Owens 2006!by Don'real men'Burns
It was that time of the year, the second week in July, the week we practice for at Mission Peak, the week we buy all of our gear for, the week we even make vehicle, vehicle accessory and equipment puchase decisions for the rest of the year: the week in the Owens Valley.
I missed last year and that sucked. This year I cancelled all trade shows and committments that might have distracted me from participating in the one week that makes the rest of the year of work and living in crowded suburbia tolerable. Well, the week is over and this is the report. The flying weren't stellar but the week was awesome.
We ended up with just one truck this year. The crew: Dave Yount, Rick Devlin, Paul Clayton and yours truly, Don Burns. We were to meet Rick Rickles in Bishop on Saturday who was to join us for two days. We were also to meet with the Fresno boys in Bishop. It was Dave's year to beat his truck up and beat it up we did. We appreciate takin' one for the team, Dave. I'll be sportin' a new FJ Cruiser next year (Dave's best compliment about the FJ Cruiser: "That vehicle doesn't have anything 'soccer-mom' about it" ).
We drove our usual route through the Sonora Pass, but our usual campsite was unreachable due to snow banks that had not yet melted. We usually camp at 9000 feet to get acclimated for the week of high-altitude flying. We found another nice spot and settled in to watch God's TV, which has a 360 degree screen and surround sound. Somehow we did not bore of the same program all night and the next day as well. It is, well... just beautiful there.
We headed out the next morning, stopping in Bridgeport to get some coffee, but pushing on to Bishop with visions of flights in the Whites playing in our heads. However, as we approached we noticed that by 10 AM it was already looking over-developed over the Whites. By the time we got to Bishop, we looked up at the black towering thunderheads over White Mountain as well as the clouds over the Sierra's starting to look black and decided this was not a flying day.
The normal course of action here was to find a place to explore. This was Dave and Rick's 20th year coming to the Owens (and about my 12th), and try as the may, they have still not exhausted all the places to explore in this 100 mile long valley. Every year has at least a day or two that are unflyable resulting in an exploration trip. We've repeated very few.
Today we wanted to find a road up to Coyote Flats and explore there. Although Rick and Dave had been there, Paul and I had only overflown it in the past. Its always amazing to walk around on territory you've flown over. I am constantly amazed at the difference in perceptive scale that flying gives us.
Dave dialed in Coyote Flats on his nifty new GPS unit, which was equipped with a female voice which gave us directions. When we headed out, "she" kept tell us to turn around and go a different way. We quickly began to come up with creative and interesting names to call "her". Of course, it turnes out later that she was right. All of us having been well trained by our wives, apologized for being male chauvinist pigs and promised we would listen next time.
However, our "mistake" put us in a beautiful valley to which we set out on a three hour hike. Not bad. The weather confirmed our decision to not fly by raining on us in the later afternoon. Bishop got rained on pretty hard as well and we were thankful that we had put the rain flap on the tent.
The Fresno group was at camp in Bishop: Steve (who actually drove in from Utah), Larry F. and Jim O. Rick and Dave met Larry on their third trip to the Owens, at which time he introduced them to Keogh Hot Springs. One day at Keogh, Larry birthed a "gang" he calls the Tarantulas and proceeded to draft everyone into it. Each year, as new members showed up, we were all initiated into the gang and each of us was given a Trantula name. There were rules about how you got your name (you could not pick your own and it had to be personally degrading), and there were rules about Tarantula leadership (determined in the shower, with Larry as the self appointed inspector - which must mean something about Larry, but I'm not sure what).
Anyway, several years ago we all started landing near and beyond Gabbs, Nevada . It turns out that the high-school in Gabbs has the tarantula as its mascot. So we also made up a rule that to maintain membership in the Tarantulas you had to fly "home" to Gabbs within 5 years. Larry has yet to make it, and we are never short in reminding him of it.
I smelled another OD'ed day so I quickly volunteered to be driver that day before anyone else could open their mouth to say anything. I unloaded my glider and gear to make room for the 5th passenger, Rick Rickles who had showed up in the night: a mistake I learned not to commit later.
