Paragliding over Chelan Butte at the PWC 2010
First published in Cross Country magazine in 2002. By C. J. Sturtevante
“Launch early if you want to go far,” according to the Chelan cognoscente. “Early,” in XC context, means noon-ish – if you wait much later than that, especially in a paraglider, you risk running out of daylight and lift well before running beyond the XC-friendly terrain.
So the plan was to get off launch “early”, just before the World Meet comp window opened at 12:30, and hopefully benefit from all those speedy hotshots zipping by and marking thermals for us pokey bagwingers hoping to follow them along the courseline. But, as often happens with those best-laid plans, unforeseen circumstances caused our Plan A to go quite astray.
My husband George, ThinAir and I drove up the Butte plenty early enough to discuss the day’s plans with friends before focusing on our usual pre-launch routine. When Sandy Fredric mentioned that she was waiting for Morgan Hollingsworth, who was going to take her for a tandem thermal/XC lesson, Plan B began to take shape.
ThinAir and I have enjoyed flying several solo XC’s with Morgan, and we’ve often talked about some day trying for an XC on one of our tandem flights. The decision to swap our solo wings for the tandem and team up with Morgan and Sandy for an XC attempt was a no-brainer. In short order we were gearing up, waiting for our turn to lay out the Galaxy on Between the Rocks launch and chatting with Richard, whose wife was about to take a flight with Gaspo.
The longer we talked, the more we realized that here was an opportunity too perfect to be passed up. Mile-wide smiles greeted ThinAir’s offer to take Richard tandem and give this couple the special thrill of being in the air together. So, Plan C quickly evolved as I traded the tandem gear for my solo wing, leaving ThinAir to brief his passenger and launch just before Gaspo
Both Richard and his wife were still airborne when I took off from Ants to join George for a half-hour of rodeo thermalling a couple thousand feet over the Butte. George and I eventually tired of yo-yoing in abusive air and bailed to the soccer field; by then ThinAir had caught a ride back to launch, and as I packed my wing I spotted Morgan and Sandy flying overhead on their way to the Flats.
George and I piled into the next vehicle heading up the Butte, but we were too late – launch was now closed to free flyers until after all the World Meet pilots had taken off. “Early” was no longer an option, nor was buddy flying with Morgan and Sandy. But, flexible folks that we are, ThinAir and I opted to go tandem anyhow, and just see how things worked out.
So Plan D found us suited up and waiting on Green Monster for the last of the world-class pilots to get airborne. We watched with dismay as all the late launchers struggled for altitude; no one seemed to be able to climb out and get away. Still, 2:00 didn’t seem hopelessly late, so we took the next decent cycle on the Monster and joined a handful of hang and rigid pilots in MixMaster air.
We’d managed to work our way up above launch in spotty lift before an inattentive pilot flying in too-close proximity chased us away from the rocks – which was, of course, the only place offering even a hint of workable lift. Far too soon we’d sunk to an altitude that demanded we turn and run around the corner toward the soccer field.
Too low to catch anything at Three Tree Point, low enough for me to search for coyotes as we cruised over their Flats, just barely high enough to hope for a desperation save over the Last Chance Rocks. If that failed, we’d be skunked, with not even enough altitude for tandem ThinAir-obatics over the LZ.
But Last Chance popped off a teaser, and ThinAir carefully milked it, climbing slowly as we drifted across the Columbia River to the rocky cliffs on the east side. Nothing there tempted us to linger, but our little “puker” eventually took us to 3000’ and, before it fizzled, carried us far enough over the Rim to hang out in an area where ThinAir typically finds dependable lift.
And luck was with us – as is typical of Chelan afternoons, the thermals were better organized and more plentiful away from the Butte. George, driving down from the top and fully expecting to find us waiting in the soccer field, heard my radioed request to skip the LZ and head straight for McNeil Canyon. When he called back, “I’m on my way!” ThinAir and I began to hope that all the pieces were in place for a decent XC flight.
The nineteen-mile hop out towards Mansfield was almost easy – thermals (and dust devils!) were plentiful, and after a low save at Bump in the Road we climbed to 10 grand, where I found it teeth-chattering cold in my insulated flight suit, but ThinAir declared it “perfect” for him in jeans and a tank top. Of course, he had the advantage of me as a windbreak, and he was definitely getting a workout flying that big Galaxy in gnarly air!
