Friday, August 24, 2012

The Whistler Express: Ten Days in Pemberton

Day 1: Thom and I arrive on the red eye from Honolulu, stock up the car in Vancouver, and blaze up to Pemberton through Whistler, a beautiful drive on a beautiful day. It looks almost like Norway in the Squamish area, with the big fjords and vertical rock. We catch Jorge on the phone, and he tells us that he is at the LZ on Pemberton Farm Road. We find Pemberton Farm Road East, and we drive up. It looks to me like the road to launch, not to the LZ, but we drive on it a bit anyway.

We finally turn around, and as I am about to blaze across the unlighted train tracks, we hear a loud whistle. I skid the car to a stop, and a four locomotive train buzzes by at 20 feet away. I tell Thom, "Damn, this is going to be a long one. We should have went for it." I can see him questioning leaving his life in my hands.

We find the main LZ and catch a ride up to launch, a memorable 45 minutes with the lovable Fred Wilson. On launch at Upper McKenzie we find Jorge, Kevin and a slew of people that we already know. Pretty much every pilot in Pemberton has spent some time in Hawaii, often on Oahu. Jorge gets called out by the bank manager, and it is Sony, Reaper's old roomate who now lives there. Reaper even chimes in on the radio that he has arrived in town after the red eye from hell.

Launch sits at 4,100 feet, and the valley at 800, yet the place looks like Chamonix with Annecy's launch in grass. Looking in every direction are snowy peaks and glaciers. Easy layout and nice cycles coming up the front. Jorge and his bud, Raul, launch and are gone. I launch and head for the scree slope (later affectionately named the Grovel Pit), and start a slow tour of the low ground. Thom and Kevin launch and hook it up past the Grovel Pit and sky out above launch. Frustrated with my inability to climb out to the high ground, I begin my thermal training and proceed to scratch low and tight for an hour and a half. Training is training.

We eventually all retire to the LZ, and since the camping at the golf course isn't ready, we decide to take Reaper up on his offer, so we grab food and beer and head out to his cabin on Lilliooet Lake. We arrive at the cabin in the woods. A tree had crashed through the roof a couple of weeks ago, the water had been disconnected, the propane leaked, and the whole house smelled explosive (though it didn't bother Pete's brother Dave, who continued smoking). Someone got mad and kicked a cooler through the window, and there was a tourettes episode in the woods, but the lake was beautiful and refreshing, and we made steak tacos and drank some beer. Great place and hardly any people. Refreshing.

Day 2: We make camp at the comp HQ, which is on the Black Squirrel Golfcourse fairway. The bar/restaurant is the HQ, and they figure they will have a pretty captive audience for the duration. Beautiful cold showers and all the mosquitos (and bears) you will ever need. In fact, a mother and her two cubs strolls by 30 feet away. Signs of things to come.

We make our way to launch, and we all climb out in nice thermal cycles. I finally get high and get to really see the area. The lift is plentiful, though often difficult to hang onto, which goes with the blue high pressure conditions. We all land at the LZ to make it to the mandatory pilot briefing in town. One of the local characters, Big Al, gives us a lesson in self extraction from trees, after which he makes the bold statement, "In 15 years of flying here, I have never landed in a tree". Oops. We all pile into Reaper's Bronco and head up to Whistler to pick up Larry Williams. We decide to eat, drink and check out Whistler, which to me looks more like Spring Break than a Canada ski town. Nice end to the day.

Day 3, Task 1: Gentlemen, start your engines. A 62k task is called. Everyone gets out nicely. Thom is doing great, but then his GPS is pointing the wrong way, and, a bit confused, he fiddles with it and manages to sink out early on. I tell him to screw the GPS and just follow the crowd next time. I get going pretty nicely and find myself far along and high (after my mandatory early save, which I am used to now). Flying high over the barren ground and snowfields is awesome. I am headed toward the last turn point and goal, slowing down and climbing more carefully as I start to smell goal. I notice my radio is APO'ed and I turn it on again. Reaper's voice comes over and says: tree, reserve and helicopter all in the same sentence, I look around to see if I might have missed something. Apparently, there are multiple reserves. Strange. The conditions are getting weaker and pretty mellow. Big Al, (remember the safety briefing yesterday), has apparently gone down through the trees without a reserve and no injuries. In fact, no one was injured in all five incidents with three deployments. But the bad news is, Reaper is on radio stopping the task due to a SAR helicopter on the scene. No goal for me, or Jorge, or the dozens of other guys still in the air. All in all a great first day with an asterisk*.

