There may be no greater temptation for glider pilots than sneaking down from nowhere to ambush mountaintop hikers and scare their hats off, then vanish in silence. Many variants of such behavior exist, on all levels of discourtesy and hazard. Some hot dogs turn on their rapt audience and attack again, repeatedly swooping so low and fast that more excitable spectators are terrified, perhaps angered. I’ve been guilty myself many times, but eventually comprehended its folly, and have abstained now (well, nearly anyway) for years. A few have had too much fun this way, with the gravest of consequences. The choice was theirs. You overcome this addiction like any other, one seductive mountaintop at a time.
I began to wise up after screaming across the highest peak for miles, where an innocent hiker was watching with binoculars. Just to be mean, I angled around and came at him directly out of the sun. The instant before my shadow hit him he blanched violently, blinded by the magnified light – and as he fell backward into bushes my head bounced up and broke the canopy. Just desserts.
Soon this lesson was reinforced to my eternal embarrassment. (For minds feeble as mine, anything worth learning is worth relearning.) On one pointed peak far from any hiking trail, a single spruce stood well above all others. After skimming over it several times on solo flights and dipping to barely touch its soft flexible crown with my wheel, I decided to try it with a passenger…
No, I didn’t botch it, though it couldn’t have been much less satisfying if I had. As we glided away afterward, the man who’d entrusted me with his life felt strongly enough to turn around in the front seat and, eye to eye, say, “That was really STUPID!”
How could any adult disagree? So I grew up, a little anyway.
Here’s a more benign tactic that better serves the pleasure and safety of everyone, promoting good relations with no risk of being reported to authorities, or killed. Arrive well below the summit, where those watching from above might naturally wonder if you’re in trouble. Perhaps even disappear awhile behind a hip of the hill before climbing elegantly by them (not over them), waving like royalty on parade. This gives you time to enjoy laughing with them as they impulsively wave back. Then while they’re still smiling, a picturesque but chaste wing-over or two can provide a fine encore before you soar quietly away with beguiling dignity. Think of it as interactive theater, better soaring through empathy.
On one small mountain stood an abandoned fire tower, such an easy hike from the road that folks were almost always up there watching through the blown-out windows. Countless times I coasted past in a saintly 2-33, opening its big back window to reach out and beckon, “Come on UP!”
Eventually an elderly woman came to the airport who’d seen us from the tower and gushed, “If that crazy fellow hasn’t crashed yet I want him to take me for a ride!”
“That was probly me,” I said. (Where was she when I was nineteen?)
And we had a great time. That should be the idea, after all, enticing those who see us to give it a try, and then sharing the joy with them too.
Nevertheless, though most people on mountaintops enjoy a good spectacle, even when we’re entirely gracious not everyone wishes to watch us…
Climbing by one of the Sierras’ 14,000-foot peaks we came upon a true alpinist, replete with lederhosen and even the traditional Tyrolean hat (got close enough to see that its feather was green!). Arriving at the summit almost simultaneously, I presumed he’d join us in a celebration of grand delight, but when he saw us he turned immediately away. What could have distracted him? After two more passes from different directions, his shunning us each time was a clear message. This doughty individual had climbed his mountain the hard way, striving many hours more than the few minutes it took us. The view he’d won was truly majestic and his satisfaction should have been absolute, but here we were marring both. We can suppose he’d climbed similar peaks in Europe where sailplanes are common as birds, and been annoyed by yahoos like us most every time. So, honoring his effort and privacy, we flew straight away and left him in peace.
Yet even after learning some manners, I must admit strafing other hilltops that I thought were unpeopled… One summer day the top of a ski hill lay ahead and, expecting no one there, I swept across between the lift shack and nearest trees without turning to look back. Weeks later, on a chance meeting in town a ski bum buddy assailed me with feigned umbrage.
“You deviant!” he growled. Seems he was up there that day with a lady friend and, unbeknownst, I caught them ‘en flagrante’.
Honestly innocent, I never saw a thing, but the best apology I could muster was a smirking, “Ah, delicto!”
Another time on a different mountain we meant only to be polite, gliding quietly by – and found a young woman ardently galloping her manly steed bareback. (For this naked cowgirl and her paramour it was we who floated ‘cross the ceiling.)
Utterly irresistible! Condemn us if you must or forgive if you can, but having simply no choice, we quickly swung ‘round for another pass. And there they were only moments later, sitting circumspectly side by side, ‘clothed’ you could say, smiling coyly and yes, waving. To get even half zipped and buttoned on such short notice, they must have had lots of practice…
Even so, that’s one ride they’ll both remember as long as we will.