Saturday, July 18, 2009

Return to the Toutle

The Toutle is a flying site created when Mt St Helens blew up in 1980 - the blast cleared the trees from a ridge and made launching possible. The site combines ridge soaring and thermalling - if the thermals are weak, you can generally ridge soar until a good thermal arrives. Until recent years, it has been a popular site for Portland based pilots because it is very reliable and works when the NW summer weather pattern sets in.

It has also proved a dangerous site. Although ridge soaring techniques can work at the Toutle, they aren't really sufficient. It's in a valley in the mountains and it should be flown as a thermal site. In recent years, the trees have grown up in front of launch; this has made launching harder (the trees are hard to clear and produce a bunch of turbulence). And a lot of pilots top-land there too, directly into the turbulence. There have been several accidents at The Toutle, mostly a few years ago; in recent years, fewer pilots have flown there and the standard of pilot has improved.

I had last flown the site in 2007 and decided the trees created too much turbulence on launch. But last weekend there was a big work-party on the Toutle; Jan Kubic had arranged to have some of the trees taken down and "the Toutle is back". So I headed up on Friday afternoon with Hannes and Dan, keen to fly the Toutle again.

On launch you can see that things have improved but the trees still create a formidable obstacle. There were some rock-and-roll launches but everyone cleared the trees. Conditions were (for the Toutle) pretty disappointing, with a little too much wind and not regular or strong enough thermals. I can't say I enjoyed the flying (I like ridge soaring, I like thermalling but I'm less keen on combining the two) and I was happy to fly out to the valley and land on both flights. I was happy with my day, though; the site is very scenic and launch is a 'social' place - it was good to be back!

There were some pretty dodgy top-landings. It seemed to me that the Toutle problem has maybe been declared solved a little too soon. Paradoxically, a safety improvement may lead to more accidents as more but less skilled pilots start flying the site.

(As I started this post, Dan phoned me with news of James' accident today. It sounds as though he was being more sensible top-landing than some of the attempts yesterday and was just hit by some rotor when flying round for another attempt. Let's hope it's not too serious for him).

Some photos ->

Thursday, July 16, 2009

A Long Day

XC flying on a paraglider isn't really like any other sport I know. It's much less predictable than rock climbing, ski mountaineering, cycling, tennis etc - you might fly 100 miles or sink out after 10 minutes. A good day can be spectacular and a bad day can involve a hospital visit or worse - it's not like going for a hike.

Going through to Pine Mtn from Portland for the day in midsummer just adds to the extremes. A 8 hour round drive (plus any retrieval time) makes for a long day. Conditions are sure to be demanding. All of this is worth it if you get a great flight and a bit frustrating if you sink out immediately.

So Sam, Tyler and I were excited as we headed through nice and early. We knew Brian Webb (who had broken the Oregon state record with a 136 mile flight from Pine almost exactly a year ago) was leading a party of Aussies out at Pine and (as we didn't have a driver) we were hoping for a little help with the logistics. We weren't disappointed - the whole party was very helpful and great company. When we met up with them we learned that Lindsay had taken a 100 mile flight the day before.
Up on the West launch the results of the wet spring were clear - wildflowers (lupin, indian paintbrush) were everywhere. Sam, after a low save, got off the hill efficiently and headed out with some of the Aussies. The rest of the Aussies, Tyler and I sank out and relaunched and headed down the highway.

Pine is a big-air site and you can go a long way between thermals. Once you are away from the mountain, there isn't much terrain to fly. I went from 12,800 ft to 5,300 ft without getting lift. From 500 ft above the ground I managed to climb 1,000 ft in really messy lift. At that point I was really pleased with myself and expected to get back high - but no, the lift was by then all above me and I had to land just before Brothers.
Communications weren't very good. Tyler and I were at Brothers, we knew where the Aussies had gone, but we didn't know where Sam was. Radio and cell-phone gave no result. Finally, Sam sent a text message he had a lift and was coming back. Sam had gone in a different direction to the Aussies and had a very nice 50 mile flight. We later learned that the Aussies had landed 75 miles out.

