Tuesday, August 29, 2006

U.S. Paragliding Nationals, lava tubes

Sun Valley, site of one this year's US paragliding Nationals, is one of those ultra-rich resort towns in an incredible place. Kim and I arrived a couple of days early to fly, but the first day was too windy so we went for a hike and then headed down south to a very unusual climbing area--a lava tube. There are no mountains around the lava tube, just a huge flat sage brush plain for as far as the eye can see. We couldn't believe there was climbing there, it was odd to walk through the sage and find a pit in the ground. The climbing was super-steep thuggery out the side of the pit, lots of fun. We had a good crew and a good session, only leaving at sunset with lots of ripped skin and sore muscles. I was psyched to send two hard routes (for me), I'm starting to climb decently again and it's a lot of fun.

Day one of the nationals was fantastic, about a 100K task north over the mountains. I was slightly in front of the field as neared about the 15K mark, and had to choose between taking the line with clouds or staying close to the road. I went for a line directly over the heart of the Sawtooths with Len, and the next two hours were simply stunning flying from cloud to cloud with nothing but alpine lakes and big granite cliffs below us. Unfortunately our line was less direct and we ended up being a bit slower to goal, but just flying over such stunning alpine terrain was absolutely worth it. Len landed a bit short of goal, but I was paranoid about my final glide and worked a last thermal higher than I needed to before going on glide and made it in a bit late but with tons of altitude. I'd rate the flight along the Sawtooths one of the top ten flights of my life--I saw a hundred places that I need to visit, and I like flying deep in the mountains. It would have been a very full day walk out if we hadn't found the next thermal, but I was loving the terrain and wouldn't really have minded a nice walk out. Len and I never got low, and of course my oxygen system promptly stopped working so I spent a lot of the day over 15,000 and had a hypoxia headache at the end of the day. Well worth it.

Day two brought an even longer task--125K to the west and north. Launch conditions were a bit erratic and windy, but I watched the pilots in the air and it looked OK so I launched. Unfortunately I just couldn't connect with a good climb for the next 30 minutes. I was wondering why some pilots weren't launching as it was a bit windy but not too bad, I think the combination of less than stellar launch conditions and the prospect of a long task preyed on peopele's minds. Flying is mental, it's always a trick to correctly match one's perception of the conditions with the reality. I know conditions over launch were reasonable as I had to take a pee, so if the glider flew fine for a few minutes without input then it wasn't that whacky.

On course it was tricky as the tops of the climbs weren't that high, and we struggled a bit to get established after crossing the first valley. The first turnpoint took down most of the lead gaggle, and I came in just as they were dirting. I had one of those stupid lucky thermals low and got out with Brian and Dean, then went on one of the most entertaining flights I've had in a long time. We cut the corner between the roads, and were, as they say around here, "deep." The terrain was sun-blasted sage and rolling hills so landing would have been OK, but we were for sure a 20K walk from any reasonable road. Even at 16,000 we would have had a long walk... But there was a good cloud street, so deep we went, and the clouds worked perfectly. About 20km from goal I got low on a after a valley cross, and for some reason it just didn't work despite being perfectly west facing... I realized as I sunk lower and lower that I didn't have a glide out of the bowl I was in, but it was possible to slope-land if I had to. It was frustrating to watch Brian and Dean fly away at base, I'm not sure if I was tired or just had a bit of bad luck. In the end I grovelled out and made it to goal for the longest comp task I'd ever flown, and possibly in US paragliding history. Pretty cool, about 12 people made it in, with Abby, who flew most of the task by himself, winning the day. Nice one Abby!

Unfortunately there was a formal complaint about the launch conditions, and an effort to get the day cancelled. Conditions were a bit windy and messy, but it was far safer yesterday on the Baldy launch than it normally is at other "big" sites such as Chelan. You had to wait for a reasonable cycle to launch in, but there wasn't much chaos once in the air--I'd say the air over launch was mellower than it had been the first day, but the perception on the ground was that it was bad so about 30 people didn't launch. I respect their decision, but the complaint was a bit much given that the air was fine. Each of the previous two days of flying had brough at least one reserve ride and injury, yesterday was totally safe, so I think the people who didn't fly made a good decision for them. I'm not sure Sun Valley is the best place for a non-selective paragliding competition--it's fine for those who enjoy flying "deep" and are used to high-altitude big-air flying, but it's full-on flying for sure. In the end each paragliding day, whether in a competition or not, is up to individual pilots to evaluate. Those who didn't fly yesterday lower the potential points for the day, so that's a legitmate form of saying, "Conditions were more than I wanted to do battle with."

Today is blown out, so we're going back to the lava tubes for another afternoon of skin shredding action!

No comments: