Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Kootenay Flying

On Sunday we drove from Chelan, WA to the Nelson area. The sky was perfect the whole way, just insane! I so wanted to get into the air, but we needed to work it home to stay on the schedule. We hooked up with some friends in Winlaw Sunday night, and after checking the weather and winds forecasts I had to change the schedule, Monday just looked too epic to miss...

Thanks to Jason at Kootenay paragliding for the information on the Slocan Ridge, which is a hang gliding site basically just above Winlaw. He warned me to get off early because of strong conditions in mid-day, but due to some 4wd escapades we didn't make it to launch until about 1:30. Then the problems started--launch was a flat patch of dirt in front of a radio tower with a steep hillside to fall down after the dirt patch ended. The lines on my comp glider are so long that with my feet only a few feet from the edge my glider was right up against the shed/tower, which put the glider firmly into the rotor. I can't drag my comp lines through the rocks like I could with a lower-performance glider, it has to come up sorta clean or the lines will just break. I tried for an hour, then finally moved down the hillside to a snag-infested little hummock. I'd almost given up getting off the hill when the perfect cycle came through, and with some Santacroce-inspired glider dancing I was able to lift the wing out of the junk without snapping any lines and get into the air. Despite the strong cycles I sunk down about 1,000 feet before getting absolutely beamed out in a solid 6m/s climb to base. Yeah!

I flew toward the Valhallas just 'cause they looked so cool. Spires everywhere! I gotta go climbing there! The Slocan ridge was pumping to the end and even out over the valley so just kept flying toward the Valhallas. Eventually I got a great view of these amazing granite faces from the next ridge to the north (west?). I considered flying right into the Vallhallas, but there was about 20K of headwind, I didn't want to beat into that anymore. I ran back to the Slocan Ridge, and got just beamed back out to base again. I love XC flying in new areas--it's a real test to figure out what's going to work where, and it's a joy to plan the game and have it work cleanly.

I wanted to tour the whole Nelson area, and from 3500M the options were pretty wide open. I flew out toward Castlegar for a bit until I could see it clearly and check that area out, then headed back toward Nelson over Bluet (sp). It was about 4:30 by this time and and the sky was starting to dry up a bit as a new airmass moved in, but the lee thermals were still working well. Just bomb it into a logging cut, "BOOM" back up, mega fun flying. The Kootenays are in general pretty "round" mountains; it would be hard to glide out from several of the summits, the small valleys don't slope enough. There's usually a logging cut down there somewhere, but some caution is in order. I got a little concerned about the glide when I was deep in the mountains southwest of Nelson, gliding out into the wind could have been challenging. But it was working really well, just glide downwind of the sunny windward slopes and latch a rowdy lee climb out. It seemed a bit odd that the climbs were so far downwind of their sources given that the wind was only about 20K, but that's how it was.

I kept it pretty deep and headed up toward Ymir and Salmo. I'm not at all familiar with this area (I couldn't find the road to Ymir until I got low enough to see some pavement, figured that valley had to to go to Ymir and Salmo--but which town was first in the valley exactly? No map...), cool to be just making it up. The sky seemed to so expansive and the possibilities endless; it suddenly hit me that this was what I loved about flying, the sheer unconstrained sense of openness and possibility. I could see literally dozens of potential launches, hundreds of things to climb, about a dozen rivers worth paddling, and so many little nooks and crannies that really ought to be explored... My friends from Winlaw loved being up at launch; it was the first time they really figured out how their valley doglegged, and where the drainages were. I hope to take them flying sometime there; it's just fantastic to tie all the ground-based features together into a coherent whole. Anyhow, it sure was fun to see Nelson (stayed well out of the way due to air traffic concerns) and all the valleys spread out.

I worked up the west side of the Nelson/Ymir valley with adequate but not exactly endless landing possibilities until I could see a small town below me, and then suddenly two gliders popped out of a mining/logging cut. Yeah! I figured this was likely to be Ymir, home to Kootenay paragliding. That's right, a full-fledged school and tandem operation! I still wasn't totally sure if this was Ymir (no GPS with a map in it, no map), and headed farther along the valley toward the next town to be sure. Eventually I was able to recognize Salmo from the small ski hill I'd driven by ten days earlier on the way to Chelan, and headed back to Ymir. The ridge was still working, so I did a few more climb and glides in the late afternoon light before setting up for a pretty tight landing along the river. Whatever doubt I had about where I had flown to was quickly dispelled by the sign on the building 50 feet in front of my wing: Ymir Hotel. There is a more wide-open LZ, but it had gone into shade and I didn't want to be trying to find powerlines and such in it, better to land in the sun where I could see everything.

