Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Omak Stampede: Chelan Nationals 2016

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.

Day 1

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.

Day 2

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.

Day 3

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.

Day 4

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.

Day 5

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.

Day 6

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.

About 60 miles out, myself and another pilot get super low in a blue hole. I find a climb at 200 feet, but my wingman does not. I watch him get smaller and smaller as I climb and watch him land, thankful it wasn't me.

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.

Day 7

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.

Wrap up

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.


sandy said...

Excellent write-up Dave and some awesome flying, too! Our Hawaii monkeys did us proud for sure. Not easy to prepare for such a wild alien world in our gentle blue-green paradise. I'm glad I can live it vicariously through such brave souls.

Alex said...

Great writeup, Dave. I added a few pictures taken by our fellow racer Aaron Price, who always manages to take some inspiring shots during these events, and a link to Tom Ceunen's excellent official comp videos.

I was happy for the chance to revisit Chelan only two years after the last nationals we attended there. It is definitely one our country's world class flying venues. And how awesome that this time the majority of our days featured not high pressure cloudless skies and smoky haze, but beautiful puffy clouds and sometimes the actual cloud streets of legend. I enjoyed many unforgettable high points chasing more than a hundred talented friends around that vast and picturesque arena of foothills, waterways and flatlands. I also struggled more than usual to connect those high points into successful long flights, so I endured more low points than I expected. But as Dorothy reminded me, we need a few low points to recognize the high ones. And after my unexpected success in the Owens Valley last fall, and then a few months later in Thailand, I can't complain about an occasional lesson in humility in an overall super fun and enlightening string of flights!

I think we would be remiss not to offer our congratulations to Hawaii's youngest and newest and most successful competitor, Igor from Maui. He has recently dedicated himself to learning all the tricks of the trade he can from Brad G, and his commitment is paying off in stellar results at the Rat Race (23rd place) and again here in Chelan, where he claimed an impressive 22nd place flying an EN-D wing, ahead of many skilled pilots on full comp wings. Now I'm thinking we should invite him over to Oahu for a comp clinic! I for one would not turn down thirdhand tips and tricks from Brad G.

I look forward to attending many more competition events like this with Dave, JK, Igor, Scotty, and any other monkeys we can convince to join us. The pilots that regularly pursue this avenue of our sport are truly some of the best and most interesting people you could meet. And it's honestly the most effective and fun way to improve your cross country skills.

Thom said...

Great write up Dave. I enjoyed stalking you guys from hovel, happy for you but at the same time sad wishing I was there, even if not flying, just to be in the presence of some of the Best Pilots in the World.

Notables there were the Goldsmiths. Bruce the owner of BGD is the man responsible for the Airwave Sport which I flew the heck out of. He's one of the top guns in the world as he and his son Tyr proved with 1st and 3rd places in Sport Class. I would have loved a conversation with them.

Jared Anderson, who had just visited us this spring, stating his intentions to do Rat Race and Chelan this year. Well, he did it and is now the US Champ. Congrats.

It was awesome watching you guys, you all did great. This re-cap will most likely stay here on top for quite some time and I will be glad to read it again & again.

Thanks Dave for the write &
JK, Alex, Scotty & MR. MAUI IGOR for keeping me busy infront of the computer watching 10 minute blip up dates. Ike said this once but I was never on the watching side, you all need to get Delormes!!!!!!!!! It was killing me not to know how high you were at.
Of course getting Scotty to even use a cell phone is tough, but thanks for answering the day I called you.
I hope the pilots didn't see you JK. I think you were out 'sick'. Apparently with a broken finger you can't fly a 737 but a paraglider is 'ok'.

Thanks Again and Again.

I saw a T-shirt the other day that you guys should get.

"I FLY because baseball, basketball, football, soccer, tennis and golf only take ONE BALL!!!!"

Igor said...

Great stuff! Well done Dave! Thanks for all the kind words Alex! I think my success was in curiosity. I was just watching top dogs doing some amazing moves, but to see it you have to be in close proximity! So here I was following them around just once in a while suddenly looking down and realizing that this is not a computer game and Im in a middle of nowhere, over some extremely unpleasant terrain. Damn reality is rough so I go right back to my ferry tail land, with thermals, sunshine and beautiful wings controlled by my heroes, friends, role models! Can't wait to visit you guys! As soon as weather give us a flyable weekend I will be there with my head in the clouds and it would be my pleasure to share everything I know;)

JK said...

Thanks so much for the recap, Dave! Excellent stuff! After a few days to let the experience ferment, here is my impression.

As the adage goes, “I’d rather be lucky than good.” But in this game, I think it’s more about being good at getting lucky. Those good pilots that finish in the top ten are very good at optimizing their chances. Such is the case when we chase towering columns of invisible lift. Luck plays a big part (good and bad) when you chase what you cannot see.

If you have enough altitude, you can try your luck several times before you break the bank and are forced to land. Altitude is obviously a good thing. With more chances to play, you have more chances to win. Knowledge and experience will drastically improve your chances, like heading to a possible thermal fueled by a dark field or metal power lines or bumps in the terrain, etc. Pointing it where it’s likely can result in “pay dirt”. But even the known house thermals aren’t always “on”. All thermals are cyclical, and if your timing is off, you can be left with an empty bag. If you’re too low to try something else, pay dirt just becomes dirt.

Once you find some lift, finding the core and staying in it does require some skill. Few things in paragliding are more satisfying than finding your own thermal, zeroing in on its core and taking it to cloud base. The lower you grab it, the more exhilarating the catch. It’s very much like fishing; getting a nibble, waiting for the right time to set the hook, and reeling in the big one! The sound of a frantic vario is much like a spinning reel. The thermal comes to life in the glider's lines and into the harness like a running fish bends the rod and pulls the line to near its tensile strength. It’s an adrenaline rush. There are times when the thermal takes a turn and you get spit out. It’s like the big one that got away. Again, your luck can turn.

If you can fly with other pilots your chances go up considerably. It’s a way of seeing what’s invisible. Anything that marks the lift (other pilots, birds, plastic bags or any debris) changes the odds. Being able to see the lift is like looking at a blackjack dealer’s hand before you decide to take a hit.

And flying with other pilots in a gaggle is even more advantageous. That’s because in a gaggle, every pilot is making a slightly different bet and if one wins, the others flock to cash in on the for-sure payout. There’s another saying that says, “Only the lead gaggle is a true gaggle. The rest are just groups of pilots sharing thermals.” The gaggle waits for others and keeps everyone in sight. They fan out to sample a wide swath of air. It’s all about mutual support and cooperation. One day I will fly in one of these. Until then, I have to fly alone and rely on my own luck.

There is always a time when you need to know when to fold ‘em. Alex had seen enough one of the knurly tasks and landed because he chose to. I had a point where I had to pee so badly after a system malfunction, I flew through lift and turned in sink. There are times when you have to cash in your chips and walk out of the casino while you still have enough cash to buy a meal.

There is no shame in landing short, just as there is no cause to gloat when you make goal. Every day you fly, you make decisions. Your decisions could be based on knowledge or experience or maybe just a gut feeling but in the end, you are really just trying your luck with the best odds you can muster. Aren’t there support groups for people like us, people with a gambling problem? I’m ready to double down. When is the next comp!?

Alex said...

Just noticed your comment, JK. Some great thoughts, thanks for sharing! And I think the next comp will be in March when Matty and Graham host the Thailand Open 2017. :-)

Thom said...

Thailand OPEN.

I am there if Alex gets his ass down there and JK gets a kitchen pass. Even if I just have to help Mr. Senior.

JKS said...