Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Thermal clinic turns into epic cross country

How do you put a rating on the day? Do you rate it by the success of the group, altitude gained, max climb, low saves, highest altitude reached, total distance flown, distance flown from launch, route, duration, personal bests or just the potential that existed versus what was achieved? On this day it didn’t matter which you chose it was a TEN!!! YES TEN, 10, DIEZ, JU, DEIS.

The first phone call came at about 0800 that’s 8:00 am for you non military types. It was Alex inquiring about the status of the thermal clinic and wondering if it was ok to start rallying the troops. I was just cooking the last crepe and finishing up with feeding the kids breakfast, and after having been blown out on several of the days earlier in the week the crew was chomping at the bit to get out there early to get off the hill before the wind kicked in. Though I was feeling a bit guilty about not preparing or being prepared to provide much of a thermal clinic I was on the road much with a little optimism and the hope that we would be early enough to get the gang off the hill before the day blew out.

When I turned the corner at Kapolei I noticed there was almost no wind on the water and there were large glassy spots off shore. In the Nanakuli hand book, which I will be publishing soon for a small fee, this is a GREAT sign. Though most of us were brought up as ridge pilots and no wind usually means a short flight this is not the case on the west side. It may mean a long hot hike and having to pick a cycle to launch in but it is a good sign. Arriving at the hike Jeff, Jim, Sandy were already at the power poles and Pete and Greg had just started the hike. I parked in the usual spot, pulled on the Hanwags and unloaded the wing. There was some breeze but it was light and the day seemed to be developing nicely with an early cloud base likely formed by the dew of the morning. Sandy had kindly downloaded the thermal tool and it was showing a high cloudbase with a nice inversion about 7500 feet and with good separation between both the 80 and 85 degree lines and the Lihue balloon sounding (I’ll cover that at the next thermal clinic ;)). As I started the hike the air seemed to be moving down the ridge but slightly from the school side. I joined Pete and Greg about the power poles and got the first good glimpse of the range.

It was just after 10 and clouds were already bubbling nicely over Makaha valley and Kaala, but there was still about a few hundred feet between base and the mountain tops. As we hiked the breeze continued to be down the ridge but from the school side. At the low launch Jim, Jeff and Sandy were tying ribbons but it was not soarable so (lets all say it together now) we kept hiking! At the middle launch it was still from the school side but cycling up the dump side occasionally and since Pete and Sandy were both with me I thought we would spend some time clearing the old launch but it wasn’t to be. I brought no saw and Pete and Sandy had no gloves and we all were a bit short on motivation so we all wandered around the middle launch conducting random acts of violence against unsuspecting foliage with little combined vision. By the time we agreed we had no desire to continue Greg, Jeff and Jim had arrived and I did my best to condense a couple of hours of clinic into look right, pull right and not much more. Really guys I’m happy to do a REAL clinic any time.

Following the brief talk it is still coming in the school side and several of us decide to continue up the my favorite launch. Nanakuli high launch. As we arrived on the high launch Alex, Claude, Don and Bob arrived at the Middle launch making for quite the nice group of pilots. At this time the cycles were rolling nicely up the dump side and there was a short discussion of who to throw off first. Alex was volunteered and Claude was volunteered to follow. What ensued was nothing short of amazing. Alex, Claude, Pete, Sandy, Greg, Don, Bob and I all off the high launch with Jeff and Jim launching from middles with no blown launches and all going up. As Will Gadd once said some times you are a rock star and some times you are just a rock. Well today the Kahana Marching Band was looking like KISS in full leather BORN TO ROCK! Reports of wadding, flapping, collapsing, bombing, skying, coring and crying for mama filled the radio. This is where the real story begins.

An epic cross country day often starts in unexpected ways. I had planned to do a thermal/comp clinic for some of the guys that were going to be attending the Rat Race and Lakeview Nationals which I am likely to miss. I totally blew the planning and though people were interested it never really jelled the way I had hoped, but we did manage to salvage an epic day out of it. Standing on launch with ten gliders in the air all of which had launched from one of the toughest launches on the island on there first try were circling at various heights, and several had already headed for the back of the valley. When I launched I flew almost directly into a 1100 up core that I was sure was going to take me to the top of the stack in no time but the low stuff was not super organized and I only got a few turns in it before it disappeared. There was plenty going up and it was not long before I was in another core working higher above the main Haleakala peak. At this point Sandy, Claude and Greg had ventured back in the valley and looked to be turning in strong lift. Below me Don, Bob and Alex were working the same bubble which started petering out at about 2500 feet. Feeling the tug of the house thermal I continued to turn drifting just behind the peak. Don followed and we separated from Alex and Bob.

