Monday, June 23, 2008

14,000 feet in Boulder

Edit--thanks to Chris Webster for the photo, taken shortly after launch at Lookout. That's the Coors plant and the source of the beer thermals directly "under" me in the photo.
I started flying about 15 years ago in response to a serious case of climbing burnout. I was sick of being cloistered in a small cave hanging by my fingers; I wanted the big picture, to feel something so totally new and fresh that it fired me up the way climbing used to. In retrospect, I should have just gone into a different form of climbing, but I didn't think of that and flying was everything I wanted it to be and then some. Hanging high in space and truly seeing the geography of the land at a bird's pace (well, a really slow bird) is about as good as it gets. After doing nothing but flying for a year I got back into climbing, and balancing the two sports since then has been a constant battle of love.

On Saturday I'd made plans to go climbing, but all of a sudden these perfect clouds started forming and I flaked to head for Golden, Colorado. I learned to fly in both Golden, Colorado, and Golden, BC. Both are great sites, but totally different. Golden BC is a big-air, big glide, big place to fly. Golden, Colorado (also called Lookout) is a little site with a big attitude. When I started learning to fly at Lookout the landing zone had a powerline across half of it; it's still one of the trickiest places I know to land in. But the flying is worse--you're flying on the wrong side of the Rocky Mountains so you're always in the lee. The mountains heat up and draw the air west onto the east-facing slopes, but the entire front side of the Rockies is generally a mass of down-flowing air. There is also always a sheer layer somewhere between the top of the hill and the clouds that will toss your glider around in an engaging manner, and all you have to do is make one little mistake and you're on the ground. But it's kind of like learning to ski at an area with really bad snow; if you can survive your local skiing disaster then you can likely ski anywhere. When I got to launch on Saturday there were only a few pilots left, everybody else had headed off on about a 40K task to North Boulder. Conditions were a bit strong, but not too bad, and I got into the air uneventfully off of the Lookout launch for the first time in almost a decade.

I found my first real thermal by following the classic Lookout rule--if it starts smelling like beer in the air turn and follow the smell! The Coors plant is upwind of the hill, and the yeasty-smelling"beer thermals" are a great indicator of rising air. I had a huge smell-induced memory and was turning to core the brewery lift before I even realized it. Thanks Coors!

I first went south about 10K, and remembered all the "fun" that Lookout has to offer. Scrappy thermals that move in random directions at different altitudes, climbs that go from 1 to 5 and back on the vario with no notice, and glides that were atrocious. I loved it, it was a ten-year old flashback. Little-remembered skills kicked in almost sub-consciously; move with the thermals even if the direction seems "wrong," never leave any shitty lift, conserve every foot of altitude with a passion bordering on neurotic... Then I headed back north to try and intersect any pilots coming south from Boulder, but didn't see many. The strong east wind down low soon turned northeast, and I found myself going only 25K an hour on glide, but the sink was even worse. Normally paragliders sink at a meter or two a second on glide in air between thermals, but not at Lookout. I was hitting 5 and 6 meter sink consistently, with thermals only in the 2-4 range. Ah, Lookout! I was only hitting about 2900M for the first hour, but about 20K north the magic happened and I was suddenly at 4300M, or over 14,000 feet. I've only been at this altitude maybe ten times in hundreds of flights from Lookout, it was a sweet moment to look west and see the snowy peaks of the divide, south all the way to Pike's Peak and out onto the flat plains extending seemingly forever. I really like that combination, few sites I've flown offer it.

I was due back home to kid-sit early that evening and didn't want to have an epic with getting my truck back at launch, so just short of Eldorado Canyon I turned and ran back south to launch and my vehicle. Flying my Boomerang 5 at Lookout felt like cheating compared to the old days; with half bar I was going 65K, and was able to fly well out over the town of Golden, tour the Coors plant and still have more than enough altitude to make it back to launch, all on one glide. My mind remembered fighting to glide even a few K, but the new gear makes things so very nice!

I'm hoping for some more good days at Lookout while here in Boulder, it's the best lousy site I've ever flown. I hope to see some more pilots from back in the day while I'm launch or in the air too. The local crew at Lookout likely saved me from killing myself several times, often with very direct and effective commentary such as, "Well, shit, that was about the dumbest thing I've ever seen anyone do--if you want to crash why not just fly straight at the hill and crash closer to the road so the rescue will be easier? Do that again and you'll likely end up dead, can't believe you haven't killed yourself yet. Can I have your truck when you die?" It was all meant in the best way, and the ideas behind the words absolutely stuck with me over the years. A good local crew is as important as the school lessons for a pilot, maybe more. Thanks to the Lookout crew of all those years ago, and thanks to Lookout for the stellar flight on Saturday, yeah!


Andy Aakhus-Witt said...

Photos from the day can be found at RMHPA

Anonymous said...

Great description of Lookout, and how to fly there. It was good seeing you again. I hope you get a few more good ones while you are visiting.