Sunday, May 5, 2013

May the 4th be with you

The leadup to the weekend was a great one for destroying productivity.  Over a week out the prognosticators are calling for good looking conditions.  Soon, good was upgraded to great.  Then it even looked like it would align with a weekend day.

By mid-week the NAM, the RASP, XCSkies, Matt, Darren, Walt (WX) were pumping Saturday as the day.  The consistency of the blipmaps as Saturday approached continued to build confidence.  What would the task be?  Straight-out?  Across the valley to the Sierras? Around the Horn?

Friday morning Julie learned that her Saturday had just been freed up.  Thankfully my offers to the back seat of the Duo had been declined by those I'd reached out to and she was able to claim her right.  Saturday morning we arrived at the airport a little later than intended.  Damn battery stop to replace the batteries in my Spot that I had left on the week before.  I think almost every private ship at Avenal was rigged or being rigged.  GD, Russias 1 & 2, 5H, YH, NF, PW-5, CM plus the 3 club ships were all gunning for the forecast.  My plan was to probably run around the horn and hopefully up to Yosemite before trying to get back to Avenal.

As is unfortunately often the case, it was a little slow starting and nobody was in a rush.  I wasn't ready at noon like I wanted to be.  By the time I was ready, 7 gliders were stacked up on the grid.  7 gliders, 1 Cessna 150 and Hollister guys already approaching from the NW lead by VN.  As the launch scramble began I requested (OK, declared) no tows above 2000agl.  Contest tow mode in order to get everyone off quick.  As the first tows started to happen, I asked about fuel in the towplane.  Hmm, nobody fueled it after the morning student flights.  So now we have 10 gliders to tow and maybe 5 worth of fuel in the towplane.  Awesome!  I'm getting grumpy, mostly at myself, but not how I wanted the day to go and every little thing just adds to the frustration.

While someone gets hooked up I run out to the towplane and confirm that we'll fuel after the next tow is complete.  Julie wisely grabs a ladder and two fuel jugs while I had already grabbed the fuel cart.  Mel returned in the towplane shut it down and coasted to a stop a few feet from us.  Nascar pit crew style we kick in and put on 20gal in about 4 minutes and reposition the plane for takeoff.  We always need to fuel like that!  As we pushed the towplane for takeoff, the slack coils up the towline.  Crap!  It's tired anyhow, I run grab a replacement and in a couple more minutes we've got a brand new towline and a fully fueled towplane on another tow.  NF kindly reads my state of mind and let's me push ahead of him.

The convergence punches through with ferocity.  20+ plastic bags are soaring over town in a monster dust devil and a 20mph SW wind is rushing in.  Crossing downwind, great.  Can't even take off now.  We wait for a few minutes and it lulls enough to go.  At least I know where the convergence is now.  We make one circuit of the field and I'm off at 1500agl and climbing, time 1:45.  2 hours "late."  At 2000agl I push a bit east and connect with 7knots to 10k.  Here is where the delay and frustration pays off though.  We launched straight into the strongest conditions and I had a couple of rabbits,  VN and TG,  40 miles ahead reporting conditions and pulling me faster.

We powered south averaging over 100mph for nearly an hour.  First passing someone in a DG near 41/33.  Probably Jim from Minden? Next we saw Steve Schery in his Russia and borrowed his thermal for a zig zag grab of a few hundred feet before diving SW towards Paramount.  CM and GD were climbing well and showed a 10knot core for us.  1 circle and the line of cu dotting the way to the Temblors was calling so I pushed on.  EP marked a nice core as well and we zigged across it but didn't stop and he joined us for 10 miles or so before giving in to a 10knot core we passed through.

Julie took over and flew for the next 40 miles to the edge of the Cuyama Valley.  Along the way VN passed us heading north at a blistering pace.  Farther down we crossed over E4 on his return as well.  I take over cutting the corner towards Pinos but getting down to 8k and I am eager to nab a rocket.  At Rourkes Roost we connect under a cloud with 8-10knts and after a few turns I figure I need to share a bit more and Julie takes over again.  She tops us out at 13k and we race towards the Grapevine.  TG is out near Gorman and turning back.  U2 is reporting low at Quail Lake and struggling to find something.

Passing Mt. Pinos we catch site of TG and join him in his thermal.  He asks what our plan is.  Julie is behind me saying "we keep going" and that is exactly what I'm thinking.  Ramy is game and as we depart to the North he's right behind and under us.  NT was about 20nm behind us at this point and closing in the strong conditions.

I headed N towards Bear Mountain along a finger of clouds that was forming out towards the valley.  The line worked pretty well and seemed to be as good as going deeper, but clearly was a shorter path to the Sierra.  We wasted a few minutes in weak lift at Bear Mountain before continuing on to a Cu forming over a peak to the south of the Flying S ( I think that's the strip).  TG, ballasted up, was able to outrun us on the glides and marked a thermal as we caught up.  He didn't look like he was climbing all that well and I opted to test a ridgeline a few miles upwind.  It gave us a solid 5.5knot average climb to 13k which we used to jump north to the next ridge near Isabella for a climb to our high point at nearly 14500.  TG rejoined us at this high point and we set out for nearly 30 miles on glide.  The clouds were very deep back towards Kennedy Meadows and not particularly high.  With solid westerlies, my chicken factor kept us on the western edge of the Kern river as we passed Kernville.