Since we were there, we took a brief evening flight with many of the Pine Mtn regulars before driving home. It was an 18 hour day for me, a little longer for the other two. Sam had a great flight, while Tyler and I had reasonable flights. The important thing is we were all on the positive side of the risk / reward divide. Trying to get XC flights from Portland in mid-summer is hard work!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

More Sugar

We headed to Sugar, but this time the Washington based pilots stayed to fly Black Cap. Tom, Doug Jackson and Dan launched before me; they got some lift - Dan was a few hundred feet over launch early on - but were starting to sink out by the time I launched. Like Dan, I got some lift early, but couldn't use it without committing to going over the back low.

Like the others I struggled, but I eventually got up and turned N from just below 9,000 ft - much lower than I would have liked. Overall, conditions seemed weak - maybe I was just flying too early. There was a nice cloud street over the second range of the hills but I never got high enough to get onto it. I made the first transition and then flew the front range (there were no clouds above it) and struggled to get high - climbs were slow but fortunately there were enough thermals to make progress. Maybe I should have slowed down and waited for conditions to strengthen, but I ended up sinking out after 14 miles or so - enough to get back into Oregon.

I slowly packed up my wing and waited under a tree as clouds started to form over the front range of the hills. I was looking enviously up at the clouds when I saw movement in the distance. Dan had relaunched and was flying the clouds! He sailed over my head and landed another 5 miles to the N.

Later, Tom and I headed to Abert's Rim hoping to fly it before driving home. It was hot and smelly (the lake is alkaline) and there was no wind; we resolved to wait an hour. Some Bend pilots arrived; Tim immediately headed up the hill. After an hour we got ready to leave - but then Tim launched and slowly benched up. Amazing - there was almost no wind down on the road! Our enthusiasm wasn't strong enough and we headed home. Really, flying in the desert is full of surprises - it seemed impossible that conditions were soarable only a few hunder feet higher.

On the way home I got a text message from Dan that I had won the cumulative distance comp; over 3 days I had flown 2 miles more than he had! The prize is a gas card to use for more flying.

Leonardo ->

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Black Cap

When we got up on Friday there were already clouds in the sky; over development seemed likely and did happen. But we did manage some nice flights from Black Cap early and late.

Dan and I had a flight as it was over developing to the N and the E. As the wind was from the S and pretty strong, that left flying out over the valley to the W, so that's where we headed. With threatening skies on my right and lovely, puffy clouds on my left, I flew out W. I picked a huge, empty field to land in and was just packing my wing when a group of horses arrived to examine the intruder - maybe the field wasn't as empty as I thought. They were very curious!

At the end of the day we had an interesting flight. Conditions were slightly on the strong side at launch and in the distance - maybe 10 miles away, over flat ground - some clouds were showing streaks of virga. We looked at conditions carefully and I came to the conclusion that, at the end of the day, things were manageable.
I took off and flew along the ridge to the N and then glided out in boaty air to land 4.5 miles from launch. As I packed up my wing, Dan arrived in sight, higher over the ridge than I had been; he glided out and landed half a mile north of me. I was wondering how he did that when Tom appeared much higher than Dan or me; instead of gliding out towards us he used speed-bar and ears to lose altitude and land.

It seems as though the distant virga was giving a mini gust front and that conditions had built after I launched; Tom topped out nearly 1,500 ft higher than I had. I never used my speed-bar and Tom used it almost from the start. It all goes to show that, even at sunset, you can get surprisingly strong conditions in the desert.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Competitons and Competitive Fly-ins

Paragliding and competitions have a difficult relationship. Have competitions a valid place in paragliding? The debate goes on, but is similar to the discussion in rock climbing that started in the eighties (after I had effectively quit the sport). One view is that the competitions just formalize what is going on in an underhand way. I buy this argument (i.e. "if you really think you're the best, prove it."). In any event, competitions have become firmly established for many years in paragliding and are, well, competitive and serious.

