Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Fight or Flight: Monkeys in Orbit

If you say the word "Chelan" to a free flight pilot who has never been there, it triggers a mental cascade of images and lore passed through the ages. Dust Devils. Wind. Bombouts. Cloud streets. Turbulence. Big lines, big plans, personal bests, and stinging defeats. By the time Matty Senior came touring through Oahu in February with his merry band of crushers, a good percentage of the local crew had already plopped down six hundred bucks to attend his comp(s) this July and sample the goods.

On Wednesday July 7, two windowless cargo vans full of Chelan newbies headed east from SeaTac, stopping for supplies in the suburbs which no doubt left a wave of Neighborhood Watch calls to the authorities in our wake. I rode shotgun for Marcel. In the back we had the irrepressible Nour and a young race volunteer named Cody. Nour had met Cody at the airport and somehow convinced him that his paid ticket on a comfy bus coach would be no match for a dark berth on the sheet metal of our cargo hold. Four hours later they emerged into the bright sun of the volunteer camp, like yogis climbing out of the sand pit. In the other van, Marc navigated for Marissa. Her faith in his situational awareness was somewhat shaken by the fact that for the last 90 minutes of the trip, Marc would peer up at each peak visible from the road and say "There, I think that's the launch".

The wind was cranking when we rolled into town, which didn't stop Drew from disappearing up the Butte with mini wing in tow to "support the volunteers". By the time we got to our room at the Apple Inn and peeled the paper strip off the toilet seat, the score was: Butte 1, Monkeys 0. Drew had launched lakeside with a loose flight plan, but the shallow slope had other ideas for him and he got some nice proximity flying in before stuffing it into the safest spot available, a fair distance from the road. 

The wind dropped to light/variable the next day and it was on! Our molester van handled the road to launch admirably and by early afternoon five of us were airborne. Conditions were strong, with sharp edges. Nine grand was doable with your eyes closed over the Butte. At one point I saw Marissa far below me out front, a couple minutes after I had hooked a nice climb. I made a mental note to remind her that in the future, she should head for the nearest climbing glider. A couple turns later I lost sight of her, until I looked up and saw she was specked out a thousand feet above me! Later she reported that this was her first time flying thermals, and that she was heeding the advice, "if it feels rough, you just need to sit there for a while until it feels normal." 

A few of us were a bit behind the curve with the big air wing control, but eventually Drew lobbed across the river and we followed him into a playground of cumulus and strong climbs, with top of lift between 10 and 11 grand. We figured this was the daily routine, so we didn't feel too bad bumbling around towards Mansfield for an hour before turning around and easily making the soccer field for our first practice task. At one point a 747 flew underneath Marc, pulling what appeared to be pitch control maneuvers, adding to the surreal vibe. After debriefing with a local pilot who flew down from Leavenworth, we learned that the day was in fact exceptional, if a bit strange atmospherically, as we had a curious band of tiny clouds dropping evaporating bands of virga above the layer we were flying in. We didn't realize it would be our last day of flying cloudstreets for the whole trip, and while it was a sweet intro to the place, now in hindsight it feels like we showed up at Pipeline on the best swell of the winter, only to hop a couple shoulders before calling it a day.

The next couple practice days brought more light wind and tall lift with dusties ripping around the Butte on launch. I was prepared for the threat of dusties, but in my mind that meant that it was something that might actually happen a couple times on the trip. It was an eye opener to see the things popping off launch every few minutes for a couple hours at a time. No one got seriously worked; having lots of eyes and voices calling them out made it possible to jump on the wings before anyone was plucked up, like a pack of meerkats shrieking out the distress call when the shadow passes overhead. I got blasted pretty good standing in line with my rosette. I heard the warning yells and saw Matty running towards our launch line, so I did the stop/drop/fall-on-the-grenade move and started kicking the dirt while in prone position like a dying roach, to good effect. One guy that never seemed to get hit was Reaper! He'd be the first to call it out, and go loping straight at the things kicking and yelling, and no shit, those dusties would get the hell out of his way. 

In Hawaii, like Kal-El on Krypton, Pete is a normal enough guy who happens to have a ton of energy and great stories. Take Pete and drop him into Chelan, and suddenly the Reaper is unleashed. He's everywhere at once. Setting up launch. Fluffing and hucking. Retrieving people off the flats almost at the same time, like batting fly balls to himself. As soon as all the pilots are accounted for, the party begins. Reaper is at the bar. He's at the lake. He's playing pool. He's in the pool. He's at the casino. The hung-over youngsters in the volunteer camp were telling stories every morning about not being able to keep up with the legend. He is the Chuck Norris of paragliding. You drop your wing near Reaper and it will fluff itself without being asked. Collapses are afraid of taking Reapers.

