Monday, April 12, 2010

Lucky Jim

Jim and I flew together at Kahana on Friday, in moderate east-northeast conditions that looked promising for an XC flight, but we had to wait to see if the squalls would give us a break. We were in the air by 11:30 or so. Jim didn't have his radio with him but we figured we'd communicate telepathically, as usual. Some squalls passed by to the Punaluu side, but then there was one big cloud that seemed to be coming in right at us, with a very dark bottom, above a fairly well defined dark column of rain. I thought I would try top landing at the north launch, and if I couldn't make that work, I'd head for the beach. I could see Jim was opting to stay high and ride it out.

I tried a bunch of toplanding approaches as the squall drew nearer, but kept getting blown away from my target, and after I finally figured out (to my great consternation) that the wind was coming out of the valley, I made one last approach from the Punaluu side and was able to set my wing down. I stashed it under a bush just as the rain started to fall, and looked up to see how Jim was faring.

Moments after the rain started to soak him up there, I saw his wing shoot up and back as if hit by a powerful gust, and then it started to buck and twist, as he was being blown backwards in the strong wind. It looked like he may have been getting rotor turbulence from the wind blowing out of the valley, or maybe it was just turbulence from the squall. I thought for sure he would throw his reserve, based on how out of control the wing looked. At that point, I was sending just this one thought his way: throw, throw, throw! But the wing continued collapsing and surging, and Jim gradually disappeared behind the rhino horn, undoubtedly into the worst rotory area I could think of, not to mention the steepest rockiest terrain. I could not imagine a good outcome, and I feared the worst.

Our telepathic connection was no longer working so well. I gave him 30 seconds, then called him on the phone. I heard a couple seconds of unrecognizable sounds and then we were cut off. Was he struggling with major injuries or losing consciousness? But then to my relief, he called right back, and told me that by some miracle he had managed to come down without major injury, but he needed time to assess his position. I called the fire alarm bureau and told them we had a glider down but we didn't need a rescue, although we'd get back to them if we changed our mind. It was about noon at this point. Rather than sit around waiting, I started to hike up above the rhino horn to see if I could see where he'd come down. Meanwhile, Maui Doug arrived, and I asked him to drive around to Punaluu to try and spot Jim from the ground.

Doug saw his wing, located pretty high up in the second ravine behind the rhino horn. He talked to Jim on the phone, and reported that Jim's preference for a hike out option would be to head down rather than climbing up out of the ravine and over the ridge. After finding my way to a point pretty high above the rhino horn, I still couldn't see into that second ravine, so I hiked back down to where I'd stashed my wing. I relaunched, in wind that had turned more north and stronger than before, but at least there were no squalls to be seen. I flew around the north side to get an aerial view of Jim's location.

Sure enough, he was pretty high up there. I tried to scope out any possible paths for him to get himself out of there. It looked like going down would be too risky - there were a lot of steep rocky faces below. And he looked fairly close to the ridgeline above, so it seemed to me like that might be a good way to lead him out. I landed at the beach in front of the Punaluu wind sensor, folded up, and and walked over to where Doug was parked. He was at the car repair yard next to the restaurant, consulting with the two local guys there, who had lots of experience hiking and climbing those ravines while hunting pigs. They firmly dissuaded us from the lower route, confirming our hunch that the upper route would be best.

Jim was slowly getting his glider out of the tree he'd landed in, and stuffing it into his backpack, while trying to avoid slipping down the steep scrubby face he'd landed on. Maui Doug and I decided to hike up above north launch and see if we couldn't spot a way to get to him from there. Of course we knew that a chopper rescue was always an option, as Fireman Dave reminded us when he called, but it seemed like we had time and energy to at least make the hike up to the summit for recon purposes. I called Jeff and asked him to post that we could use help for our mission. Scrappy called soon after and said he would join us in about an hour with lots of ropes and harnesses, along with his buddy Steve, who is a wilderness climbing guide.

Doug and I started our hike around 2 or so. As we started up the north ridge trail, we detached the three new knotted ropes from the trailhead and stuffed them into Doug's backpack. I'm not much of a rope user or knot expert but somehow it just seemed right to take them along. That little bit of inspiration was probably my main contribution to the mission! After that I just cruised and let Maui Doug work his rope magic.

