THE ONE THAT WOULDN’T DIE

After decades of daily commercial soaring activity including twenty years in the Mojave Desert, my short list of most bodacious thermals had grown long. Values more dear than mere strength and height could put a thermal on that list, such as timeliness, strategic location, degree of serendipity (luck), or plain old majestic grandeur. This one’s a contender on several counts, but wins top honors for… longevity?

Normally, it’s only beginners who stay with the same thermal for an hour or more, and they’re to be excused.For a thermal to stick around you need lots of energy focused in one spot the entire time, a condition that itself is observably rare. The thermal directly over a smokestack could work hypothetically until the smokestack falls down, but don’t expect me to try and prove it!

That day featured something rare around Crystal in July, anemic lift. While we were loitering near the airport a dust devil sprang up over farm fields east of Gray Butte, and quickly grew tall. Nothing was happening anywhere else, so, expecting it to be gone before we got there, we went anyway. And bingo, it kept growing as we approached. You gotta love when that happens.

To describe this thermal, ordinary adjectives scarcely apply. Our bird carried front seat weight right at the upper limit and me in the back wondering about gravitational anomalies as we rose a steady two thousand feet per minute. Ooh yeah.

At 14,000 we were still climbing 20 knots! But having no supplemental oxygen and already height enough for anything, we chose to glide away and find where in plain sight this monster’s cousins were hiding.

Twenty-five miles later, nothing but nibbles.

Looking back, imagine our surprise in seeing that same devil churning the whole square mile around its base into a wooly mound of floating dust. Despite some unknown factor suppressing ordinary convection across the entire valley, all that solar heat needed a release somewhere, and our one giant devil seemed the only vent around. We’d lost several thousand feet by then, but had enough left to head right back there and start again.

The devil’s central column was looming higher than before as we glided onto the top of its lower dust cloud and our long descent finally ended. The energy was actually greater believe it or not, but (after a 50-mile out and return, from and to the very same thermal!) our second climb to 14,000 took somewhat longer – because we topped out that time with FULL SPOILERS, just to say so.