Back to that ever lengthening roll of most memorable thermals, what is it that elevates any particular one above countless others? Raw climb rate can count for a lot, sure, but I’ve forgotten more boomers than I remember — while revering many squeakers long after serendipity enshrined them. We’ve all seen bug farts transform themselves into beneficent monsters (or if you haven’t you will), but why do so few qualify for the Pantheon?

Height? Talk about relativity! First, cloud base at any given time is about the same everywhere nearby, whether it’s two thousand feet or nineteen. Where an individual thermal does rise much higher than others it’s probably due to certain conditions that may be predictable, and therefore to some extent commonplace. No, the altitudes that ring my memory bell are of the three digit variety, how bug-eyed close was the surface when a save began? My personal floor has already been described in these pages, from below the level of our launch point to a quick and dirty two-mile climb. That one ranks in my personal top ten, but the GRANDEST THERMAL EVER demands more.

Uniqueness? Tough characteristic to quantify. Some hall of fame thermals, like HOF athletes, work their marvels against what are called ‘the odds’, over-performing in multiple categories despite whatever handicaps. A blue boomer from flatass nowhere that powers up through thirty-knot wind, or a grey cripple under low overcast, meager but determined as the dandelion cracking your sidewalk? Both are welcome surprises but not exactly rare. Again too many to remember, so no cigar here either.

What is it that renders any kind of thing most memorable? What makes one dish better than another, or one relationship… Hard to say sometimes. Could be a lot of one ingredient or smidgeons of many. We don’t have to understand why we forget some things and remember others, but the fact is we do. That’s what matters.

The sunset of life awards mystical lore,
As coming events cast their shadows before.

Thomas Campbell

It was 6:30 P.M. in September. We’d crawled against the grain all the way from Crystal to Bishop, average ground speed no better than forty. The whole area had been soaked by thundershowers before we arrived, yet go figure, searching for a way down is how we ended up at the highest point of our flight. “Say what?” Don’t forget, this is the Owens Valley we’re talking about.

Ragged cu were still dissipating above that 14,000-foot skyline making the backlit valley look almost black. We were exhausted and ready to land, but the sun was technically still up, so… Caring little how long our descent took, we wandered southwest across town and stumbled into unexpected shear. Improving zero led toward Coyote Flats (a legendary place far more special than its name implies) miles upwind. By then it really was time to turn back, but more and more, and then more improving zero made doing so… constitutionally impossible.

At some glad moment it was Nature’s choice
To dower this sunset with a winged voice.

Edgar Fawcet

Soaring is pure indulgence, we can’t deny it. But could any indulgence be less worthy of moderation? I once rhapsodized about soaring with the tipsy zeal of a college sophomore at a kegger, flinging terms like, “Guzzle, not sip its glories!” Now though, my toast for the home stretch is, “Take time to sip, not guzzle.” Savor your favorite tonic and leave the volume stuff for those still plagued by unquenched thirst.

Easy for me to say. Almost before we knew it, temptation became irresistible, became overpowering, became the awesomest hole in gravity we’d seen all day! And then some. From down inside cubic miles of the deepest shade, we were drawn up into some kind of hybrid phenomenon too enormous to define. Whatever it was was so exceptional I broke character and turned on the flight computer to verify a sustained 15-knot climb in lift as broad and smooth as wave. That’s twenty-five feet higher every second for more than five minutes! And to boot (queen of sirens), the sun suddenly seemed to be rising… At seventeen five we scanned all around for cops — then agreed to ignore the altimeter, just because.

Yeah yeah, once the lift finally weakened we did nose over and scram, leave it at that. Another case where approaching darkness bestows the ultimate luxury: flying as fast as you want. We indulged in a magical alpenglow tour, weaving through sunset among the Golden State’s most spectacular summits. West of those pinnacles we found it oddly quiet, then smoked back around on a descending ridge, across deep saddles to the east face drop-off, still well above timberline.

As the cockpit grew dark, lights were winking on everywhere around Bishop except straight beyond, where the airport lay. Looked like twenty miles, but being dusk, call it twenty five. While nosing over to what sounded like VA, I fished for a penlight to illuminate the panel. 110 indicated at twelve five, over 137 knots true (158 MPH).

