Wednesday, August 29, 2007

OWENS: Reprint of 2002 Nationals Report

I don't know if this is on the web site but thought some of you contemplating a trip in October may find it "fun".

US Nationals 2002

This is a summary of my trip thankfully better than the one to snow bird where I scored the lowest number of miles flown of all competitors, 3. That’s right two task days and only 3 miles flown the leaders went over a hundred on the first and 50ish on the second. But that’s another story.
(left: Zach on glide at about 15,000 feet just south of white mountain heading south)
I depart from Honolulu on the 18th of September and fly through the night to LA. I have arranged to be picked up by a guy I met on the Big Air forum, Mike Masterson. I get in at 0500 pick my bags up and settle in for a nap till Mike arrives. At around 0800 Mike picks me up and we are off with a couple of interesting stops. First we go by the train station to pick up a Zimbabwean pilot named Andy who as fate will have it will have a great impact on the nationals. The three of us make small talk, getting to know each other stopping at to pick up O2 for Mike and Andy, food and gas all eager for the taste of the big air of the Owens. We arrive in Bishop about 3pm and as we drive into the White Mountain Research center we can see pilots flying from Flins. Seems windy and I don’t have a wing since I left it in Utah for a friend to “demo” so I volunteer to drive. Eager to see the top of the hill and get a lay of the land Mike and I throw in with another pilot and head up the hill. It turns to be to windy but it is good to see what we will be seeing from above the valley floor.

A short time later I meet up with my good friend Rob Sporor from Eagle Paragliding and Mike, Andy and I head our separate ways each to our own digs. I do dinner the first night at Whisky Creek with Cliff Curry and its quite the seen. Paragliders from all over the country are there, and once again I am meeting the strongest pilots our country has to offer, Dave Prentis, Ryan Swan, JP and Chip, Martin, all great guys. Cliff and I order a quick burger and scarf it down. Rob is planning to barbecue and guys are going to meet us at camp. Back at camp, a small grove of trees near the river I meet the rest of the guys we will be camping with. Ross, Tanner, Nate, Todd, BJ and Marty. I am thrilled! Again its going to be a week of eating, hanging and learning from pilots with much more experience than myself. Ross heads the charge dinner for the guys garlic mashed potatoes, steak and oh yea beer. It cools off and but the wind shows no sign of easing as we eat, drink and hang, all enjoying just being there.

I throw my bag out on the grass and turn in about 10 pm. I dose off quickly but am rudely awakened about 2am by buzzing in my ear. For the next hours I am tortured by the misquetoes and end up wrapping my head in my shirt with only my mouth exposed to keep the little buggers at bay. When morning comes we awake to a glorious sunrise the sun peaking over the Whites and warming camp. The consensus is breakfast will be at the Bishop Grill which turns out to be where will eat breakfast for the next 10 days. The special one egg, one piece of bacon and hash browns or a pancake for $1.99 was doubled much to the chagrin of the waitress and cooking staff. Seemed like they couldn’t figure out why we did it but it was the perfect breakfast.

After breakfast we rallied to the Gunter LZ and met up with Pilots willing to make the 30 minute trek up a steep rocky road that would eat more than a few tires during the week. On launch it was quite awesome looking around. Launch sits just above 8000 feet with the valley floor way out of reach 4000 feet below. The only bomb out LZ’s are several white sand pits lower on the spine but no where near the cars at the bottom of the hill. Still worried about bombing out like at snowbird I watch for a bit until it looks like I’ve at least got a reasonable chance of making it up an out. As I pitch off there is little lift near the hill but the area just before the sand pits seems to be working I gut up in my first Owens thermal. Nothing to radical and It takes me to 10,200 feet. Wondering if that is good I boat around waiting for others. Rob comes up to join me and we head off to the south because that is the way the thermal seems to be drifting. At trim my new Syncro from Windtech is doing 30 mph on the GPS. I figure its down wind. Rob and I are gliding and climbing together and I am depressed at the small difference my 2/3 with skinny lines has over the 1/2 Seark with standard lines. The lift is strong and thermals are close together and Rob is often above me. We fly about 14 miles and get low at Black Mountain. We are together and at 6000 feet. I go left toward a spine and he goes right down a little ridge. I find lift followed by a strong core back to 10,000 feet. As I climb in each turn I keep an eye on Rob who is looking lower and lower finally heading out of the hills to Big Ears. Its still early and I figure why not “practice” going back into the wind since they will most likely make us do that during the tasks. As I point the Syncro into the wind I find it is still gliding at 30 mph. Strange I guess it wasn’t wind its just a fast wing flying in thin air! On the radio I hear guys getting retrieved at Big Ears and figure Rob will be with them soon. I head back to the Gunter launch and thermal back up. With altitude again I head back toward Black and get hooked up at Flin’s and go on glide to the research station. Cool! My first flight in the Owens and a personal best, pushing 40 miles at 4 hours 30 minutes. This was to set the tone for the next 5 days!!!!

