Friday, June 18, 2021

Ko’olau Tag Team: Makapu’u to La’ie by the Bootstraps

The Subsolar Point

For seven weeks in early summer, the Hawaiian sun leaves the southern sky and pushes north, grazing the Tropic of Cancer on the solstice before returning home in mid July. The steep north slopes of the Ko’olau range lie in shadow most of the year, but by the end of May the ahupua’a from Waimanalo to Kahuku are bathed in fierce mid-day heat. On the first of June, slightly past solar noon, I hooked into a thermal at the edge of the Punalu’u watershed that carried me up and over Kalanui stream at the back of Hau’ula.

The view looking into the deep gorge of Sacred Falls (Kaliuwa’a) is a prized vantage point familiar to any pilot that puts their time in learning the moods of Punalu’u. Normally the chain of pools is shrouded in mist and shadow, but on this occasion I couldn’t have been more surprised to see the entire cascade screaming back at me with stark white light. It was disorienting, and intoxicating, and my brain tried and failed to put it in context as I peered down through gaps in the clouds, towards the front of the valley, to see if Marcel was having any luck climbing out of the low terrain. And there he was, his red glider winding it up and connecting from the light air at the front, back towards the ripping climbs firing off deep in the valley. He was going to make it, and join me above cloudbase, and our day wasn’t over yet. I had a few minutes to relax for the first time since launching Makapu’u three hours prior, and I started bawling. The day had been filled with one delightful surprise after the next, and from humble beginnings we had solved one crux after another to find ourselves back on our home turf in absolutely A-plus conditions. The sheer improbability of it all was overwhelming, and my feeble noggin needed a manly cry to sort things out and get back in the game. By the time Marcel topped out and beelined for Booga, I had wiped the snot off my face, ready for more punishment.


Twelve hours before hiking Juice that morning, Marcel and I were debriefing in the Nanakuli parking lot, marveling at what pleasant conditions we’d had launching a couple hours before sunset. Normally that valley packs a punch, but we had a relaxing flight boating around in mellow climbs, watching a lone wispy cumulus over the dump repeatedly grow, die, then regenerate, finally vanishing on our glide out to the beach. 

That Nanakuli flight was a bit of a lark. Earlier in the same day I had been drawn by the siren song of a gorgeous high cloudbase to attempt a cross country flight from Makapu’u. For two hours I banged up against a shear layer at 1300 feet making a bid for Pu’u O Kona impossible. 

The light east wind clocked steadily southward and shortly after Dave launched to join me, I caught a sharp frontal surge just before the horizon, then released the brakes a split second later for fear of a whip-stall. Without brake pressure the canopy tucked and flew over my head as it balled up, then banged open with the right tip trapped in a cravat. A few seconds and 180 degrees later I stopped the rotation and got a heading, then cleared the wing and officially gave up on my grandiose hopes for the day. The sky still looked amazing downrange, but unreachable without pioneering a new launch from one of the higher peaks. Nanakuli was the consolation prize, and afterwards we were feeling current and confident for the following day.  


The forecast was a mixed bag, with an overall dry airmass (good) but light seabreeze giving way to stronger northeast wind later in the day (hmmm). I figured there was a good chance it would be a repeat of the day before, but early morning sensor readings weren’t a deal-breaker and it was fairly dry exept for showers near H3. From my town side viewpoint, it was obvious the cloudbase on the Ko’olau was way below ridge height through the center of the range, so expectations were adjusted and we met at the Makapuú windsock with open minds. Privately I was thinking we might make it to the Pali before getting rebuffed by cloud.

Marcel took pole position on the carpet at Juice and inflated into some switchy and light cycles, kiting it overhead long enough for the flow to straighten out and coax his wing to power up and go. He had good clearance over the powerlines but wasn’t exactly climbing until hitting the bowl, where he steadily scratched up over ridge height. I visualized doing the exact same thing before taking a deep breath, inflating and dumping my glider in the bushes. I kept the next pull airborne long enough for the cycle to fill in and drove off into flat air, then slowly sank out over the road. The bowl came and went, giving but a flutter of energy and my flight was over. The landing was cake on the early morning beach and a few minutes later I was shaking sand out of my gear, considering options.  

The last time I tried to force a situation at Makapu’u was in 2006 as a struggling-but-plucky animal trainer at Sea Life Park. I would swim from the main beach to the pier a couple times a week before work, and one crisp winter morning made a serious error deciding to time the sets and go for it despite a macking north swell. The bay closed out before I made it around the corner and it took all my energy to stay at the surface in the swirling froth between trips to the bottom. Eventually the set ended and the rip spat me out the northwest corner into deep water with leaden limbs and searing lungs, and I emerged at the pier with my self-appraisal of “Badass” in tatters.


