Thursday, May 19, 2011

Lucky Seven

I sorely missed the last few rounds of west side thermalation this winter, due to my recent disability. But today I was feeling better than ever, and I was determined to make up for those missed opportunities. I was on a mission to seek my thermal fortune and practice for the Rat Race.

A passing low pressure trough was holding off the high pressure ridge today to bring us unseasonable light and variable winds. The atmosphere was so unstable that the clouds developed early and thick, with drizzling rain reported all along the windward side and the center of the island by noon. But somehow Nanakuli remained clear and sunny like a shining jewel. I was sure that this rare wintery day would be my last chance to practice serious thermaling before the Rat Race.

Six pilots threw their midweek responsibilities to the wind and raced out to the west side. I met Mad Dog, Thom, Allan, JK and Maui Doug out there, and we powered up the hill in record time: 32 minutes to upper launch. The cycles were booming up there on the dump side. Thom and Maui Doug opted for mid launch while the rest of us hiked to upper launch. Allan threw himself off the hill first, and got sucked straight up out of sight. Wow. Clearly, we were in for some big air. The rest of us soon followed, and we all got established above Puu Haleakala, with the exception of poor JK, who limped his way to the beach with a heinous compression knot.

Cloudbase was about 3,800 feet above the peak, but it was lower in the back of the valley. Mt. Kaala was shrouded with a black cloud as well. The best XC option seemed to be up the coast towards Kaena Point - it was nice and sunny that way. But as is often the case, the sky above Waianae Valley was devoid of clouds. It was a big blue hole. We were getting nice clouds forming over Nanakuli, but there were no clouds forming over Waianae Valley, except in the back where they were building black and thick.

The thermals were fat and strong at Nanakuli. It wasn't hard to reach cloudbase, and from there it was just a question of where to go. Thom and Maui Doug were content to stay local, riding the elevators up and down for a long thermal clinic.

On the other hand, Mad Dog, Allan and I were nursing dreams of distance. The farthest I'd been up the coast was Pokai Bay, on a flight years ago where I just glided out into the blue hole. But today I had hopes of connecting all the dots to make it to Kaena Point. I am so ready for that flight.

The three of us headed out over the antenna farm in Waianae Valley to see what the air was like. It was pretty much dead, so we scrambed back to Nanakuli to tank up again. We did this quite a few times, until finally Mad Dog sensed his moment and headed out over the antennas and past them to Pokai Bay, eking out a great glide on his new wing to land at the boat harbor. A bit later, Allan headed out on a deeper line, threading between the antenna farm and the missile silos, making it to the far side of Waianae Valley and landing in a park there.

By this time I had made several forays out over the antenna farm, retreating to Nanakuli each time after not finding much lift out there. My patience was waning. Cloudbase was getting lower, and the lift seemed to be fading. Maui Doug and I were the only ones left at Nanakuli. I was thinking about just heading out to the beach to join Thom and JK.

Then our seventh pilot showed up. We heard Fireman Dave on the radio, as he arrrived at upper launch, asking how the air was - apparently it was pretty dead on upper launch. But then he switched to the school side and launched into strong cycles over there. Right about that time, I hooked into a great leaning column that gave me a good head start over the valley. This was my cue.

Although cloudbase was lower, it was also more widespread, and it seemed like I might have a chance to ride the clouds across the line that Allan had taken. Sure enough, that line was working great, and I made it to the last little ridge in Waianae Valley with plenty of height to work my way up. I heard over the radio that Dave had been flushed in leeside sink to the dump road. And Thom was saying the wind was blowing offshore at the beach. Now I was really questioning my mission. But the air still felt pretty normal where I was.

Allan was down below in a park. I was strongly tempted to just head down and join him. But instead he cheered me on as I gritted my teeth and slowly worked my way up and across the last stretch of Waianae Valley. The flow was strong and cross along the ridge there, but I managed to carefully climb out and head forward to the front of the ridge.

This was already a dream come true for me - I had just crossed the vast expanse of Waianae Valley and I was getting up on the far side! Of course I still wanted to go further, but I allowed myself a moment of super happy relief to have finally achieved this goal.

Now I was looking into Makaha Valley and plotting my line across. The back of the valley was cloudy and black, so I figured I'd stick to the front side. I slowly worked my way up to a decent height on the ridge, about 2,500 feet, and then zoomed across the valley, intending to work my way up the far side, the same way I'd done on the previous ridge.

But to my surprise and horror, I encountered massive turbulent sink as I approached the far side, and I realized the airflow there was coming from over the back with a vengeance. I was getting flushed hard, and my wing was pitching and barely staying above my head. I hate that feeling. I wasn't high enough to head out and around the ridge, so I just fought my way out through the sink to a lucky landing at Makaha Beach Park.

A couple of local guys asked me "where I wen come from" - and they were impressed when I said I'd flown from Nanakuli. I guess I was impressed too. It wasn't a huge distance, but it was a big milestone in my quest for distance on the west side.

Thom picked up me and Allan, and we headed back to Nanakuli to join the others for a few rounds of cold refreshments. At the beach park there, we were treated to the rare sight of several waterspouts forming on the edge of a huge black cloud that had swallowed Barbers Point. This was the second time in a few weeks that Thom and I had flown on the same day when waterspouts were forming. That just seems like a dangerous habit. But despite the waterspouts, the sky above Nanakuli kept looking better and better. What an amazing day!

The thing is, flying thermals at Nanakuli is kind of like playing craps at a casino in Vegas. The odds favor the house. You know you aren't going to win in the long run, but you just hope to get lucky every now and then. I've had a few great days out there, but mostly I've had sled ride days, blown out days, scary ass-kicking days, days with multiple hikes, and days where valley residents shouted at me and threatened me. Sometimes I wonder why I keep going out there. But then every once in a blue moon I'll have a sweet lucky day like today, and those are the days that keep me coming back.


Thom said...

My hopes are that demanding the President have a story by 7am is not considered a treasonous act.

Wow, what a day. I went up and down on those thermals getting a fairly rough ride a few times with more little whacks than I ever have gotten. I did stay local and was able to spy Alex leaving Nanakuli on his adventure. While watching I did get a few gusts into my face from the valley....things were changing.

I watched Maui Doug come in high then got pushed down to land behind the town homes, I was glad to hear him report an a-ok.

With nobody to retrieve me I packed up and left my shaky onlookers at the beach and hiked back to my truck.

When I picked up Alex, there was a smile that was not going to wear off for awhile. Oh, and he still is going to compete at Rat Race in the kiddy section.....hmmmmmm.

Congrats, Alex, AllanC & Mad Dog, I am still waiting for my balls to grow back so I can follow you all next time.

allanc said...

Great story Alex and I am glad that the line I took worked great for you. I am working on getting me a vario so that I can make the most of scratching in light lift and make it back us as you did. It was so exciting to see you get up at the small ridge between Nanakuli and Waianae Valley where I was hoping to get up. It was like you were continuing the epic flight and we were on a team to see how far we could fly. Really happy that you got such a good flight and good luck in the Rat Race.

Anonymous said...

Nice vid Alex; glad you all are getting nice flights, miss the hell out it there-tonnes! I am stuck under this Mississippi River haze of hell all the way to the east coast; even the buzzards are flapping,uhrggg! looking forward to the Rat Race Rallying hope I can keep up after this hiatus. PEACE!

ps going to try and locate a ridge flight in WV sunday will let you know how it goes!!!

bfalk said...

Nice video and music alike. Makes me want to go out right now. Thanks Alex