The first half of the week had better lapse rates with higher top of lift, perhaps due to the heatwave-fueled surface temps pushing triple digits. We all took some whacks at some point in the stronger climbs that were maxing out around 7-8 meters/second, but the monkeys handled it fine and suffered only good stories as a consequence. I took my first big collapse on speedbar, a non-event. Marc lost more than half his wing on bar during task 3, recovering nicely to make his third goal in a row after a five hour flight on the flats, landing in a lonely sports field with no beer or friends after an effort that he reported to be one of his hardest ever. Drew had made goal an hour earlier, but soon left to help with the rescue mission of digging Marissa's retrieve van out of a ditch, and battling porcupines. "They're big animals man, and they'll fuck you up". Drew finished 18th that day on a tired old borrowed Swift, cruising convergence lines the second half of the course, describing it thus: "Once I figured out how to just go straight, it was no problem. I don't know why we turn circles all the time. It's a lot easier to just fly straight on bar, going up."

The tall climbs were a bit of a novelty for the area, Matty said he had never flown to 14K feet in Chelan and was grinning ear to ear hearing about everyone getting specked out in the first few days. I believe the Monkeys' altitude record for the week was Marcel's 13,800 feet on task 2, a day we were sent north into the mountains to Stormy Peak before heading southwest to the girthy and intimidating Dick Mesa, then crossing the Columbia to Farmer, backtracking to Waterville, then back to the soccer field. There were some nice convergence lines setting up between Farmer and Waterville, thousands of feet above my head on the first pass, where I groveled low for an eternity, frisbeeing along and staying alive long enough for my limp noodle of a climb to join forces with some stronger tendrils and get me back over 10K feet and back into the game again. Marcel saw me struggling down in the dust after his own low save, and selflessly spiraled down to mark the lift and pull me back up. Just Kidding! Actually, he shed a solitary tear before climbing two vertical miles and hammering into goal, on a day when the dirt claimed many expert pilots, including all of the Hawaii veterans.

Forty five minutes before the task closing, I was low, clawing my way to the canyon rim near the power lines against a quartering headwind. I wasn't going to clear the rim on glide, and had a few minutes in the growing dusk to reflect on an astounding day of flying. For the last couple hours we had been watching a big cumulonimbus growing to the northwest, and at one point I was getting a little goofy from the altitude and mistook my convergence seam for cloud suck! It was blue all around, and the anvil cloud was dozens of miles away. My rational decision making suffers a bit above 13K feet, which is not a terrible problem to have when racing paragliders. My final glide was going to intercept a 20 foot hill on the rim, and in the last moments I had my legs down, and was starting to pull some brake to set up a swoop flare landing, when a bubble of warm lift popped me up and over the hill by a couple body lengths. 

It was too good to be true, and I was still a long way from the soccer field, but after a couple minutes I accepted my fate, and settled back into the harness for a buoyant glass-off ridge soaring glide to goal, accompanied by a couple hawks from Central Casting. This day was the best showing for the Oahu rookies. In addition to the four pilots in goal, Marissa got extra credit by tagging Stormy Peak proper (because why not, we're here to fly after all) before trimming Matt Henzi by a hair at the Columbia river crossing. Nour made it ten miles up the course line through the mountains before landing out safely in a valley bottom, a respectable XC flight by any measure.

I think the best thing about the week is that the sheer volume of flying going on gives a pretty good external calibration to everyone's personal game. It's hard to maintain ego, pretenses, and excuses while flying with a hundred other people on the same route. I started the week telling myself that it's ok to suck because I've only been flying for 18 months. But then I would see pilots with even less experience crushing it, forcing me to dig deeper in my box of excuses. Marcel had a really good theory going about the disadvantages of small glider size and wing loading, until I reported back with a heavy heart that on task 3, the last couple pilots to be scooped by my retrieve van who flew the furthest, were small women flying tiny wings. The most common fallback was the story that the monkeys never fly strong thermals and that we are total ridge soaring rubes who don't know how to paraglide. Drew and Marc promptly tore the veil off that lie by sending it to goal the first three days in a row. Thanks a lot, guys. The gold standard excuse is that by flying with a poor attitude and dragging a giant bag of excuses, it really makes your Lift/Drag coefficient suffer. Boom! 

The biggest lesson of the week was the value of the group: a lone pilot is pretty hosed trying to fly XC in non-obvious terrain. It doesn't matter how good you are, the math just doesn't work out for a pilot that gets isolated. Pilots who bombed out were in excellent company throughout the week, including Austin Cox, Matt Henzi, and Donizete Lemos. Nick Greece said it best: "You're not smarter than the brain. Stay with the Brain!" I'm looking forward to flying some new lines at home, with friends, learning from the Monkey Brain on our humble little rock. 

Thanks for reading! 

1 comment:

Gravity said...

That was great write up on the whole experience had by all. Best week of the year for sure. I'm glad to be home from the dust and the heat, but it sure was fun.