Since the big day Sun Valley has been testing my patience. And the town has been winning. I’d been riding my mountain bike way, way too much. Throwing acro hucks in the morning and evenings. Both very fun activities. Yeah, the town is great too; not even that busy for a bitchin’ ski town. Luckily most of the yahoos prefer to engulf Jackson Hole (Tetons and Yellowstone) and leave us alone. But the rest of July and the first week of August evaporated in day after day of too much wind. I know, I know, I shouldn’t complain and deserve less than zero sympathy, but it was getting on my nerves. XCskies would tease a bit, things would look possible 2-3 days out, but the day would arrive and little triangles on the wind barbs (50 km/hr) are a sure sign that flying is possible, but you would die doing it.
And then a little kink in the jet stream, caused by an incoming front finally upset the overhead flow. Pre-frontal conditions are typically our best days. This might be the one, August 8th, the first proper cross-country day we’d had since July 15th. For the first time since my first flight here last summer a day before the PWC we actually had very light winds. Base looked good. Our little community of pilots started getting very ramped up. No one has yet made it to Jackson Hole. Nate got closer than anyone last year, but the elusive flight remains up for grabs. It’s 181 miles as the crow flies, and extremely technical as you’ve got to travel over three big ranges then out over a massive expanse of flats, and much of it over the Idaho National Laboratory- which is fancy talk for a nuclear testing site. You can fly over it, but if you land out there, they will come pick you up in a helicopter and escort you to somewhere else. All on your dime.
We had a record 6 pilots on launch. Totally unheard of. Matt Beechinor, Nate Scales, myself, guest and welcome pilot Hayden Glatte who was running from the smoke in SW Oregon, Garth Callaghan, and Mitch Riley. A posse! The goal was set- Jackson Hole. Nick Greece said he had nice presents waiting for us if we got there. I don’t think any of us needed this extra motivation, but I for one just wanted to see what in the world that looked like! Game on!
Garth made it nicely to the foothills of the Pioneers and could have easily made the jump with us, but knowing he’d never make it back for the evening tandems he opted to land at the end of East Fork and embarked on a 3 hour walk back to town. Respect!
The climbs were strong and given the lack of wind, remarkably ratty. As we crossed over the Pioneers and made a line for the Big Lost via Smiley Peak I got flushed into a north-south canyon. But I had plenty of height still and wasn’t too stressed that I’d find a climb and would rejoin my crew. Which indeed I did, but the climb was so tight and strong, like an invisible dust devil that my wing refused to fly. I did 4 perfect helicopters looking at my brake position wondering if I was somehow hypoxic and had mistakenly buried my brakes, stalling my wing. Nope- just really wild air.
Eventually the wing or I got sick of the sillyness and something dug in and off we went, ears popping like firecrackers to nearly base- which was over 18,000. By this time I was well behind everyone so I tried to just fly straight to the Big Lost, where I hoped to converge on the group near King Mountain.
We’ve been trying to find a frequency that the Rednecks down on the ground with big powerful radios don’t use, but once again we missed the mark. I don’t know how it’s possible for these guys to talk about cars and engines and trailers for so many continuous minutes and hours at a time. But then I thought about how paragliders can paradribble in the same way and I tried to be understanding. Typically they can’t hear us if we ask them to shut the hell up, so we have to just listen and try to be entertained rather than annoyed and when we need to communicate with one another we just hit transmit and talk over them. When Matt got to King he was well ahead of the rest of us and got on the radio in a nice redneck drawl and said:
“You boys better get on yurrrr GODDAMN speed bars and getttt on up here!”
“Hey, hey, hey, you better watch your mouth son, dere’s ladies on dis channel!” Comes the retort.
“Well sir, I do apologize, I really do. And I promise I won’t do it again, and I am verrrry sorry if I done gone an offended any of yurrrr lady folk.” Matt says, I’m sure with a grin.
The guy replies something about Jesus and Faith and Matt says “well sir, not everunn believes in the Holy Roller, but nev-ver-the-less, I do pologize and I do hope yewww have a grrrrate day!”
I giggled my way over the the town of Moore, a long glide of nearly 20 miles and eked my way low onto the range above Arco, hoping I could grab a climb and ping over the launch at King and get yarded up in the house thermal and rejoin my friends. But when I got there a strong north wind was blowing down the Big Lost range and I found myself pressing full speed into wind and going nowhere but down. My only option was to press into the wind and land safely, or dive off into the lee and take a rotor beating and find something. The decision was easy- I wasn’t even near the deck and the heat was killing me. If I landed here and had to walk out even a short distance with no shade for many miles I’d be a crisp by the time I got anywhere. So I dove.
The beating was substantial, but eventually a climb jelled and I was heading on a B-line for Jackson. The group at that point had chosen to lob over another valley to gain the south end of the Lemhi’s where clouds were showing signs of promise out over the flats, solidly 20 miles ahead. But most of the flats were just a fat blue hole. Something we typically try to avoid. But if I took the time to make the jump to the Lemhi’s I’d almost certainly never catch my friends, and would definitely not make Jackson. We were already moving way too slowly- we had to start moving much faster to have any chance.
All I needed to do was clear the Snake River, gain the terrain again to the east of Idaho Falls, skip around the air space, and I was home free- you could see the Teton range heading into Jackson were firing. But I just couldn’t find solid climbs. With each few kilometers I’d lose 500 to 1000′ feet overall. The cushion of 6,000 feet over ground diminished and diminished until I was just a few clicks short of the terrain but turning in zeros, winging like a Frisbee over the flats near the town of Rigby and the writing was on the wall. My day was done. A respectable and wildly fun flight of 213 km, but well short of goal. When I landed I got a text from Matt, who had been way out in front but found the flats equally as vexing and had landed just shy of my position. Nate and Hayden did eventually dig out of Mud Lake and took a really nice line further north towards Rexburg, hoping to hook into a distant cloud street, and traveled another 15 km beyond where I landed but they too found too few hot hours in the day and landed in Hay Solo Land near some train tracks.
Emily Mistick had been chasing us all day in the pimpest van this side of the Mississipi (and the nicest one on the other side this month when she returns to Pittsburgh!) and we were all soon enjoying first class accommodations and cold beer for the return home.
Jackson, you remain elusive, but promise- we are coming!