We got to Mike Pfau’s house at 0330. I was the copilot on the drive home, whose job it is to be looking for the many big animals that regularly wander across our western roads, but I’d failed horribly the last hour, my head refusing to stay horizontal. I should have gone straight to bed, but I was desperate to upload my flight from the day and see if I’d beaten the current Idaho state record that Nate set last summer of 319 km’s. I pressed submit on XContest, waited a minute and there was my flight- 321 km’s! I’d gotten it by two kilometers, and was just 10 km short of the National Record that Nick Greece set last summer from Jackson Hole. I put a post on f%$@book and went to bed ecstatic.
Mike woke me up a few hours later and I mentioned I had the record. “Um, yeah well I’m pretty sure you don’t. Nate saw your post, you went 311 km, not 321.” I keyed the flight up and sure enough- I’d always thought the key measure was what XContest gives you, but of course out in the Wild West they measure distance by straight line from launch, which was 311, and XContest measures it with the turnpoints, which gave me a bit extra- 321. Close, but the proverbial no cigar. But I had beaten my previous record from just last week on the flight down the Continental Divide by over 50 km. This was developing into a good week of flying.
And it wasn’t over.
Mike lives in Hailey and we groggily got in his truck and headed up to Ketchum, a short drive of 12 miles where I planned to get in my truck and go home and go to bed. But on the way up he calls Matt Beechinor, who is on launch with another local pilot Mitch Riley and says he’s going to fly to Montana! The weather looks great. So much for bed. Mike lends me an oxygen tank as I’d burned mine up the day before, I race to the store to get a sandwich and a healthy dose of Red Bull and stomped on it to the Gondola. We have a tiny launch window from our site on Bald Mountain and if I didn’t get off soon, the window would slam shut.
Matt radios that he’s heading to get his car and will take chase. God I owe these guys. Thank you dude!!!!
My deep line in the Boulders isn’t working out, I’m losing too much height and there’s too much wind to be low today- I need to stay high. So I head a bit more southerly and toy with the edge of the cloud street, which is a bit gray and menacing for my likes, but I need lift. Soon enough I’m diving away from the clouds as I race past 17,000 feet in huge climbs without turning. I don’t want to go above 18,000, the maximum legal height we can fly without infringing air space and I try as hard as I can to find sink but keep exploding skywards so I dive into a deep spiral and watch my barometric height and GPS height. One of them registers a couple hundred feet too high. The other stays below. I can’t remember which is the one the authorities would look at. But regardless, I’ll have to be more careful.
As I tick over the 100 km mark gliding into the Lemhi’s it crosses my mind that it’s very early, still well before 1 pm and I’ve got a lot of hours in the day. If I can stay in front of the OD to my south, well- this has the potential to be a huge day.
And then things got scary. Ok…horrifying.
As I swooped onto the windward, sunny side of the Lemhi’s I had a few hundred meters over the top of the ridge. A nice margin. But with the strong wind pushing me into the mountains I was reticent to just drive over the top, where I knew strong lift would be…because if it wasn’t there I’d be in horrible lee conditions. So I got to the ridge and turned left, thinking I could just soar over the top of the ridge line and catch something to get up higher before committing to the back side. But there was nothing there. I was over a massive sunny face and a great collection zone for thermal development, but with all the wind the lift was definitely to my right- over the back. As my elevation got worse and worse, the conditions over the back would be worse and worse. Stay on the ridge (SAFE), and potentially have to land (unlikely, but I’m not patient and I didn’t want to try to scratch in this wind) or dive over the back, take a beating but probably find a ripper and get the hell out of here?
I dove over the back. And got my ass thoroughly kicked. Immediately my sink rate plummets to -8 meters per second. In that kind of sink it’s pretty hard to even steer. And my wing was like holding onto the horns of a bucking bronco. Pitching and diving violently. I must have looked like a drunk juggler snapping the brakes around through their full range of motion to keep the wing overhead, but overhead she stayed. The terrain was steep- I still had plenty of height, all I had to do was hold it together and get out of the rotor, but I was losing height at a dizzying (literally) speed, and the landing options were desperate. The canyon I was “flying” bent around to the south and the windward side had areas of grass and tall trees. The canyon was steep and tight and bent like a hook knife. In short, a horrible place to be. But the west wind would be hitting that south facing slope and it would be messy, but if I could get there I could very likely ping out…or if needed, potentially land without killing myself.