We drove South and got to launch early enough, but clouds were already beginning to form. As a good driver, with no responsibilities during set up and flight preparation time, I started pushing everyone to get off the hill as soon as possible. Dave and Rick decided to bag it despite my appeals, making me wish I had not left my glider back at camp.
Larry Fleming was the dummy (er... wind dummy) and immediately got high over the peak just past the saddle. Rick R, Jim and Paul followed. However, any attempts to go North resulted in turning back. Paul took the day by landing at the North end of the Alabamas. Rick landed just two miles short.
With the afternoon ahead of us, we decided to head down to "Fossil Falls" . We picked up Cole from Southern California, a good friend of Rick Rickles, and all headed to this really cool site. Lava falls is a place where the Owens river used to run (many eons ago) and it washed over a lava bed forming it into unusual shapes. We spent the afternoon exploring and playing with Rick Rickles' sling.
Rick brought along these roller skates on steriods that looked more like short skis with wheels. After a couple of beers, Rick asked Dave to tow him around the dirt roads behind the Land Cruiser. Dave complied and Rick gave us a show, actually staying upright most of the time. Very entertaining.
Having seen the trend the last few days, we decided that our best bet for flying would probably be the Whites. They seemed to be getting the latest over-development of all the surrounding mountains. The Sierras were OD'ing early as expected with granite wall thermals starting early, and over development seemed to start at Boundary peak in the Whites. Piute launch . was the ticket.
We headed up the hill around 11:30 stopping for drinks and gas first. Paul was driving today. The Fresno boys had gone to Horseshoe . I guess our group learned last year that the best way to work with the Fresno boys was to let them do their thing and we do our thing. Previous years had resulted in some tension with our trying to coordinate everyone together. Anyway, on this day, we won.
I am flying a brand new Wills Wing T2 this year. I picked the glider up just a week before the Owens and had ony two (short) flights on it before heading for the Owens. The fact that I had no problem dialing into it made me feel comfortable being in a brand new glider in the famous Owens Valley turbulence.
I launched around 3 PM and the rest followed close after. I found the lift to be pretty good (1000 fpm) so I decided to test the T2's capabilities in big air by climbing as fast as I could and racing between thermals. Cloud base was at about 16,500 this day and as soon as I smelled clouds I pulled on the VG and pointed the nose at Boundary. I stopped once to thermal at White and then pulled in again, porpoise flying all the way to Boundary .
OK, it was decision time. The Ricks where somewhere near White . at altitude, but Dave was struggling to stay up. I looked deep into Nevada and saw that it was mostly black. Even Tonopah looked like it would OD within the hour. Then I looked up and saw Boundary starting to OD as well. I announced on the radio that the decision for the day was to stay on the Whites, pulled on my string and headed South. I got back to White, and got a visual on Rick R, thermalled up and (sorry buddy) left him in the dust. I made the round trip from Piute to Boundary and back in less than 1.5 hours. I had never flown this fast before. I was truly pleased with my new glider.
Dave landed out South of Bishop somewhere ("the third street left of the South of the first tree near Bishop's last paved road with ducks walking down it" or something like that). Rick landed somewhere else, trying to find Dave.
I hung in the light lift just South of Piute, with Rick R trying to catch up from behind. As the lift started to form again, I decided to make my way down to Black. about 3 miles before getting there I thermalled to cloud base again, and easily made it over the peak of Black Mountain at about 16,000 ft. I then headed out into the Valley and cruised up, trying to decide to find Dave, Rick D, or just make my own landing spot. I had plenty of time.
Turns out, Rick R landed next to the Owens river near Line road (near the Bishop airport) . . The thought of jumping into the cold water from the blazing hot Owens Valley temperatures after break down coaxed me into the decision to land there. 'Course I was at 10,000 feet though and I wasn't sure how to get down. I had decided that I was not going to loop my new glider so that the sail would stay nice and tight. It was an exercise in patience and discipline, much like the diet I was trying to stay on (but that's another story).
Eventually I landed and we broke down and took a swim in the cold river as the rest of the crew showed up in the Land Cruiser.