At the research center I get picked up by Rob who made a low save at Big Ears and got back to 10,000 feet then got lone pine a great flight. Both of us were starving and we went to get Mexican, then out to what would also become a nightly routine. The Keaho hot springs. These pools are off the side of the road and free but only get hot after the pay pool stops diverting water from the stream for there own pool. On different days the water was between 100 and 107 degrees. Nothing will put you in the mood to soak than a day in the sun, desert dirt and dust. Needless to say after soaking we were jello and headed back to camp for some sitting around drinking beer and recounting the events of the day.

The next day was looking like a repeat of the first day and it was good again on launch. Having been south the first day we went north and more and more pilots were in the air, making thermals easy to see. I met and flew with a cool crowd from Colorado, Mark, Josh, Rich and Carl (the other guy). This day we got higher around 13000 and flying north discovered some of the traps of the Owens.

(Thermaling deep over the spine with Josh From Colorado. Center and right: Starting to pinch on glide)

When you go north you cross over canon and the thermals seemed to be drifting back and we flew some of the spine of the white mountains. The thermals were large and in charge often you could see your speed drop or climb as you pushed near them. Getting high was a good feeling and it seemed you could fly forever but the catch is even though you are at 13,000 the ground is at 11,000 so you don’t really have as much to work with as you think. I got nervous and headed out of the moon country between Piute and West Mountain. Flying out I looked down and saw pilots flying with there shadow really low way back in the mountains. Final getting hooked back up I watch some poor soul land. Seemed like a days walk out. Turns out he hiked 3 hours to a place he could re-launch and flew out of the mountains. The day was just getting going and I continued to White Mountain. The unofficial task was Gunter, White Mountain, Black mountain then the White Mountain Research Center. I was gung ho and headed back for Black. I hooked (Left: Nate Scales high over Piute looking east over the back of the spine of the White Mountain Range Right looking north down the spine with White Mountain in the Center)

up with Nate Scales and we glided together working the air back to Flins. At Flins he radioed he thought we should go and land. Not knowing the time I told him Id like to go to black and he rogered up. After a little reality check, we had been in the air for over 4 hours we both agreed there was beer in the WMRC lz and grass to fold up the gliders in so went in to land. Another great day and 30 some miles and I turn 34!!! Dinner then the pilots meeting and an O2 fill, the hot springs and ready for another day. Back at camp the boys sing me a tear jerking happy birthday and present me with a survival candle in a poptart J. Great group!

Day one of the Nationals Task 43.9 miles. The West Mountain Mine (about 8 miles further north than I went the day before in 4+hours) then back to Flins then to Goal at the West Mountain Research Center.
On launch I’m thinking further than yesterday hard but doable, just be patient and make goal. The flight is wonderful with strong climbs. I discover most of the places I got good climbs yesterday work again today. At the West Mountain Mine I get low and am working (Left: the gaggle forms over launch)
in steep rocky canyons that remind me of home. I get the Mother of all Thermals I can only describe the thermal as a invisible dusty. I feel the wind swirl around me as the warm air rushes past. I am already thermalling and increase the weight shift and enter in the struggle to keep the wing over head. I called it later “the most radical thermal ever” meaning for me others started calling it the most radical ever, just to tease. Up again I get the turnpoint and head back for Gunter following the path I came flying back over much of the same path. This day was just turning on and I get massive climbs making it seem like (Left: GOAL!!!! Above High over the White Mountain Mine looking south to goal) goal is in reach. Learning from the past day I stay out of the high country and fly about the 8000 foot line which seems to work the best. At Gunter my Brauniger GPS vario tells me ive got Flins LZ on glide and will make goal!!! Telling myself to be patient I stop twice more to tank up and make sure ill get goal. At the Flins LZ its in the bag and I go on full bar to goal!!!! I arrive in the high 20’s and land 1 hour and 15 minutes after the leader. It seems the whole field comes into goal. When it is all said and done 46 make goal! The predicted valley wind from the south never materialized and it kept the numbers in goal high. Another best with the most radical thermal ever encountered.

