by Lowell Skoog
Late summer and early autumn can be a great time for paragliding in the Northwest. The mountain trails and meadows are snow free. Dry lake shores and riverbeds provide landing areas not available in July or August. Cool nights paint the hills red and gold. And the thermals are more friendly than in summer.
Some of my most memorable flying days have been in autumn. On some of these days I didn't soar at all. Yet the clarity of these experiences, like the clear autumn air, made them stand out in my mind above any number of days at the soaring hill. Here are two recent stories.
Flightless Birds in the Olympics
Mark Dale and a group of his climbing-buddies-turned-paragliders jokingly call themselves the Flightless Birds. Mark is the Penguin. Steve Ahlrich is Rooster. I somehow got the name Chukar.
For almost a year, after four of us were skunked there last November, Penguin has been eager to fly Mt. Ellinor. Ellinor is a rocky peak at the east edge of the Olympic Mountains that rises 5000 feet above the shore of Lake Cushman. An old logging road climbs most of the way up, making the summit an easy and popular day hike.
Penguin recruited Rooster and me to fly Mt. Ellinor in late September this year. It was a day with very stable high pressure over western Washington. We left Seattle around 5:30 AM, parked a car near Lake Cushman (outside the private boat launch) and hiked to the summit around 10:30 AM.
Conditions looked great for a fly-down with very light easterly winds. I expected a quick descent with my mountain glider (an old Genair) and no vario. I answered questions from other hikers as Penguin and Rooster laid out their Compacts at the top of the southeast bowl. I took photos of them launching and then was surprised to see them start circling in lift. By the time I launched, they were even with the summit a few hundred feet above me.
Fortunately I was able to climb up and catch them. For the next hour we buzzed around Mt. Ellinor like big ladybugs. We waved at hikers eating lunch on the summit. Then the lift improved and we climbed 1000 feet over the top. I could look deep into the Olympics, up the Skokomish River, across the Quinault and the Elwah, to the glaciers of Mt. Olympus. Closer, the crags of Sawtooth Ridge, the Brothers and Mt. Constance jutted out of the dense Olympic rainforest.
The ridge leading north to Mt. Washington is a popular scrambling traverse. I did it on foot two years ago and it took a couple of hours one way. From high above Mt. Ellinor, Rooster glided along the ridge and caught a thermal over the summit of Mt. Washington. Penguin and I followed him. We stayed several hundred feet above the crest and looped around the summit like a pylon. On my second try, I made the circuit from Ellinor to Washington and back in about ten minutes. I couldn't help thinking of my previous trip; flying over it seemed like a dream.
I was getting worn out from concentration and sensory overload, so after three hours aloft we fled the rocky crags. On the 6000 foot glide to Lake Cushman I could finally relax. We landed on the shoreline, avoiding the private boat launch. Between questions from curious beachcombers, about all I could think to say was, "That was amazing."
Sledding the North Cascades
Steve Stroming is a climbing friend who convinced me to try paragliding a few years back. Since then we've done more flying together than climbing. Two years ago I returned from a hike in the North Cascades with tales of a great potential flight, Crater Mountain. With a good trail all the way to the top and a 6000+ foot descent right back to the car, I think it is unique in the Cascades.
The catch was that we would have to land next to the North Cascades Highway at the bottom of a narrow valley. We figured that autumn would be the best time. The mountain would be snow free and the highway traffic would be light. We wanted an early start to fly before the valley winds picked up. Two years passed before we finally tried it early this October.
We slept at the trailhead and started hiking by headlamp at 5:15 AM. Around 9:45 we reached the top. The day was fine--mostly clear with a light west wind. Still, we decided not to try launching from the true summit. The breeze was strong enough, about 12 MPH, to cause a wind shadow where the summit plateau dropped over a cliff. For safety's sake we hiked down about 1000 feet to a nice round shoulder where the breeze was light and consistent.
From our launch we looked down 5000 feet to the highway snaking its way toward Rainy Pass. Beyond, the summits of Black Peak, Ragged Ridge, Backbone Ridge and Snowfield Peak stood above glaciers that looked withered and icy after the dry summer. We could see the white cone of Mt. Baker and the Picket Range beyond Ross Lake to the west. Nearby, the crumbling hulk of Jack Mountain loomed above us.
Steve launched first while I took photographs. I followed at about 11:30 AM. The flight lasted only 16 minutes, but after waiting for two years, we savored it. I watched the summit recede far above me as I made lazy turns over the river. As we descended into the wind shadow of the trees along the highway, a light breeze gave us some mild surges. Neither of us had any problems, but we could tell that flying here with strong winds would be a terrible mistake.
Since it was only noon, we drove farther up the highway and hiked to the meadows below Cutthroat Peak. We had a beautiful 1400 foot flight among the golden larches and peaks of the Washington Pass area. There were a few thermal bumps, but nothing sustainable. Wisps of cloud painted across the blue October sky hinted that our Indian Summer was nearing an end.
As we expected, a group of motorists stopped and plied us with questions at the highway. One woman was especially attentive. After Steve answered all her questions, she paused for a moment and said, "You sure know how to live life."
I was tempted to respond with something like, "Shucks, this is how we spend all our weekends," but I thought better of it. Her words were a reminder of something worth holding onto. We fliers become comfortable, even complacent, doing things most people only dream about. I cherish days like these for reminding me just how fortunate we are.