We said our good-byes to Rick Rickles, who headed home that night but not after seeing "Pirates of the Caribbean" at the movie theater in Bishop.
I woke up charged up to fly. The anxiety of not flying on Sunday, followed by the promising performance test of the T2 the next day had me ready. We figured that yesterday had improved over the day before and today would improve even more, so the Sierras should be quite doable. We headed for Horseshoe.
On the way up to launch we had seen a South wind when we stopped to check at the point (on the road). Consequently, I kept interpreting the wind at launch as being strong South and was very leary about flying that day. Then Rick D, who was driving today, pointed out that it was "perfect, get going!" with the same urgency that I had had a couple of days earlier, trying to get people off the hill as a driver. Sure enough, the wind I was interpreting as a South wind from the streamers above launch, was actually coming straight in. I've got to start wearing my glasses more.
Anyway, this put me in a panic to get off the hill. Unfortunately, somehow my brand new radio had ended up in Rick R's equipment (I was to find out later) and I was being delayed while getting Rick D's equipment working with my set up. Rick was very kind in lending me his radio equipment, which turned out to work great.
I launched about 11:30, which is quite late for a Horseshoe launch. However, based on the speeds I was flying the day before and the fact that I would have a South tailwind today, I figured I would probably make the crossing at a reasonable time and not get into the Whites too early. I launched and went right to 13,000 and turned North, flying fast.
I was able to maintain between 12,000 and 15,000 most of the way down the Sierras, arriving at the crossing a little after 1 PM. I chose a somewhat unusual place to cross, based on the cloud streets that were forming. At Cardinal Mountain , the peak just South of Tinemaha, , I climbed up to the ridge and worked my way North deep and high until I was North of Birch , , then followed the East side of Coyote flats, all the way up to Keogh hot springs , , where I flew across, just South of Bishop, pointing right at Flynns .
The others followed me off of launch, but as far as I know, the all landed well before Bishop, something I can't explain, as the lift seemed really reliable. (well, it _was_ turbulent, but you know, that's the price you pay for a good day).
It only took me a couple of thermals drifting along in front of the Whites to get up again from 8000 feet. I found myself again at 15,500 above Piute . at about 2 PM. The Whites were nasty trubulent and I wanted to be in them as little as possible. I stopped to thermal at White Mountain . and topped the thermal at cloud base, 17,000 feet. I did not stop to thermal from there to Boundary flying with the base tube around my belly-button and arrived at Boundary . at 14,000 feet. There was a great cloud forming directly over Montgomery pass . at 14,000 feet. , so I chose to bypass the usual altitude gain at Boundary and fly directly into the lift under that cloud. It was nice to leave the Whites.
About half way toward the pass I got 1000 up and flew to cloud base. I crossed the pass flying the bottom of the cloud until I was just North of Basalt. The edge of the cloud started to hail on me.
There is a large cinder cone about 13 miles North of Basalt along highway 360 . Historically, we've always found that it never had any lift and the advice we've developed over the years is to fly West of it with a bee line toward Luning. . But today, it had a well shaped cumulus cloud over it and I believed today to be the exception.
It wasn't. After experiencing 600 fpm sink over a black mountain on a hot day with a large cumulus cloud over it, I have come to the conclusion that the mountain contains a secret government deposit of alien spacecraft which suck energy directly from the air above it. I found myself North of this mountain at 8000 feet (ground is about 5500) and feeling destined to land.
On a hunch I dove into what seemed like unlandable, or at least, long-retrievable territory and started scratching a burro fart (the area is known for having a wild burro herd, left from the mining days of yore). This turned into a 1500 fpm skyhook that introduced me once again to Mr. Cloudbase at 15,500 ft. I radioed my chase crew, awaiting my landing fate, "I've got Luning on a glide".
This was an underestimation of the T2's glide. I passed Luning at 11,000 feet and headed for the pass toward home: Gabbs. Hm... the clouds over Gabbs were starting to over develop and the clouds just to the West were also starting to overdevelop. I started racing to try and beat the shadow that was beginnig to cover the ground below me. There was a good cloud street forming to the East so I'd try to reach that.
