Remember when Mt. St. Helens blew up? If younger than forty-something you don’t. It was May of 1980. The following day, in my home town 250 miles downwind, absolutely everything was buried under inches of ash. Birds were unable to fly, and had nowhere to land if they tried. I’d moved away by then, but pictures of the yard where I grew up were hard to believe. In fact a year and a half later the folks said crusts of ash were still drifted like snow in the lee of large obstructions, a foot deep.
I was in Vermont at the time, 2300 miles further downwind, where the pall arrived three days later on its way to Europe. After an ominous copper sunrise the day seemed hazy with the usual thin overcast, but something smelled different. This was early in my first season of daily soaring activity, which by itself doesn’t mean much, but as the first of thirty-five it implies volumes. I’d logged a total of 200 hours at that point, and was only beginning to realize how little I knew.
A stiff west wind was blowing, that site’s main currency, so when things on the ground got slow I went for a hop in the 1-34. Releasing low on the ridge, I climbed from a surprise thermal up through rotor right into 6-knot wave. That was a hat trick I’d never before accomplished without any clouds to mark the way, and it seemed to happen as if by magic. Suddenly overconfident, I decided to favor intuition over strict logic the rest of the flight and see what else might happen.
At twelve thousand feet that peculiar metallic odor intensified, and the world grew strangely darker. Then soon it brightened to a painful glare, softening gradually as I climbed on up. At fourteen thousand lay the same Elysian firmament that always awaits if you go high enough, world without end… but the earth had disappeared! Nothing down there but the wave-ribbed surface of a planet-size silver ball. Not white or blue, green or grey. Gleaming, screaming chrome.
Yikes. And me with no supplemental oxygen.
Volcanic ash is rare as a soaring environment, thank Gaia. But I’ve since learned that in dry snow or even light rain you can sometimes ride wave straight out the top without ever seeing an actual cloud. Up there it’s perfect as ever, but you’re officially caught on top.
Those few brief moments above the big silver ball were the most majestic of my life up to that time, a unique experience that will never come again. Grave was the temptation to hang out up there forever, but truth is I started to get scared. The longer I stayed the further I’d be from my last known position, more blinded by the enveloping light, and stupefied by hypoxia. My supposed mission was to trust instinct! So with excruciating reluctance I pulled full spoilers and scuttled back down while still fairly sure where I was.
I’ve regretted that decision ever since, naturally, as everyone mourns our unexploited opportunities. Nothing lost, though. Did get a peek after all. Who knows, could I be the only soaring pilot ever to witness such scene?
Sure hope not.