Monday, January 18, 2021

A Solid Winter Day: Achieving Critical Mass on the North Shore of Oahu

Ninety minutes after stepping off launch my plan was going swimmingly. A small gaggle of pilots was established over a nice trigger halfway between the front lift band and the back ridge line, and I had searched out from the center a bit to find a punchy little core that held together long enough to beam me up to the high point of my flight. There, at 2,600 feet just shy of the back ridge, it would be an easy glide north, high over the complex system of ridge fingers and gullies until I could link one or two more climbs to access the high ground between Three Fingers and Mount Ka'ala. The fact that the expert pilots in the group didn't join me in my obviously better climb did in fact dimly register in my decision making, but Who's The Expert Now? Yeah!

If Mike Tyson had been on radio, he would have seen my position and advised me in that nasally tone, "Hey Switzer! Everyone's got a plan till they get punched in the face!" But lacking this advice, I had a few moments to soak in the view and gaze down into the green bowl of Makua Valley before taking a heading and getting down to the business of Sending. Seconds later my face punch came with the realization that a wicked headwind had dropped my trim speed to 3 mph. So the high ground at the back wasn't such a clever move and I would not, in fact, be having my cake and eating it too. Sigh. It was a blue thermal day, and air is invisible, and I hadn't taken into account the physics of the landscape accelerating the wind over the back in the same way that my glider accelerates the air over the top surface to create lift.

Suddenly the day made sense. The reason the thermals weren't reaching 2,600 feet off the front point triggers is that the wind was tearing the tops off. There was a wedge of usable air between the terrain and the stronger wind line, and the deeper you went, the stronger the wind at the top of the lift zone. The pilots making progress towards Ka'ala were working the middle zone where there were plenty of thermal sources, but the wind was still moderate. From my position there was zero chance of making the front edge of the terrain on glide, so the only way to stay in the game was to get lower, out of the wind, then push out front on a lifty line to clear the terrain. I love paragliding!

The forecast for this day, Friday, January 15th, had been looking good for a while. Light north winds on Oahu tilt the activity matrix squarely towards flying big wings in the neighborhood of Dillingham airfield. This chunk of coastline between Waialua and Ka'ena is the undisputed air and wind sport crown jewel of the island, with kite surfers, sailplanes, skydivers, and speedflyers contributing to a healthy ecosystem of men and women who charge hard. If you throw the surfers and climbers in the mix it means that on any given day someone will be optimizing the conditions and going for it. The normal trades don't work for soaring paragliders - too strong, too cross - so it takes these special days when a front is close enough to create the light onshores, but far enough away for dry weather to prevail.

By noon, all the signs were pointing to a workable day. The glassy, thumping waves started to get ruffled from behind ever so slightly and the high terrain around Mount Ka'ala had begun to accumulate a cloud cap. The albatrosses and tropic birds were soaring about on their daily errands, and a steady stream of pilots hoofed it up the steep grassy slope, feeling the cycles build on the back of the neck and daydreaming of the day to come. The hike is relatively short for the neighborhood, but it demands some attention when carrying a load. Whenever I start to feel sorry for myself enduring the burn, I think back to an incident a few years back at this spot where my buddy's dog Marty had a skirmish with one of the locals and got carried down the trail on a makeshift stretcher.

Marty was a cross-eyed, loving stray that wandered onto the property after likely being dumped by his previous owner. Folks love to come out to the end of the highway here to dump dogs and burn cars, but Marty lucked out and found a home with my friend. Turns out under the goofy exterior, Marty was a stone cold pig killer. He would disappear for a couple days, then return with a full belly, gnawing a young pig skull like a chew toy. One day he couldn't move off his dog bed, and everyone assumed he was paralyzed from a war injury. Turns out he had scarfed an entire batch of cannabis butter, and a couple days later was right as rain. But he did finally meet his porcine match on the trail up to launch, and was found by my buddy bleeding out from a puncture wound right on his ring-piece. So the next time you think the hike is tough, be thankful you're not carrying a hundred pound hound dog with a lazy eye, applying direct pressure to a profusely bleeding butthole.

The launch is an objectively fantastic spot on earth. It juts out away from the cliff band to create an airy perch with open space on three sides. The views are unobstructed, well earned, and could consume an entire afternoon on their own merits. On a clear day just north of west, you can see the outline and major features of Kauai and Ni'ihau. Looking down to either side, deep gullies end abruptly in sheer rocky bowls with only streaks of lichen to indicate where waterfalls occasionally burst to life. These gullies funnel the anabatic flow, where it hits the bowls and is deflected back out towards the launch. This creates the interesting situation in which the apparent wind on the cycles sometimes flows away from the slope as it wraps and rushes past. If the wind is straight north, the launch headland perfectly cleaves the flow, and one can stand there watching thermals track up the gullies to either side but coyly avoiding the hopeful pilot. Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink... Years ago from a high rocky perch I watched a master calmly kiting this spot for a half hour in gentle flow. Now that I've had the experience of inflating a glider here, I am retrospectively astounded at that mystery pilot's skill and sangfroid.