En route to Mansfield we discussed potential destinations. I love flying across Banks Lake and wanted to try the route towards Spokane, while practical ThinAir was inclined to go with the flow, which was definitely pushing us NE towards the Colville Indian Reservation. Driver George checked his map and pointed out a serious lack of roads on that NE route; he also reminded ThinAir of his 7.5 hour retrieve from a previous outlanding (with Morgan) in the Rez.
So we waffled a bit out towards Mansfield, evaluating our options and waiting for George to catch up with us. The drift was indisputably to the NE and our penetration back towards the narrow section of Banks Lake was pitiful, convincing me that we’d waste too much time and altitude fighting the S component if we chose the Spokane route.
So NE it was – on to Omak Lake, where ThinAir predicted plentiful lift over dark rock bluffs on the far side of the lake, which he’d spotted on his previous flight up to Omak and which were facing SW into the afternoon sun and the prevailing wind.
Once we’d agreed on this downwind route, we quickly left George behind. Our flight path crossed directly over Chief Joseph Dam, a spectacular display of white froth contrasting with the dark river. For the first time I remembered my camera, and lamented the missed opportunity to photograph some incredibly huge dust devils we’d marveled at (and kept our distance from!) en route to Mansfield.
Crossing the Columbia put us over Bridgeport Point, in the Reservation and getting low. At times like this it’s really fun to be flying tandem – we combined our thermal and route-finding experience to decide if we needed to bail out to an LZ near Rte. 97 (not yet!) or hang in and hope that one of those dark rocky patches just ahead would be working enough to get us up again (likely, and there is a dirt road here, and as long as we’re in radio contact with George and can get him a GPS reading, he will find us, eventually!) ThinAir is truly masterful at milking the light lift, and cranking aggressively into the boomers.
He hooked into a thermal at one of the predicted trigger spot and we climbed out, just as the forest fire burning near Chelan burst up through the inversion layer in a huge billowing tower of smoke. I could almost imagine an eerie relationship between our climb and that of the smoke as we circled back to a comfortable altitude.
By late afternoon the boomers were getting fewer and farther apart, and in between we’d find ourselves plummeting, drifting downwind across Timentwa Flats, zigging and zagging in search of lift. It was out here in roadless territory that we encountered a major drawback of flying on the USHGA radio frequencies: too much other traffic!
With tone squelch we never heard anyone else’s transmissions, but the interference was there and George never did receive any of my multiple sendings of our coordinates as we left the “main” dirt road and angled over towards Omak Lake. The drift was pushing us straight towards those impressive rocky bluffs, clearly baking in the afternoon sun. We fully expected our next ticket to altitude to be waiting for us on the far side of the lake.
But to reach those hot rocks we had to cross Omak Lake, and to do that we definitely needed to get higher. On our side we had roads and open fields, and a little bump of a hill that might trigger the thermal we needed to boost us up enough to cross with minimum trepidation (mostly on my part).
Across the lake, those bluffs plunged straight into the water with nary a road nor a speck of landable terrain for several miles. What if our ticket wasn’t waiting over there? So we hung out on the safe side until we found a climb over a jumble of rusty-looking rocks that topped out high enough for us to agree that going for it was a viable option.
We tucked in our elbows and glided/drifted across the expanse of clear, deep blue water. How I spaced out on taking a photo looking down on that lovely lake I’ll never know – most likely we were so totally focused on that (probably rowdy) lift we knew we’d encounter when we reached the bluffs that there wasn’t room for another thought!
But on the far side of the lake our luck ran out – instead of straight-up-the-face, soarable wind, we found ourselves being pushed along parallel to the rocks accompanied by the raucous squawk of my Flytec’s sink alarm.
No ticket to altitude, no roads, only one tiny green patch that looked potentially landable but without any visible egress via land, no boats to provide hope of a ferry out to civilization. I considered the possibility that ThinAir’s flights towards Omak might somehow be inextricably linked to long and arduous retrieves.
The lift gods had clearly deserted us, but the wind gods were still kind. Even in heavy sink we were able to skim along the rocks for a long couple of miles to the north end of the lake, where the valley opened a bit and we had green pastures below us instead of water and rock.