Marcel reported cloudbase at 1700 feet, blocking progress and mused on radio about embarking on a one-way trip to Koko Crater. Damn. This was turning into groundhog day! I needed to get in the air before my partner cashed out his chips. Hiking to the top would burn twenty minutes, but a second bombout at Juice would be even more costly. By the time I inflated my canopy into the Cactus venturi and pushed off the edge, Marcel was out of sight and not answering the radio check. Cloudbase was improving as I surged up in a beauty of a thermal above the ironwoods then pointed it for one of the many growing cumulus cracking off behind the ag lands of Waimanalo. They marked the climbs perfectly and made it easy to connect to Pu’u O Kona despite the lack of ridge lift. 

Marcel then crackled to life on the radio and reported early struggles and a low save behind Waimanalo, before getting blocked by low cloud at the Pali. Clearly the day was turning on, as I had just traversed the same path in a fraction of the time with abundant climbs. As I made a wide arc to Green Walls, I spotted Marcel heading toward me, retreating from a formidable cloud bank. I snuggled up to the uluhe ferns to soar gentle lift while birds chattered in the shade created by cloudbase a couple hundred over the top. It was a stress free speed run to the Pali: the cloud wasn’t consolidated, and it was bright and open towards the beach. The town side landmarks flashed by like a flip book: Diamond Head, Ka’au Crater, Mt. Olympus, and then I joined Marcel on the east flank of Konahuanui, waiting for a window to allow passage downrange.


From Pali to Ahuimanu the recipe was straightforward: soar the east faces in light wind, enjoying double digit penetration up to three grand, while waiting to pounce on open lanes below, between, and above the abundant but friendly clouds blowing in off the flats. Because the late morning sun was almost directly overhead, we were able to lurk just beneath the orographic band. Normally this tactic impairs visibility and leaves the pilot vulnerable to a surprise cloud ambush, but with overhead sun the flat bottomed cotton balls dropped perfect crisp shadows that were easy to map. Altitude shedding maneuvers were occasionally required but we zipped through the maze without worry of blowback or cloud suck, sometimes playing the cat and sometimes the mouse. In retrospect this section showed me that it’s probably worth investigating more of these days that appear to have low cloud blocking the range. From either side, it appeared to be a consolidated mass but up close was a different story, with more open space than one might expect. The type of cloud also changes the pucker factor considerably. I have no interest in flirting with a wet unstable airmass that goes from clear to curtains in minutes. On this day, the cumulus held their shape without consolidating or dropping the base until they were blown up over the back ridge. The flying was focused but relaxed, with a mellow vibe on the radio, just a couple dudes playing tag in the sky.


Every pilot who has flown the back range in east wind knows where this story is headed. Leaving Ahuimanu, the range bends away from the coast. The soaring party is over and the pilot needs to dig deep into their mountain flying toolbox. Cloudbase sat just above ridge height, making it impossible to thermal high enough to avoid the deep valleys and ridges by flying along the back. We sampled the long spines jutting out to the coast, but nothing was triggering, and we quickly found ourselves in sinking air behind Kahulu’u, losing our angles to the bailout landing zones. Hygienics was out of reach, and as we scratched around in weak bubbles, the ag lands at the front of the valley fell off the list as well. The back wall of the valley was deep in the lee, but wearing a dark cloud cap showing lift. If we committed to the back and bombed, it was going to be a long jungle thrash and a great story. If we pushed out front to cut the losses it would be a shorter walk, but still with no guarantee of a pleasant touchdown. The shot clock was ticking so we fanned out our search pattern. Marcel cut west, sampling the next low ridge while I headed straight back into the shade, getting boosted immediately in a bubble of hot damp air that smelled like decaying forest floor. With my wingman joining me at the back we easily mapped out the lift back to base. Somewhere back there Marcel found a thermal filled with weed smoke! The only way to explain this was that our progress was monitored by a forest-dwelling demigoddess renowned for her love of travelers and willingness to guide and comfort those in need. Seeing us struggle, she took a rip on her schoolbus-sized bong (hewn from a Sitka Spuce washed into Kaneohe Bay eleven hundred years ago) and directed the hot stream up the valley, flushing away the sink and bringing us to base, where we puzzled over our next move.