If you look at the track log in Google Earth it shows one place where I’m 8 m over the ground. Another where I was 15 m. It felt like I was down there forever, but the log confirms it was just over 13 minutes. Still a long time to take a beating. There were a few times I was below and behind the tops of the trees rehearsing a mental landing by yanking down the B lines on one side so I didn’t get yanked over the top of the ridge as soon as I hit the deck. This was way too much wind to be dealing with down here. At that point I weighed the risk of landing vs a few more minutes of getting thrashed but potentially getting out. Which is in itself unique for me. Sometime in my recent flying history I stopped thinking about landing. I believe in the zen Bill Belcourt, a mentor to every cross country pilot in the US- who says if you want to go far, you’ve got to “BRING IT” when it gets bad, you HAVE to believe you’re going to get up. You have to NOT think about landing. So I continued to surf the trees. Thermals were ripping off all over the place, but I couldn’t grab enough of one to get high enough to make a turn.
Then I saw a few birds at the top of the ridge circling tight and climbing fast. I crabbed over in their direction and went straight up- no turns, full speed bar. Straight up. Finally I had enough height to make a hard banked turn, then another, then another. And I was high enough to dive again into the lee but with a lot more room to work. You can see from the track log above that I still had some work to do, but flying with a bit of height downwind towards the valley it was easy to see that there would be huge lift somewhere.
Never in my life have I experienced such sustained strong climbs- and such sustained strong sink. The flying, as long as I was high was pure magic. Magnificent. Again and again I’d feel that tell tale sign that a very, very strong thermal was near. The wing feels strange, loud strong whooshes of wind coming from odd directions and then BOOM, the vario would scream. 4…5…6…7+ Meters per second on the averager (1400 feet per minute). Hold it, hold it, hold it, and NOW- bank hard and get up over that wing tip and hang onto the core with everything you’ve got. Oh, it’s a sweet feeling! Watching your altitude dial up- 12 thousands, 14 thousand, 16 thousand, oh boy it’s getting cold now! 17,000 and exit and skip to the next cloud that is just building to the east. I start to feel perfectly in sync. I feel like a race car driver, looking farther and farther ahead knowing exactly where the climbs will be when I get there. I start to think about Chrigel who is on this day crushing the Red Bull Xalps and how he never turns. So I don’t turn. Find the lifty lines, concentrate on the gliding. The climbs are a peace of cake. Just keep going fast.
And I’m going very fast. I’m averaging well over 50 km/hour. At 4 hours in I’m over 200 km from take off and it’s only 3 pm. At least 5 more hours to fly. The numbers make my head spin. If I can stay in the air, I might go over 500 kilometers, which wouldn’t just beat the record, but shatter it by 170 km’s! 100 miles.
But these thoughts are a distraction. Just fly well, be safe, stay in the air, have fun. FOCUS. I feel the lack of sleep everywhere in my body, but for some reason it’s working. It’s taking the edge off things. The wing and my harness and my gear and my body are all beating as one. Matt Beechinor calls this the Alien world. When we’re up high for so long dealing with so much craziness that we become alien to ourselves and we enter another realm. It sounds crazy, but it’s the best way I know how to explain how we feel up there.
I feel dialed. Tuned in. I huck over the top of the Beaverhead range, get a little low, can’t get out of impressively consistent sink then get into a combat climb that makes my ears pop and snaps my wing around like a bullfighter’s cape and it just ain’t no thang. Easy. I’ve got this move!
I reflect on flying. It’s this mad emotional rollercoaster between heaven and hell. Heaven when you’re high- the world is filled with endless possibilities. It’s easy, it’s fun, it’s relaxing. And a few minutes later you’re in hell. It’s hot, the ground is near, your day might be over, fuck fuck FUCK! The pendulum just keeps swinging, and sometimes, like on days like this, it’s an awful lot more swing than I’d like, but holy mother of goodness wowness radness am I having fun!