Nope. I got low just beyond the Luning pass. Picked out a field to land in and accepted my fate. . The air was bumpy and headwind turned to still, hot air on final, so I came in fast and fell on my belly during the flare. Now, this flight took about 5 hours, which meant that my bladder was full. Landing on my parachute with a full bladder made me acutely aware of a danger I would never considered otherwise. For a couple of minutes I thought I was hurt internally, but with a bit of time it passed and I was able to successfully and normally empty the ole bladder.
OK, landing was at 4:25 PM at 150 miles. That is an average of 30 mph, which is really, really fast in Owens Valley flying. This also puts the 250 mile goal into the realm of possiblity as there is still a good three hours of flying left when the sky is not over-developing.
My crew picked me up and we were able to get back to Bishop with the sun still up and have our choice of restaurants to eat dinner at. Normally, a flight of 150 miles would put us back in town with the only choice for dinner being 24 hour Denny's. A soak that evening in the Keogh hot springs while we watched a full moon come up over the Westgard pass topped the day off perfectly.
I really, really like my new T2.
I think the rest of the crew was hoping for a continuation in the trend for a slightly less intimidating day and good conditions for distance today. Me... well I was pretty satisfied with yesterday's flight and had tired arms to boot so I volunteered to drive. However, I did keep my glider loaded on the truck this time.
The day turned out to be quite stable without a cloud in the sky. Still, the crew was optimistic and I was rooting for them. I love a good chase.
However, today was not the day. Dave made a spot on the aluvial fan below Whitney portal . His landing spot indicated a valiant effort to stay in the air. Paul made the Manzanar airport - yes, Manzanar has an airport with 'X's painted down the middle of an asphalt runway you could land a 777 on (the X's means its out of commission - Don't land here!).
But Rick took the day. Not only did he fly the furthest, but he set a new record - kind of a like slow-bike competition - making Big Ears in four hours.
We took the opportunity to climb around some of the Big Ears antennas (the one's we could get close to) and then found a place we could jump into the Owens River from a bridge and float down a couple of hundred yards, get out and do it again.
This was movie night #2. We watched Superman (because, you know, he flies a little like us). I never realized what a stalker Superman was.
We decided that Horseshoe is done with for the week and head for the Whites. By the way, it counts to make Gabbs from Piute - it doesn't have to be a 170 mile flight, just a long flight into Nevada - or more specifically, a flight to the home of the Tarantulas, which starts somewhere in the Owens Valley.
I'm flying again, and this time I'm borrowing a retired headset of Rick's and one of my back-up radios. I determine not to be the first one off. The Fresno boys joined us that day and Larry was the first one off. Ah... I was really looking forward to chasing him down.
I launched late, second to last, just before Rick. We both got low and Rick found the thermal that got me up. Unfortunately, it didn't get him up, for which I felt bad, but at least he got up later and didn't end up on the ground.
On the way down the hill, Dave got a flat. Now, at this point I must say that an initial inspection of Dave's tires at the begining of the week made this incidence quite predictable. However, one of the unspoken rules here is that the guy who is offering his vehicle to be beat up always gets the benefit of the doubt. Well, Dave was driving and was the one who took the brunt of it so I have nothing to say except thanks. Changing a tire on the road down from Piute is one of the most dangerous activities you can participate in when hang-gliding in the Owens Valley.
Well, I was up and on the move. However, everytime I transmitted I got replies like, "Has anyone heard from Don?", "Don, please give your altitude and position", "Can't understand you, Don". Radio trouble in the Owens is just no fun. I was able to manage an occassional transmission that was slightly understood by pulling my spare radio out of my side pocket in my harness and transmitting with that.
I caught up to Paul at the North end of Pellisier Flats, just before Boundary, I got a bit low. Once back up, however, I looked into Nevada, which looked inverted and like a lot of work, and considered my radio and decided I would land at Janie's ranch. I did get to 17,000 at Boundary, however and probably had the best chance of anyone at making distance in Nevada, but just couldn't muster up the chase in me.