We made our way to the very top of the north face. There were some steep parts, and the final ascent was practically vertical and grassy, with few handholds. I went up first and sent a rope down for Doug to join me. From there we had to bushwhack over the top of the ridge and down through thick foliage and steep terrain to find the top of the ravine where Jim had crashed. Meanwhile Jim called to say he'd tried to hike up, but had found it too steep to continue, especially with his backpack, and had retreated back to his original spot. We finally found a way to the top of his ravine, and peered down the steep face to see his head sticking out of the bushes a few hundred feet below. We carefully made our way down to him, traversing some pretty tricky steep sections, and I started to wonder if perhaps we wouldn't be calling the chopper to rescue all three of us.

As we drew near to Jim's position, carefully looking for handholds and trying not to dislodge any loose rocks, we saw a white flash in our peripheral vision, followed by a loud crashing through the foliage below us. Suddenly I didn't see Jim anywhere. Had that white flash been Jim? It turns out that the boulder he'd been sitting on had come loose and had fallen down with him, rolling over him and tumbling past him down the ravine. I couldn't see where Jim had ended up, but I could hear him moaning down there. I thought for sure he would be out of luck this time, and I pictured the worst. We called out, and he responded that he was assessing the damage. He said he was bleeding, but he wasn't sure how bad. I quickly scrambled down to check on him, and we figured out that he was mostly okay except for some scrapes and bruises. Another miracle!

By this time Scrappy and Steve had arrived. They scoped out the bottom route from the road, and ended deciding to follow Doug and me up and over the top. They also used a rope for the final ascent, and left it there for the return. Mad Dog and Joey were flying by this time, and were monitoring our positions. They were a big help for Scrappy and Steve to find the ravine we were in.

As Scrappy and Steve were on their way to find us, Doug and I convinced Jim to follow us up the ravine along the same path we had come down, which was apparently a better one than what Jim had tried on his own. Doug and I took turns carrying the glider, and Doug rigged up the three ropes to assist us all the way up. We made slow but methodical progress, and eventually got to the top. Doug and his rope skills turned out to be the heart of the rescue effort. Without ropes I really don't think we could have got Jim and his glider out of the ravine.

Just as we cleared the ravine, Scrappy and Steve found us, and they helped us get back up to the summit of the north ridge using some very serious climbing ropes. Once we got the top of the ridgeline, at around 5:30, we opted to avoid the sketchy steep descent that would take us back the way we'd come up. Instead, we decided to loop back down a different way, along the top of the Kahana ridge, and then down the real hiking trail that goes up the ridge behind our east launch ridge. The top of the Kahana ridge isn't a real trail though, and there were some rough spots: some narrow rock bridges, and a lot of steep drops. But we finally reached the hiking trail, and started down to race the last bit of daylight. Doug and I ran ahead, leaving Scrappy and Steve to help Jim down the final descent with the aid of their ropes and flashlights.

Thanks to Reaper, Bonnie and Ginny for manning the beach headquarters, and saving us some cold beverages. Thanks to Jeff for manning the chatterbox. Thanks to Doug, Scrappy and Steve for the wilderness extraction, and especially for their rope expertise. I really have to learn to tie some knots someday.

In hindsight, Jim thinks he should have just called 911 for a chopper rescue. He'd rather see the professionals doing the job they train for, and spare his friends any possible risks. That may have been the best choice in some ways, but at the same time I can't say I didn't enjoy the adventure. It's not like we're the kind of people that don't enjoy taking risks, and I'm always on the lookout for new hiking adventures. It did take a lot longer than I thought to get us all out. Overall I think the mission was a success, and I have to say I'd probably do it again, given the opportunity. Next time I'll have flashlights, and streamers for marking the return path. Maui Doug returned the ropes to the north ridge trailhead, but Steve's rope is still up at the top of the north ridge. Maybe the club can reimburse him for that at some point, out of our special rescue fund.


JeffMc said...

Awesome write-up and pics Alex. What a harrowing adventure for everyone!

I think we've already learned a lesson from Jim's incident. I noticed a bit more reverence shown for the squalls that rolled through on Saturday.

Once again, very relieved that Jim and everyone are safe and can add a new one to their story books!


Waianae Jim said...
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Waianae Jim said...
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Waianae Jim said...