Day two Task 46.7 miles. Gunter to Jeffery to Big Ears To WMRC. Another great task. Again lift working in the same areas of the past few days. I launch and climb away and my GSP says press page. At the top of the first climb I push page and it says track log full. Bummer! This means I will have a 0 for the day unless I clear the track log. The thermals are drifting to the north and I clear the track log but notice it is still not dropping points. Now outside the start cylinder the gaggle I am with goes on glide. With gloved hands I stab at the gps with my pencil trying to figure out why the track log is not working. At last I’ve got the right screen. Turns out when the track log is set to fill and it is full it resets the log to off. Getting it turned back on I push goto Gunter and am 3.3 miles from launch so I have to fly back to the start cylinder to get the start. Now way behind the group I climb in a strong thermal to over 14,000 and head out on bar racing to catch the gaggle. By White Mountain I’m with the group that left with our me but still stressing about weather my GPS will be valid. At I glide with Rob to Jeffery and head back into the mountains. We get separated as he climbs out in a thermal I just miss. Working hard around 8000 feet I go back to a spot that got me up the last 2 days and get a strong climb back to almost 15,000 the last time I will be low today. I take several ridges at a time using 1/3 bar on glides and am being rewarded with great speed and climbs. I catch Sheri and fly with her from Gunter to past flins launch. We work up high. Today the climbs seemed to to pick up at about 12,500 and go ballistic. We bounce between 12,000 and 15,000 for about 20 miles. Then climbing at 15,5000 I take a huge whack im guessing about 70% I over correct and end up in stall dropping like a rock. That’s mistake #1. I let the wing fly and the wing goes to the horizon and cravats on the right tip. I am swinging under and it seems controllable but I make mistake #2. The wing starts to bank up and I think to myself big ear the other side, weight shift but as I look at it what I do is try to “pump it out” what a moron! This makes the wing wind up fast and there is no way to keep the spiral from building so last resort……ESP. Never thought id be doing that! As soon as the wing went SAT the cravat popped right out! WOW. I am buzzing from adrenaline and bleeding off the speed of the spiral. My vairo is beeping and I’m into a nice 600fpm core. The whole event was set off by a strong core which I must have literally fallen through and ended up in its nicer sibling. I climb and watch Sheri and Matthew Carter, and Bill Bellcourt go on glide for Big Ears. As I hoot and yell to the top of the climb I notice they are getting the king of all glides and the air seems really buoyant. I leave the thermal at 15,000ish and go on glide. I glide over Rob who is working on getting up at Black. I glide on 1/3 bar the Syncro is SOLID and flat at this speed. We get Big Ears and turn for goal. My vaio is saying I’ve got it with 1500 to spare. I don’t believe it but see Matthew flying the same wing as me and Sheri going for it so I follow. Dropping slowly we get into air from the north. Im on 1/3 bar and maintaining speed but my computer is lowering my expected arrival height. It is looking hopeless about 2.5 miles out of goal when I see Matthew start to rise…thank you GOD a thermal. I arrive seconds later and we do about 6 quick turns on it then back on glide. Matthew is higher by about 300 feet and keeps me just behind him. I arrive in goal less than a wing width behind at less than 100 feet! I cant believe I made goal another day. The decision to go from big ears cuts 30 minutes minimum off my time and im only 5 minutes behind the leader!!! I know I flew well but am not sure my gps will count because of the start problems. All turns out well and im 7th for the day. Now if that’s not a personal best I don’t know what is.

