50 feet, 40, 30, oh crap, I am landing. I cranked a hard right and barely made it around into the wind to land in a wheat field by the edge of the road. This competition flying makes you willing to cut it close. Wondering how I flew so far, yet landed so short, 138 miles, 1 mile short of goal. Lulled by the fading lift and the promise of a high arrival by my flight instrument. I love this craziness. What follows are some of the highlights and lowlights of Alex, JK and my foray into the annual self imposed abuse of competitive paragliding. The lead up predicted bad weather for the week, but optimism and motivation was high. Along for the fun were Igor from Maui, Scotty from the Big Island, Motorhead Paul and a host of the usual characters.
The day was ugly and weird, so up the butte to launch we went. There was a blooming optimism, fueled by hotshot pilots wanting to pull it off no matter what. We hung out for a long time, but sanity prevailed and the task was called off.
It didn't stop Alex and the gang from flying later in the day. Apparently it was good unless you were trying to land. Good practice, I heard landing at the normal soccer field LZ was rough in the rotor. Motorhead barely cleared the river and clipped a tree, but landed okay.
There was a little grumbling around that the task committee was all the heavy hitters, looking to go big. With Matty Senior as meet director, there wasn't going to be much resistance. They did have to keep the rest of the 110 tag alongs relativity safe, so most of us were just drag.
A 160km (100 mile) task was called. The predicted wind was primarily west so we were sent crosswind 25 miles then downwind the rest. The task started well enough, but the wind quickly built from south. The fast guys made the turnpoint and headed out crosswind. Us slow pokes were faced with a very strong headwind. I got low in a canyon and was reading negative ground speed on my GPS. I tried three times to thermal out of there, but each time I glided forward I found myself in the exact same spot, so my day was ending.
Alex was ahead of me and high, and he watched as the whole area shaded and turned into dust devils below. A little note: Chelan has powdery soil, often called moon dust, and dust devils are common, in fact unless landing we often fly into them. Alex reported that the air got wild, two reserves ahead of him came out due to big cravats.
Alex watched in disbelief as the first skydiver landed safely, but then proceeded to get dragged by his out of control reserve. Alex watched for what he felt was 30 minutes as the pilot got dragged across a field, across a road, and across another field for a very long way. Pictures taken later from the ground showed a trench the whole way where the pilot was dragged through the moon dust, two feet deep most of the way. Alex had seen enough and made a left turn to cruise downwind and land.
The guys who tagged that southerly waypoint didn't have it much better. Igor and JK were on their way. Both did great in the tough conditions, though both had pee system malfunctions.
If the wind was westerly as predicted, it would have been epic, but the strong southerly wind slowed or stopped many of us. Of course this a comp, so a half dozen or more warriors made goal.
A task is called even though the weather report calls for overdevelopment and thunderstorms. But this is Chelan and the motivation is high. A 100km task is called and everyone is airborne. It quickly becomes apparent that it is over developing fast as you go up no matter what you do.
The task is cancelled, and most of the pilots land at the soccer field, but a few hardy souls head out XC to the north.
These guys are motivated, so something different was called for Task 2. A airborne tour around Chelan Lake to 4th of July Peak and run up the Columbia river to the town of Omak.
The task was amazing, snowy peaks in the back, glassy lake below, with everyone flying close to the first turnpoint, many in town said it was a beautiful sight watching all those gliders over the lake, they had never seen that before.
The route presented many options for getting to goal. Stay in the mountains, cross the river to the flats, or as the leaders showed us, fly the course line crossing back and forth across the Columbia River multiple times.
JK decided that going deep into the mountains under the clouds was the way. It quickly didn't work and he sunk out deep, with the reward of a long steep hike out.
Alex and I chose the safer and simpler foothill route up the river. Alex got low and landed short of goal. I survived a couple of really low saves, but arrived at goal high. It is funny how once you stop looking for lift, you find lots of it. One of my favorite things is finding a good thermal out in the blue, getting high, and as you top out a cloud materializes. Perfect timing, while being accidental.
Which brings us to the Omak Stampede. The town of Omak has a large park in the center that serves as goal. In that park is a large stadium with giant letters on the side saying Omak Stampede. It is a big rodeo venue that occurs each August and has events like the Suicide Run with the Bulls, a baby Pamplona I suppose.
But it seems like a paragliding task is a lot like an aerial stampede. A hundred or more gliders milling around over the butte aimlessly killing time until bang, start time clicks and 110 gliders all point the same way and blast off in the same direction, a stampede to goal.
A very high pressure day, hazy, cloudless, expectations low, but a 100km task is called. The field launches, can't get high, crosses to the flats, everyone struggles. A hard charging gaggle is pestering some poor farmer in a tractor at 100 feet, trying to find his thermal. Brad G. and Andy M. show what real commitment is about and fly into a dust devil really low. Brad apparently tumbled his Enzo 2 before finding the core. I think very few had the stomach for that kind of action. The vast majority sink out at the rim, the infamous Rim Job, and call it a day.