I radioed George that we were likely going down on the N end of Omak Lake, but we heard no confirmation. Even without a driver, though, the retrieve options from this point didn’t appear terribly grim. As my tension eased I again remembered my camera, and at ThinAir’s suggestion I photographed the pasture in the valley below where he expected to set us down.
As we descended we were surprised by the strength of the valley flow, which quickly drifted us beyond the chosen field, and the next one, and the next several. We were no longer in plummet mode and even found an occasional little burp of lift on the NE-facing side of the valley. Our ground track indicated the need for a big open field with no downwind obstructions, as there was a good chance we’d be doing a back-in landing.
And that’s exactly what we did, touching down in some nasty, unfriendly prickery weeds owned by a most friendly rancher, who drove out to pick us up before we’d finished packing our gear. He was delighted with our story of how we’d flown 47 miles from Chelan Butte to appear suddenly in his field. He displaced his dog to the bed of the truck so ThinAir and I could ride up front in comfort, back across the field and down the road to his house for a snack and a cold drink.
His wife was equally enthralled by our drop-in visit, and brought out crackers and fresh goat cheese and huge glasses of ice water for all of us while we chatted and waited for George to show up or make radio contact with us.
But after an hour or so with no word from George (and we’d eaten all the crackers and cheese!) I felt a need to get somewhere with cell phone or radio options and try to re-establish contact. Rancher Walton graciously drove us out to where St. Mary Mission Road intersects Route 155, a high spot which he knew had cell phone coverage.
Even with a long antenna from atop the guard rail ThinAir had no success with the radio, so he called George’s cell phone and left our GPS coordinates on George’s voice mail. What to do next? “Well,” Rancher Walton offered, “I could leave you here, or I could drive you into Omak, or you could come back home with me and have dinner while you wait.” No discussion necessary this time – we piled into the truck and headed back to the ranch.
With radio and cell phone standing at alert on the counter, we relaxed with icy cold wine and a huge dinner salad while our hosts entertained us with wonderful tales of local history and adventures and misadventures of their days of riding and ranching and country living.
Just as we were assembling the raspberry shortcake ThinAir’s radio beeped an acknowledgment that George was in our vicinity and attempting to make contact. Assuming from our last understandable transmission that we had altitude and tailwind to get us far beyond Omak, he had driven on to Tonasket, where his phone finally informed him of our message.
He’d punched in our GPS coordinates and was backtracking about 15 miles to our location, pulling in to the Walton Ranch just as we were clearing the table and offering to help with the dishes. Our hosts shooed us out – “let us off scot-free”, as ThinAir put it – helped us load our gear into the Trooper, and waved us on our way.
From the first low save to the last crumbs of raspberry shortcake, this 47-mile tandem with one of my favorite flying buddies is high on my personal list of Most Memorable Paragliding Flights. And I can’t help wondering: if we could fly that far on an old glider after launching late in the day, what might be possible with an early start on a primo day with a high performance tandem wing? In this amazing sport, there is always something to be looking forward to!
Many, many thanks to George for keeping track of us under difficult circumstances! Neither he nor I thought of switching from USHGA freqs to the ham bands – had we done so, we’d have escaped being stepped on while trying to transmit on 151.505, and George probably would have arrived in time for raspberry shortcake.
Thanks also to the Waltons for making the last couple of hours of this adventure so luxurious. I hope they’ll some day be able to take ThinAir up on his offer to give them each a tandem flight. We have the GPS coordinates for their ranch, and they enthusiastically assured us they’d be delighted if other pilots would “drop in” any time for a visit.
And finally, our grateful thanks to Geoff Pentz for not being more aggressive about reclaiming his tandem Galaxy that he had lent ThinAir months – or was it eons? – ago. Your patience, Geoff, is remarkable, and there’s no doubt that your role, albeit unwitting, in making this flight possible has significantly improved your karma. By now I definitely owe you a LOT of cookies!
There is one thing certain about XC flying: no matter how far you go, or where you land, or what new friends you meet when your feet finally touch the ground, every time you set your sights beyond the confines of the designated LZ, you are in for an adventure!
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