Day 3 – Task Gunther, White Mountain Mine, Hammil, Law, Gunter LZ, Flins LZ. A day of mistakes and Lessons. Lesson one – don’t drink Red Bull before launch. The Red Bull boys are on launch handing out free red bull and I take one and knock it back. When launch time comes around I am nervous and jittery. Not a good feeling before a big task. Standing on launch I see the dustys come through indicating the leading edge of the thermal and sit tight knowing the cycle is strong. Thinking I have waited long enough I pull and the wing goes a way I don’t expect and I have to change hands on the A’s to keep the wing from letting down in some nasty stuff. When I switch hands I get popped, turn and end up with my right outer glove in my left hand, climbing like mad and with the wing swapping tips. I guess I didn’t wait long enough! I the first part of my climb holding my glove and brake trying not to loose it. During a calm moment I stuff the glove into my jersey. Today is a race start and the whole gaggle is high and we are circling at the north end of the start cylinder waiting for the start window to open. I see a glider pitch forward ball up and the pilot fall past it. The glider seems very close and I turn to avoid it, though it is not likely it was that close. It stays in a ball and then opens and surges to the horizon. The glider cravates on the right side and immediately starts into a hard spiral. It does several revolutions pointed straight at the ground. It seems like the pilot should have thrown by now and must be in big trouble. I was convinced it was going to spiral in when the reserve popped. The reserve ride seemed to take for ever, several minutes at least. Turns out the pilot was Andy the Zimbabwean pilot. The thing about Andy is when we picked him up at the train station he had a cane and a brace on one leg. On our drive my curiosity got the most of me and I asked what had happened. I was expecting a birth defect type story but it turned out to be from his service in the Zimbabwean army. He was shot in the back by an AK-47 and was lucky to live. After watching what I thought was the pilot taking care of his wing and reserve the start window opened and we were off. The day was just beginning for us and also for Andy and many others who would heroically come to his aid. The Fist climb was a good one and I left with the gaggle the turnpoint was one we had done before and I flew as I had on previous days using places that had worked before the hard part of the task was Hammil is out in the middle on the valley and it was doubtful if it could be made on glide directly from the WMM turnpoint. At the deciding point I tanked way up on altitude and went for both. The glide was long and the Syncor really shined. Using 1/3 bar, now my favorite position I was on glide and made both turn points. At Hammil I was about 9000 feet or 5000 over the valley floor. When you have been at 12,000 or higher all day you really start to feel LOW. You are dressed for cold and the warmth is a welcome change at first but you soon realize it will get a whole lot hotter if you don’t get back up. As I turn to run back in to the mountains I can hear paragliders and chase crew talking and I remember thinking this is a good place to land but there is nothing between Hammil and the mountains but nasty scrub and one road that looks like it may not be accessible. I see Ross Robinson turning low on his GT and head in to pimp him. I arrive a few hundred over him at 7900 and we turn in a week 200 up. As other gliders descend on us the thermal is still up but now down to 100fpm and my averager is saying its even less. At about 9000 feet the thermal seems to give up and I catch out of the corner of my eye a large slab of rock jutting out of the valley a mile or so north. This means leaving lift to find better lift but I figure I can try it and if it doesn’t work still get back to and grovel with the guys below me. As I arrive I am immediately rewarded with beeps. I do several figure eights to in five to six hundred up and when I clear the top and start circles I find a strong core just back of the face. I am joined by JP from Jackson hole and we search the strongest of the cores and get a good ride 1200fpm back to the cold zone 13,000 or so. I can see a group flying a head of me and bar to catch them. Constantly scanning for those turning circles I glide south to a gaggle that is going up fast. As I approach I fly into the real core and the vario screams at me. It is the strongest climb I have ever had. My averager is saying 1600 fpm and I can see the instantaneous spiking in excess of 1800 fpm. Strangely the gaggle is not paying attention to me and I quickly out climb them. Even as they leave the thermal on glide I am climbing in excess of 1400fpm. I top out at my highest altitude of the trip 16200+ and the gaggle that went on glide is now looking low. It seems there are 15 or so of us close and gliding together. I am noticeably higher and watch as some scratch lower for lift. Several times on the way to Gunter I stop to top out thermals they are climbing in and am off. On the next few glides which now seem to be into the wind I am gliding past slower 1/2 and 2 gliders. This is great but I am quickly loosing my thermal markers. I leap frog with Zach Hoisington in a couple thermals it is amazing how he makes that Oasis go. Before the Gunter I am much higher and am starting to pull away. At this point my strategy is to fly up wind of Laws and then get high and fly down wind to Laws then back to the Gunter Lz and then try to get up over the Gunter ridge and then fly to goal. At Gunter I am 13000+ and continue south to execute a flawed plan. Need less to say it did not work out. Approaching Flyns I am down to 10,000 and not finding any significant lift and finally give up and go on glide to Laws. Im thinking there is no way ill make Laws and get back to the Gunter Lz so I am on the death glide. At Law im almost 3000 over and hit goto Gunter Lz on the GPS. As I turn and head for the turn point my GPS arrow is not pointing where I am headed???? About that time the light bulb goes on. I was thinking and planning to have to be high enough to make it back to the Gunter bomb out LZ the Pits and never had to. The GPS is telling me ill easily make the next turm point and I understand my error. I throw my head back in disgust and there are at least 7 gliders over head, guys I had left behind much earlier. They were probably 2-300 higher and I was bumming on my miscalculation. Making the best of it about ¾ of a mile from the real Gunter Lz I get a light 2-300fpm thermal and drift in it until I make the turn point. I mark enter and get on the bar. Off the bar I have 9mph on the bar ive got 20 and bar to the dirt….DAMN, 2 miles from goal. It was really painful to not make it especially because if I had know the correct location of the last turnpoint I think I would have left direct from Gunter and most likely would have made goal L Live and learn. At least I wasn’t the only pilot that made that choice. Both Carrie and Ryan made the same choice. My day was done but they guys that went to assist Andy were still on the front 9.