I soar past the town of Butte at cloudbase, nearly 18,000 feet. No need for turns. I want to put some north into my track but the west wind is too strong. Ahead is sunny and more cloud streets, but to my south is a wall of growing gray. But I can’t run from it. I’m facing NE, crabbing as hard as I can but the ferry angle isn’t working, I’m tracking ESE. I have to fall off my planned line for another range of mountains to the south, but they have been in the shade for a long time. I’m hoping it will work enough that I can keep running, but again I find magnetically charged sink and I’m down near the deck. Minutes before I was going to beat the distance record easily, I just needed another half hour in the air, maybe less. One easy glide. And suddenly I’m surfing the windy side of a low ridge 50 meters off the deck and I’m 314 kilometers from launch. 5 km short of the Idaho record. I AM NOT GOING DOWN! I scream it over and over. Switch gears. Slow down. Take it easy. Be patient. I surf and surf and surf on the terrain and it’s a zero sum game. I’m not going up, I’m not going down. Just hang on, something might go your way. Stay in the game.
And it does. The sun reappears and all that heat laying in the valley just triggers instantly and POW I’m back up near base, 16,000 feet and climbing. I link onto the Elkhorn mountains and fly dead straight in a 4 meter climb for a long enough time to take photos, eat some food, take a pee, and have a good long look around. Lift is EVERYWHERE and it’s smooth and easy. It isn’t even 6 pm, there’s maybe 3 solid hours of good flying left but out in front I see a very large lake and right beside me I’ve got a wall of Virga and an ocean of dark clouds. I try to go north but my speed winds down to nearly zero. My option is east or south directly into the nastiness. I carry on east, but by the time I push off the end of the Elkhorns and leave Helena to the NW I’ve got nowhere to go.
So I milk the final few kilometers, clear the highway and go as far as I possibly can without landing in Canyon Ferry Lake, which is like an impenetrable wall that I cannot cross. There is a boat launch and campground on the edge of the western shore and a bunch of people milling about so I do a little air show and wave and land 7 hours and 30 minutes after I’d launched. Not a particularly long flight, I would have loved to keep going, but I’m deeply satisfied. I stand there for a moment and the alien world clings on for a long time. I can’t move. I’m exhausted but I feel really, really good. Some kind of drug has entered my body and I don’t want it to leave. My Flytec says I’m 387 km’s (240 miles) from launch. I’ve done it. Holy hell.
Eventually I snap out of it and pack my stuff, take some silly photos and wander off to see the people I’d flown over. They are 40 folks from the Helena Mental Health Facility. Louisiana Bob offers me a burger and cooks it over a fire while all the time throwing big handfuls of plastic directly under the meat while telling me about all the times he’s been incarcerated. I tell them all I’ve just flown here from Sun Valley, Idaho. I’m not sure this really gets through, but they are certainly enthusiastic and incredibly hospitable. As usual when you fly somewhere way out in the middle of nowhere, the adventure doesn’t stop when you land.
An hour later Matt blasts down the gravel road and ebrakes it like a rally driver and does a fast 180, spraying rocks all over the place. He’s been driving 100 miles an hour all day and has finally caught up. He’s got a cooler full of cold beer and a huge smile that is second only to mine. Nate said I was a “retrieve menace” yesterday, I am now officially a full on retrieve nightmare.
We drive a few hours to Butte, Montana looking for a place to celebrate but on a Monday evening all we can find is a very odd place with a few weirdos singing Karaoke German Death Metal. We wisely give up on the party and crash in a clean hotel and make the long march home the next day. In total, Matt puts 840 miles on his car, about a 16 hour round trip. So maybe we got the foot launch record and retrieve record in the same go?
We get home late in the afternoon after talking for hours and hours about our shared passion. This insanely beautiful, thrilling and at times harrowing way of traveling with a piece of plastic and some impossibly skinny lines over our heads. The risks are indeed high, but seeing the world from above is a magic only pilots understand and something none of us can explain. In three flights I’ve flown 938 kilometers and seen this country like…well like no one else ever has. People will fly those routes and people will fly farther, but no two flights, no two horizons are ever the same. That experience can never be repeated. And all I can think about is doing it again.
Click on the image to see the track log, fun to look at in Google Earth:
My friend Tony Lang made this funny graphic of the flights this week. It says 238 as that’s what it looked like on SPOT, but promise- it was 240:)