Option A was to run the deep line to Punalu’u straight through Booga Booga Land, the spooky section of terrain behind Kahana. Option B was connect to the Pyramid (Pu’u Ohulehule), which would unlock the route to the coastal front points. The Booga route was partially obscured by cloud and our concern was the east wind could create a trap if the route didn’t go. The Pyramid looked great, with a dark cloud cap 600 over the top and plenty of swirling cloud between the peak and the long Kualoa ridge (Pu’u Kanehoalani) that to me looked like a convergence zone. The problem was that the low base prevented us from climbing high enough to make the target on glide from our perch between Kahulu’u and Waikane. Marcel felt that the best move was to slide one more valley downrange, top out at the back then punch upwind to goal. I felt that the low spine connecting the back range with the coast at Waiahole would provide a lifty path upwind, to a lower altitude than Marcel’s but upwind of the target. 

We parted ways and put our theories to the test. Marcel hopped deeper downrange, climbed up the back, then pushed out on bar while I sniffed and hopped my way upwind, following lifty scraps to their sources, maintaining sufficient height to zing off towards Pyramid with the wind quartering from behind. I laughed out loud, closing in on the low terrain above Coral Kingdom watching our lines converge perfectly. The Pyramid proper was out of reach, and we scratched the modest spine eyeing the bailouts and hanging in there long enough for some savior cycles to come through. As soon as we had enough terrain clearance to turn 360s, it was short work before the soarable main face was in play, and once again we were at 2000 feet considering options. The aestheically superior choice would be to skim the flat cloud bellies straight up the back of Kahana. Blue sky over the bay however indicated that move would likely end in swampy despair. The wide line might also work, punching east around the windward side of the Kualoa ridge, but there wasn’t reliable soaring and the front of Kualoa was blue. The most promising line was the straight shot up the middle of Ka’a’awa (Jurassic) valley to the reliable trigger on the corner behind the beach park. 

Marcel teed off first, boosting close to three grand in the dark area of lift (convergence?) between the Pyramid and Kualoa ridge before running up the valley, following the terrain on the downwind side. I had hoped to go at the same time, but was too low to follow immediately, and needed to recycle back to Pyramid before gaining base and chasing. The line was surprisingly buoyant, following a faint trail of wispy cloud, and I wondered if there was convergence wrapping around the Kualoa ridge, versus a wave effect of the east wind pouring over the top and bouncing back up to meet me. It was smooth and fast, and we arrived at the front of Ka’a’awa with enough altitude that I only spun a couple turns in the sharp thermals firing up the face before sighting a rhumb line over Hidden (Olona) Valley and crossing the bay to the Kahana front ridge. 

Five minutes of testing the front triggers at my home site convinced me our flight was likely over. Wind was light and quite east, and the thermic bubbles releasing above the rock faces allowed us to maintain at about 800-1000 feet, which is usually not enough to bench back to the higher ground of Pu’u Piei. The back of Punalu’u was roiling with active clouds, but with only half of the 1800 feet needed to comfortably reach the triggers unlocking the valley we were stuck treading water. The open secret of light thermic Kahana flying is that the most powerful trigger on the front points lurks in a leeside gully on the north side of the headland. If a pilot is lucky or skilled enough to core the thermal without being spat into sharp sink, they will find that it stands almost straight up, unaffected by wind, giving the double gift of altitude and strategic positioning. My plan was to gain a buffer of terrain clearance before tickling the dragon’s tail and lobbing a Hail Mary across to Punalu’u. Marcel and I both hopped from one bubble to the next, gaining enough that I felt okay grabbing the beast, and held onto it long enough for a bump up to 1500, and off I went on a glide that would likely wind up at Ching’s store on the beach.

I hoped that Marcel would follow close on my heels, to maximize our searching power, but he wasn’t quite at the departure threshold and remained at Kahana. I kicked myself for not planning better and having an explicit discussion with my wingman. I should have waited until we were both high enough to leave, and now I was heading solo for a trigger known to work poorly below a thousand feet even on a good day. 800 feet is a good cutoff altitude to glide out to the beach, so I figured in the light air I could push that to 700. I arrived at the front slope at 900 feet in zeros. There were a few tiny blips on the vario and at 730 feet I went on glide for the rivermouth LZ. A few seconds later my right wingtip fluttered in sink. I banked into it, and glory of glories, the whole glider was drawn down, then up into a nice little core. It took fifteen minutes to top out above the falls where our story began, during which time Marcel demonstrated his pluck and verve by clawing his way back to Pu’u Piei, no small feat in the shifting broken air. While circling up in the Punalu’u tractor beam, I could see his glider in the next valley barely in view above the ridge, not high enough to punt straight across on the direct line. The mist closed in between us and the next sighting was the one that triggered my cloudbase blubberfest.