My thoughts will be few - since for the most part I point the finger squarely at myself for getting into this situation.
Alex has done an excellent job of recounting the day's events as usual.
Mistake 1: Of course is the obvious one - if I had opted to head in for landing when the squall was heading in my day wouldn't have been quite as adventurous. My choice of avoidance course put me right in the wrong place with relation to the clouds. It felt to me at first like the wing went parachutal as the rain was soaking it quite quickly and then right after that it entered a slow spin to the left. As i corrected that rotation the wind ramped up and started blowing me backwards. As Alex noted the wind direction seemed to be coming out of the valley at that moment. Since it was wet I didn't risk too much speedbar for fear of collapsing close to the ground. As I got blown over the ridge I got nailed in the rotor wash of the valley.
Mistake 2: Once I entered that rotor wash, I spent way too long "fixing" the problems the glider was having. I also may have overcorrected for some of them. I should have thrown my reserve - but I was too concerned with not having "control" of where I was going. In my warped mind I thought I was better of flying with my wing in various states and places, half inflated, above me, below me, etc. 20-20 Hindsight keeps saying I should have thrown the reserve.
Fortune, Luck whatever you may call it smiled on me and I made a "landing" in the place you've seen in Alex's pics in the article. Since I wasn't hurt of course I was hesitant to call for rescue.
Mistake 3: The place I landed was very unstable ground it was a BAD idea to have any of my friends risk themselves to come help me out. I was able to get my wing untangled after a couple hours and should have called in the chopper after I got it all packed up. Even if I had NOT gotten to take the gear, the right call would have been to call fire rescue in. As Alex and Doug arrived at my location the rock I had been sitting on (at least a couple hundred pound boulder) gave way and pushed me over then rolled over me. Since "luck was still on my side this day it was a glancing blow and didn't kill me. I still believe in this moment that if it had hit me directly I would not be here to relate my side of the story. If I had called in the rescue this event wouldn't have transpired either.
The hike out was very "adventurous" without trail blazers Alex and Maui Doug carrying my pack for me I doubt I had the energy to make it out. The ropes they brought along with the ones that Scrappy & Steve supplied made all the difference.
Words, of course, fall short for expressing my gratitude to everyone for their support getting me through the ordeal and getting back up in the air for a few minutes on Saturday. I'll be a bit timid about doing any squall dodging for a while for sure.
But I'll be out there.
Looks good - you go first!

Brazilian Ray said...

Glad to hear you are ok, Jim and thanks for sharing your experience!
I was very happy to see you on saturday jumping back on the horse, keep up!
Brazilian Ray

MauiDoug said...

Jim I'm also glad that you are OK! Thanks for your insight into lessons learned. What an adventure this sport is. See you in the air real soon!

Puka Wai said...

Jim, I too am glad you came through your tangle with a wanna-be thunderstorm, landing on the side of an almost vertical mountain, and a roll in the hay with a couple-hundred pound boulder intact. Lady luck was surely smiling on you that day. Most of us have felt the air on the ground when one of those squalls comes through, but I've always wondered what's going on in the air "up there". Thanks for being our wind tech - I don't think I'll follow...

Gravity said...

Hmmm, I see my earlier post was deleted.
Here's what I think happened that fateful day:
1st - You opted to fly in extremely wet and unstable weather in very strong conditions. While flying at the extreme range of your DHV 2 wing you encountered a thunderstorm that produced enough rain and gust front to push you back towards the mountain and caused your wing to become very wet and unstable which resulted in your wing being very heavy and going parachutal. Which also attributed to your not being able to penetrate into the wind.

When you were close to the mountain and inevitability had to steer the wing backwards you suffered a negative spin due to the high angle attack of your now fully parachutal wet wing.

2nd - Your amateur volunteer rescuers could have been seriously injured or killed attempting to rescue you hundreds of feet up on very dangerous cliff conditions with very little training and limited equipment. You should have called HFD for rescue. They are well trained and have a helicopter that would have cost you nothing. They also enjoy the occasional rescue as it puts all their training to use. Real world rescue.

I have heard that the reason you guys didn't call HFD was to avoid the press. Wouldn't it make a better news story if someone was hurt attempting to rescue a downed pilot?

This was an admirable mission from your friends and fellow pilots attempting the almost impossible rescue very high up and in a very precarious position.

Next time, leave it to the experts to save your ass and no one else will risk their life for nothing.

I'm very glad that all of you made it down safely.

I would have called HFD, again!

Fly safe

Anonymous said...

Hilo Ken: Hello folks, damn Jim I am glad you are all right. Alex when I started reading it was the normal type story. Somewhere in the middle it turned into a "real" short story I was reading on with great interest. Way to keep the reader engaged. I can only say its good to know you have a bunch of friends that care that much about you. In anycase the story had a good ending....Does anybody know where that 200lb rock ended up?