Flying the Continental Divide

Flying into the Pioneers, 20 minutes into the flight

Flying into the Pioneers, 20 minutes into the flight


After my last flight that ended up in a big OD (overdevelopment) Sun Valley has been flushed with serious wind.  Beautiful for long mountain bike rides, swimming in the river, enjoying this insanely beautiful town, but totally shit for flying.  The tandem boys have been jumping off the hill every morning and sneaking in some super nice evening flights, but going for distance in the daytime hasn’t been possible.  I got to toss the new Niviuk F-Gravity around which was RAD, but this is XC season and I moved here first and foremost for the flying potential and going deep, so a little acro was nice- but I needed more.  I was ok for the first 24 hours, started to lose it after 48, and by 72 was beginning to think about 12 hour drives for a maybe day in Chelan, or just tossing sensibilities right out the window by jumping over to Europe for the 3rd time in two months.  Silly, I know, but with the start of the X-alps just hours away and Bruce sitting in Fiesch taunting me with the upcoming forecasts of awesome days in the Alps, it seemed like a pretty good option.

But then a strange thing happened.  For no apparent reason, Monday looked again windy, definitely more than we want, and definitely on the edge, but maybe reasonable.  It would probably be scary, and given Sunday was totally blown out and Tuesday was going to be blown out, we weren’t sure if we should trust what the models were saying, but Nate Scales said he’d meet me in the parking lot at the town LZ at 1000.  I certainly wouldn’t fly in the kind of wind that was forecasted in the Alps, but if Nate said it was doable- I wanted to do it.

Oxygen?  Check.  Shortly after this shot just after launch I was at 17,000 feet.

Oxygen? Check. Shortly after this shot just after launch I was at 17,000 feet.

We didn’t make things easier on ourselves by being late to launch.  When we got there the tandems were happily pinging off the hill right into lift, but by the time we had all our warm cloths on and piss tubes ready and oxygen hooked up our SE facing launch was seriously in the lee.  Mitch Riley joined us and promptly pulled up his wing expertly, ran perfectly and the wing just wouldn’t fly and he did a header.  I then blew two launches of my own.  Bad sign.  Nate didn’t like what he saw, and he’s the guru around here.  Clouds were ripping overhead, the wind socks at the top of the mountain were pinned facing exactly the wrong way.  But cycles were coming through and I really didn’t want to hike my already very sweating self up to launch the other side.  Finally a decent one came through and I launched.

The air was horrible, I was fully in the rotor.  But my beautiful Niviuk Peak 3 didn’t seem too bothered and soon enough we were well above and away from the hill and on our way.  I didn’t like hitting 75 km going downwind this early in the day with all the big mountains we had to get through, but things actually seemed pretty good.  So I pointed it west at the Pioneers and hoped Nate and Mitch could get off soon and join.

In no time I’d flown past the south side of the gorgeous Pioneer range, got way too low for comfort in a gully on the back side and cussed myself for diving too early, but found a ripper and headed off toward the Big Lost.  Meanwhile Nate and Mitch had opted wisely to launch the west side and when I was about 44 km from launch I heard them on the radio saying they were on their way.  They went right over the top of the Pioneers but then unfortunately Mitch had to land, but Nate was using a lot of bar and would hopefully catch up.

Gaining the Continental Divide.  Jackson is off to the right, Wyoming dead ahead

Gaining the Continental Divide. Jackson is off to the right, Wyoming dead ahead

I got my second low save just a little while later trying to get on top of a ridge on the Big Lost but the wind was just too strong to make anything to the north and I had to just keep pushing over pretty nondescript terrain.  Again I was looking at landing options when a hawk appeared to windward and found another ripper.  I have been saved by birds so many times it’s ridiculous. This would be just the first of the day, a few more were in store, and one much more desperate.  The climbs were so, so sweet.  Again and again climbs of 4 and 5 meters a second on my averager and with base well over 17,000 things were starting to look really good for a big flight.