If one examines a map of O’ahu and tries to pinpoint the most remote spot on the island, the eye might be drawn to the border of the vast Ewa reserve in the northern Ko’olau, where it abuts the ridgeline behind Kahana and Hau’ula. The Kahana ridge forms the southeastern boundary of a three sided valley tucked up against the main spine of the range. This compact feature is often buried in rain, but on a clear day one might catch a glimpse of its walls overflowing with the crumpled, foiled plans of pilots accumulated over the decades. Booga Booga Land is the Bermuda Triangle of O’ahu free flight. Despite its reputation, many pilots have soared through smoothly, dialing in dry, light air and scoring a non-event. Most recently Zack D “The Silent Crusher” ticked off a Makapu’u to Punalu’u sunrise diritessima through Booga but forgot his wallet, and hence bus money, so was forced to retrace his path to the car, a path which he completed before everyone else on the island had finished breakfast. Unlike your humble narrator, Zack doesn’t spray about his flying, so for all I know, the bus money thing could be true…

We didn’t make it through Booga. Our bid started with Marcel topping out Punalu’u then tearing straight at the place like it owed him money. I prefer to ease in slowly, probing the air and gauging the speed of the beats, but the range was dry, we were high, and charging in was the right call. Ka’ena point and Ka’ala were crisp in the distance and the Poamoho cabin gave hope that a pilot going down in the back might have some company. I’m pretty sure that had we been forced to topland the cabin, we would have been pulled inside by a bevy of euro backpackers, feeding us nutella and bordeaux, insisting we spend the night so they could help carry our kit down in the morning.

We waited at the edge of Booga proper for a cloudstreet to sweep through, and after a few minutes of cruising high in a holding pattern, the rug was pulled out from under me. A surging tentacle of turbulent sink latched onto my glider, and before I mashed full bar, I had 1-3 mph penetration towards the ocean. Marcel was only a couple hundred meters away and a few glider heights above, but he remained in the smooth buoyant air as I wrestled the rear risers, punching my way out of the sinkhole. It was like a Scooby-Doo episode where the point man doesn’t realize the guy in back has disappeared through a trap door. At the time I was confused and nearly “dropped the ballast", but while debriefing later with Dave, he seemed to be familiar with that spot, and attributed the sinkhole to one of the side ridges that kicks off nasty air. Marcel seemed game to have another go, but I was spooked by the trap door move, and by the fact that conditions in the range were changing with the wind strengthening and switching more to the NE, bringing with it stacks of cloud obscuring the areas we had traversed earlier.


There was convection over the taller terrain towards Kahuku and I’m sure we were both thinking of staying deep on our way north, to see how much gravy we could heap onto the day. The wind said otherwise. It was now bordering on strong and straight in our face as we pushed to the front of Punalu’u, and with that combination, heading north on the deep line is a great way to get pinned. The coastal route wasn’t as speedy as usual, with a brisk side wind, but good enough for us to make it to the deluxe grass beach park just shy of La’ie point. 

Our Lyft driver back to Makapu’u was a bit of a nutter behind the wheel, and we had a good laugh imagining pulling off a great flight, only to crash and burn in the backseat of a Honda Passport trying to squeeze around a gravel truck in rush hour. 

I think we flew well, and yet there were a few things to be improved. It was sheer luck that allowed me to catch up after the bombout, and my crap kiting could have easily been my undoing. The other low-hanging fruit was our team flying tactics. On the whole I give us a B-plus since most of the time we were close enough to take advantage of the doubled search power and immediately latch onto the other guy if needed. There were however two occasions when one pilot left on glide before the other was in position to go. We made the glide from Pyramid through Ka’a’awa valley easily, but flying side by side to search the best line would have been a higher-odds move. Likewise, I left Kahana without Marcel, and put both of us at risk of bombing low at the front of Punalu’u. But at the same time, it’s tricky when two or more pilots are attempting to climb in shifty, bubbly lift because without a consolidated thermal there isn’t room in whichever bubble is working for more than one glider. Food for thought! If we are going to link the ranges from Makapu’u to Ka’ena we may as well employ every tool in the box, and structured team flying will help. Thanks for reading, friends.

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