But this has left fly-ins with a dilemma; does it make sense to have a competition as part of a fly-in? Fly-ins are supposed to be fun, comps are supposed to be serious so how do you combine the two? One approach is making the competitive aspects fun / trivial (e.g. spot-landings or bomb-dropping). But it's genuinely difficult to have a credible competition as part of a fly-in.

The Lakeview fly-in has a cumulative distance competition. It is based on 'cumulative launch to landing distance' over 3 days and has a lot of flaws. Out and returns or perfect triangles are (literally) valueless. In many respects the most effective strategy is to have as many sled-rides as possible in 3 days - of course, this strategy would test the driver more than the pilot. However you do things, a good, dedicated driver is super-important and Dan, Tom and I (aka Team Nova) had the Mary Beth advantage.

Anyway, during the Lakeview fly-in the 'cumulative distance competition' is there and you have to choose how to address it. One approach is to ignore it. But the competition strikes a reasonable balance between 'fun' and 'testing skill', so we choose to fly the flights we wanted to make (rather than flights that would score well) but to record them for the comp.

Sugar Rush

After some debate, around 8 paraglider pilots headed over to Sugar on Thursday morning. We were concerned that things might blow out or overdevelop so we launched early and everyone sank out. I didn't exactly help myself by accidently switching off the sound on my vario beforehand; I flew through some workable lift and was puzzled by my machine not telling me I was going up.

Back on launch with my vario sorted out, the hangs were getting ready. Some PG pilots got up, but not high enough to fly away and most sunk out, though Tom was doing well. It took me some time, but eventually I got a nice thermal and was able to drift away from launch in it. I circled just above an ATOS for about 2,000 ft; it was interesting comparing performance and strategy of these very different wings. Further on I got up to nearly 13,000 in a nice climb; all I could see above me was the base of a cloud, so I moved on early rather than risk a "white room encounter". As I flew away from the cloud I could see it wasn't the threatening monster I feared - but better safe than sorry.

Sugar is in California, and I flew back into Oregon high enough (around 11,000 ft) but didn't get much afterwards. As I got lower I found a weak thermal and struggled to use it. I could average 50ft / min, I could get peaks of 300ft /min and searched for better lift without finding it. Eventually, I couldn't even get 50 ft / min and concluded the thermal was above me, so I headed on and landed out just after 17 miles.

Mary Beth arrived; she had picked Tom up just short of the Oregon border - a great flight considering how little flying he has done recently. We headed back to Sugar in time to see the third wave of launches set off North. A couple of pilots, including Jim Baldo, had got high and headed for the hills. We picked up Dan (who had got high enough to set off but not quite high enough to make the first long transition) and headed back to Lakeview. We had an ice cream and tried to fly Black Cap but the wind was over the back, so we headed off to the local Mexican eatery, where Tom and I paid our margerita fees.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

To Travel Hopefully...

Tom Huff and I set off for Lakeview on Tuesday evening. The fly-in proper started on Thursday morning, but the forecast for Wednesday midday looked promising and, as it's a seven hour drive, we decided to sleep out at Pine Mtn to break the journey. Pine and Lakeview are out in the high desert and, for someone brought up in Scotland, deserts are the most fascinating landscapes in America.

I slept out under the desert stars, listening to distant coyotes. The moment the morning sun hit my sleeping bag I got up before I baked. Brothers is a really small town / village / hamlet (around here, there are one building 'towns') but it has a shop / saloon / post-office / restaurant and we headed there for breakfast. I'm sure it used to be more lively (the school closed down a couple of years ago) but all the tables were busy for breakfast with a mixture of locals and tourists. It's hard not to think of immigrants arriving a hundred years ago and struggling to survive in the harsh environment. And I know it sounds condescending, but it felt good to support this little business in Brothers.

Suitably stuffed, we headed onto Lakeview. We had hoped to fly Black Cap, but it was pretty hopeless. Initially, the wind was over the back. Then, as huge clouds built from the S, the direction sorted itself out, but the sky was too threatening to launch. We met up with Dan and Mary Beth and some other pilots and explored a launch for Abert's Rim used by hang pilots as thunder grumbled and lightning flashed.