by Paul Southerland
The following story recounts an early flying experience with my climbing partner Mark Howe. In those days we were very easy to please. It was a major event just to get cleanly off the ground and we were absolutely ecstatic when our feet touched down again. We looked upon these new craft as another tool to add to our already overloaded climbing packs. Time has since proven the usefulness of these "tools" for climbing to be dubious at best. A battered car travels over a mountain pass at a high rate of speed. It follows an erratic line, swerving and jerking around tight corners, rear tires spraying gravel just inches away from a death drop into the canyons below. You might assume the driver of this vehicle is either under the influence or falling asleep. But don't bet on it. Upon further examination, you'd find the occupants to be a group of crazed climbing/paragliding junkies gawking at everything but the road ahead. Ah, now the true dangers of this sport become evident. Inside the car, everyone has his harness on and is clipped into this glider. Yes, if they go over the edge, all those aboard plan a mass ejection and a rapid deployment of their wings.
Now that my climbing partner and I have survived several drives like this one (no ejections yet), we figure to qualify as certified paraglider junkies. Over time, we have become experts at driving while simultaneously scoping out new flying opportunities. We have also had to learn a whole new language of terms such as "adiabatic lapse rate" and "upslope wave compression." Our co-workers are now apt to find us staring vacantly out of the office windows mumbling about instabilities and cu-nim build-up and making excuses about some afternoon doctor appointment. On Friday evenings we can be found glued to the weekend weather forecast, waiting for every flier's favorite phrase, "HIGH PRESSURE RIDGE BUILDING." Gas up the beast, prepare the ejection seats, we're headed for another adventure.
In the summer of 1990 we joined a group of friends hiking in to a chain of moderate peaks near the Stuart Range in the Washington Cascades. A glance at the map revealed some potential flying topography and after some deliberation we decided it would be worth a closer look. Eschewing such conveniences as cars and ski lifts, we decided to take full advantage of our paragliders' portability. We were trying to hold true to the dream of mountain flight that got us into this sport in the first place. We stuffed our wings into oversized packs and got an early start up the trail looking like a couple of Mountaineers on a day hike.
Soon the trail led us to our friends' camp in a beautiful meadow beneath Earl and Navaho Peaks overlooking the Ingalls Creek valley. It was still early in the morning and one large dome tent had wild muffled noises emanating from inside. A quick check showed the other tents to be empty and as we gingerly approached the tent in question, we began to suspect some sort of orgy situation. Suddenly a voice rang out above the others "Go fish you dog!" OK, OK, we quickly cooled our wild imaginations and announced our sweaty presence as several familiar heads poked out of the tent door to greet us. After a late and relaxed breakfast, the objective for the day was chosen and our rag-tag band started the scramble toward 7000 foot Earl Peak. Actually just a bump on the map, it offered a couple thousand feet of vertical, worthy of some moderate adrenal gland stimulation. Yeah, we'd definitely look cool summiting and then dropping back to base camp like a couple of runaway trash bags.
First things first though, we would have to deal with the inevitable slog up a long snow slope and ridge scramble to the summit. As our feet hit the slope, Mark and I each activated our breeze sniffer (read: wet finger) and it soon became apparent that there indeed was a slight breeze at our backs. Perfect! Our pace quickened noticeably. Some ways back we had passed through a nice open meadow occupied only by a small tarn and a few large boulders. It had the look of a possible LZ and also might proved to be a good area in which to wash our wings as I seem to be prone to landing on or into what I look at. I was thinking that this case would be no exception.
The moment of truth was close now as we approached the ridge crest. A few more steps and...ARGGHH...there was a "sporty" breeze blowing up the back side as well. We had been under the influence of a rotor or possibly an anabatic catabat reverse oscillating lapse rate (look that one up in the book). Who knows, possibly my sniffer was out of calibration. Oh well, it had been a nice scramble with good friends, good views and the promise of a nice glissade back to camp.
So here we are on the rocky summit generally being the objects of derision due to our large packs and extra "useless" equipment. I even volunteer to make a nice sun shade with my sail, might as well get some use out of it. Innocently enough, as I'm munching on my lunch, Mark taps me on the shoulder and points down the other side toward a green splotch of meadow surrounded by steep slopes on three sides. "I think we could get in there" says Mark between mouthfuls of bagel. Spewing out bits of raisins and nuts, I politely inform him that it's on the other side of the mountain from whence we came. "Hey, are you a pilot or just a mountaineer?" Mark taunted back in a flurry of bagel crumbs. OK, that did it, crumbs all over my new rain coat. The one with the flashy colors. I should know better by now not to get too close to Mark when he's eating lunch. Also, I was forced to look seriously at the proposed flight plan. Hmm... Wind's light and right, takeoff possible a little below the summit off that talus slope, landing zone probably bigger than it looks from here, but where would we be once we land? Problems, problems, but we could work them out later and much to the delight of the peanut gallery began setting up to fly.
It's amazing what you can launch from with the right breeze and a little back inflation. We draped the sails over the boulders, stood back and PULLED, turned around and were plucked away as if on a crane. Beautiful...never mind that we were now headed down the wrong side of the mountain. To the hoots of the crowd we were off! Six or seven minutes in the air can seem endless. With the summit slowly receding, we head out and down the ridge line staying safely upwind and slowly let the seconds tick away. All of your senses are heightened as you finally relax back in your harness. Your eyes scan over your fully inflated canopy bobbing above and then out over the unique exposure that includes the awe inspiring faces on Mount Stuart rising steeply across the valley. "Gotta go fly that thing someday," you remember thinking. Up ahead is the bright orange of Mark's sail slowly plowing down the path of least resistance. You pull in behind (but not too close) and follow him into the valley below.
It's a rude awakening as the flight is now rapidly coming to an end. Our minds click back to reality and begin the mental calculations necessary to bring us safely into that ever growing patch of green meadow. Up front I watch as Mark sets her down easily and I turn onto final approach to follow him in. Now I notice a lone pine tree standing up like a high-school flagpole right in the middle of the LZ. True to form, I fix my gaze on it with a stare that would make any hypnotist proud. "Don't look at it," I am thinking. "Quit staring at the damn thing," my mind is now throwing out warnings that seem to stop at my neck. It's as if my glider has switched into auto land mode. Quickly I raise my feet as a reflex to protect various soft body parts from imminent demise. I give the top a good kick as I go by. "Umph...that will give that tree something to talk about for the next two or three hundred years." PULL THE BRAKES and I'm down and stumbling through the boulders as the sail settles in around me. Glancing back at my completed approach I look up and see the tree, quivering in the still air like an arrow stuck in a board. From somewhere deep inside a whoop of joy releases and joins Mark's own exclamation at pulling off a successful mountain descent. Yes, forget the mortgage, the wild kids, your lawn and all those unpaid bills. Right now, life is great and all is right with the world.
So, just think, we got to climb the mountain twice and only had to walk down once! Such a deal! After our second ascent of the peak and a long slog out to the car, we arrive to find our friends sitting around the cooler shaking their heads at the "usefulness" of these new mountain tools. Coming from a climbing background to this new sport, we're used to looking at the mountains, studying them for lines of possible ascent. Now there's a new dimension to consider. One where we look for lines of possible descent as well. It's enough to drive a man right off the road rubbernecking at all the new possibilities...and crazy as well...just ask my non-feathered friends!
|Paul Southerland is a Seattle, Washington paraglider pilot. This story first appeared in the Northwest Paragliding Club newsletter. Reprinted with permission of the author.|