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 the good advice.”
By the time we finished our exchange I was there 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.
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.
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.
The coming week will bring bright sun each day and light winds from one direction or another… That plus surface temps in the low eighties means we can count on some of the year’s most pleasant weather, perfect for training and practice flights. If you hope to get very high, however, this is one week you may want to bring a ladder.
SEE YOU SOON
It was the kind of day we fantasize about, up with a passenger on what was supposed to be an hour-long demo flight. One very good looking cumulus was growing so rapidly that before we could reach it virga began to appear, and then sparks too. Okay, we’ll shun that one and go where we’re welcome. It took a couple minutes to reach another cu nearby, and by then the thermal behind us was snarling.
Soon we were catching fat raindrops from our new cloud too, and moved on again. At that point I still wasn’t especially alarmed, assuming that what was now a minor storm would soon expend its energy and dry out, desert style. I planned to loiter upwind above sunny ground waiting for things to settle.
But the cloud that started all this just kept growing and began to engulf its neighbors, shading our whole local area while advancing straight toward Crystal. Thirty minutes in, I was still most concerned with finding ways to stay out of trouble while completing the obligatory hour aloft, but hard showers under several darkened cells made getting my passenger safely down the only thought.
We still had feasible options further away, but everywhere nearby the sky was exploding. A slot did remain, dark yet free of lightning, between us and Crystal, so I decided to run for it while we still could. We were maybe six miles out when lightning struck at the airport – then again directly ahead, closer to us.
Off to starboard and closer lay the crossing dirt strips of Brian Ranch, already wet but looking like the nicest place on earth… By now a gust front had developed also, pushing dusty fog toward our new objective, and landing straight into it was the textbook option. We dove with full spoilers, steep and fast onto that muddy haven with lightning suddenly everywhere and thunder rumbling in full surround sound.
Setting up that approach would consume most of another minute though. Did we have time? Instead I chose to land with a pulsing 40-knot crosswind just to be on the ground some few seconds sooner. As we lurched to a stop near the tie downs I worried we might be struck on the ground before securing our bird. (Needless to say, that didn’t happen; we got by with wind whipped sand in the eyes and a thorough soaking.)
Finally under shelter, we called the office to let them know we were okay and arrange for a retrieve tow once the violence subsided.
“Too late,” they said, “We’ll come and get you by car.”
“Yeah, the runway’s washed out. We’re grounded.”
The storm did pass quickly as they usually do here, but not before leaving its mark. Sunlight was returning when we splashed up Crystal’s uneven driveway, the whole airport awash in an inch-deep sheet of white water whose cross-field flow roared like a waterfall. The deluge dug gullies out of our dirt strip, dumping blobs of mud on the pavement. It will take two days of hard work to restore both runways from the effects of a storm that lasted only minutes.
See you in the mornin’.
Look for a mixed bag his coming week, with strong west wind on Friday (think beaucoup lift at the work camp) followed by a shift to northeast after that. The weather service is calling for cool and cloudy on Saturday, but our patron saint Dr. Jack says full sun. Either way, if the northeast flow includes mostly north we can expect favorable conditions near the mountains, and if it’s mostly east… bring your own lift. Remember, you’ve been spoiled by six months of summer, and now it’s time to be spoiled by a few weeks of sweet autumn weather. Enjoy it while you can.
SEE YOU SOON!