Tales From The High Desert

Hang gliders on launch at Black Cap, overlooking Lakeview.  That's my Jeep in the background.

Hang gliders on launch at Black Cap, overlooking Lakeview. That's my Jeep in the background.

The Warner Range runs north-south through the center of Oregon, marking the beginning of the desert. To the west, the land is green. To the east, grassland gives way to bare earth, dry lakebeds, and the bones of dead mountains. Lakeview lies on the west side of the Warner’s, where life is still possible. It’s a remarkable town: a piece of Nineteenth Century America that has survived into the Twenty-First. It is also home to the Lakeview Festival of Free-Flight: a hang glider and paraglider fly-in that has been held every 4th of July since 1990. I’ve attended most of them, and they’re one of the high points of the year.

This year’s Festival did not start well. We arrived Friday to learn that a pilot was missing, caught by the gust front that blasted through the valley that afternoon. Search and Rescue was out, but it was growing dark, and there was cause for concern. They found him the next day, alive but badly injured. The word from the hospital sounded optimistic, but he could have some tough months ahead, so send him your best wishes.

With such a beginning to the weekend, we weren’t feeling very aggressive on Saturday. The consequences were predictable: we got a late start, chose the wrong site, spent the day waiting for good launch conditions, and never got to fly. Meanwhile the pilots who flew Hadley’s Butte, 30 miles to the north, had an epic day. One tries to be philosophical about such things, but philosophy only goes so far. Darn it.

Sunday dawned cloudless and unpromising. With a high pressure system building over the Western US, none of the local flying sites looked good. After looking at the forecast, shaking our heads, and cursing our luck, but we decided to give Hadley’s a try ourselves. If nothing else, it would be a change of scenery.

I’ve never been particularly fond of Hadley’s Butte. The view from launch is lifeless and barren, like the surface of Mars. Launch itself can be demanding, and the lift, on days it is present, can be hard to find. In eight trips to the place, I’d only flown it five times and gotten up twice. Those last two flights might have been awesome, but odds of 2 in 8 did not seem good. On this particular day conditions looked quite dead. I spent some time wondering whether to fly at all, then decided to fly my paraglider. If all I could hope for was a five minute sled ride, I wasn’t going to spend the hours it took to set up and break down a hang glider.

The gods watch… and take note… of decisions like these.

It took forever to sort out my lines, connect up my radio gear, and get my canopy ready. When it was my turn to launch, I mismanaged the brakes when I started my run, and my takeoff was not a thing of grace. Annoyed with myself, I bore right and began following the spine that lead down to the LZ. At least I was flying. And a five minute sled ride was better than no flight at all.

Moments later, my variometer started to beep.

I didn’t believe it, or course. At best, this was just a bubble thermal that would be gone in an instant. But there seemed nothing to lose, so I banked into the lift. A dozen or so turns and I was a 500’ feet above launch! Years of trying to stay up on crummy days – three of them at Hadley’s – have taught me a certain amount of cynicism, and there seemed no way this anomaly could last. Anticipating a flush cycle, I headed toward the LZ, only to encounter another thermal. And another. And another…

After 30 minute’s work, a bit of turbulence, and the occasional tip collapse, I was 1000’ up. To the north, the LZ had become irrelevant – it was clear that I would not be landing any time soon. Beyond it, the desert had acquired that strange beauty deserts have when seen from the air. Behind me, the butte rose in a series of steps toward high ground to the west. To the south, an obvious line of lift stretched across the plateau that lead to the town of Paisley.

I’d been here before, back in 1996. And I knew the route to the south, for I’d flown it two days in a row. That might have been in a hang glider, with much better performance than the wing I was on now, but there seemed no reason not give it a try. With a certain amount of glee – the same kind of glee a child might feel when setting out on a bike ride on Saturday morning – I turned south and headed cross-country.

Cross-country — XC — is thought by some to be the ultimate form of soaring flight. Leaving behind the security of the regular LZ, you set off into the unknown, hoping to find thermals along the way. If you succeed, spectacular flights are possible – the World Open Distance Record is well over 400 miles. If you fail, you have to pick a field, scout it for obstacles, set up your approach, and pull of a landing… on your very first try. Even after you’re down, the adventure isn’t over. Lose radio contact, land too far from a road, and you get to practice your wilderness survival skills. This can be serious business.

This particular day was slow going. It was the first time I’d gone cross country on a paraglider, so I flew conservatively, making sure I always had a safe route out of the hills. This might not have been a formula for covering distance, but it was most certainly a formula for fun. With no serious concerns about landing or retrieves, I was free to practice my thermalling technique, admire the scenery, and gloat at all the luckless pilots who were sinking out behind me. It was also a learning experience. Every move upwind toward safety re-impressed me with the fact that paragliders are slow!

At last I came to the crux of the route – a pair of ridges, cut by a deep river canyon, that I’d have to cross if I wanted to get past Paisley. It would have been easy with my hang glider, but with no real clue what it might be like with a paraglider, I was not about to risk going down in some truly nasty terrain. Tug on the left brake, turn west, and I was headed toward the flatlands and safety.

One makes these decisions with a certain amount of smugness. And with a groundspeed of less than 10 MPH, I had plenty of time to feel smug as I made my way out of the hills. I arrived over the road with 500’ of altitude and a keen appreciation of just how slow paragliders are in any kind of a headwind. This lack of speed makes them quite easy to land. Indeed, landing was fun!

There remained the wilderness survival part of the flight. I faced some serious challenges. I’d lost radio contact with my friends. I was at least 100’ from a well-traveled paved road. I only had a substantial supply of water. And the nearest town was almost two miles away! If no one stopped to give me a ride, it might be a 30 minute walk to the nearest place I could find cold drinks and ice cream! Times like these can try men’s souls… though I must admit they don’t try them very hard :)

That was not the end of the story, of course. We stayed one more day, headed to one more sight, and I got one more flight, which was as dreadful as it was short. But it’s the good flights that count, and it’s the good one I’ll remember.

That ice cream was good too…

One Response to “Tales From The High Desert”

  1. Kona says:

    Beautiful! I’ve been sharing your experiences with my family and friends, who also find the hobby fascinating but not tempting, lol!

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