Some of us think soaring at Crystal is more interesting and more downright fun in winter. It’s never too hot, seldom too cold, windy no more often than summer, and unlike summer, each day’s soaring is apt to be very different.
During the ‘off’ season, most soarable lift near Crystal is a function of wind interacting with hills. Westerlies are most common, flowing parallel with our ‘second ridge’ where wind often rises along both sides, creating a line of convergence and maybe even some modest thermals off the ridge top as well.
Behind this ridge lies Fenner Canyon, its upper end gathering wind right where steep sandy slopes face the sun and warm the air as it rises. That’s also where the ridge top’s narrowest saddle collects air from both sides atop those sandy slopes. Triple whammy! On winter days with little or no thermal activity anywhere else, this corner we call ‘the work camp’ might work all day.
Once up above 8000 feet over the second ridge, one good choice is to hop across to Mt. Lewis. A west wind can also create slope lift on the big ridge that runs south from there to Throop Peak. Lift near the hill may be treacherous, but up around 9000 feet it can turn into wave generated by Mt. Williamson, offering spectacular views of low clouds over the LA basin. (If you’re high there and lift turns suddenly to sink, that’s an indication of rotor coming your way, and a dive to windward might restore the lift and carry you up into the wave itself.)
Southerly wind brings classic wave with the best lift typically above a rock formation known as the Devil’s Punchbowl. When that’s happening we usually have a harmonic somewhere near the airport – plus who knows how many more downwind into the desert. Often it’s possible to climb up into wave from thermals or rotor, or some combination of both, and the best place for this is the west end of that same second ridge. (Spoiler alert: when rain is forecast in LA, with a ‘chance’ of rain in the desert, we expect conventional wave activity both the day before the rain and the day of it, so drizzle near the coast is no reason to cancel your appointment!)
When the forecast calls for ‘Santa Ana’ winds in LA, that north-to-south flow can provide not only good ridge soaring on our north-facing slopes, but also ‘bow’ waves upwind of the Mountains. Bow waves are weaker than the classic variety and won’t carry you very high, but are a fun challenge to explore. They’re seldom marked by cloud and tend to drift downwind toward the mountains like a surf, growing as they approach and then collapsing as waves do on the beach. (Here too, if you’re in lift near the hill and it quits, flying straight upwind may put you in the next approaching wave…)
Also, in light northeast winds we have a predictable, if sometimes subtle source of lift very near the airport, a wide pattern of dune-like ripples that act as a thermal trigger. These ripples lie right where you go to prepare for landing on Runway 7, and drifting as you climb carries you toward the field — a pleasant convenience when scratching in weak winter thermals.
These are only a few of the local treasures that can make soaring in winter actually more interesting (and educational) than the booming days of summer. Add to this the sheer beauty of snow on the mountains and you have ample excuse for maintaining currency all year long!