This is a comp, and a few top guys and girls slug it out in windy tough conditions and slowly make goal. We party at Brad's camp, with the Hawaii Monkeys that night.
The weather report isn't great, but the task committee calls a 225km, 139 mile run, downwind with one turnpoint. The day starts shaping up, with launches happening lakeside to the west, a very unusual direction there.
I launch late and struggle at launch height for a long time, JK had a similar fate. The task starts, with most pilots high on the flats already. I figure I was 45 minutes behind the field at this point. I creep across and manage to get high on the flats finally. Alex struggles extra hard here and lands, the Rim Job takes down my wing man.
I manage to climb with a few gliders and oddly enough a hang glider. In fact I will spend most of the day in sight of that blue hang glider, until he finally ditched me 80 miles later.
My first good climb and I find myself in the company of JK, high. He was talking yesterday about sticking together, and I told him it was a good idea, but I wasn't one to wait up for a regroup. We instantly take different routes, and don't see each other until goal.
The flying conditions are absolutely spectacular, almost surreal. A strong tailwind, with blue sky to the south and the cloud street lined up straight on the courseline and strong climbs to cloudbase at ten thousand feet.
It is hard to believe we are flying so far, so fast. I get clouded out at 30k from goal, and by this time I am at full comp swagger, except for the fact if I only push half speed bar I will remain forever slow. Gliding along so high at base there is no need to turn.
At about 15km out, my instrument says I have goal, and even though the lift had faded, my glide is great. I circle in a spot of light lift and leave it confident I have goal on glide. In a long painful glide, I watch my arrival height fade, never getting a blip of lift the whole way, and realize because of an earlier oversight I am gliding to the end of speed section cylinder, which is a solid mile from the goal cylinder. Nothing left to do but see how far I can take it. Hence the landing at the beginning of this article. Slightly bummed I didn't make it 139 miles, only 138, but elated to have smashed my personal best on such a magical day. I quickly pack up and a pickup truck pulls up and scoots me to goal and the margarita bar in the middle of a hay field.
Ike calls, arm chairing it through XCFind, throws me a congrats and informs me that JK is still up there, last man flying, so awesome.
JK arrives an hour later as our retrieve van is driving off. He is skyed out above, while me and our driver Motorhead want to wait, the van wants to leave. JK lands and gets his own personal retrieve with the scorekeeper Owen on the 4 hour drive to Chelan.
Our task had us skirting Spokane airspace. While there were many reports of air traffic, the craziest was JK's, who at 7000 feet was passed by a 737 at 500 feet away and 100 feet below. He reported being able to see the pilots inside.
At 225km, our task was the worlds longest competition task. Our favorite charger, Matt Henzi, wasn't satisfied with that and kept flying to Idaho, for a Washington State record 310km, 200 miles. He set the Oregon State record a couple of weeks earlier. What a day, 64 pilots in goal, with probably 70 personal longest flights. Funny, the 11 top guys landed at goal within two minutes of each other.
The day before, Matty had encouraged us to fly far because the weather looked bad for the next day. But today, after a few a task adjustments, the rain nicely stayed (mostly) on the edges of our 55km task.
With cloud suck being strong while waiting for the start above the Butte, one pilot cravatted, and threw his reserve. Uninjured, the task began. At the first turnpoint there was a report of a mid air collision that resolved itself.
Everyone was racing well, until some rain crept onto the course for us slow guys at the second turnpoint. I was flying with Alex, but like many others, he got really low at this point. I managed to stumble around at middle height and pimp off of the stragglers below. As soon as I found my way into the sun again, I wiggled into a climb to 9,000 feet. From here I glided as the cloud kept forming above me to glide to goal. Really sweet finish.
Brad G. was third into goal, but took a seventy percent collapse over the soccer field and chunked in from 20 feet. An ambulance took him to the hospital for a going over. It appears he might have compressed some disks and sprained an ankle.
JK and Scotty had to leave and didn't fly this day.
Competition flying is awesome and terrible at the same time. I start the day jittery and anxious, and wind up relaxed and focused. It is a crazy addiction. I worry most about bombing out at the start, or worse before the start, because it sucks. I know, I have done it before. But gliding into goal is such a buzz, and no beer tastes better that a cheap Ranier or Pabst drunk in goal.
But as the years pass, I see that competition paragliding is an old guys sport. There are always some young hotshots killing it, but the majority are the same guys who have been doing it since I got into the sport sixteen years ago. A great group of people sharing something special, the best of this sport. I can't wait for the next event to start.
Official videos from each day are here.