Tip – I watch the gliders around me. If I see others are climbing in a better core in the same lift I will adjust my circle to join them. Often I will find a better core than the one they are in on my way to join them. This is why the gaggle flies faster than the lone pilot. Even in lift they use each other to identify the strongest part of the broader lift and exploit it.

Had Bob and Alex been watching I am sure they could have joined us. Don and I climbed to the mid 3000s and then headed to the back of the valley. The lift was strong and a bit ratty but considering the curves and the time of day it was to be expected. We joined up with Sandy and Claude in the back of the valley and tanked up, easily climbing to over 4000 feet. Earlier cloud base had only been a couple of hundred of feet over Kaala and I had thought that the flats were probable the way to go but with the dew having been burned off base was rapidly rising and kept looking at it thinking I couldn’t be seeing what I was seeing. The gap between Kaala and cloud base was astonishing and to make it even more irresistible it was streeting down the whole range!!!! At this point I was turning at 4200 feet and looking toward Makua with downrange base hundreds of feet above me. I was now making mental plans to triangle out to Makua and then fly for town. I radioed to Claude, Sandy, and Don that this was about as good as it was ever going to look. No kidding this was the best I have ever seen it. I leave Nanakuli valley and head across the first gap.

Note - This whole thing will make a lot more sense if you link to Google Earth or Leonardo here.

I don’t want to marginalize the commitment required to make this flight but I just kept pinching myself the whole flight. After the first crossing instead of having to grovel low on the ridge I immediately flew into strong lift and quickly tanked back up. I lingered for a moment watching Claude hook it and start climbing. I tried to encourage those still in the back of Nanakuli valley to come and join us while fighting my turn and burn urges. When I can no longer take it I head North. Over KoleKole pass I turn in the last thermal necessary to take me to Makua. If you are counting that’s two thermals between Nanakuli and Makua….CRAZY!!! Finally reaching cloud base at just over 5000feet I am still climbing strongly and leave to keep clear of the white room.

Gliding in the cloud street I shoot the above video and take one turn to take the photo on the right. Think about how high you have to be to get this view. At this point I have totally forgotten that I am not a powered aircraft. I remember taking it because Claude looked so small against the clouds it was blowing my mind. Turning my attention to the adventure ahead I glide past Kaala and focus on entering Makua valley. I have wanted to fly further but the valley never seemed to be very inviting. I had always pushed out on the north side of Makaha valley and I was about to regret not making that choice this time. As I entered Makua valley I encountered very strong sink and funky air. Pushing the bar a bit the glider is now behaving badly and I’m thinking not only am I not going to make it out of the valley but I may land WAY in the back of the valley. I finally fly out into smooth air and can smell the heat in the grass of the valley. I am focused on gliding right down the road in the center of the valley and it is looking like I will make the beach if I continue on this glide and don’t hit any more sink or a head wing. I am at 900 feet ASL and feeling low the valley floor is almost 250 feet this is roughtly comparable to being at the low launch and trying to glide out to the beach at Nanakuli. About the time I have settled into landing I fly into a solid 600 up. This is just enough to make the beach. Being this low I’m thinking if I can just hold onto this one for a few turns I’ll make the beach easily. Well knowing how the flight ended I did make the beach but not before climbing another 4000 feet and back to base.

From 5000 feet you look down on the glider field at Dillingham and a flight out to the tip of Kaena would have been academic (note to self). To avoid the white room I fly for the coast shooting the video below and the photo to the left. Incredible!!! This was phase one.

Begin phase 2 getting back to the car. Not sure you would call this car suck but I am now on a mission to get back and I mean fast. I fly for Makua Ranch and hit lift right where I expect it then cross Makaha valley skirting the south side of the valley my first time in that area. Pushing out to toward the coast I hit a nice core that quickly develops into the strongest climb of the day and my third strongest climb EVER! I watch as the needles start to be removed and try to remember the last time I heard this sound but can’t. My 20 second averager is reading 1560 feet per minute and if you check the Google earth trace the thermal stops looking like a circle and more like a straight line. With the cloud rapidly approaching I abandon my plan to go back to the Waianai’s and head directly for Nanakuli gliding over past the towers and back to the car. On my glide I can see and hear Nick talking to with Jeff about heading back and I encourage him to wait for me and I’ll go over the back with him. Thinking about it now we could have done the Makua route again. It was just after 1400, that’s 2:00 for you non military type, and the day was still on. After a few passes I was back in it and headed for the back of the valley again. The lift was still pumping and I tanked up to the high 4s and headed over the back chasing Nick. We ended up on the south side of the convergence and it seemed like fling a bit north and into the sun at the end of it made the most sense.

