Mountains don’t seem to mind anything we do, but they always insist we do something. After finishing our silly slalom run with no scratched pylons, the smart money would pull up in the very lift we’d been limping toward these last many miles and work that spur back to the top. Those friskies we felt on its south side were budding thermlets, capillary roots of an invisible blue monster no doubt roaring overhead. Smoothness on the north side was an equally obvious warning to steer clear. I knew these facts, so surely that turning the wrong way made me grimace. Then why do it, you ask? Blame crook number one.
No, blame me. Only tried to steal a peek, but it was already too late. I had rocks on the brain, and neglected several fundamentals of mountain soaring I’d taught for decades. Even prolific terrain will be of no use if it’s above you, and that sheer face I’d been lusting after now stands entirely above us. Air that lifts you must come from below, duh, and everything beneath our new objective is blanked by the larger spur we just left. Even worse, big canyons are storm drains where mountains shed their sink, and this one I’ve put us in happens to be the biggest around…
The ventilation chills noticeably in this flush. Our headlong dive and 2-G zoomie toward the far wall produce an E-Ticket ride, old school. In seconds we’re washed up against an incline like the flying buttress of a vast cathedral, lower still. Careful what you lech for.
Yet even eighty miles from home… no, especially eighty miles from home, coaxing a glider hand over hand up big steeps has got to be the most fun you can have on this planet. If there’s lift, that is. We begin with a tentative duckwalk, straddling a spine in tight little figure-8s resembling shoelaces looped over both sides of a foot. And to the amazement of all, it works as well here as back home!
Scootching hup this roughest of bannisters becomes our first actual climb in most of an hour. Cause for revelry? Not unless we want to jinx it. (For the superstitious this single decision could be the shrewdest of any flight; to the rational it might mean nothing. What does that tell us? Don’t answer yet.)
Either way, the neat little duckwalk recoups our losses, topping the buttress at 10,000 feet, a false summit underlooking the naked bedrock of Olancha’s entire southeast face. Topography like the backs of those armored dinosaurs, vertical ranks of crenelated battlements, knuckles and knobs, and between them dark shafts like trees standing dead too long. Grab a branch to haul yourself up and the whole limb breaks off.
Soaring is at its best a mental exercise, and nowhere more than here. Yet conceptually our challenge is simple. Choose routes that pass over the most exposed outcrops, not beside them, and avoid those hidden in shade. Having few choices means fewer over which to fret. Meanwhile though, interrelated factors morph continually from point to point, and nothing is certain but gravity.
Fifteen, twenty traverses we venture across this scarp, some long, many short. Amazing how different each can be. Even the luckiest gambler drops a hand sometimes. One extended series we see the same teetering boulder from lower a second pass, then from much higher the third. Why? An open secret the ‘big boys’ never mention is the subtle advantage that a hair more speed buys for higher performance ships. Where shuffling slowly through patches of variable junk nets incremental loss, the same path a couple knots quicker, dolphining gently, might yield a worthy gain. Again, just like back home!
Finally high enough to peer over the crest from a thousand feet under the peak, fixing to dive across, circumambulate the summit and top out at last. Now may we celebrate? Glance straight uphill as if to implore Gaia… and if not strapped in I jump right out of my seat. Never been one to see whimsical images in clouds or rock formations; sacred portraits on toast make me laugh. But I must confess, an anatomically correct fifty-foot leopard staring down at you while you’re airborne can induce a gasping double take.
Voila! Crook number two. Turns out it’s an undisclosed landmark venerated by only the few soaring pilots who know it’s there, affectionately dubbed The Cat. Coordinates: 36.2625, -118.1170 (four decimals may seem cartographic overkill, but they put you right on the spot). A tortured crag really no different from others, rendered by chance in classic art deco style like the iconic Oscar statuette, this granite feline really does seem poised to pounce!
Soaringwise, not much to do here but glide by at close range and admire nature’s artistry. Take a long look and a blurry picture, memorize how to find it next time, then be ready to move on. We of course try for a second pass and shoot ourselves in the other foot. The indifferent lee-side breeze that got us here curls under as mountain air always will, and it’s time to scram pronto. While we’re cutting our next hard one-eighty downwind into sink, the Cat dissolves into its gunmetal camouflage as if never there. Another case of you asked for it. But hey, this latest self-defoot catches us half a mile higher than the last one. A kind of progress, you could say.
So, do we take our meager winnings (ass in hand) and run for daylight? Nah, it being still me at the helm, let’s angle down across where we just came from, hug those same rocks ‘cause it’s too fun to quit, and second-look the route in case there’s ever a next time.
Don’t be ridiculous, there’s always a next time! Others may have sped a hundred miles while we were fooling around down here, but we’ve bagged a priceless hour of intensive air work and lurid video that cruising high in booming lift can never match. Heck of a bargain.
Shooting back across the false summit atop our lowly duckwalk, we turn the corner scarcely any higher after all this, but now with a full load of speed… pointed straight at crook number three. Video on request 😯