BEGINNER’S LOOK

My first time soaring the Sierras, being a twenty-year instructor from down east meant nothing. I had a ton to learn. This was a few years before GoogleEarth, and for weeks I’d been memorizing a 3-D relief map of the run between Tehachapi and Lone Pine with a specific mission in mind: fly straight as possible to Cottonwood Lakes, a high wide bowl in the Golden Trout Wilderness beyond which lies a sea of fourteen thousand foot peaks. The plan was to snap a careful 360-degree panorama before rushing back, a modest first assault.

If completed, the round trip would total 300-K, but I of course had no barograph or data logger. The glider was a thirty-something all metal single-seat Lark with no oxygen system, clamping definite limits on higher ambition.

It was forecast to be an especially fine day, and several pilots were chasing each other north from three neighboring sailports, Tehachapi, Cal City and Crystal. I was first to launch from Tehachapi, so that put me in the lead, but the others were in hotter ships, and having oxygen would avail them access to greater altitudes and ground speed. Plus they’d been there before! I wondered if I could reach my turn point before all of them did.

Blame it on beginner’s luck, but the outbound leg went smoother than expected, with intimidating visuals the only difficulty. Maybe there’d be time to gawk on the way home, but for now it was petal to the medal (sic).

A line of cumulus marking even better lift sat miles west of the crest over deep wilderness but led well above fifteen thousand, so I stayed off to the east within easy reach of lower ground if necessary, pushing hard to stay down around twelve or thirteen. As Horseshoe Meadows slid below, a voice came on the air-to-air frequency speaking obviously to me. He was leading the charge along that line of superior lift, and warned that the path I was on would crunch up against solid rock dead ahead.

“That’s where I’ll turn back,” I answered, “and bless you for offering such good advice.”

By the time we finished our exchange I had reached that turn point and the first of those towering summits did fill the screen. Everything felt right though and lift was boiling up in gobs, so, habitually I dug in and started scaling the first giant hill just like those beloved tiny ones back home. Only different.

Life is painting a picture, not doing a sum.

Oliver Wendell Holmes

Until then I’d managed to avoid spending much time above fourteen, and at least thought I’d handled mild hypoxia fairly well. Also it must be said, proximity to naked granite has a way of heightening one’s alertness, whatever physiological state you’re in.

Yeah, so…

From behind every barren promontory came another, and soon I recognized the legendary stone shelter atop Mt. Whitney. I had gained another thousand feet quite unawares, and after loitering too long was by definition further impaired, whether it seemed so or not. Time to head home.

And still that panorama to shoot!

Anxious to be lower, I dove near the yellow arc back to Cottonwood Lakes, arriving at just the right level for intimate pics. One slow round led to another for good measure — before I realized I’d been circling in sink. No longer over a huge wide bowl, suddenly I was down in it.

With more than half the horizon now above eye level, three options remained. I could try to crawl back onto higher ground again, but that wouldn’t help with the hypoxia thing, and if it failed I might end up ‘landing’ in one of these lakes whose ripples sparkle so brightly at 11,000 feet. Brr! The smart choice would be to sneak through a narrow little notch and down into the valley, but leaving the mountains could take hours longer to get home, and with this dull headache, no thanks. Third choice, head south with the slimmest margin above descending high ground, straight toward home. If that didn’t work, worst case should be a desert lakebed I had seen once before, from two miles up an hour earlier. And yes, no crew.

By now I’d begun to doubt my judgement. Gaps in cognition felt like thorn bushes in the dark, but I had to do something right away. And that’s when I started to hyperventilate. Mm hmm, really.

This was another first for me, might it be the last? Thankfully I knew what to do and retained nominal control. By then those first two options looked unworkable anyway, so with some degree of dread I turned for home.

And?

The trip back was a hypoxic blur I honestly don’t remember. Landing mid-afternoon, I had that sick feeling you get late on a second day with no sleep. Trying to appear normal, I numbly secured my glider in the wrong spot, then nearly wept at having to untie it, move it again, and tie it down again. I was toast.

Celebrate the victorious first try? No I just wanted to lie down. Three miles home on a bicycle felt like another hundred, after which I promptly fell asleep.