The Tarantula gang heads out for yet another annual pilgrimage to the Owens Valley. The group is smaller than in previous years. I missed last year, when then group was also small. But, most of us can count our trips to the Owens in decades now. Two for Donut, that is, 20 years with a couple of exceptions. Mumbles, has 25 years having missed narry a one. Beaver and Short Rib made up the final count of four for the Owens' 2011 hang-gliding adventure.
We postponed the trip by about three weeks from the normal, this year. Each had their own respective reason for postponing it, but we each determined to let everyone else know that we were postponing just for them. It was a wet year this year and Summer was a bit late, so the delay seemed reasonable, but alas, it turns out that we may have missed the best week in the Summer after all. Our normal date for the Owens trip is the second week in July. This has been chosen as the best balance of conditions and length of day for producing long flights. In fact, the early hang-gliding records, made by Larry Tudor and some of his predecessors, all took place around the second week of July.
This year started with thunderstorms. We didn't fly, in fact, until the fourth day. The first two days developed into thunderstorms and the third found us at the Flynn's launch above the Bishop airport, leaning into 50 mph winds and making whistling noises with our beer bottles (the beer having come out after it was determined that "even Donut wouldn't launch in this").
So, after our climitization camp in the Sonora pass the first night, spending three days exploring various rock-climbing sites, waterfalls, going to see "Cowboys and Aliens" at the movies, kayaking down the Owens River, etc. the flight log begins with Day Four:
Day Four - Horseshoe
Launch: Horseshoe, meaning an early start, coffee at Schatt's bakery, an hour drive to Lone Pine for gas and Carls Junior breakfast, then up the hill. I volunteered to drive on this day, hoping that the trend would be an improving one. I think I was wrong. This may have been the best open distance day of the trip.
Clouds were forming early, and low, but not with the force that they had the previous three days, so it was encouraging. Launches started at around 11 AM. Chase headed down the hill as Beave, Mumbles and Short Rib struggled to get up.
After getting to and reporting the wind at the Postage Stamp landing area at the bottom of the hill, Beave and Mumbles decide the day is not promising enough and head for the leisurely comfort of Lake Diaz (admitedly, further than the postage stamp, but very dissapointing to any driver looking for a good chase). For the record, Horseshoe launch to Lake Diaz is 6.84 miles.
As Beave and Mumbles were packing up, I headed into town to get ice and drinks, and raise Short Rib, who we hadn't heard from for a while. It turns out that he was forging ahead, North of Manzanar with no intention of landing at any time soon. I headed back to pick up Mumbles and Beave, and when they asked about Short Rib, told them that he was "North of Manzanar, making you guys look like little girls". Mumbles tucked that comment in his back pocket and made good use of it the next day.
We chased Short Rib to Bishop, where I dropped Mumbles and Beaver and changed vehicles to my own, familiar FJ Cruiser, raced on to give Short Rib wind up the valley and out into Nevada. The day looked really good in Nevada, but Short Rib chose to land around 5:45 PM, in Murietta Springs, worn out from the nearly 7 hour flight.
We made dinner back in Bishop.
Day Five - Horseshoe
Horseshoe launch again. This time I was rarin' to fly, and anxious to capture the flight on my new GoPro HD camera. I set it to take pictures every 30 seconds and hoped for the best.
I launched first at just after 11 AM again, and struggled to get up. Short Rib was driving today, resting from his long flight the day before, so I was quickly followed by Beaver and Mumbles, who both got up before I did. I trailed the pack now, hearing radio positions of where I wished I could be.
It wasn't until North side of Whitney Portal that I got up to above 13,000 feet. The flight takes on a whole new personality depending on whether you are below 12,000 for above it. At this altitude, it was possible to work back above the Sierra spine and experience some of the most beautiful views California (or anywhere) has to offer. Here in August, there was still a lot of snow, frozen lakes, inaccessible valleys, granite walls and spines and too much beauty to take in.
The thermals were averaging about 400-600 fpm so progress was slow on the Sierra side. At some point, Beaver got some shorts-changing turbulence and decided to dive for the airport in Independence, and make use of the nice flat ground for landing and breaking down there. Sometimes early landings are caused by a natural phenomenum known as beer suck. A combination of shorts-changing turbulence and beer suck is hard to deal with.
Mumbles was crossing the valley. I was way behind, and it occurred to me that this might be by design. I took my time, however, and made Tinemaha, where I climbed to 16,000. The crossing was with very little sink and I got to the base of Black mountain at 9,000 feet. By all intents and purposes, this crossing should have been a gimme, but I made the mistake of trying to work Black on its leeward side and was flushed down to 6500 feet in a matter of minutes. I got down to 5100 feet (1100 above the ground - harness-zipper- openning altitude in the Owens) before I found the famous light thermals near Big Ears we are alwasy burbling up in. I went 3 or 4 miles before my burble finally broke into little pieces by some hills below and I was left to turn base and final into a small field for landing.
Mumbles was climbing out, so I forced myself through the fatigue that comes from low altitude thermal burbling with a full down jacket on in 90 degree weather and got things packed up and on the chase vehicle. I asked chase to drop me back at camp in Bishop.
My biggest dissapointment of the trip was that I did not, for some reason, get the pictures I was hoping for from my new GoPro camera. This flight was, by far, the most picturesque of the week, and the view of all that snow and frozen lakes would have to remain an unshareable memory. Strangely enough, Short Rib's GoPro did not work either on this flight.
I was surprised to see Mumbles back at camp later that evening, in time for trying out the new Hibachi Sushi Grill & Buffet that had replaced the Bishop Sizzler. He made it to Janie's and decided that he was tuckered from the run. Of course, the first thing he said to me was, "Only a little girl would have landed at Big Ears on a great day like today". Touché .
