Monday, July 03, 2017

Hike & (sometimes) Fly

on Moses Peak

So far, almost all of my paragliding has been at developed sites. They're good because you know it's flyable, and people let you know what to expect, and there's a known place to land. Then there's "hike & fly" where you hike up a mountain and fly down. That could still be to a known site, but I wanted to go somewhere new, where I could explore. Google maps showed me the closest mountains to Saskatoon (albeit small ones) were in northern Montana, just south of Havre, about a 6 hour drive.

Our lives get so busy but I was determined to make it happen. The first possible weekend looked good but the forecast ended up being for winds gusting to 60 km per hour - definitely not what I was looking for. The next weekend still had some periods of strong wind but overall looked calmer. It was my last chance for a few weeks so I figured I'd better give it a go. Shelley was busy and also wasn't quite as keen on this style of flying so I went on my own.

start of hike up Otis Peak

My first day, the forecast was for the wind to get too strong later so I got up early and was hiking by 7:30am. I chose Otis Peak for my first attempt. It's only about 600 feet high and there was a trail to the top. The wind was very light at the trail head parking lot, but I knew it would be stronger up high. It took me half an hour to get to the top. Although the top was grassy, there were trees all around that blocked launching from there. (Unless you wanted to thread the gap between two trees, no thanks.) I dropped down the ridge where it was more open and found a spot that seemed launchable. It was a nice smooth grassy slope. Not quite square into the wind, but pretty close. There were still trees below but they was enough clearance.

But ... the wind was stronger than I would have liked. Not out of the question, but questionable. I would have preferred something tamer for my first flight. I decided to get ready as if I was going to fly. If nothing else it was good practice. And I could monitor the wind while I prepped. On the positive side, the wind felt quite steady and smooth.

The safe option would have been to wait for a better day. Then again, an even safer option would be to stay home! Right or wrong (if that even makes sense) I decided to fly.

I went through my mental checklist with more than usual care - buckles, reserve, speed bar, vario, helmet, gloves. It was too windy to spread out my wing so I sorted my lines as best I could with the wing bunched up.

In the end, the wing came up smoothly and fairly gently. I thought, maybe it's not as strong as I thought. I got the wing settled overhead, turned around, took one step ... and went pretty much straight up. And I wasn't penetrating (moving forward), I was just "parked" over launch. Hmmm, maybe the wind was as strong as I thought! Hands up all the way (i.e. no brake) and I started to creep forward. I had one foot on the speed bar, although I'm still a little leery about using it, having experienced (in SIV training) the bigger collapses that can result. In the end a little bar for a short time was all I needed to get out front and away from the strongest wind.

I probably could have soared the face of the hill since there was good lift from the wind. But I was more focused on a safe first flight. And I didn't want to accidentally get too close and end up going over the back. The ridge lift still made for a longer flight (about 7 minutes) than you'd normally get from about 600 ft of elevation.

Although there was a big open area to land in, it had scattered bushes and rises and dips so it still required some attention. The wind was much lighter on the ground and I had a perfect touch down among the wild flowers.

landed from first flight off Otis

So, my first hike & fly at a mountain site I picked for myself. And solo. (Not that solo really makes much difference - you launch, fly, and land on your own regardless.) At an established site I wouldn't be too excited about that kind of short flight. But the combination of the hike, and the decision making, and being on my own made it a lot more of an adventure.

Next on the agenda was a campsite. I found a lovely one by the creek and away from other people. And even better, it's a short walk from the hill so if the wind dies in the evening I may be able to get in another flight. I hiked back up to launch at 6:30pm, hoping the wind would be dying down. Despite waiting till 8pm it didn't calm down and I hiked back down.

I had thought I'd have cell coverage and would be able to use Google Maps and satellite imagery to plan my explorations. But there was no cell coverage at all, let alone data. I had downloaded topo maps to my phone and tablet so I was still ok, but it wasn't quite as easy.