I got to Janie's at 13,000 and patiently worked my way down. In the meantime Dave had gotten into Bishop, bought a replacement tire and was chasing us. He made it to Janie's in enough time to give me a good assessment of the wind. I made a good landing in light to no wind. We broke down and proceeded to chase Paul and Rick.
Rick landed in a field that I assessed to be the best definition for "Squeeking it over the pass", with just enough room to misjudge the direction of the wind, land downwind and still pull off a good landing. Rick's intensive crash course on landing in the wake of an F-18 from two years ago has paid off well.
Paul worked hard into territory he had not been to before. You could tell that he had "Gabbs determination" . on his mind. We chased him past Mina and Luning and up into the Luning pass. Paul ended up landing very close to the same landing spot I had landed in on Tuesday, but landing in the opposite direction in a stiff headwind.
Yep, Paul is in his second year as a Tarantula and starting to feel the pressure of getting home. This was a valiant effort, shot down, not by talent, but by headwind. I am confident that Paul will join us sitting on the judgement seat for Larry's court appearance defending his membership in the Tarantulas.
We made dinner back in Bishop again, but barely. The Thai place was nice enough to accept us in 30 seconds before closing and feed us all, including the Fresno boys.
Discouraged with my radio problems I opt to drive today. I also seemed to have picked up a turn in my glider that concerns me and I'd like to spend a bit of time at home tuning and inspecting to see what's up. Anyway, 150 miles is going to be hard to top and I'm feeling quite satisfied with the flying week and am happy to try and get a good chase in.
Dave agrees to let me drive and even allows me to get a flat, as long as its coming down the road at Piute, not going up. OK. If you are driver, Dave gives you the key at the beginning of the day so you get to drive up the hill as well as down.
Going around one of the steep curves filled with sharp shale, I feel that the vehicle is not quite pulling as it should. Sure enough, as if we had been jinxed by the joke, we had a flat. Now, we are about a 1/3 of the way up the mountain and on a bit of a slope. Still we manage to get the tire changed. What, then, would be the logical next step in the sequence of events for a group of hang-glider pilots climbing a hill with a road famous for causing flats with no spare tire? Continue up, of course, its time to fly!
Once back in the car, wiping the grease from his hands with an oily rag, Dave looks over and says, "I thought I clearly stated that you could get the flat on the way down!".
The Fresno boys joined us today, so there were two vehicles on launch. This allowed me to get an early start down the hill, since one vehicle could remain on launch until the last pilot had launched. So, once everyone cleared me and assured me that they had their stuff, I started the engine. Rick, who had been setting up on the lee side of the vehicle to avoid dust devils, picked up his glider to move it out of the way of the path of the truck, then threw it at me!
Well, it turns out that Rick was no where near the glider. It has been lifted by a dust devil and flipped over on top of the front of the truck. The front rack tore a rip in the top surface. We were concerned about the cross bar as well, but it looked like it just scratched it. A little duct tape to patch up the hole and Rick was ready to roll.
Back in Bishop I pulled in to the same tire store Dave had bought the used tire a the day before. The owner looked at me and said, "I got another one just like the one you bought yesterday.... Where are you going anyway?".
Like an Indy pit stop, I was rolling on a replacement tire (just like the other one) and fresh ice in the cooler within ten minutes. I caught up to the crew already in the air at Janie's. Dave had a bout of airsickness and put down at the ranch. We packed him up and chased Paul and Rick into Nevada - Deja Vu all over again.
Paul and Rick got stuck on the North side of something we are calling "Dust devil valley" for obvious reasons, but which Google Earth calls Teels Marsh . Dave and I drove down highway 360, then off on a dirt road that leads to the North side of the valley. Paul and Rick were having a struggle getting up (and Rick actually announced that he was landing in dust devil valley at some point, which he didn't), so Dave and I decided to explore an old mining ghost town. It was not actually a true ghost town as there were a couple of current residents there. But it was interesting and we picked up a few souvenirs.
Rick and Paul got just high enough to dive into the valley behind Dust Devil Valley and land close to a dry lake bed in something we called Jackass flats (Google Earth calls it Garfield flats). . I'm really glad they landed there as this is an area I've flown over a number of times and wanted to explore from the ground.
