From Zurich I flew back across the pond to try my hand at my first Rat Race, an annual comp and fiesta held in Ruch, Oregon off Woodrat mountain by Mike and Gail Haley. This was the 11th year of the event and nearly all the best pilots in the US as well as global superstar Michael (Mickey) Sigel were in attendance. I flew to Portland, rented a car and drove to Redmond, Oregon where I found Nate Scales sitting on a bench outside the airport. He’d just driven in from Sun Valley with his motor home and had arrived about 3 minutes before I did. As I hadn’t joined the mobile phone phenomenon, we’d only been able to communicate via very irregular email, so the timing seemed quite fortuitous. I dropped off the car, we picked up some road goodies, had a beer with Johnny Van Duzer, who would be heading down to the comp the next day and carried on.
We had a solid practice day on Saturday. With some 200 pilots in attendance, the sky was a festival of color and the flying was excellent. I tried covering as much ground as possible with Matt Henzi as I’d never flown Woodrat and needed to learn the terrain.
But then the weather turned sour with three days of rain and high winds, but we used the time well by taking mountain bikes to Mt Ashland, the local ski area and doing some solid uphill pounding and downhill thrill rides. There were nightly coordinated events and dinners at some of the wineries and even with the poor weather, I think most everyone stayed in pretty good spirits. I used the time to change my lines and risers on my IcePeak, with Nick, Nate and Rick’s help. I only have 130 hours on the wing since I got it in December, but it was starting to feel out of trim and this might be the last comp of the season, so I wanted my little baby to go well.
The weather broke enough to get in a very short task on day 4 with a time gated launch that started at 1700. I’d never done a gated launch, where a lot of strategy depends on when you choose to go. Go early, while the weather looked decent and maybe get a bit longer day to try to make goal, or go later and have markers out in front to pimp off? I chose the middle gate at 1715. My start was perfect, topping off at cloudbase, which wasn’t much higher than launch, but all the same, an excellent position to start. Josh Cohn also started on the middle gate and for the first time in my life I was out in front and higher than the bot, which was not only unusual but very rewarding. But the day shut down for everyone just as we cleared the burn, just 20km into the task. Only Michael and Brett Hazlett were able to clear the hill and make it another couple km’s, but it was a fun if short task all the same.
The next three (and final) days of the comp were absolutely superb. Great flying, awesome racing, and as always tons of learning. I was fortunate to have great starts each day and was out with the lead gaggle which is always thrilling. The beginning of the course was the same each day, with a run out to Grants Pass. On the first day I found myself with Sigel coming into the turnpoint, but slightly ahead and higher. I was in the lead! The move of course was to back off and be patient, but as usual reigning things in is not my style so I pushed off the ridge to the shorter tag on the cylinder, looking back wondering why Sigel wasn’t following me. First sign that I’d make a serious mistake. Don’t leave a world champion! Sure enough, not only did he not follow, but neither did anyone else. In short order the lead gaggle had dropped my dumb ass and I was desperately trying to find a climb to catch up. This game is always won by the pilot who switches gears the fastest. Those who recognize when to go fast, and when to slow it down. Eventually I found a nasty but workable climb and went off on the chase towards Gold Hill, the next turn point. But I left the climb too early and arrived too low. Feeling confident that I could climb out of a ridge facing directly into the burning sun, I neglected to really survey my escape options if I didn’t get up. There weren’t any. A sea of low angle trees facing into the wind. Without sufficient height, I’d never make it. I kept surfing the ridge, but it was a net loss. I watched my altitude just continually click down. Finally I gave up and looked out to find my first tree landing. But off to the side was a little red-neck shack and a tiny dirt driveway. It was a long ways away, but with some luck, I could maybe make the glide.
When I arrived the tiny driveway looked even smaller. This would be a serious stretch. I only had time for a couple quick turns, then I dove my wing down between two walls of huge trees. But I didn’t have enough run-out so I looked up and put the wing into a deep stall, being very careful to keep the wing steady- a spin would put me into the trees. It worked perfectly and I kept the stall in until I was a few feet off the ground, then I let the wing fly again and touch-down. Not even a scratch. I was still furious I’d made such a dumb mistake and my good day had suddenly gone bad, but I was encouraged to know I could keep up with these guys. I just had to make better decisions.
So I went into the last two days with this gained knowledge and things got better. My mantra became “discipline” and it seemed to work. I came in 6th on day 6 and 7th on day 7 the final day, right in there with the likes of Nick Greece, Eric Reed, Josh Cohn, Brett Hazlett, Dean Stratton and Nate Scales. Considering the talent pool, I was stoked and the racing was simply phenomenal.
Nate and I drove the long 13 hour drive back to Sun Valley on Sunday under a sky that screamed HUGE day. Our western version of a Hammertag. So I didn’t waste much time fussing with getting caught up, after being gone most of the last 7 months. Work could wait. I launched early from Baldy on Monday, with O2 and all the necessary going deep gear in our beautiful mountains hoping for a big triangle. The winds were light and the base looked good, but the OD potential was also high, so I’ve have to just assess from the air.
I launched at 1100 and found it hard to get very high. Some of the clouds to the east were already looking threatening. My plan was to first fly to Stanley (north) but finding it hard to get over 12,000 I either had to wait for conditions to improve or come up with a plan b. So I headed instead across the valley up Trail Creek, towards the bigger clouds hoping I could run up the Boulders and White Clouds to reach Stanley.
When I got there, this was the cloud just to my east. To the north looked good, but as soon as this baby hit the upper atmosphere I knew my day was done. Another was doing the same to my south, and several cumulus were going way too high in front of me. This was not a race I was going to win. But I’d never flown in the Boulders and for the time being felt like I had some cushion to just have a nice flight. I did a little cirque in the Boulders, got up to Galena pass and thought briefly about hucking into the Stanley valley, but the cloud above me starting hailing and raining and sucking way too hard so I ran back to the south, towards Boise and cleaner skies. I crossed the wood river valley and weighed my options. Stay in the air and run and very likely die, or get on the ground. I chose the latter.