Day 4, Task 2: Transport to launch is a slightly hectic daily $20 ride, hustling a ride in an early vehicle, but it is difficult for Larry, Thom and I to ride together. I ride up to launch in the back of a pickup truck with a Seattle pilot named John, and we talk for the 45 minute ride. He sounds like a nice guy who loves to fly, pretty typical.

There is a thunderstorm forecast to come in from the south, so the task is run up valley to escape the southerly Whistler Valley winds, aka the Whistler Express. A 47k task is called and we are on our way. As soon as the start rolls around, the sky darkens to our south and the winds start increasing. I make the first turn point and head back upwind to catch the second. I wind up low near the second waypoint in a strong headwind, unable to climb high enough to tag the 400m cylinder around the round peak above. At one point I am within 600m of it, but even kicking trees, I can't close in because of the bumpy air. After about 30 minutes of this I have a decision to make, stay and fight an iffy battle, spin off downwind and continue with the rest of the task without this point, or head into the approaching weather and go land. I go land and see Thom, Larry and a whole bunch of others down in the field. The wind there is actually light from the other direction, oddly enough. The usual self-loathing kicks in at the LZ, but Meredith reminds me that it might be a good thing to land early on a day like today.

We load up and head up to goal to watch the gang arrive. It is actually sunny, with no wind, and many pilots are arriving. Ten miles away on Mt. Currie, it is black, with big bolts of lightning cracking. It appears everyone has arrived, but Thom and Larry spot three more trying to catch the last turn point toward the storm. Suddenly, it appears that all three are going up fast, and the last glider is still headed for the turn point. The first glider pulls big ears, and the last two spiral. The back glider's spirals look more like 360s, as the guy next to me, Pal, the top acro pilot in the world, points out. The task gets stopped by Reaper, and the two pilots make it into goal. The 3rd glider was once super high, and is now low. Reaper was apparently on the radio with the pilot, John, at this time, the same guy from my ride up. He disappears behind some trees and a barn, descending, but with a fully open glider. A few moments later, the gust front arrives with over 30 mph winds. Dirt is torpedoing up, and leaves are flying everywhere. We jump in vehicles and hustle off. We spot something flapping wildly in a field and find that it's just plastic sheeting.

Over the radio there is a report of a glider on the river bank. Emergency vehicles race by, but it seems too soon. It appears to me that the pilot was trying to cross the river and avoid the tree, to land in the big open fields. He likely got knocked out of the air over the icy, fast moving river. A witness on the bank saw him land in the middle of the river. These were probably the only people on the river for many miles and they immediately called rescue.

The news slowly trickled back to HQ, but the local guys were scouring the banks, kayaking, jet boating and helicopter searching into the dark. He was found the next day, 100m downstream under some logs, his glider ripped away by the strong current. A sad day. Reaper is really looking beat up already, really earning his pay.

Day 5, Remembrance Day: Things are busy at HQ, but the group votes to carry on with the comp. A lot of us head up to launch late, and take scratchy sledders down in stable conditions. We are put to sleep in our tents by lightning and booming thunder. Only people on golf courses get struck by lightning. Oh, that's right, our tent sits in the middle of a fairway. The locals say that they are lucky to see lightning twice a year, and we are two for two.

Day 6, Weather Day: Today was a weather day, as storms and wind were forecast. I had ideas of going hiking up on the glaciers, or downhill mountain biking in Whistler, but it turns out Thom is not really into that stuff. Somehow we ended up bopping around Whistler town, then drinking beer with Jorge and some local guys watching the mountain bike show. One of the local guys was Samson Daniels, a hard charging PG pilot in the comp. He was in the Olympics and a gold medaler in the X-games in skiing, and he was also a top mountain biker, until he paralyzed himself from the waist down in an accident seven years ago. Nonetheless, I have spent plenty of time going around in thermals watching those wheels spin above me. He is full of stoke and good spirit, and about as independent as someone with non-working legs can be. He is a top paraplegic everything: skier, mountain bike chair, paraglider and a whole lot of other stuff. Definitely inspirational.