Jason, from Kootenay Paragliding, came out and let me use his phone to call the crew back in Winlaw (no cell), and then his student, Douglas, gave me a lift back into Nelson. The ride was surprisingly long--from the air everything around Nelson looks pretty close, but the valleys curve and meander so much that it takes a relatively long time to drive anywhere. I could probably fly from the Slocan Ridge to Ymir in lesss time than it would take to drive if I went at it.

This was my first flight in the Nelson area, and all I've got say is, "MORE!!!" There are so many potential launches, so many great flights to do, it's just wide open to exploration and adventure flying. Apparently the season hasn't been great this year, but the forecast for the next week is epic, I might have to go back. If you're ever in the area it's well worth a stop. I'd recommend some other launch than the Slocan Ridge if you're on a PG, it's gnarly, but there have got to be better launches elsewhere. And when I was climbing out from the Slocan Ridge I saw some small meadows basically straight down from launch that looked really nice.

There are six pilots in Ymir and another dozen or so in Nelson; given the size of these towns (Ymir must be under 1,000 people?) this is just incredible. But I can see the Nelson area becoming one of the epicentres of flying in Canada, the potential just so obviously excellent. I often check the winds aloft for most of western Canada, and they are usually much lighter in the Nelson area than in the Rockies. The weather probably isn't as good on average, but I'll bet that in a given season you can do a lot more flying in Nelson than in Golden, and have a lot more choice for wind direction. I'm contemplating a move west--climb in the Valhallas, ski, paddle, so much to do!

Thanks to Kim, Warren and Margo for the ride to launch and patience.

Last Chelan Task

The last two days of flying have been off the charts fun, just epic!

The last day of the Chelan comp was fantastic--a 120K triangle with absolutely rocking conditions. If there was wind I was planning to blow the task off and try my luck chasing down the Washington state record, but with minimal wind (maybe 10-20K) the task just looked like too much fun not to do... I went out hard and led to the first turnpoint, where I broke my speed bar. We were headed crosswind to the next turnpoint so a bar would be nice to have--I spent some time tying the bits back together as the lead gaggle caught me and then flew by while I tied knots, but I got back into the game to the second turnpoint until the cord broke again. I was having a bit of a hard time tying knots as I had forgotten my gloves on launch and had pretty cold hands, and the course was now taking us back into the headwind. The lead gaggle went right, I went left under some better clouds so I could try and glide straight while tying knots. Eventually I rigged up a full junk show system with my speed bar line coming straight out of my pod to the risers. This required holding the riser with one hand while pushing bar, but it worked enough to get moving again. I wasn't racing for any sort of lead in the comp as I had sucked the first two days, so I got stinking high and stayed there, just enjoying the conditions over the flats. As usual I flew almost the entire day on my own, I just like that better than gaggle flying. I like flying with my friends, but the gaggles just annoy the hell out of me, it doesn't feel "free." The smart "comp" thing to do was push it hard to goal, but I tanked up super high on the rim and flew over the goal on the moon so I could tag launch on top of Chelan Butte and close out the triangle totally. This added maybe 10K to the overall flight but was well worth it--so much fun to burn it back into launch after flying a big task!

I'm pretty sure I'm done with paragliding comps. I just do not make a good herd animal--I want to fly the air, not other gliders. There's too much waiting around on launch, too much circling, just too much in the way of FLYING for me. I like seeing friends and the whole scene, but the part of flying done in the air is for me fundamentally about the experience of the atmosphere and my very small slice of it. There's a joy in being all alone or with a couple of friends way out in the middle of nowhere that I just don't find in comps very often. It was great to see Bernard, Nate and some of my other friends out on course, but turning circles before the start with so many gliders just doesn't fill me with joy--in fact, it pisses me right off. That's not how I want to feel in the air. One of the hardest things in life to do is recognize when you have changed; I could keep going back to comps, which have taught me a lot over the years and I highly recommend for any pilot, or seek out what truly lights my mind up today: XC flying, preferably with a huge goal or in a new place where simple exploration makes me happy. I need equal measures of what I feel as meaning and uncertainty to truly get into flying; I love winning, but that doesn't pull as much as the thought of, "What's over that ridge over there?" Yeah! Paragliding is one fantastic sport with so many different possibilities, and a great community. If we could have a comp without the comp that would be great--fly with friends, come up with interesting goals and celebrate flight without having to mess about I'd be in.

Congratulations to Keith MacCullough, who defended his Canadian National Paragliding Champion title successfully. Keith has gone from a talented pilot who would generally do random things in about half the tasks to a focused competitor. He wants results in comps, and has matured enough to get 'em. Well done.