woulda, coulda, shoulda).
Too late I found a thermal 100 ft from the ground. On gentler terrain with less base wind I might have tried to use it, but I got as far from it as I could before landing beside the highway.
As I packed up my wing, I talked to a cyclist called Nate who turned out to be a local HG pilot. He had taken a 1 hour tandem paraglider flight with Jay Carroll from Bingen. What a coincidence! And an average flight time of 1hr for Bingen may well be the world record!
Dan and Steve arrived and we headed back. I was glad to escape Bingen (my first XC from that site) and was glad my new wing had performed so well in such bumpy conditions. But we were all a little disappointed that Bingen had maintained its fickle reputation. Maybe next time!