Visiting luminary Matty Senior led the charge on this day, getting off clean, boosting high in the bowl immediately and puncturing the big nervous balloon that always floats around before someone gets off the hill. I was the third pilot to get up, following Ian's layout strategy in which you line up diagonally with your back towards the main ridge. It looks strange and feels exposed to have your glider laid out one foot from the drop-off, but in my case, it worked and my first inflation caught the wrapping flow bending out away from the hill and came overhead nicely. On my only other launch from this spot a week earlier, I fluffed my first several tries which is somewhat the norm for here. The launch train then went roaring out of the station, and by the time I found the top of the lift band over the climbing wall and went on glide for Kealia, three more pilots were in the air. One of them was visitor Austin, who had stepped out of the launch cue following a rock snag that severed his stabilo. He had evidently completed his field repair in record time and relaunched, only to have it separate yet again as evidenced by the left tip of his grey Zeno cheekily flapping in the breeze as he zoomed past on glide.

On this day, the playground was divided into a few zones. West of launch, the north-northeast wind accelerates down the coast making return trips from the tip of Ka'ena point a slow proposition. The best soaring zone was the headland containing the Kealia trail, behind the airport control tower, as it faces a bit east and was catching the flow nicely. From there, the thermals embedded in the wind would take us to about 1,500-1,900 feet and deep enough to connect with the heat sources on the shallow slope behind the cliff. The terrain between the front pali and the back ridge bordering Makua valley is a complex system of deep gullies and ridge fingers, with a network of fire roads that sort of follow contour lines, which in this complex fractal environment means that it can take hours to travel on foot from two points a mile away as the albatross flies. Water sources are scarce, and it can be very disorienting navigating the brush choked hillsides should you find yourself off trail. In 2011 a visiting Norwegian professor disappeared on a group run in this area and his body was found many days later, having apparently missed a turn in the trail and plunged off one of the many basalt cliffs that are invisible from above.

East of Kealia, the angle of the front pali lessens and makes soaring difficult. There are thermal sources in the flats upwind of the slope, but less reliable ridge lift so heading towards Ka'ala is committing oneself to a thermalling cross country mission. The name of the game was to see how far into this tricky zone you could push, in hopes of connecting to the cloudy and presumably lifty flanks of Ka'ala. My hopes for gaining the prize were dashed at that ninety minute mark when I found myself pushing towards the front against the strong headwind. Option A was to run down a ridge hoping to find a lifty line but certainly not making it over the front on glide alone, while Option B was to return to the known trigger with the gaggle still circling above, halfway from my position to the front. The only problem with the latter plan was that the hilltop trigger was surrounded by deep gullies, there was no ridge connecting it with my position. So there was guaranteed sink before arriving at the lift. I went with that option, mashed the bar and had a bouncy but uneventful sled ride, arriving many hundreds of feet below the gaggle but with at least a few tree-heights of altitude off the hilltop before connecting with lift and re-joining the group.

Debriefing with other pilots, it seemed I was far from alone on this day in my experience getting spit down low over the shallow slope. Earlier in the day I spotted Ian low in the fun zone off to the southeast. From my point of view it looked like he was almost even with the edge of one of the gullies, like a halfpipe rider working his turns. He later told me his instrument showed 147 feet AGL at one point, which for almost anyone would count as a "low save". Anyone, that is, not named Jorge Atramiz, who for the better part of the afternoon doggedly worked his way towards Ka'ala, often at altitudes low enough that would make me deploy the landing gear, until he was finally rebuffed on the low flank of the mountain and landed in the flats. As he later put it, "I could see there were clouds, man, and I just needed another hundred feet to go deeper and connect to them, but I would have been low, like kicking the trees low. I decided to play it safe rather than land in the jungle." When most people talk about kicking the foliage, they are employing a literary tool known as hyperbole. But not everyone.

As the day wore on, the sun angle coming over the back ridge decreased and it seemed harder to find good sources in the back terrain. I took advantage of a dip in the wind speed to take a cruise down to the tip of Ka'ena point. This area is powerful, in the meta sense, and makes the wee pilot sitting high up in his lawn chair swinging around under his plastic bag feel small indeed. As you fly west, the land tapers to a fine point and the ocean fills in the space. It feels like the smallest switch in conditions could flick you free of the land forever. This feeling of a boundary zone is confirmed in the Native Hawaiians' belief that Ka'ena is not only the physical boundary between earth and ocean, it is the spiritual boundary between living and dead. In the dying process, a person's soul would go to Ka'ena to get sussed out by their dead ancestors and gods and so forth, and if everything was shipshape they got led to the "jumping off place" which is physically manifested by a large light colored rock called Leina ka 'Uhane, from which they would leap into the afterworld. However..... if they were kind of a jerk person or had a bunch of unfinished business, they might get resuscitated and sent back (yes please!) to clean up their affairs, or subjected to the worst of the three options and condemned to wander around the point as an undead night marcher, munching on bugs and freaking out tourists.