Day Six - Piute
While we, theoretically, were here in the Owens Valley to crush all known distance records and take no prisoners, we decided that we needed to sleep in and not get the 6 AM morning start required by the Horseshoe launch. Consequently, we chose to do a Piute launch and head up at the noon siren.
The road to the Piute launch has always been one that influenced our vehicle and tire buying choices in the past. This year, however, it seemed to have deteriorated beyond what I remember, probably due to the very wet winter that preceded. In any case, my hope is that there is some entity out there with influence enough to keep the road up, and will not allow it to deteriorate to the point that it becomes inaccessible. The FJ Cruiser climbed it like a champ and kept us air-conditioned as it did.
Looking at conditions at launch, I did not "feel it in here" (line from the movie Rio), and was convinced that this would be an early day, ending at dinner and, perhaps another movie. Mumbles was driving today, so I threatened to land at the bottom and get him back for diving at Lake Diaz on Day Four. Beaver decided the conditions were not good enough to coax him into the air and decided to sit this one out in the chase vehicle.
I felt like I was yanked into the air at launch. While the thermals were not getting as high as in previous years, the lift was very reliable. I got to a bit over 13,000 at launch and was well over White Mountain before the chase vehicle got to the bottom of the hill and asked for positions. Within another half an hour or so, I was at Boundary peak, working my way to 16,000 feet. Short Rib was a good bit behind me, but helped relay my position to the chase vehicle as I made my way out into the Nevada desert. I chose a new route, that we hadn't tried before, making a bee-line to Pilot Peak, East of Mina. It turned out to be a very good route and one I should have stuck to. Again, lack of communication lead me to take a more conservative route and stay within glide of the main highway. Mumbles later told me that he was more than willing to venture into uncharted territory down a dirt road that would have been the preferred route for finding lift.
Short Rib landed at Basalt.
As it turns out, I paralleled the road between Mina and Lunning and hit godawful sink that had me convinced I had to land way out in the foothills more than once. I limped my way back toward the highway, with less than 1000 feet to spare, while chase caught up. I then stumbled on a late day, 200 fpm thermal that took me back up to 13,000. Announcing on the radio that I had "the river bed before Gabbs on glide, barring any headwind and sink" I pointed the glider North again. Sure enough, headwind and sink got me barely across the hills in the pass between Lunning and Gabbs. Chase and the gang all found a nice flat spot by the side of the road planted the flags, and I complied with a nice stand-up landing at 6000 feet (probably 8000 feet density altitude).
Gabbs was goal and I was 20 miles short. A few years ago we discovered that Gabbs High School had as its mascot a Tarantula, making for a nice connection with the gang. During break down, we found that neither Beaver or Short Rib had ever been to Gabbs, so we decided to go get our picture taken with the high school mascot, painted on the gym wall. Into Gabbs it was.
Now, Gabbs, it turns out, is a town that had 1100 people in its heyday. Today, there are only 300 people that live there. The locals must have though we were a bit nuts as we took our picture with the Gabbs High Tarantula.
After pictures we headed into the local bar to see if we could get some dinner. In a near repeat of a couple of previous years, we got there 20 minutes after the grill had closed. So we pleaded and begged with Melissa, the cute girl who was tending the bar, pouring it on about how Gabbs was so important to hang-gliding as our goal, what with the Tarantula and, boy were we hungry... ,etc. Melissa complied after giving us a hard time for not making goal and landing 20 miles short. As she cooked us dinner we carried on some lively conversation with the four or five other people in the bar, learning all kinds of facts about Gabbs' history. Needless to say, the burgers were delicious and Melissa got a great tip for being a sport.
We got back to camp in Bishop at nearly midnight. This, pretty much, dictated that we would not go to Horseshoe the next day.
Day Seven - Gunther
We opted for Short Rib's truck and the Gunther launch. Gunther is normally a smoother road than Piute, but it also had suffered the wet winter and was looking to threaten impassibility if not worked on in the next few years.
Mumbles had not slept well the night before because of, what seemed like, bursitis in his hip. He could not figure out what had attributed to it other than the fact that he had driven my truck, which had a manual transmission and had worked the clutch enough to aggravate it. Consequently, he volunteered to drive and was happy that Short Rib's truck was an automatic.
Launch was uneventful, but on this flight I got some nice videos. We got the highest of the week, although it was not superlative. I got to 17,200 feet at a couple of points in the flight, but this pales compared to what normally occurs on any given Owens' week. The day was not as good in Nevada. Beave and I were in the lead and trying to make the Pilot Peak route work, but the sink was much heavier . Short Rib got a late start, since Beave and I both hogged all the good cycles at launch getting up.
We ended the day with Beaver landing in the dry lake bed on the South end of Lunning, myself at the airport at Mina, where Short Rib also caught up and landed. We had dinner at the only bar in Mina and took in some of the local culture before heading back to Bishop.
We normally try and get a "fly home" day, where goal is each of our respective homes back in the Bay Area, and we launch somewhere in the Owens Valley and try our best to get home, following 395 and whatever appropriate roads would follow. Nobody has made it past Lee Vining, although that was a pretty impressive showing.
Rick was feeling ok to fly this day and I was hoping he would get some airtime in after his bursitis fiasco and driving for two days, but a conversation at breakfast lead us to realize that we had neither gotten a flat tire, nor had we broken a downtube all week. It was time to "quit while we were ahead" and head for home.
That we did, taking the route back through the Sonora pass and pausing for a late lunch by an awesome gorge swollen with the waterfalls of a very wet winter.
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