Sure enough there was good lift and I was back to base flying with the trimmers out shooting the video above and taking the picture on the right of Nick below me. I followed the convergence and tried to force it toward town but it was not to be. I flew a bit past H-2 toward Pacific Palisades before turning back for an easy retrieve and food. The sun was on the north side of the convergence and I’ll bet if I had tried there instead other options would have been possible. Landing in a field across the street from Costco after almost 3 hours, 30 or so miles of flying, epic lift, huge cloudbase and good friends coming to get me truly made this day my best flight ever.

After 10 years of flying I feel like I am starting to scratch the surface for what is possible for me in a paraglider. What a great feeling.


Anonymous said...

Doug you have had many many amazing flights. I feel lucky to be part of your best day ever. WOW Thank you Don

Alex said...

Doug, what a great write-up. Thanks for putting on the clinic and motivating ten pilots to join you for your best flight ever. I think nearly everyone had their best West Side day out there, but I think it's also interesting that we were all a bit wistful about missed opportunities. I know I voluntarily passed up several good chances to fly higher or further (or deeper), mostly because I just have these tiny little cojones, but I'm trying not to kick myself about it, especially because this day already took me higher and further than ever before. I feel very lucky to have pulled a great day out of the fire, after struggling for so long to break the 2500 ceiling over Haelakala. I generally watch other wings very closely, and I did see you and Don pulling away in the stronger stuff but for the life of me I couldn't find the elevator you seemed to be in. Also I think I was very reluctant to let myself turn in the thermal drift much behind the peak at what felt like too low an altitude to easily make it back out front. A bad ridge soaring habit that I should leave at Kahana. Anyway, I plan to keep going back out there until I can thermal as well as Sandy and Scrappy and everyone else did on that day.

sandy said...

I watch Waianae clouds from my living room, from the balcony at work, from traffic cams, from JeffMC's site photos and from Doug's descriptions. And too many of the times when I've gone out there to fly under them, it's blown out unlaunchable on the hill, while the sky looks epic and inviting and I know the morning started out calm and I leave wondering how it would have been if I had gotten there earlier. I *loathe* missing opportunities.

So for once, I wanted to be there to observe the transition from lifeless to nuking, and if possible, if the courage could be mustered to launch alone if necessary, catch the train before it left the station.

But make no mistake, this would *not* be an unsuccessful day no matter what; I couldn't bear that. I spend too many days in my office, knowing that it is very flyable, but despondantly unable to get away. For Saturday, I set my sights only as high as being on the hill to observe first-hand the site conditions from as early as I could stand to be there. It would just be a lovely day, sitting on a hill, reading a book, watching the weather change. Naturally, I would have my wing along as it would make a nice backrest, be good for keeping in shape while hiking, and it would be silly not to have my luggage ready if the train did stop long enough for me to alight.

I arrived at the curb at 8:50 am, and we all know a thermal clinic was called, so the lonely day I had planned became abundant with fellow thermal seekers. I launched after Alex, Peter, Greg, and Scrappy, and Jeff (from Middles). There were many pockets of lift, and it was like a little game to find the really good one that you could stay in and ride to the top. If I didn't like what I had, I'd try to go check out what Alex or Don had. Finally I must have hooked into the right one, because when someone asked my altitude (about 2900ft) and Alex said "That's good enough to go back", I went. But as I made my way across the gap, I could see Scrappy working hard, and Greg below the ridge line and Suicide meandering back. I've only been back as far as the gap before, and that didn't work out well (reference Alex's concerns about getting back behind the peak and not being able to get back -- that can be a valid concern). But Scrappy's movements showed some hope. I headed to where he was, a bit N of the spine spanning Haleakala to the main Waianae range about a third of the way to the range. There was lift there, but it was sharply defined. You knew when you were in it, out of it, and passing through it. But it worked. When I felt I had regained enough, I followed behind Scrappy to the main ridge. It wasn't as magical as I thought it would be. I always thought once you made it back there you'd be golden, soaring to great heights, but it was still alot of work finding the narrow columns of lift. As I'm working to get to find the magic, Doug comes along way above and starts heading north, with Scrappy in tow. Don and I keep working trying to get the altitude they had before leaving, but then finally I figure I might as well take my chances with finding more lift along the main ridge.