Day 7, Task 3: Today a 60k task was called, not too far or difficult, supposedly, to get us all safely flying. The flying conditions were great, probably the best all week. I got to above 9k over Goat Peak, crossed a big valley for the turn point, got that, then with my altitude headed across an even bigger valley for the following turn point. At this point I am catching six or eight gliders, who appear to be catching the turn point via the shady lee. I come in higher, pass on the saddle to the sun, pick up the turn point above, and chase the small gaggle in front of me. The problem, and it is a recurring problem for me, is that none of those gliders got the turn point, and they were bombing out into the field below. I crept the long way around into the sunny side, but I was too low to climb out. I went on glide, and rather than land with the 15 or so gliders in the field below, I figured that I would put a few kilometers on them. It turns out that the field I ended up landing in, was the same one that Larry landed in earlier while free flying from the other direction on a nice flight. Denis Cortella gave a seminar that evening about flying modern gliders and harness designs.

Day 8, Task 4: Today a 58k elapsed time race was called. I launched during a lull, sunk through the Grovel Pit and spent the next hour plus scratching extremely low over the bomb out LZ cliffs. Thom was down there with me as well. To me the start is the worst time, but also the most likely time to get low. I go through all the emotions at this time: denial, anger, bargaining and acceptance. Finally a couple of great climbs come through and I get high over launch, an hour behind everyone, but I will take it. Today's task consists of two circuits through large cylinders around the main valley. I make it around once with 35 minutes before task end. Most of the guys are finishing their second, and I don't want to be the only guy tooling around the big valley by myself (or so I thought), so I fly to goal with the rest. Jorge makes the full trip as do about 30 others.

Day 9, Task 5: Thom is learning lots, but having a hard time putting it together for some results. His nickname needs to be changed to Loose Parts or Yard Sale, because his gear is always strewn about, much to Larry's and my enjoyment. Having said that, Thom is a blast to travel with. He can talk to anyone, and he is very animated and motivated. His GPS seems to be his biggest trouble.

We wake at 5 am to the Bears vs. the Russians at the campsite. Momma bear and her two cubs decide to help themselves to the Russians' cooler, and the Russians in turn fight back with yelling and a big umbrella. The cubs run up the tree, momma bear returns, and the cubs run off. Most of the campers never woke up. Thom dreamt all week that the bears were eating his toes. We thought about rubbing peanut butter on them in his sleep.

The task today is 69k, with a bunch of valley crossings thrown in. The gang gets up, but I end up groveling low before the start. Right at launch I hook a thermal. Nicole McLearn is 50 feet above me. I get tossed and spit out, and she climbs straight out to the moon. One thing I have noticed about the thermals is that everyone will be climbing, and then suddenly it hits an inversion or warbles downwind, and one lucky pilot, or maybe two, will find the magic window and climb another 1500 feet higher. It wasn't until later in the week that the lucky one was me, and I started to leave the masses below sometimes.

I see Thom on course ahead of me and smile. I climb up for the first valley crossing, and go for the turn point on the ridge on the other side. I start to get low and have a decisive moment, get the turn point or get the ridge and climb to get the turn point. There are five gliders in front of me catching the turn point, so I should have been wary, but I have been getting up from all over and I don't really worry. Then I get the turn point, hit sink, hunt for lift in the likely places, and find nothing. Decision time again. I decide to run back across the valley into the sun, but I arrive low and can't get up, and I have to land. Lesson: identify when it is good to be a sheep and when it is not.

While in the landing zone with the five pilots ahead of me and a few others, Thom flies by overhead, and arrives at the sunny side a few hundred feet above where I just did. I tell the guys that he needs this climb, and they all start cheering. Thom climbs out like a pro and heads on his way. Twenty minutes later he appears back around the corner and lands with us. Jorge lands further on up the course on another valley crossing.

