Wednesday, March 26, 2014

In Like a Lion...

March surprised us all with a familiar roar over the last few weeks: the sound of strong northeasterly trade winds, heralding the early arrival of consistent summery flying conditions, and the end to what felt like an interminable winter of inclement frontal passages. Winter’s fickle variety is suddenly giving way to summer’s generous predictability. Let us give thanks for the leonine charms of March!

Cross country flying has resumed with a mighty growl as well. Some challenging and fun downrange flying from Makapuu on Tuesday, March 11, started us off, followed by a few days of various chronic loops at Kahana, and some green wall sorties from Makapuu. The next week brought more Kahana chronics and crossings, and some trips venturing further, to Waiahole and Ahuimanu, with the occasional optimistic return attempt. Last Saturday's attempt was successful, and this is the story of that flight.

But it’s really the story of a beloved landmark standing sentry at the confluence of five valleys: Puu Ohulehule, the pyramid, the keystone between the valleys of Kahana, Kaaawa, Kualoa, Hakipuu, and Waikane. Not to mention boogaland. She’s the gateway between the coastal foothills of Koolauloa and the inland main range of Koolaupoko. On rare days with light winds and high cloud base, the pyramid beckons, and we are compelled to attend her.

On any day we’re connecting to the pyramid from Makapuu, the conditions are naturally good, with light winds and high clouds, or we would not have made it that far. But when we’re starting from Kahana, the wind is typically stronger and the clouds are often lower, so the decision to drift back to the pyramid can be a tricky one. The best days are the ones with higher clouds and winds that are so light it's hard to get up and away from Kahana. That’s the kind of day Fireman Dave enjoyed on his historic flight from Kahana to Makapuu. And Saturday seemed like that kind of day.

Tuesday was not that kind of day. Fireman Dave, Thom and I had an easy time blasting up from Kahana and across the bay. Too easy, because the flow was so strong. Those are days I don’t consider diving back to the pyramid. But we had a fun time dodging squalls, staying out front, and crossing Kaneohe Bay to land at Waiahole and Hygienics. Dave almost thermaled back up and out of there to continue the chase. Thanks to Kevin and Sarah for the retrieve!

Then on Wednesday conditions were a bit lighter, so Thom and I blazed back to the pyramid with dreams of Makapuu in our heads. We connected to the main range behind Waikane, but the airflow was super strong back there, so we headed back out to the coast. Thom landed at Hygienics, where Kevin picked him up (again), and I circled around to the foot of the pyramid, hoping to fly back. I battled my way up in rough air and finally dashed along the cloud bellies into Kaaawa valley, but the flow was so strong that I found myself sinking steadily as I pushed full bar to make progress. I ended up landing right at the mouth of the valley. I was sad to be on the ground but happy to be in such a gorgeous spot. And I ended up scoring my biggest ever FAI triangle! Thanks to BC Al for the impromptu retrieve.

But on Saturday the conditions were a bit lighter still, with a high thick cloud cover, and I was hopeful that this would really be our chance to fly to Makapuu. Don followed me through Kaaawa Valley to the pyramid, and we rode the cloud bellies back to the main range behind Waikane. I found the clouds a bit too low for comfort, and rode them as far as Ahuimanu before heading out to the shoreline. Don had made a similar decision and headed out to land at a taro field in Waiahole. But as I surfed the cloud bottoms away from the main range, I realized I had saved enough altitude to consider another return attempt. As Don caught the bus back, I was flying above the bus route back to the pyramid.

This time I came in to the foot of the pyramid incredibly low. I’ve never been lower there. I was looking at tiny yards and fields and trying to figure out where I might land. I was clinging desperately to light bubbles of lift around a lone pine tree on the hillside, wondering if I’d made a terrible mistake. But I wasn’t sinking. So I hung in there until I found myself climbing foot by foot, yard by yard, rising along the ridge line and starting to think this might work. The thermals were drifting straight up the spine. If I fell off the spine I was in sink. That’s always the hardest drift line, but I made it work and eventually topped out above the pyramid at cloud base. I dashed into the valley, just like I had on Wednesday, and I was pleased to find that the headwind was not quite as strong as it had been on that day.

But as I approached the mouth of the valley I wasn’t as high as I’d hoped. As I tried to tuck in at the shoulder of the Kaaawa side, I found myself in horrible wrapping rotor flow, pushing me down. I widened my tack, pulling in even lower now, and hoped against hope for some kind of lifting flow down below the halfway line. And incredibly, I found some. I milked light lift up the Kaaawa ridge and eventually got myself up and out of there. Whew! I was back!

I headed to Kahana, and then to Punaluu, and then to Hauula, turning in thermals that were incredibly well defined and buoyant the whole way. I was very pleasantly surprised considering how overcast the day was. I was having so much fun in the sweet thermic conditions that I couldn’t bring myself to land, so I headed back to Kualoa to tag Mokolii, and then headed back the other way to the condos at Punaluu, before reluctantly giving in to the demands of my bladder and top landing back at Kahana.

As I stood on upper north launch, a huge feeling of relief overcame me. Five hours of stressful fun drained away in that moment. I gazed up at the sky and gave thanks for a rare marathon of amazing thermals and low saves. I took off one last time and headed down to land, after soaring both sides of the tree line in the sweet northeast flow.

Since then we’ve had a few more strongish days, flying some fun chronic flights, and definitely not considering the pyramid, despite the wistful hopes of visiting luminaries like Alaska Jack. But I’m wondering if our March lion might not turn into a lamb. Lamb’s breath might be just the right amount of airflow for us to scratch up from Kahana and hopscotch the pyramid to the main range all the way to Makapuu. Here’s hoping! Baaaaaa. Baaaaaa. Baaaaaa!


Thom said...

Thanks for the recap.

Somewhere in there was KLarry's first bay crossing, which does deserve honorable mention.

Alaska Jack is coming in again no Thursday with hopes of kissing the Rabbit from Kahana. We'll see.

I learn something new everytime I fly. so I guess I will just have to fly more. My highest score right now is lower than Alex's lowest score. It's gonna be a tough year to beat him. Especially now that his 3rd nut has grown in and an IP-7 on the way. We can only hope that a few trips to DC are in the makings so we can get a chance to catch up.

Thanks Again but I caught it at lunch.

sandy said...

Excellent tale Alex! And perhaps with enough homage to the regal Pu'u Ohulehule and her attendant valleys that she'll buoy you and save your a$$ on an epic journey once again someday. :-)