At this point we are starting to enter the Sierra proper.  The granite peaks are starting to feel within reach.  The Needles are majestically jutting up from the side of the canyon and a few scattered cu are still forming even this far south.

The Kaweah drainage is another 30 miles ahead but looks reachable.  This is probably the steepest portion of the western slope of the Sierra.  I've made a few attempts at climbing into the Sierra here because if you're above terrain, you're only 20:1 from Woodlake.  We get lower, down to a little below 10k.  Faked out by mixed up thermals.  NT is nearly to Inyokern behind us being more bold and convinced that the clouds are the line to be taking.  Also I think trying to evaluate the Owens Valley properly.

We press on with a few small climbs and then get into some nice steep terrain with sculpted bowls facing the sun and wind.  I tell Julie to think of it as New Zealand and just run the ridge and keep the hammer down until we hit something good.  We get a bit low for her comfort and I take it for a while. A 3 knot climb teases us for a few minutes and then its back on the path along the ridges to a promising looking peak.  It works and soon we've got 13knots on the averager and a cloud forming overhead.  At nearly 13k we head into the Kaweah drainage.

Unwittingly heading for nearly the same turnpoint used by JS and WX earlier in the day.  We pass Homer's Nose, a rock I'd inspected in the past on a flight across the valley.

With the altitude we can comfortably press into the clouds and go deeper into the mountains enjoying the scenery that we've earned a view of.  Julie reminds me of the time, it's after 5:30.  We push a little deeper to the domes and peaks of the Kaweah. It's truly spectacular country and such a rare treat to be here with this lighting and altitude that we loiter for 10 minutes before turning for home about 16 miles west of Mt. Whitney.

Running home we head over the tops of the Castle Rocks in Sequoia and start the final glide into the brown haze of the Central Valley.  TG had headed out a few minutes ahead of us towards some clouds to the NW.  It was farther than a direct line and I knew we wouldn't make it without a climb in the valley if there was still a convergence line there.  U2 was reporting 10k+ near Hanford and Lemoore.  TG was behind us a few miles.  NT was 20nm or so out as well.  We edged towards Hanford since we could see a few wisps that seemed to be forming.  A few miles past Hanford we were able to connect with a climb in the convergence.  It was soft, but Julie got us from 4700 to 7300.  Ramy joined us but was below the bubble and really couldn't get up to our level.  We barely had Avenal on final glide at MC 0.  Our alternate was Westlake Farms and we had 10-15mph on the nose.

Late in the day pushing into a building headwind and low sun angle, I was more tense than I probably needed to be.  We were hovering right about 0 to 100 below glide to Avenal.  That's with 1000ft pattern so not too bad.  The hills NE of Avenal are roughly 1200ft and look more imposing after a long flight than they really are.  As we closed in, huge dust clouds were visible to the south of the airport.  Looked like winds were going to build.  As we crossed I5 we were 100+ above glide and feeling better.  I picked up the speed to 80knots expecting some sink in the lee of the mountains and pleasantly found none.  We ended up reaching the airport about 1300agl and found winds 80 cross at about 15-20 it appeared.

Andy and Ethan (Thank You guys!!!) had stayed at the airport to retrieve us if we didn't make it back.  As we circled the airfield mulling our runway options, we could see them messing with the trailer and the truck.  They finally looked up and saw us, they'd given up all hope of us making it back and Spot had delayed for quite a while around Hanford. We ended up landing 31 with a 15-20mph left crosswind.  Not the softest landing I've had but we got down safe and sound wrapping up what was essentially a 500k triangle with 20 minutes until sunset.  No valid turnpoints declared, but an awesome chance to fly for several hours with TG.

TG wasn't able to clear the ridge to Avenal and landed at Westlake.  NT also made Westlake.  Andy and Ethan helped us box up the Duo in the building winds.  Julie and I then headed out to collect NT and TG and bring them back to Avenal to spend the night.  We found them no problem, grabbed some dinner at In-n-Out about 9:00pm and had them at Avenal in the midst of a major dust storm by about 10pm.

Obligatory bad selfie of people eating
 I'd brought extra blankets and a sleeping bag just in case and turned the water heater on before heading out to pick them up.  They were planning showers and sleep and with 2T and 16 also at Avenal there was a plan for towing out in the morning.

We left after 10:30 to head home ourselves arriving home a bit after midnight and nearly a 16hr day.

Can't wait for the next one!

Additional Photos:

OLC Trace:  Did I mention that my logfile got split in two and the OLC trace isn't valid. :(


Unknown said...

Morgan, a great story!

17phoebus said...

Great story and pics to match. You should submit to the mag.
Paul Robinson AZ2

diesel smoke said...

I should have told the boss I was sick

Milton Hare said...

Wow - what an amazing flight in fantastic conditions. I spent many summers as kid in Sequoia and the surrounding mountains. Truly beautiful country - a lot like NZ. It sounds like you made some very good decisions and got back home as a nice reward. Thanks for the great write up - I really appreciate your effort. I used to do the same after my adventures and it isn't easy to do when you are tired after a long day.