News flash: turns out going for big numbers is not the only thing you can do in a modern sailplane. There’s no actual regulation requiring sacrifice of all other imperatives to a constant press for maximum distance or speed. It’s okay to slow up sometimes and smell the polemonium eximium (worth googling, trust me). Soaring avails so many things fun to do, and fascinating ways to play!
Compare your favorite kind of flight to a day in the wilderness. Could be a romantic stroll, a competition, an endurance test, or if you can afford it, profound contemplation on the nature of things; opportunity to experience immeasurable nuance in complex surroundings not accessible to everyday life. You can choose to be aggressive or passive, or anywhere between, but however you play it, what’s important is you’re HERE. As you become part of it, it becomes part of you.
And you don’t need to evade it by always climbing high as possible, either. Glider pilots tend to fixate on gobbling altitude any time they can, but why bother topping out when down below happens to be where the treasure is? If it’s a race to Timbuktu, you’ll probably win whether you fly fast or not. I’m more like a dog in the woods, distracted by urgent priorities that spring up along the way. Suddenly I’ll wanna see how close I can get to a peculiar formation in the back of some canyon, and forget about Timbuktu. Such blissful liberty may be impossible to enjoy, however, if instead you’re rushing to leave.
In all my journeys among pathless mountains, I am never lost.
Providence guides through every danger
and takes me to the truths I need to learn.
John Muir, in a letter to his mother
In coming weeks we’ll examine a cache of under-appreciated roadside attractions around the majestic Owens Valley, unique eye candies you have to get down with, ‘cause you’ll never even notice them from high overhead. Each of these has ground my speed to zero for giddy hours at a time on occasion, just because. I think of them as my own personal Crooks and Nannies. Old friends not seen for years, sad to say, but that’s alright. Knowing they’ll outlive us all kinda thaws that last remaining cockle in my heart.
Topping this all-star roster is California’s highest and bluest swimming hole, the always frigid Lake Tulainyo, elevation 12,818 ft. (coordinates: 36.60, -118.28)
Imagine being 2000 feet above timberline surrounded by giant unsolved Rubik’s cubes tossed into piles, an igneous funhouse sprinkled with archipelagos of jigsaw lakes in every shade of aqua from white to black. Amid this superreal stonescape Lake Tulainyo is set like a jewel in its hemispheric bowl, one shore up against the triangular face of a sheer pyramid beside a saddle of boulders so finely combed by countless snows they look smooth as suede. Around the lake’s other half curves a rib of frost-cracked granite you could straddle like a horse. One leg would dangle off a breath-sucking cliff, the other toward a dazzling cube of ice lolling gaily in the lake. Ah, summer in California! At the end of this semicircular rim is a square bench of level bedrock like the spout of a pitcher, a stone’s throw above the drink. Over millennia, how many Pleistocene cataracts have thundered across it into space? Today it’s dusty dry.
You may drive out nature with a pitchfork,
yet she’ll be constantly running back.
Horace, Roman poet (65–8 BC)
The blue emitting from this lake envelops everything it sees, pulling us in. Straight down from a diving turn we fall into our own reflection and level out to hurtle across the surface a cool 200 feet per second. Droves of glittering wavelets radiate from the berg as we chase our shadow toward that ledge, now above us. It looms ominous in foreclosing. Then… forward pressure released at the very crux frees wings to leap, flung between the uprights of a stone slingshot, slowing sensually as we loft away. Video on request!
We’re up and looking back in time to see a glassy stripe across the lake where our downwash suppressed those ripples, visible proof of ground effect framed by the parallel wakes of wingtip vortices. In seconds we watch newer ripples erase that signature forever — until we carve it there again. After all, nothing says good science like reproducible outcomes!
The real question is not how to get from here to Timbuktu, but how to get from Timbuktu to HERE.
JULY 4, 2020
Sean Eckstein, to Cima dry lake, 142 miles:
The July 4th weather looked good for a repeat of the Las Vegas to Arizona direction. If you could get past Clark mountain there would be good lift with cloud markers toward Arizona. The challenge would be getting to Las Vegas.
Lift in the mountains was a bit broken but allowed pilots to climb above 12k. The glide to Apple Valley was kind, and I caught a good thermal over the mine. Leaving Barstow around 9.7k toward Harvard, the air changed. It was the beginning of long stretches of sink, but there were a few good thermals that kept both Richard (TW) and myself pushing forward.
I climbed to 9.7k in the mountains south of Baker and headed toward the towers to the NE, where I found lots of sink, and when I doubled back to Baker there was even stronger sink. I ended up directly over Baker airport around 5.5k just in time for a thermal to break off and take me to 10k. As I was climbing I could hear Richard (TW) commenting on the sink heading toward the towers, and amazingly, commenting on the sink as he headed back to Baker.
With good altitude again, I chose to take a different direction, keeping to the SE of the mountains with the towers and Hwy 15, where there is gently climbing terrain with a few foot hills. There I found less sink. For the glide to Cima at the base of Clark mountain I had enough margin, but strong sink had me watching my sink rate and altitude closely.
Gliding towards Cima, I didn’t encounter the strong sink, or any thermals. By now the clouds past Clark mountain were gone, and it had taken me 4 hr. 45 min. just to reach Cima. After basking in the blazing heat of Baker (108°) and with the clouds gone I was ready to land.
I circled Cima field looking it over and chose my aim and touch down point, and set up a pattern. When I touched down I had to back off breaking because the soil was really soft, and I came to the shortest roll out I think I’ve ever had.
Richard Smolinski, to Baker, CA — 15 miles:
Not much to add to the report from Sean.
I tried to reach Cima 3 times and was shut down with sink on both. One time it was 18kt down. Impressive.
The day was getting late and I tried the east side, but thermals were like bubbles appearing and disappearing with no consistency.
Finally I decided to land in Baker (now I know why they name that place this way) in 120F temp.
Planned to have burger and cold drink with Sean and Peter, but here was another booo. All restaurants closed there, so we headed home.
Good thing: I learned new ways, and put another new landing place on my list..