“It’s just you and the elements. You’re trying to realize your own potential in a place where no one sees, and no one cares. There’s a purity in that.”
“It’s not the longest line, it’s not the records, really. It’s trying to find an aesthetic line to fly that’s personally inspiring.“–Bill Belcourt, from the film 500 Miles to Nowhere.
I was very tempted to call this post “Balls Deep” in honor of Tony Lang, who started this rather genital based thread after watching my Spot page and noticing that the flight track did in fact have quite a phallic outline. Of course that was not exactly what I set out to do. Coming off 7 straight days of flying some incredibly awesome tasks (including a 204 km send into the Palouse region of Eastern Washington, a place I’ve always wanted to see), but hardly crushing the US Nationals in Chelan I was in a bit of a funk. I’ve been flying a ton this spring and had high hopes to do well enough in the Nationals to maybe earn a spot on the Worlds Team, one of my goals this year. Considering my first comp was exactly two years ago at the Open in Chelan, in retrospect maybe my goals were a little too lofty. The reason I was in a funk was that I was actually taking something so ludicrous as paragliding so seriously. It was the first time since I started flying that I wasn’t over the moon every time I was in the air. Everyone around me was how I usually am- just thrilled to be flying, to be in the air, to be flying with your friends in perfect conditions. But I was making little mistakes each day and getting pissed that I wasn’t making better moves. And being aware of it made it even worse. I kept asking myself- “Gavin dude you love flying, just be happy to be here, to be flying! Who cares about winning?” But I guess all those years of ski racing and my competitive spirit are hard things to squash and the pressure of performing was eating me up.
As the week wound up and a great final showdown between Josh Cohn and Nick Greece to decide the National Champion was slated on the last day (Nick won- way to go brother!), yet another perfect day for flying I found myself dying to go home, to go fly in big pretty mountains by myself doing what I love without all the pressure of start time, race to goal, battles for position. My plan was to drive all night immediately after the awards ceremony as the forecast on Sunday looked epic for a big day in the Wood River Valley. But then Matty Senior and Trey and a few others mentioned that things looked equally epic in the North Cascades. I’ve spent only a tiny bit of time in the Cascades, back in my kayaking days. I remembered glaciated peaks, remote valley, mosquitoes the size of canaries, purple alpine lakes, no roads, and very very few people. The thought of flying there was thrilling, and given it was only an hour and a half versus 11 hours, the decision was easy.
The drive up the Methow valley was reward enough. I could have gone home then and washed away the comp woes and been totally renewed with just that. To realize I’d lived in Seattle all those years and never made it over there was a bit shocking. A reminder that we often work so hard to travel great distances to experience the world when the best kept secrets are right in your back yard.
Bill Morris gave us a short and sweet site brief that basically reaffirmed what you could see quite easily. Don’t land out, and there are very few places to land. Typically pilots follow the road up to Washington pass then turn around and come back. Once you leave the Methow there was apparently one bail-out meadow, and otherwise you would have to land on the road. “And what about flying out towards Stehekin?” I asked. Bill said that yes, you can do it, but there was no where to land. “It is REALLY, really deep out there.” And if you landed, mosquitoes would quickly take about 15 pounds of blood off you. Copy, let’s go flying!
I punched off Goat Mountain first and I only briefly saw a few other pilots in the first half hour of the flight and then I was alone. I was very keen to get in the air, it was clear we’d already missed a couple hours of good flying and I didn’t want to miss any more. I followed Bill’s advice- got up high over launch, then went on glide towards Tower Mountain north of Highway 20. There was lift everywhere and the winds were light. If I’d been in Europe I would have been thinking “Hammertag”. Bill was behind me somewhere and was asking where I was. I didn’t know the names of anything so I was saying things like “well I’m over these very spiny steep peaks with a lot of snow and it’s totally epic.” And he would reply that I needed to be a little more specific. The whole place is like that!
Off in the distance to my west I could clearly see Mt Baker and to the SW Glacier Peak, high frozen and proud on the spine of the Cascades. Between the two was a smaller top hat mountain covered in thick ice that seemed like a really good waypoint for a possible FAI triangle. I started thinking if I could hit that, then head up to Glacier Peak, then head home- that would be awfully cool. Above 12000 feet the air was smooth and other than getting some seriously rock and roll climbs here and there it was some of the smoothest mountain air I’ve ever flown in. Once I dove across the other side of highway 20 I could see things were getting serious. I split the difference between Black Peak and Mesachie peak and tried not to look down too much and just pressed on to the west towards my goal, Klawatti Peak. If I went down anywhere, it would be ugly.