Quentin landed hear Hammil with Bill Bellcourt and Carl Snitsler went to Andys aid. Several other pilots had landed to assist and all were in for a long night. The short of it is they carried Andy out on there backs using a glider bad with holes cut in the bottom and worked through the night just to get to impassible brush at the bottom of the canyon. The team called for a helo and when it arrived it dropped smoke the smoke started a fire that almost cost Andy his life. Carl’s look when I asked him how it was said it all. The fear was still on his face and he said it was real fucking serious. He said they had made a decision. They couldn’t travel faster than the fire with Andy and were minutes from having to leave him and save themselves. Fortunately the helo came back in the nick of time and all were rescued. The pilots that landed to help and those like Bill, Carl, and Quentin are all Heroes in the truest sense of the word! Well done guys.

Day 4 was windy and the fire created a 5 mile no fly zone that would stand for the rest of the event. This met the Gunter launch was not to be used by us again.

Day 5 going to JC calls a Flins the task launch and Mark Axion says no way to dangerous. The day is called. People make plans to climb, fish but some still want to fly. The wind is ok and Carrie thinks it will get good. Some head to launch. I end up sledding once then climbing and flying with a sail plane then running from over development to big pine. A great flight. Brad G is on the ground taunting me to throw down. I pull big ears. Then do what I said I wouldn’t on my skinny lined Syncro. Wingovers, reversals, sats and land next to the truck waiting to pick me up. Not a bad day for a non comp day. There is a party at the hot sprint and we go direct there. Another great owens day.

Day 6 - JC calls Flins and Mark is going to allow it. We arrive on launch late and the wind it to strong. This I the only day It may have been flyable from Gunter that we missed. We spend all day on launch getting sand blasted and all are happy when the day is called. We go and jump in the river then to dinner. Awesome Mexican food. Dinner with Josh Cohn, Marty Devaneti, and Ryan Swan, Nate Scales and other great pilots. I would have gladly paid for the “clinic” that happened over dinner. This is probably the best reason to come to nationals! The sharing of knowledge from more experienced pilots to less experienced.

Day 7 – we pack to leave and it is already windy when we leave camp. At the pilots meeting it seems very unlikely we will be able to fly and JC asks who wants to call it I raise my hand. We are driving today and if I can get to the airport by 5 I can get a flight home. This will make me the hero at home. The group wants to wait till 1200 to call it this will mean no flight home. Rob and I talk and we agree reluctantly to leave before the day is called. We hit the road at just after 10 and as we approach big pine we see the wind drop and are sure they are going to call a task. Rob and I are sick and consider turning around. We drive for an hour past limp flags and great looking conditions. Turns out we think we were just close to the Sierras and in the lee. A few mines further the true wind shows its face and the car is buffeted by the wind. Near the airplane graveyard there is a wall of dust and the wing is blowing 40ish. Thankful for the clear sign of bad flying Rob calls Carrie about 1230 to confirm and after putting us on for a bit informs us the day was called. I arrive home 2 days early and am my wives hero even after being gone for 10 days on a flying trip.

On the plane I reflect on the events of an awesome trip and struggle a bit with the harsh reality of life and death and flying. I figure if I ever go to meet my maker due to a flying accident whatever if did to get there was not worth it. For me to die doing what I love is no solace for the fact my children would grow up with out a father and my wife will not grow old with me. The gruesome reality of paragliding accidents and the frailty of the human body make me question my motives to fly. Do I really think it can’t happen to me? No! Do I think the risk is worth the selfish pleasure? Yes if I live no if I don’t. Did it make me want to keep flying? Yes. Will I evaluate my risks and try to make good safe choices? Yes. One of my personal goals was to make good choices and not take unnecessary risks to stay in the air, and I accomplished that. Over all the trip was one of personal bests, meeting more great people, getting lucky and making goal.


Alex said...

Thanks for reprinting the motivational story, Doug! FYI, this article was originally published here on the old website but the picture links are broken. One day I'll move all those old articles over. In my spare time.

The thing is, I'm not sure if this article makes me want to go to the Owens or stay home and hide under the bed.

Anonymous said...

Here is a link to a video of the 2002 Nationals that was supposed to become a DVD but never did.

Doug said...

If you check that video out the cars in the opening shot on the river is our camp!

firedave said...

Great adventure Doug. Sign me up!

The great thing about digging up these articles is that it all seems new again. The other is that you find some new meaningful bits of info that weren't in your realm of experience at the time.