Thank you birds!  Sweet strong climb

Thank you birds! Sweet strong climb

My first big transition to the Lost River range was an eye-opener.  Nate had been telling me about range jumping and the distances involved, but to do my first one put it in perspective.  In the Alps, a big transition like flying 13 km over Grenoble is considered pretty daunting.  Here the crossings are 20 MILES!  But when you jack up to 17,000+ feet and find a good line, it’s not a problem.  I came in above the ridge at King Mountain, found another screamer under a cloud that had my ears popping and headed off on another 20 mile glide.  Repeat at the Lemhi range but I didn’t find as good a climb and found myself desperately low coming into Copper Mountain, the only thing blocking me from gaining the Continental Divide and possibly heading into Yellowstone.

Long Transitions!

Long Transitions!


Once below 10,000 feet the wind switched to a strong valley breeze coming off the flats from the south and I got drilled trying to get across.  It was hot, it was windy, it would be a LONG retrieve- I really didn’t want to be on the ground.  And again a bird saved me.  But just enough to get into the foothills but the wind was tearing the thermals up and it took a good 30 minutes of scrapping around before finally hooking a nice climb and getting back up to base.  And then…I was on the Divide!


201km from Takeoff.  (lower left on the Flytec 6030)

201km from Takeoff. (lower left on the Flytec 6030)


A huge cloud street went off down the Divide, but they were also creating a lot of shade.  Would it still be working?  It was nearing 6 pm, Nate checked in and he was now only 20 km behind.  If we could find a line, we still had plenty of day.  But by the time Nate got onto the Divide there was too much shade.  He made a run for the flats and the sun but didn’t find anything and said he was landing.  I found myself in the same predicament and was looking at landing near Dubois (about 200 kilometers from launch) when this time a couple falcons saved me.  I caught them just out of the corner of my eye, circling above me to windward.  A little bar stomping and a few “please please please!” and bang, I was in the climb and back up over 16,000 feet.

The rest of the flight, close to another 60 km’s was dreamy.  It was easy to find lifty lines, the air was smooth, the beauty mind boggling.  In fact I was enjoying myself so much I kind of lost the plot.  I’d been following the clouds and a dirt road that seemed a good idea to stay close to as it was very clear I was now incredibly deep, and getting home was going to be quite a bit harder than flying here.  But I was on the south east of the Divide, and of course the west side was getting all the sun.  But then I got another climb and I had a decision- glide over to the west side and carry on down the Divide, or…way way off to my right I could see the Tetons.  No one has ever flown from Sun Valley to Jackson Hole.  It was a long ways, 100 kilometers and it was almost 7 pm.  But I had wind at my back, there was sun on the flats…


Happy boy. to get home?

Happy boy. Now…how to get home?


I still don’t know how far I would have gone had I stayed on the Divide, but what the hell, nothing tried nothing gained.  I didn’t find another climb, but as I headed towards Yellowstone, with the Wyoming border in sight, and a whole lot of empty space below I was a pretty happy kid.  I landed knowing I’d beaten my personal best by over 50 k and I figured there was very little chance of getting home that night but it didn’t matter.  I had food and water and I could sleep in my wing and I was tired but very very happy.


Long road home

Long road home


I got my stuff packed up and headed out to the dirt road I’d been following and got one bar on my phone and got a message from Mike Pfau.  He was on his way from Sun Valley to pick us up!  400 kilometer drive one-way.  Legend.  I should have just stayed put, but with the X-Alps on my mind I walked for 3 hours til 11 pm, laid down for an hour on the road and slept, then at midnight figured the boys should be here (Nate would be picked up by Mikey first in Dubois, about 50 km to the west).  Turns out they weren’t getting my SPOT messages, of course my radio was dead, and my phone couldn’t pick up a signal.  So they had no idea where I was.  I left my bag on the road and headed off to find a signal but it was so dark I kept stumbling around and just as I was thinking this was a pretty bad idea I heard honking. They had found my stuff and wondered where in the hell I was.  Well done McClurg.

Mikey had a cooler of cold beer and some salty snacks which went down exceedingly well on the ride home.  Legend.  We got home at 0430 seriously tuckered out.  I fell asleep immediately and dreamt of Jackson Hole.  Next time?

All up it was a 256 km flight.  Well short of the record from Baldy (319, set by Nate last summer deep into Montana), but…feel like on a good day it’s well within reach.


256 km, click on the image to see the flight in XContest

256 km, click on the image to see the flight in XContest






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2 thoughts on “Flying the Continental Divide

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