First, rest assured that this weekend’s temps will be at least ten degrees cooler than last week’s record-breaking run. (Think of this, for decades, the Crystal Squadron has made their bones flying across the Mojave every summer Saturday — and last week they chose to scrub an otherwise great looking day because it was too hot, even for them!) Anyway, this week should stay down in the nineties, with a fairly steady moderate westerly, and even a few clouds. Downright breathable, you could say. Thermal potential will also be somewhat less dynamic, but we’re coming into the peak of the season, so expect terrific lift all afternoon in all the usual places.
The problem with illusions is, you need to know they exist to know you’re deceived by them, and by then it might be too late.
In soaring, there’s one illusion that can lure you into high ground lower than you realize until you arrive. Picture a big mountain miles ahead and a lower one half as far. The high background will make any foreground appear lower than it is. You could be level with that lower hilltop, yet think you’re high enough to glide down to it and pass over. Hard to believe? That’s why it’s such a potent illusion! You wise up to it only after you get there and the harm is done.
I knew of this illusion from prior experience but chose the worst possible time to forget, before committing to what shall forever remain my longest descending glide into the wind, over the most remote and inhospitable land I’ll ever traverse, with not one single cloud ahead… ridiculously late in the day.
To grasp the enormity, go on GoogleEarth and find Silver Peak, NV (If you find it, zoom down and click on Street View or any of the linked photos to see why it’s understandably one of America’s least popular places, while nonetheless a premier source of lithium for your rechargeable batteries and psychiatric meds). Now zoom out and draw a course line from there, south southwest to Lone Pine, CA. Imagine you’re leaving a thermal at 17,000 MSL on a final leg. The only alternates are 30 miles left or right, and you’ve 85 miles to go. That’s also when you notice the line of cumulus you’d planned to use for this final leg has drifted too far downwind, and following it would add more distance than remaining daylight will allow.
Surely tremendous blue thermals are still boiling over that vastness of naked stone, and more will rise to meet you, right? Old-timers tell of climbing in thermals, not just at sundown, but late into dusk. If the fields beneath them were less menacing than this moonscape here, all the more reason to keep moving. With really no other choice, you swallow hard and head straight for a ‘low’ point on the ‘near’ horizon which the chart suggests is maybe seventy miles away.
The meat and potatoes pleasure of gazing on a wilderness landscape soon withers. In a stark pallet of browns from nearly black to nearly white, the world below is contoured like the surface of a wild storm sea. Between monstrous breakers of gnarled basalt where deep wave troughs would lie, smooth-seeming lowlands are themselves seas of boulders, ravines, dunes and silt-filled hollows – quicksand if there’s ever a rain. Such detail is indistinguishable from high aloft, as every object, even that newly discovered species of scorpion, flaunts hues of the same bleached khaki. Anything that looks like a road will be a 4-wheel trace that may not have borne traffic in years.
A third of the way you feel the first patch of real lift, but supposing better ahead, dolphin brashly through it without stopping to climb. It will also be your last lift. Idiot.
Land here, and aside from trashing your bird, the best you can hope for is an all night ordeal, bleeding over into at least the entire next day – if you last that long – in officially the hottest place on earth. That’s why they call it Death Valley, idiot! Later, for you or your heirs, mandatory removal of the wreckage would entail use of a very expensive helicopter and crew, plus, according to the Park Service, a heavy fine.
Combat pilots tell of endless monotony pierced by sudden spasms of terror. Here it’s more like holding your breath forever, one endless spell of growing anxiety smothered in the heat of ever lower altitudes. Beseech the gods for even so much as a haze dome to show the way, but they answer with blue silence. Like peering in the wrong end of a telescope and staring at that spot of light, ample time to ponder myriad gradations of disaster, from sentimental to existential.
Meanwhile, the grand illusion waits right there under your yaw string. Those snowcapped Sierras beyond, at 14,000 feet, make these gigantic Inyos look almost like foothills – until way too late. And speaking of late, every second now, more of this 10,000-foot foothill rising between you and the low sun is shaded, whittling thermic potential down to an irreducible zero.
Gradually it becomes obvious that continuing direct will leave you below line of sight, and trapped. Only one option remains, and thank Heaven it’s a good one. A long dogleg ten degrees right (where you should have aimed in the first place, from fifty miles back) lengthens the path to Lone Pine by a few miles but brings the threshold for crossing closer — and several hundred feet lower, which at this point is the whole game!
Yes, we squeaked through as the numbers said we might. With so many reasons to fly fast and so few not to, our homeward leg became a quick one, though it seemed to take hours. In post-flight analysis, the critical portion of that glide was sixty-five statute miles, costing eight thousand feet of altitude. Almost doable in a 40/1 sailplane, maybe, with no safety factor. If we’d moped along at best L/D like too many pilots do, by the time anyone reached us they’d have found only jerky in loose clothing. No, it’s holding rigorous speed-to-fly, running tail high in all the bad stuff, and tiptoeing at min-sink only during luxurious sighs of zero that can stretch descending glides immeasurably, and save more than just your reputation once poor decision making leaves the outcome to gravity and drag.
Nearing that high saddle, we had enough in the tank to even add some extra, shooting across at 100 knots indicated (true airspeed 135 MPH), fifty yards above the rocks. From there to touchdown at Lone Pine was a mere 20/1 glide, sweetened with hints of upslope breeze along the Inyos’ still hot west facade. So with all our woes transformed into blessings and the air gone sunset smooth, why not pour on even more? Diving at VA to the finish, we completed a 260 mile triangle (launched at 3:30!) with an average speed that was, for me anyway, eye popping. All because I was too dumb to know better and too lucky to ever expect such fortune again.
There was warm celebration on the ramp that night, but I felt more like going to confession. And I’m not even Catholic. All evening a bitter little gremlin squatted on my shoulder, angrily sucking the joy from every laugh. The guilt of almost becoming a statistic was – and is still – surpassed only by gratitude that my (deliberately) unnamed companion did not become one! Even falling into bed, I could feel the sere, perpetual stillness of Death Valley tugging at my tail, luring me back for one more chance…