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.
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.
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.