We had to drive all the way around, back to 360, over to Mina junction, . up to Mina and find a road out of Mina to get there. But the drive went fast enough for us to get there before they broke down. The place was quiet, distant, devoid of any human presence and awesome. After breaking down, we took a driv over to the dry lake bed, only to find out that it was surrounded by a barbed wire fence, with signs warning against entry. Evidently, this is somewhere where the military blows things up. We now know not to land on the lake, if for no other reason than we can't get over the fence. You'd never know it from the air, however.
We were not going to make it back to Bishop for dinner this night. However, we did have an interesting evening. First we had dinner in Mina at its only restaurant. A list of specials on a white board included spaghetti, which I inquired about. The attendant there said that the only thing left was the "special", or "fish and chips". "That's all?" I responded. So, he gave us menus and said, "Well, here's the menu, but the only thing I have is fish and chips".
"OK..., four fish and chips, please". Actually, they weren't bad. I've had worse in Silicon Valley.
Now, Mina is a little bitty town in the middle of the Nevada desert. However, about three miles (actually, the T-shirt says 2.5 miles) from Mina is another town called Soda Springs. However, Soda Springs is home to two, evidently, thriving businesses, one named "Wildkat Ranch" and the other "Playmate Ranch". In fact, this is pretty much all there is in Sodaville, except for one other fellow who claims that lobsters are illegal in Nevada. The population of Sodaville varies dramatically by the hour (measureable in hourly increments, in fact).
(update - I was forwarded this link explaining the Lobster sign: http://www.klas-tv.com/Global/story.asp?S=1357624)
So, what is the logical thing for a group of guys who have been in the desert for a week away from their wives to do? Well, of course, we went right up to the door and announced that we'd like to buy our wives some T-shirts. And that we did. Actually, Dave had told his wife earlier in the day that he was going to do this and her response was, "I prefer a V-neck". When I told my wife that I had bought her a t-shirt from the "Wildkat ranch", her reaction was, "What did you get me a T-Shirt for? I already have a pile of them and have no where to put a new one!".
This is our last day in the Owens for this trip. We like to get back on Saturday so that we have Sunday to be shocked back into the reality of daily life. Normally, our course of action is to make it a flying day and set goal as "home". If we fly from Horseshoe we stay on the Sierras. If we fly from Piute, we go West from Boundary. In either case, the first turn point is Lee Vining (Mono Lake), where we then cross the Sierras over Yosemite National Park, then skip across the Central Valley, into Silicon Valley and each land at a park of our choosing near our respective houses. Nobody's actually made it past Lee Vining.
Today, however, we look at the sky, which is beginning to overcast by smoke from places where California is on fire. We've all experienced trying to fly in these conditions before, so we decide that we miss our families a lot and need to just head home.
Before doing so, though, Paul shows true Tarantula character by slapping a "Wildkat Ranch" bumper sticker on Larry's truck (Larry is a school teacher and this is the truck he drives to work).
We opt for the route through Yosemite, with the intention of having a nice lunch at a choice spot near Tuolumne meadows. However, Upon arrival at our parking area we run into Larry and Jim on their way back to Fresno. Of course, we deny all knowledge of any bumper sticker and assure Larry that the girls at Wildkat must have thought a lot of him to treat him to a bumper sticker (Larry had been at the Wildkat ranch as well the day before).
Our lunch spot was as awesome as ever. This year there was a lot of snow and the water run-off is high. The Owens Valley was full of swamps and greener than we'd ever seen it. Also the "ditch" at Tuolumne meadows was a full flowing river this year. So, the falls at our lunch spot were rushing rapids. It is about a 15 minute hike from the road to this spot and worth every step.
After the rest of the drive home, we took a quick dip in Dave and Debbie's pool to cap off a perfect week.
Personally, I'm renewed. I've licked some health problems that I've had over the past few years this year and am feeling more like my old self. This trip to the Owens has renewed my vigor for flying and also given me a great break from the daily pressures of work and responsibilities.
Many thanks to my flying buds. I hope there's 20 more yearly trips to the Owens (at least).