Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Green Green Grass of Hell

An intrepid team of thermal researchers ventured out to our long neglected western facility yesterday. Nanakuli is strangely green and overgrown right now. Not sure why it should be that way at the beginning of winter. Was it a wet summer out there? Or maybe the recent thunderstorms were enough. Right now Haleakala is an emerald edifice looming over grassy plains. Low launch is a soft and plush green meadow of grass. The first shift of scientists was lucky enough to launch their manned probes from that verdant alpine slope. It might just be the best launch on the island right now! But at the same time, it was probably the hottest day I can remember out there. It felt like the slight haze of volcanic fog was intensifying the heat like a big lens. It was as hot as hell.

Jeff and Frank had expressed early interest in heading west, so I made plans to join them out there. Allan called and said he was coming out to play as well. Scrappy sounded vaguely interested too but not committed. Other folks I contacted claimed a variety of urgent distractions, like practicing their guitar, cleaning their pool pumps, working on their vans, or settling into their new homes. But the six of us were footloose and fancy free, and the west side looked quite promising.

The sky looked great when we showed up around 11:00, with cloud base of scattered puffy cumulus well above Kaala, probably 4,500 feet at least. But as we hiked, the sky began to develop ominous thick lower cloud banks with dark bottoms, brushing the back of Nanakuli Valley. The forecast had suggested the day might overdevelop into heavy rain and thunderstorms, so we needed to really watch that stuff. But for now it seemed to be stopping above the summit of Haleakala and not expanding further out. The flow on sunny low launch was cross up the school side, pretty consistent and kiteable, with occasional extended boosting cycles, the kind we like to launch into.

I went first and launched into a sweet one, twisting and turning my way straight up to 1,500 feet or so in that one column before having to widen my search. I got close to 2,700 feet early on in my flight, which was cloud base at that time, before heading out for clear air. I was pleasantly surprised to find thermals everywhere up there. They were rather punchy with strong personalities, but I was willing to be a quiet listener and go along with the conversation. It was probably the best day of thermaling I can remember out there in over a year! It certainly was nicer than the usual windy sea breeze with chopped up thermals.

Jeff launched next, followed by Frank. They fought to climb out for quite a while, and from my lofty vantage point I could have sworn they were making it up and out, but eventually I saw Frank sink out for an emergency landing near the trailhead, and Jeff crabbed over to the school. A valiant effort for both of them. But they reported that the cycles were getting fewer and far between down there.

Sure enough, the clouds were beginning to clear up, and the air was becoming noticeably sinkier and grumpier. I found myself in ubiquitous smooth sink for extended periods, punctuated by very strong and sneaky thermals that made me feel like a cat toy. I tried to find my way back up high, but without clouds overhead it was a lot harder. I stuck with it as long as I could bear it, but after a while I headed out to escape from that grumpy kitty.

I was high enough to give Maili Point a quick try before throwing in the towel. It turned out to be working nicely over there, with little thermals bubbling up the front leading to some rather snotty and scary ones rocketing out from the inside. I caught one narrow little screamer to almost two grand, and started heading back to join the second shift at Haleakala, but my line was so sinky that I had to double back to bench up again at Maili. But I never could get as high after that, so I finally took what I had, and headed towards the beach LZ. This time my line was actually pretty lifty, and I almost made a desperate dash for the foot of Haleakala, but my exhaustion prevailed and I set up for a landing near my car at the shopping center. Two hours of thermaling over a route that ended up being a cute little FAI triangle.

Jeff had to go home, but Frank gamely hiked back up for another round in the diabolical heat, along with Scrappy, Shawn and Allan. I signed up for ground control while I tucked into some cold beverages at the beach in the shade. The flow had switched slightly over to dump side by now, and was quite a bit lighter. There were only a few little clouds dotting an otherwise blue sky, delineating a narrow broken street from aircrafts to Kaala, with torn misty edges like you see in leeside convergence. I watched Shawn sink like a stone from mid launch and then I drove down the dump road to pick him up. Scrappy launched next, also from mid launch, and actually started to go up, but he headed straight for the beach because he was late for a party at the yacht club. It must be tough to have so many interesting activities vying for your attention. After landing, Scrappy was quite excited on the radio, having apparently spun his wing 60 feet above the beach, recovering in time to make a safe landing.

Allan hiked all the way to the summit of Haleakala. That summit is a special place reserved for the most inveterate hikers and launch pioneers. Frank has done it, and Allan has done it before too. He launched off from there nicely and milked the light lift at ridge height for quite a while before calling it quits and heading in to the school. It was his first flight in a long time, a year I'm guessing. Welcome back, Allan!

Frank struggled to get his wing inflated out of mid launch in the light cycles, and finally opted to hike back down. But after two hikes up in this intense heat, not to mention skipping breakfast and running out of water, the infernal heat of the day finally took its toll, and he radioed down that he was feeling pretty dehydrated halfway down the trail. Shawn and I ran up to meet him and bring him some water, and we helped carry his gear down. After we got him back to his car and administered a special rejuvenating elixir to relieve his demonic torment, he started to feel better.

So we concluded our research expedition to the green green grass of hell with fairly mixed results. I would say about half of us were pretty happy with our aerial surveys, while the other half might have wished for another chance at it. But overall that's not bad for a day of research at this challenging western site. Here's hoping for more research days this winter with even better results!


Anonymous said...

I learned a long time ago never to underestimate the options the regular high launch offers. Unless it is a guarantee, i keep on hiking. Who wants to hike twice anyway.

I did get to fly a couple of weeks ago with Maui Doug, but cloudbase was 1800' max and super dark, the lift was great but the low base doesn't make you want to wander far. High cloudbases is starting to seem rarer these days.

Good tale of flying and suffering. We get spoiled by Crazys and Manics.

firedave2 said...

Not sure how i became Anonymous on that post.

JeffMc said...

I actually stayed up for 10-15 minutes, got to about 11-1200'. It all seemed pretty easy at first. Kept falling out of it, but lift was pretty easy to find. But then suddenly, the only stuff I could find going up was small and difficult to stay in. When I saw Frank bomb to the neighborhood, I decided that if I got found myself back at low launch height, I'd just go to the ball field. I probably should have kept at it for a few more minutes, but I was trying to avoid another neighborhood landing. It was super fun, wish I'd have run straight back up. But with my time frame, it would have meant a short flight.

Thom said...

Thanks for the very long read. i had mostly a weekend at home. The pool pump by the way is working great and pool is clear as a bell.

Hope to be on the hill this week.