The Lualualei area is military kapu, but I decided the inland side had some potential LZs (still, I would like to have had a map to tell me that it was NOT another off-limits military area). Doug took the fast line (in his fast glider) across a curve in the ridge, but I opted to hug the ridge line to milk any lift I can. My gamble pays off with a nice thermal halfway through. From there I just keep working the ridge, making my way N slowly, while Doug disappears and Scrappy becomes a bright yellow sliver against the grey clouds. Pretty soon I'm all alone as I keep working my way north. It was not too scary as there was generalized and localized lift along most of the way. I tried to keep track of where the good stuff was in case I needed to come back to it.

One of my favorite places on this island is Mt. Kaala. It seems a magical place as the tallest point on the island, visible from my living room, and home to a cloud forrest. I've hiked to its summit, but it was truly a dream come true to finally hover above it.

My only disappointment was that there wasn't much lift on the ocean side where I reached it and I was uncomfortable venturing beyond it. There were clouds to the N and E, and I couldn't see past them to what lie beyond and where Scrappy and Doug might be and how well it might be working, or not. I traced my way back to known lift while I considered my options. There were plenty of good LZ's and some possible thermal sources in the Waianae valley immediately makai of me. If I were to head back to Nanakuli, there were the dicey LZ's inland and military kapu makai of the path back. I feared the lift might be waning along that path as the clouds of the day might be blotting out too much of the sun. I considered heading out over the pineapple fields, but I didn't want to make for a bad retrieve since I didn't know anyone else had gone out that way. I hung around for awhile waiting for Doug, because I thought I heard him say he was headed back my way. But when I didn't see him, I figured he must have gone some other way (along the beach!). Growing fatigued and hungry, I opted for Waianae, with the vague hope that I might catch a thermal on the way and be able to land on the beach. I didn't find much, certainly not enough to get me to the beach, so I settled for a nice grassy park near what I thought my be Jeff or Jim's homestead.

Like a good girl, I did an aircraft landing approach, and noted there definitely was an onshore wind, at least 10 mph, and it seemed to be getting stronger the lower I got. After patting myself on the back for this smart maneuver, I flippantly ignored it all and reverted to my standard S-turns downwind of the LZ. Bad girl! I made one of the S-turns big and wide as though I were landing in light winds and soon was forced to face reality: for my foolishness I was not going to make the nice big unobstructed park. My only choice now was a two-lane road. Fortunately, it was empty and I came down nicely about a half-block from the park.

So I caught the train after all. The fact that lots of other pilots came out rode with me was a wonderful bonus. That I got to tag Mt. Kaala was simply astounding. On my scale of 1-10, the day was about 1500!

Big thanks to Bob for the retrieve and Doug for sharing his knowledge. Aloha to all who share in the magic of free flight.

Doug said...

Just a couple more thoughts
1. For those of you that thought it was strong. IT WAS. Normally when I fly Nanakuli I wait until the afternoon. On a good day the lift mellow out and it can still be strong. If it made you a little uncomfortable think about launching a bit later next time. The great thing about Nanakuli is it is willing to wait intil the afternoon and still reward.

2. I have heard lots of you say it is good to get there early and launch before it blows out. My take on that is do you really want to be in the air when it blows out? I know I don't. I think the days it gets to stong to launch and is still worth flying are rare. If it is going to be a epic day it will not blow out.

3. This day was extra ordinary. Flying in the back of the valley is usually similar to the front of the valley and there are many times I am down at ridge height in the back. I always keep Nanakuli valley as my bomb out and there is a road you can always hit. I figure this is my primary bail out.

4. When flying behind Lualualei I try to keep several of the close farms in mind..just incase. Always fly LZ to LZ.


sandy said...

I certainly wouldn't want to be caught in the air at Nanakuli on a day when the prevailing winds came up strong because then we're subject to all of the rotor effects of the various neighboring hills, but I guess I was worrying less about what I perceived to be anabatic winds. I know the valley winds on strong thermal days in the Alps are bad, I thought it was as a result of their long valleys. I envision with our relatively short valleys that the air near the main ridge is going up, though it may be cross and strong on the spines where we launch. There may be strong winds in the valley, and even stronger on the launches, but lighter lateral movement higher up and lighter lateral movement further away (like the beach) where the draw is more distributed. If it were a lifty day, I envision being able to get high (if you launched before it came too strong), and then when you wanted to land, stay high in the lighter lateral flow while you move away far away from the ridge (say to the beach) to get to where the winds were mellower for landing.

This is probably all just a gross (and dangerous) miscalculation.

Christopher Langan said...

Epic !

paliglydr said...

Wow! Awesome, and Well Done everyone! Wish I could have been there. Instead, I was in a classroom in San Diego learning how to make computers more secure. ***SIGH***.