Day two, up at 5:30 again, made a quick coffee and headed out. Hiked up Moses Peak which was about 1000 ft of altitude gain but quite a shallow slope. There was no wind on the way up and I was imagining a forward launch. Nope, the wind was completely backwards to what's it been. So after some internal debate I launched off the back hoping to fly around the top and still descend the front. With the shallow slope I was afraid of sinking out over trees, but there was a grassy opening leading to the right off launch. Launch was good and I turned and followed the opening and past the trees. But then I realized that put me on the lee side and potential turbulence. Luckily it was still early and the wind was light so it was just a little bumpy. But no lift so I couldn't clear the ridge/shoulder to get around to the front. I landed in the tall grass, bunched up and hiked the few hundred feet to the shoulder. The wind direction was now totally cross so I launched off the side of a gully (shades of Saskatchewan!) and turned down the gully right away to stay clear of the terrain. I steered over the grassy slopes and avoided the bush and trees. I didn't get more than 50 feet off the ground either flight, and both were about only a minute or two. But I did manage to fly a lot of the way down. I packed up and climbed back up to a different high point. But I couldn't find a launch suitable for the wind direction and in the end I just hiked back down. It felt like I'd had a full morning but it was only 9am when I got back to the car.

For the afternoon I headed to Square Butte which meant driving almost back to Havre and around since it's on the other side of the mountains. It's a huge butte about 500 ft high and quite long. You can drive to the top, but not with our car, so I hiked up (with my glider). I think it could be a great soaring site but there's nowhere to launch. There are trees all along the top edge which is mostly broken rock. And the wind was very screwy, I couldn't tell which direction it was coming from, it seemed to change every couple of minutes. Plus there were thunder storms nearby so it wasn't the time to fly regardless. It was a 10 km round trip cross country with a fair bit of up and down so at least I got my exercise.

Square Butte

I did have one humorous incident - when I got to the top of the butte and approached the edge, a hawk flew up from sitting on the edge of the cliff. I thought that was cool until he proceeded to dive bomb me. He was coming so close I could hear the rush of his wings as he pulled up right over my head. I was scared he was going to actually attack me with his claws. I backed off and hid under trees when he took a run at me. He kept it up until I was about 1/2 a km away! (At which point he must have trespassed on some other birds territory because two little ones then chased him off!)

Day three I woke up at 5:30 as usual. It seemed a little windy around the campsite and I just about convinced myself to roll over and go back to sleep. But by that point I was awake. Amazingly, there was almost no wind on Otis. I hiked up and did a forward launch down the ridge, having to run hard to get in the air. Second trip up there was a slight wind from the back so I hiked up to the top where I could launch in that direction. I got a few bubbles of lift and I started to think I might get more, but it was still only 9am and there wasn't much happening yet. I circled around, cleared the ridge, and landed next to the car. I thought the next go round might be better, but I got even less lift, although still clearing the ridge and making it back to the car. In hindsight I probably should have stuck around and flown later when the sun had had a chance to heat things up. But the hikers were arriving and I was tired out from my three laps up the hill.

ready to launch on Otis, definitely snag potential

I still feel a touch of awe when I pull on the lines and the wing rises overhead. It's like a giant bird, unfurling its wings at my command, ready to carry me away. That sounds corny, but hey, it's an amazing thing being able to fly.

In the afternoon I hiked up Bowery Peak. It was a nice hike with great views but it didn't seem like a good spot to fly from. The problem with these nice grassy hills is that they're not very steep. It would have been a stretch to make it down to the road. There were some grassy slopes you could land on, but then you'd be faced with either hiking back up to the top, or bushwhacking down to the road. And if you did make the road it'd be a long slog back to the car. So I crossed this peak off my list.

My fourth and last day didn't work out. It was too strong at Otis and the wrong direction at Moses. So I headed home. On one hand, six flights with four different launches and landings was as good as I had expected and great experience. I loved the hiking part of it and was happy how it went. My knees didn't bother me. I didn't get any blisters. I'm sure I didn't hike uphill as fast as I did 30 years ago, but my fitness level seemed ok. On the other hand, I had really hoped to get longer flights, at least longer than a couple of minutes. When I first got home my feeling was that it wasn't worth going back, that the flying wasn't that great. But after some reflection I'm thinking maybe it would be worth another trip. I have an idea of what to expect and what to try for. It might not work out any different, but I think there is potential.

after the flying

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