The lines were incredibly lifty but as I got further and further into the big mountains and more snow I wasn’t getting the big climbs. I dove into Boston peak at ridge height level barely above the ground at 7,000 feet, still hoping I could get up and tag Klawatti. The track log in this bit is pretty interesting, it’s worth a look in Google Earth. Luckily there was enough wind out of the west that I was able to ridge soar in the lee long enough to work back around and out of the killing zone (what I was calling it in my head as it was clear I really needed to get out of here or I would be dead) to Park Creek Ridge where I got a boomer and made the decision to give up on Klawatti and head towards Glacier Peak.
I could see the end of Chelan Lake, and I knew Stehekin was there and I knew pilots had recently landed there. But I wasn’t ready to give up. The only problem was cirrus. A very thick blanket of high cloud was moving in from the south and threatened to shut down the day. If I pushed on, I could get trapped, but for the moment things were still working and I wasn’t ready to give up on my little tour.
So I headed south, not far off the spine of the Cascades. In fact several times I nearly carried on due west, thinking it would be awfully cool to fly across the Cascades, but with the westerly wind and with all the very big dense trees…
But the cirrus was making it too hard to get to Glacier. There were still big cumulus clouds, clearly it was still working but as I drove south towards Sentinal Peak I lost too much altitude and had to make a decision- go so deep and risk landing in…what? Or, try to make the jump to Stehekin while I still had a chance. I chose the latter, caught a weak but very necessary lee side climb in the valley to allow me to glide to Rimrock ridge and get on a west-facing slope, which I knew would work.
But it didn’t. I tried and tried to get a climb, and I could maintain the ridge by soaring the west wind, but nothing was pinging off. So I would get just enough height to clear the ridge and then jump east to the next one, knowing that there would eventually be a climb. But there never was. By the time I got to the third jump, a mountain called Tolo I was well below 5,000 feet and for the first time, getting pretty concerned. I could see Stehekin off in the distance, but I didn’t think I could get it on glide unless I found a very good line…but over a cascading river I thought that would be awfully unlikely. But I didn’t have any choice, I had to go somewhere. So I went for it.
The backside, in the lee was typical of lee conditions- spicy and unnerving. But it also felt warm…maybe I’d get a climb. And sure enough my vario and my brain started singing and I was suddenly in a drifting ratty but 3M/second climb and a very big smile on my face. And now with altitude again time to reassess. No way I wanted to land in Stehekin. I could make it now easily but then I’d have to take a 4 hour boat ride and then hitch back to my car. The logical thing to do would be to just fly back, but I hadn’t scored the FAI yet and if climbs were still working…there was more to be done. So off on glide again from 12,000 feet across the valley to the south where my phone was saying I needed to get to get the triangle. Pull out a roast beef sandwich, take some pictures, revel in the beauty. This was the place I needed to be. The magic of flight had fully returned, the healing powers of that constant battle of up and down hanging under a modified bedsheet and I was cured.
I couldn’t believe there were still climbs. The ground looked dark everywhere. The sky was a thick gray, but once I got across to the peaks again POW, another climb! Glorious fast climbs that started ratty and turned smooth, sending me to 12,000 feet and beyond. At the end of Chelan lake I got as high as I could, just over 4,000 meters and set off on glide home. The next hour was very hard work and sufficiently stressful but maybe the best end of flight I’ve ever had. Tiny, insignificant climbs of .2 meters a second would keep me alive. Wretched places to land and very long walks out were very motivating to stay in the air. I couldn’t tell how far I had to fly but it seemed like quite a distance. So I just took every little bit of warm air I could, tried to find the best glide and loftiest lines possible and eked along, frisbeeing very very slowly home. Eventually I got on top of Liberty Bell Mountain and right back over highway 20 and I knew that at least if I didn’t get back, I could land on the road. I could see cars and RV’s way down below me on the pass and it made me smile, knowing that while their view was spectacular, mine was heavenly.
In the end the glide back to the Methow was easy. The whole valley was booming in the strongest glass off I’ve ever flown. In fact it was terrifically hard to get down, even spiraling as hard as I could I could only get my vario to register a 5 M/sec descent! Eventually I did land. A couple friends/pilots had been following my spot track and were smiling as much as I was knowing what I’d seen and where I’d gone. Apparently no one has flown some of those areas. Like Bill said later that night- ignorance is bliss!
After I landed I reflected on something I’ve learned so many times you would think I wouldn’t have to anymore. Flying should always be as fun as those first sledders when you first learned. The joy and impossibility of what we do should always be the reason we do it. Always. But try as I might, I’m endlessly chasing bigger and bigger distance, bigger and bigger goals. Go a hundred miles, now you gotta go 150. Go 150, now you gotta go 200. Last summer when I went 240 miles ever since I now want even more. It’s a dangerous and stupid game. It’s a pursuit that is no different than some corporate asshole who wants a bigger house and a fancier car. Pursuits that make you no more happy, no more content. I don’t know a more profound joy than what I experienced on this magnificent day. Like Bill so eloquently said- it’s about finding an aesthetic line to fly that is personally inspiring.