Pounding downwind still way above glide slope, we had time to ask what in the world was that lift, anyway? There was insufficient wind for wave, no sunlight at all, wet foothills below and snowy mountains looming ahead. And then kablam. Here’s a half baked theory, hardly original: subsidence from high ground undercutting much warmer air from the valley — plus some indecipherable cocktail of who knows how many other components. In other words, no idea.

All I knew was this would stand as my GRANDEST THERMAL EVER, forever. Nonpareil. And just when we needed it least! Makes you wonder if it happens every evening there after a storm, and how much more was surging right then all along that 80-mile rampart! Good questions for some other summer evening. This one was in the book.

The schooners and their merry crews are laid away to rest,
A little east of sunset in the Islands of the Blest.

John Masefield


Weeks have become minutes on this final leg of my earthly sojourn. It’s one way I’m like everybody else. These daze I’m sure only of the seasons, new moons and some estimate of clock time; all the rest is a blur. And been this way so long it’s now the new old normal. Say what you want about us geezers, but to get our decades confused we must have been around… Whatever that means.

Ever descend gradually from sleep and wonder which of many prior beds you’re waking to? Sometimes I don’t quickly recall without opening my eyes, and might be asleep again before finding out. Right back in the time machine. Gotta love retirement!

About four years old, still new to having my own room, I slipped one dawn from a dream of sharing flight with a lovely dove. She and me, beyond touch of any other thing, dancing together in unbounded space, a dream so sweet its fading as I woke was my first conscious taste of deep personal loss.

So dear the feeling, I lay still as possible, consciously, defiantly, hopefully holding eyes shut to will myself back there. And made it by golly, regaining the heights and rejoining my perfect love! Only for moments though. Our second tryst vanished like steam when my mother’s call broke the spell. Not many years later, that same Mom (now 91) just happened to phone my girlfriend’s house precisely in time to preserve our virginity for, well, a while anyway. Some saints you have to give their due.

The moment seemed endless, but was probably only half that.

Steve Toltz

Here’s what soaring pilots need to know — and normal people too. For more than sixty years since the morning I fell from that nascent state of dreamtime grace, in the same way boffo lift still roils overhead after you shoot yourself down, there’s always a dove for each of us floating up there forever, awaiting our return… Been there all along.

When power poles start to look like fenceposts you know you’re getting somewhere… If time foreshortens much more at this rate we’ll be measuring parsecs in milliseconds. Wherever you wanna go on this flight, it’s now or never.

BAJA 600?

All the seasons I soared daily in New England, the closest I ever came to a shearline was reading about it — with one noteworthy exception. It was early evening when I spotted two osprey gliding in tandem up the middle of our valley. Pulling in behind them, I was surprised by soft, steady zero-sink that just went on and on for miles. All I did was follow the birds, as a little cloud formed straight ahead. And this was a half hour before sunset.

Turns out it was cooling air down from mountains on either side of the valley and converging between, a phenomenon referred to by that region’s hang glider pilots as ‘wonder winds’. Among the family of convergence phenomena, this may be feeblest, because it happens over low ground and open space, as a function of subsidence at day’s end. Surely it happened there more often than once every sixteen years, but until stumbling across the osprey I’d never noticed it.

(Why shearlines are novelties back east and common out here is a fascinating question. Don’t ask me. Someone who knows should pipe up and tell us!)

So what constitutes a shearline? In simplest terms it’s two or more bodies of air moving together, impelling at least one to rise. This can be due to a difference in temperature-slash-pressure, or one homogenous airmass flowing around some obstacle and converging again. The classic sea breeze can exemplify both. Here in Southern California we have them all, greatly enriching conditions wherever they form.