The final party and awards ceremony gets swinging immediately after the task at Mike Sadan's big spread. Bonfire and barbecue on a beautiful night. Denis Cortella from France wins overall. My buddy, Fredric Bourgault, finishes 4th, for the Canadian champion. Pal Takats, the acro superstar, finishes 5th overall, flying the U-Turn Blacklight, a DHV 1-2, beating out lots of good pilots on Icepeaks and Boomerangs. Really amazing. Beers are consumed, salmon is eaten, and stories are told. I hear the party went well into the wee hours.

Day 10: We break camp at the Black Squirrel, and drive up to Reaper's cabin to drop off gear. We end up taking a cruise around his lake on his little aluminum boat. We go check out the Indian hieroglyphics on the other side of the lake.

A day of fun flight with a peak landing for lunch is touted, but the touters looked like they went back to partying. Lots of us head up to launch, including Reaper, and launch into a kind of windy disorganized thermal day. No one really cares for it and everyone lands pretty shortly after. We wander over to the Pony Restaurant for some beer and food, and then head over to the inappropriately named Mosquito Lake, the only place without mosquitoes. After a nice swim, we head out to Vancouver for the night. Pemberton is a great place, with a super friendly vibe, really solid thermal climbs and jaw dropping glacial terrain. Highly recommended.

By the way, the Whistler Express is a weather condition that happens in the afternoon in Pemberton. The Whistler Valley is a side valley to the main Pemberton Valley. Often in the afternoon, the cool air from up in Whistler, coming in from the ocean, will slide into Pemberton town. The effect is that it displaces the warm valley air upward and makes Pemberton super windy and turbulent to land in. But strangely enough, it only affects a couple of miles in either direction. So if you come in to land in town, and the trees are rustling and you can't get down, then you probably have a Whistler Express. All you have to do is boat your way east past the airport, or west the other direction, and the wind will be calm. A very local weather phenomenon.


Alex said...

Thanks for the detailed story, Dave! It's nice to have a recap story after Thom's exciting daily reports on the Canada blog. The alpine flying in Pemberton sounds beautiful. Like France, but closer, and with more mosquitoes!

Gravity said...

Very well written Dave. How did you remember all that stuff?
You forgot to mention Harvey and his thrown at the Black Squirrel bar. Drank so much good Canadian beer he had to run back to Seattle.
My brother Dave dropped me at the airport and continued the adventure with all my crazy cousin's by taking the Bronco up to Manning Park, BC. for a week of fishing, rafting, drinking, maybe some smoking of BC's favorite smoke, too.
I wish I could have stayed longer, I LOVE PEMBIE!

firedave2 said...

I missed tons of happenings from the week. Thanks for everything, comp-wise and other.

DaveZ said...

Nice read Dave, sounds like you guys had a blast. Cheers.

Mad Dog said...

What a super cool story Dave! How did that cooler get thru the window? Wish I was there but could only afford one trip & My heart is in France. I have flown in Canada with reaper thou, Fraiser Valley & Continental divide at Golden BC. I will always remember the beauty of that amazing area! Maybe next year...Aloha Mad Dog

Thom said...

Thanks for the re-cap Dave.

You forgot to tell them about the cooler full of meat and cheese that you left at my feet one night.

I am just now no longer having bear dreams.

Next trip I will drive unless there are no trains in the country we are going.

Pemberton is an awesome place and there are so many places that I want to go. Pemberton will be one of the ones that I will go back to.

I miss my office at the Black Bird Bakery, the staff and the great breakfast and lunch sandwiches there.

It's Time to Fly, eh, Get Your Gear and Go !!! But watch for trains.

Nick Johnson said...


Excellent recap. Who needs to fly or travel with stories like these? Love your story telling style, lot's of wry humor mixed with tidbits of hardearned knowledge. The part with the peanut butter on Thom's toes...classic. I really sympathize with your emotions during a race start. I hate the initial launch too.

Looks like I'll have to notch Pembie higher on my "must travel" list. I'm eager to check out Reaper's cabin in the woods. I might have a hard time selling that to my better half..."Let's goto Reaper's desolate cabin in the woods surrounded by bears and mosquitoes". I hope it doesn't have zombies like the movie. Maybe a zombie kicked the cooler thru the window?

I'm constantly amazed by the geographic beauty and variety in own country.

Thanks for the story