Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Pine Mountain 6/21

Photos by Bo Criss (from a few years ago) of Circling Hawk and Robb Milley.

Over 100 miles on my last flight, could I make it two in a row? The conditions were certainly conducive for a long one: lift to between 14-15k; nice cloud development; and a 15 knot wind. A Blackhawk to Arizona flight seemed like a good bet, but man, it was supposed to be over 110 degrees out there. The thought of setting up in the heat atop that barren landscape just didn't seem that appealing. At least at a place like Crestline you can find a little relief by setting up in the shade below the pine trees. However, driving all the way out there with a predicted NW wind seemed a bit of a risk. Plus just getting high enough to go over the back into the desert is always a crap shoot even on good days because of the inversion layer. Elsinore had some potential, but that NW would take us away from all of that high stuff out in the desert. Kagel? See above and the discussion about inversion layers. So where to go? The South Coast PG club was hosting a summer solstice fly-in up in Ojai, but in the end we opted for the site that had the greatest potential, Pine Mountain in Ventura County. It was farthest up wind, and even though there is no shade anywhere near launch to provide relief from the heat, images of the surrounding pine forest just made the place seem more inviting.

Looking back at Pine from the NE (Bo Criss)

South Launch (Bo Criss)

Pine really is a beautiful place and one of the best kept secrets in Southern California. At 7,000 ft it offers some pretty unique vistas. Toward the SW you can look out over the Santa Ynez and Topa ranges and see the Pacific ocean with the Channel Islands sitting just offshore; on a clear day even Catalina is visible. To the north, Mt. Abel and Mt. Pinos loom above the "badlands" that stretch out to Cuyuma Valley to the west and Lockwood Valley to the east. Not much to look at under hazy blue skies, but when cumulus clouds are present their shadows make the low lying peaks and valleys stand out and come alive. Of course, that same beautiful topography provides problems when trying to fly XC. Pilots have to cross about 8 miles of unretreivable terrain once they go over the back and head east. Saturday's predicted WNW winds would make the crossing much easier, but launching more problematic.

The Badlands (Bo Criss)

Pine has a south and a north launch so a predominately west wind presents problems getting off of the hill. Just to the right of south launch there is a rather large spine (the Knob) that creates rotoring conditions in a west wind. And the north launch is just plain sketchy, even when it is blowing straight in. Pilots rely on ridge lift conditions in order to make it over to the house thermal located about a half mile or so to the east. A crosswind doesn't help. However, get in the air safely from either launch in a west wind and you're in perfect position for a long flight as you can avoid Edwards' airspace to the south once you get out into the desert

After first meeting up for breakfast with Tony and Carolyn we picked up Robert Millington at the Rite-Aid parking lot in Ventura. Back in the day that used to be the meet spot; we would have 10-15 pilots shuffling gliders every weekend morning making preparations to head up into the mountains. Here it is on one of those days that you dream about and it was just the three of us (having said that, the PGs had close to 20 pilots at there fly-in). Anyway, after stopping for gas in Ojai - Yikes! - we made our way up Hwy 33. It was sometime around 11:00 when we drove past Rose Valley and there was already some cloud development on the backside of Pine.

Robb Milley's photo from the PG fly-in in Ojai. The back sun-lit ridge is the east end of Pine.

Like I said, the prediction was for moderate WNW winds. Because of that, I expected the winds to be blowing fairly strong through the summit gap. But, when we arrived, although still north, the winds were light. Seeing that, I thought to myself, "We're going to be suckered into taking off from the south launch;" not something I was looking forward to.

When we arrived at the north launch it was blowing straight in. But after beginning to set up our gliders we noticed that the clouds had more of a west drift than NW. Also, a nearby portable weather station was showing some puffs up the south side. We decided to pack up and head up to the south launch, which is about a two mile drive up the mountain.

Got up to south launch to find the winds blowing every which way but up. After about 20 minutes of watching more of the same we opted to head back to the north launch to take our chances there. When we arrived after the two mile drive back the other way the winds were dead calm. No one wanted to take off with no wind from that particular launch, but no one was willing to throw in the towel with that beautiful cumulus filled sky above us, so it was back to the south launch again.

This time the winds were consistently blowing out of the west. Of course, not ideal, but if typical, we expected an occasional bout of upslope direction to get us off the hill. And sure enough, as we set up our gliders that is what exactly happened.

Normally in a west wind I turn east immediately after take off rather than head to the house thermal spine to the right of launch. That gets me away from the rotor, but it also gets me away from the south side LZs. Sometimes you just have to pick your poison. Tony took off first and headed right. You could tell that he was in some pretty rowdy air, but he made it work and climbed out above the spine. Robert launched next and turned left like I was planning to do. I was busy getting ready and I so didn't see how far east he had gone, but when I got to launch I could see him floundering back against the headwind to the spine Tony climbed out on.

After backing off from launch for some equipment adjustments, I finally got in the air myself. It was about 2:30. The winds at launch itself weren't all that strong, but I shot straight up into the air once leaving the ground. I once heard Steve Moyes say that when it's all said and done hang gliders are nothing more than leaves in the wind. That is exactly how I felt as I made my way over to the spine to the right of launch after deciding not to head east after watching Robert.

The wind noise made it almost impossible to hear my vario, but I had no intentions of letting up on the base bar. Both Tony and Robert were screaming to 14k by this time. At first I tried to drift up the spine with the lift, but I seemed to be getting more tossed around than anything so I tried extending my circle downwind to the east. When I continued climbing I put the glider on its tip. By the time the lift petered out I was well over 13k and somewhere between Reyes and Haddock Peak.

Normally I would make my way to the "Chute" hoping for one more climb out before crossing the badlands, but with the west wind I just B-lined it straight to Grade Valley. Both Tony and Robert opted to make their way to Frazier Mountain using it as a spring board to the Antelope Valley. They made it work, but with a WNW wind I thought it would be better to stay to the south and fly closer to Alamo Mountain. Besides, Frazier was completely shaded in and there was a sun line just north of Alamo.

Frazier Mountain (Bo Criss)

I had a little climb out above Grade Valley to around 12k and then a big one to 15,350 ft just north of Alamo. By the time I reached Hungary Valley just west of I 5 I was still above 14k and in great shape to drop into the Antelope Valley. It would have been nice to have been through this area earlier in order to take advantage of the clouds lined up above the Elibre Mountains on the south end of the valley, but by the time that I had gotten into position they had already shot their load and were dropping virga. I was forced to take a more northerly route out into the middle of the valley. But, apparently not northerly enough.

Antelope Valley (Bo Criss)

Both Tony and Robert were a few miles ahead and to the north of me. No one was reporting great lift, but they seemed to be doing alright. I, on the other hand, never found anything better than zero sink after leaving the mountains west of I 5. In a last gasp effort to stay in the air I angled low over to Fairmont Butte hoping that the relief would provide some help. When I didn't find anything out in front of the butte I knew that my flight would be over as I would be in the lee once I crossed the top. Of course you never want to give up; I spent the last 3 1/2 miles circling 200 ft off of the deck before finally, well, throwing in the towel and landing (56.89 miles).

Robert would go on to Victorville for a 110 mile flight. Tony? How about a new site RW record with a 208 mile flight to just east of 29 Palms.

Getting home is a story in itself. Let's just say that my head didn't hit my pillow until 4:30 am and leave it at that.

Btw, three pilots set a new site record from Kagel on the same day.