With this in mind, consider the Baja peninsula a few hours’ drive south of Crystal. Though more than 600 miles long, much of it’s barely 50 miles wide. Water in the Sea of Cortez averages about ten degrees warmer than the Pacific, and land surface temperatures on the two sides follow suit. What’s more, prevailing ocean winds (from north on the west and from south on the east) are pulled by friction, onshore — toward each other…

An interesting website, nullschool.net, shows granular forecasts of wind, temperature, and scads of other data for the whole world in something close to real time. Go there and you’ll find a convergence developing the length of Baja every afternoon. As relentless sun bakes those stony hills, two onshore breezes collide with a combined speed normally in the range of ten to twenty knots. This makes it easy to imagine terrific convection running more or less continuously, unmarked except for fat spots, all the way from La Paz up to… some landable patch a thousand kilometers north.

And therein lies the rub. Baja offers perilously few airports, or even dirt strips. Lake beds are rare and scary small, and except for concentrated sections of western coastland there are no hay fields anywhere. To salt your wounds, our line of convergence typically hugs the eastern (more remote) coast, sometimes spanning creepy miles of open sea. Still, not counting a handful of seventy-mile tiptoes, there’s nearly always somewhere within theoretical gliding range.

Now think about it. Given the extreme dearth of safe landing options, it’s reasonable to suppose that this unique region’s enormous soaring potential has never yet been explored from any sailplane, ever! Thousands of 1000-K days have silently boomed along that rocky spine, unsoared. But today, with 60/1 ships and sustainer engines, it seems only a matter of time.

Somebody’s gotta go first. You game?


This story is not about flying per se, but mountaintops share some obvious relation, and any pilot who’s not curious about lightning… should be. It happened at the Cliff House, tucked up against vertical rocks below Vermont’s highest summit. Visualize steel cable more than an inch thick (longest continuous one in the world when built) running a mile and a half up and down the mountainside, suspended by twenty-some tall steel towers. Visualize also, up from three directions, pairs of snow-making pipes eight inches in diameter, one for water and one for air, barely covered by cracked rock. Think of all those big steel arrows converging at the top, right where we stood admiring a storm…

Who knows, maybe such minutiae mean little to the lightning god(s) in choosing which tree to split. And what if the aim is pinpoint – we are dealing with the Almighty after all – but interfered with by some unknown ‘factor’? Perhaps a Brazilian butterfly.

Anyway, we were standing on the concrete platform where gondola cars come in and out, counting a strike or two each minute in the few square miles still visible. We’d been at it awhile, and being terminally lazy I leaned against a solid object to help keep me upright. Immediately the nearest crew mate looked over and stepped away, drawling, “Wouldn’t be touchin’ that if I was you.”

What he thought I shouldn’t touch was part of a stanchion guiding the cable around a ten ton bull wheel above the giant electric motor that drove this whole contraption. (Oh yes, nearly forgot about the bigass power cable running up there too!) Those steel beams I stood between at the console when starting the lift and shutting it down every day seemed so benign, not much taller than me and in under the roof for goodness sake — despite their being sunk into a mountaintop and painted bright red! I stepped back feeling like a fool, and seconds later lightning struck that top tower twenty feet out the door.

True fact. My arms happened to be crossed at that moment, and fingernails of one hand dug blood from the other bicep. Better than burns I suppose.

And then… one autumn afternoon I was down in the woods trimming limbs for off-piste ski terrain and listening to the approach of a storm like a ball game on radio. At that same time the crew were somewhere up the line in their bizarre two-level work car lubing sheaves. When lightning finally struck on the mountain itself I heard the emergency diesel crank up to hurry them down SAP. Time to hide the axe and head on in myself… Then a terrific bolt engulfed the whole mountainside, spreading out like roots of a tree and striking many places at once. The lift abruptly stopped.

Momentary power outage? Seeing the guys afterward, I forgot to ask. They all displayed singed hands from where they’d been touching the work car’s steel frame — and the look in their eyes was even crazier than usual.

The storm persisted and there was beer in someone’s trunk, so that was it for the day, which meant I’d have to take the jeep back up. Got home just as the clouds parted, and with a fat moon out it was just plain old heavenly. Don’t miss skiing a bit, honest, but I do miss those storms! As for the Almighty, nothing to do but wait in good faith… for her shocking next memorandum.