I was hoping that unlike the freshly dead, my trip would not be one-way and I would find enough lift to make it back to the landing zone. I turned around past the last radar ball, just short of the albatross nesting ground and to my horror, was met in the air by a terrifying red and black winged spirit of the afterworld! Actually on closer inspection, it wasn't a dead ancestor or demigod, just Kiwi Marcel who thought he would pop in and give me some company on the slow return home. We had a lovely trip, maintaining above ridge height, having plenty of time going against the wind to peer deep into the canyons and enjoy the offshore whale show.

The end of a flying day is a special time, when pilots begin to converge on the landing zone by air and land, the day's missions in the bag, and the low angle of the sun triggering that feeling to get back onto the ground. Like bats returning to roost, the wings began taking shape in the distance on their way home. Matty and Austin had apparently already landed after their successful tour of the Ka'ala high country, and I could hear Flash and Alex on the radio weighing their options returning from a deep trip up near Peacock Flats. After a few minutes of silence in which I'm sure some focused flying was required, they came popping back into view around the corner from Kealia below ridge height but well in the lift band. While most pilots were winding down the day, a lone figure wound his way up the trail and prepared to launch. Of course it was Nour, the quintessential late shifter who often shows up at last light to inject the scene with his ample reserves of stoke.

I took a last lap down the cliff band to watch the climbers at the main wall give their routes one last try for the day. Climbers have to carry lots of stuff, and I've often wished I could just fly it all back down the mountain at the end of a long day on the crag. The only person I've seen actually pull that off is North Shore local Brian, who years ago at the end of a day of climbing mysteriously disappeared upwards instead of down the regular trail. As the rest of the group shouldered our packs, a monkey call came echoing from above and he went gliding past us, shaving thirty minutes off the descent.

Our flying community is pretty small, and the good days are somewhat rare, so the good days that have a lot of pilots in the air is actually a pretty small slice on the Venn diagram. It made a big difference to have over a dozen people up in the fun zone marking out the lift, and for a novice like me, seeing the different strategies play out in real time. It's also a good reminder that it's okay to fly your own day; you don't always have to pull off something heroic. When I fly with one or two other people who are way above my level, it's easy to just play follow the leader and try to hang in there, but that doesn't always teach good decision making. It was nice to see so many people making the most of the day in their own way: the cross country senders, the folks working close aesthetic lines low on the terrain, and people just getting high and parking it in that magic lift line over the surf, taking a tour of the pumping waves on a solid winter day.


Alex said...

Wow. What a story! Thanks for taking the time to write up the day. Definitely the most pilots I've seen out there in a very long time. Funny how you can make plans for the day but the day often has different ideas. Matty and Austin were planning to fly to Kapolei and back. But the day had other ideas. When we doggedly stuck to a losing plan on our last Thailand tour, Matty would tell us: fly the day, not what I say. I try to remember that so I can keep my plan flexible. But this day definitely offered up some fun alternate plans for all of us.

sandy said...

Great story Patrick! I had checked out everyone's tracklogs from the day (for those who share) and did my best to piece together in my imagination what it must have been like (with much envy) -- thanks for colorfully filling some of the pukas! Can't wait to see Ian's layout for myself (not that I'm ready to try it). Aloha

Thom said...

JJ Jameson is rolling in the heavens!!!!!!!! About dam time we get a flying story on here with some true grit!!

Thanks Patrick,

Sad I gotta here Mat Senior and gang were here on windlines. Heck even Motorhead is in town only seen him for a second.

Keep the stories coming. For some of us, its all we got!!!

Alex said...

I counted 17 pilots and a bunch of speedflyers over the course of the long day! It wasn’t quite the classic north flow we look for, closer to NNE and occasionally even NE, but for sure lighter than the normal tradewind strength. It was NE enough at Makapuu for Matt’s solo trip to Temple Valley! Patrick, I remember the first time I met you out at the knob for flying, I explained how the trail was not well known or marked and would be hard to follow without a guide, but soon you were like, oh, this trail? Yeah I know it well from numerous climbing adventures! I found a video I took of Austin’s cheeky Zeno and posted a frame from it in the story. I would not have wanted to fly as far as he did with that flappy tip! Speaking of how far, here’s Matty’s track graciously shared for our entertainment:

firedave2 said...

A great flying tale on so many levels. I have always said I love the words, far more than photos and videos. (Sorry Alex). I expect you to keep charging and keep writing. I will be joining in soon enough.