We all know that wind must flow downward before it rebounds to form a soarable wave, right? And beneath every wave’s crest there’s rotor… Yes well, for every atmospheric phenomenon that obeys a textbook drawing there are more that stray from it or defy it outright. I’ve soared in wave with no apparent rotor beneath it, and gone two miles up in rotor that seemed to have no wave above it. Such anomalies should not be ignored or discarded as junk data, but valued as the scent of fuller understanding yet to be gained.
Diagrams of wave usually show an initial downward flow hugging the hill like a blanket before curving back up from the bottom, with rotor churning a mile or more downwind, directly below the ‘primary’ wave’s crest. That’s not always how it works though. Living ten years on a mountain that regularly generates classic wave, but flying daily only spring, summer and fall, I experienced more wave days from the source itself than from any cockpit, and am very sure of this uncertainty.
The ridge is a mile and a half long on top, standing quite perpendicular to frontal westerlies. Ski trails run more than 2000 vertical feet down the lee slope, which I might yoyo ten to twenty times every day of winter, always observing weather on the ride back up. Often as not on wave days, surface wind flowed up that slope, meaning primary rotor in direct contact with the hill.
So what’s the difference? Or is there a difference?
In my expert opinion, maybe. When surface wind flowed uphill the wave’s first crest would sit directly over the base parking lot, but when wind flowed downslope it followed the standard schematic, feeding a ‘primary’ wave (generally larger)
where it’s supposed to be some distance downwind.
Of course there were also many wave days with no wind at all near the surface. About them I have, quite confidently, no opinion. Swear to Gaia.
Ultimately, the wave itself has no reason to care where its rotor is, or even if it exists. Like all wild creatures, wave simply does what it’s impelled to. Perhaps that’s the main lesson it has to teach us…
That is the question for this coming week here at Crystal. One of our optimum ‘winter’ soaring conditions is the clear, usually light northeast wind that generates those infamous Santa Anas down in the LA basin. Up in the Mojave, north wind is okay and northeast can be ideal, but wind straight from the east is typically of little use for us, even in the mountains. If the forecast is accurate, we can expect a strong easterly on Friday, a very light northerly on Saturday, and after that – hopefully – several days of brisk northeast feeding autumn thermals, ridge lift and/or bow wave. How much north and how little east, that’s what we’ll be waiting till Sunday to find out…
First, my apologies. Should have gotten to this weeks earlier, but every day I’m more like Lucy at the fudge conveyor, falling further behind even as I stumble forward. Things seem to be accelerating, too, though it’s probly only me just slowing down — and down and down. However it’s spelled, results are the same.
Each season about this time I’ll be doing what I’ve done every year since the Carter administration, imbibing from the sky as much energy and enlightenment and plain old fun as possible, when suddenly I’m forced to realize it’s not summer anymore. Time after habitual time I ask of autumn thermals what only summer thermals can provide. All those months of accumulating overconfidence and learning to expect ever more eventually bring dismay at finding the season’s inevitable first gray hair. And as anyone knows who’s tried to disappear their first gray hair, it soon returns — even grayer.
So what to do about this? Complaining doesn’t help much, however irresistible the temptation. And fighting back is pointless because there’s no way to reverse the irreversible. But heartily playing on, even knowing you’re sure to lose, satisfies far better than quitting ever could. (I was one of those knuckleheads who would stay outside until it got too dark to see the ball.)
While high-school coaches claim that sports teach lessons about life, what kids actually learn is that cheating’s okay so long as you don’t get caught. In soaring though, cheating is impossible. Those who cheat perish. Gravity and drag are unforgiving referees.
Soaring is a disco ball of subtle and not so subtle lessons exemplifying all the joys and trials of ‘real’ life, and this inexorable aspect of time is among the more salient. September’s morphing toward November is not the cheeriest prospect for soaring pilots, but it doesn’t mean time to quit. Later trigger temps, slower climbs, lower cloud bases and earlier sundowns are all fundamental aspects of our glorious game, and skipping out on them is like dismissing your grandparents because they no longer toss you in the air like they did when you first met. Savvy grandkids learn to reassess expectations over time, always angling for the very best of whatever’s left.
As October morphs toward December, the wise seek of some kind of worthy tradeoff, whatever that might be. See it as your opportunity to hone fine points of skill or discover some new way – any way – to stay aloft. This can be every bit as challenging, and easily more educational than bombing along at warp speed on supplementary oxygen. Maybe cheaper, too.
Here at Crystal, making chicken salad out of chicken s**t is often easy. About the time thermals disappear for our month or so of winter, a panoply of various local phenomena and hybrid mountain effects generates at least some kind of soarable condition nearly one day out of two, often in ways quite different from those before and after. In other words, unique. And all with snow gracing the mountaintops like that lovely silver at Grandma’s temples that would have looked out of place when she was your age.
So no, the first gray hair does not signal an end of anything, except summer. And summer’s end, especially in the Mojave, is in many ways a welcome change of pace.
Why this always comes as such a surprise is a separate issue…
This week it’s our special pleasure to congratulate one of our own, eighteen year old Cameron Evans, who’s been crewing with us here since before he could reach the pedals. He will now wear forever a distinction many fellow pilots can never claim, flying his first solo in a sporty crosswind. Way to go Cam!
In other news, yes the season has changed. We’ve had a week of wave conditions, ending today (Thursday), with brisk wind from the west on Saturday but otherwise mostly light air and plenty of ‘autumn’ thermals — see SOARING IS LEARNING below.