Sunday, August 3, 2008

Back To Pine

The east end of Pine Mountain

Sometimes the short flights can be more rewarding than the long ones; Sunday was a good example of that. I headed back to Pine after not flying for over a month. This time it was just me and Tony with Fast Eddie driving. Depending on the weather model the day was supposed to be either very good...or not. Great above the mountains but absolutely terrible on the south end of the Antelope Valley. The difference in the predicted lift tops between the Tehachapis and the valley floor near Lancaster was a whopping 10,000 ft. Never to such an extent, but you often see that kind of variation with strong SW winds; the sea breeze gets sucked right up through Soledad Canyon and spills out onto the desert floor.

The game plan going into the day was simple: get up at launch; head over to Frazier where we expected to get above 15k; fly up the Tehachapis; and either head up the Panamint or Owens Valley depending on how much west wind we encountered when we got to the Garlock area (since my motion sickness would be kicking in at about that time that last part would be Tony's game plan, not mine). Well, the first part worked out. I did get up at launch and I did start making my way to Frazier.

I write in my last post that once you leave launch and head east you have to cross over about 8 miles of unretrievable terrain. Now there's more than one way to make the crossing. One way is to stay on the front side of Pine and then go over the back from the east end of the range where the glide to Grade Valley, the next retrievable LZ, is relatively short. The problem with this route is that as you get further east on Pine the closer you get to Wheeler Gorge and the marine air that seeps through it.

The second route is to go over the back at launch or Reyes Peak, which located just east of take-off, and head over to a long connecting spine on the north side of the mountain known as the Chute. The LZs are on the west end of the Chute so the idea is to probe as far east as you can up the spine while at the same time leaving yourself enough altitude to make it back to the landing areas in case you can't find any lift. However, the winds on the north side of Pine are generally NW so you have to make sure that you don't probe too far east because you will be bucking a head wind on your way back. From the Chute you have a choice of either gliding to Grade Valley or San Guillermo Mtn. If I have the altitude I prefer Grade Valley. There always seems to be thermal just on the east side of the valley, but mostly because it sets you up nicely for a nice down wind shot to Frazier Mtn. Guillermo pumps out the lift too, but flying there puts you a tad north of the thermal generating foothills south of Lockwood Valley.

The third route is to go over the back at launch and head to Dry Canyon, the last landable LZ before the "Badlands." I loathe this route. Mostly because it hardly ever works (for me anyway). But by taking this route you are really only giving yourself one chance to find the lift needed to make the crossing. I recommend that you always try the Chute first. If it doesn't work you can always peel off to Dry Canyon for that one last chance of finding something. That's exactly what happened to me on Sunday.

I left Reyes Peak at 11.5 and made my way up the Chute where I proceeded to not find any lift at all. If I had kept going I probably could have eked into Grade Valley on a glide. But if I didn't find something along the way I would have gotten there too low to take advantage of anything that I might have stumbled on when I arrived. So instead, I turned around and made my way back down the Chute to the west hoping to find something coming up the spine. When I still didn't find anything I peeled off directly north hoping that I might stumble into the convergence. On the drive up it was blowing north almost all the way to the south launch so I figured it had to be out there somewhere. As I probed north I kept checking my ground speed for signs of the NW wind. I ran into it just short of Dry Canyon so I turned around and headed back the other way. It was obvious that I was in converging air, but I simply could not find any cohesive lift. NAM had predicted a 6k inversion layer and it seemed like that was what I was dealing with. I did manage to break though fleetingly to 8k at one point, but that was nowhere near the height I needed to make the crossing. After a bit more searching I threw in the towel and headed to the Dry Canyon spine for that one last chance effort before putting it down. As I would be north of the convergence zone I wasn't expecting much, but as I flew over the spine at around 5600 ft my vario started singing. Soon I was well over 11,000 ft and on my way to Guillermo. Go figure. At Guillermo I had another climb out to the mid twelves and then it was over to Frazier.

Lockwood Valley. Guillermo is the peak at the bottom right-hand corner.

Looking back at Lockwood from Frazier.

Going into the day I thought the tough spot would be Pine itself because of the marine air influence. I figured that if we made it to Frazier we would be well on our way because all of the models were saying that we should see at least 15k tops and cloud development. There were some clouds but they didn't seem like they were the result of any thermal lift. However, I got to Frazier in perfect position and as I zoomed up the SW spine with 50 mph ground speed I prepared to be yanked to the stratosphere. I'm still waiting. I don't think that I have ever been flushed off of Frazier before. But there I was at 6500 ft on the east end of it floundering out toward Hungry Valley.

Frazier with the Antelope Valley in the distance.

Of course, any time that you have a long glide in front of you it is nice to be as high as possible before leaving; it's especially true for the transition from Frazier to the Antelope Valley. The prevailing surface winds here are north as they funnel up and over the Grape Vine from the Central Valley. The most direct route to the Antelope from Frazier is due east to the Tehachapis Mountains, which make up the valley's northern V-shaped border. The problem is that if you're not high enough you will find yourself blown off the mountains in leeside conditions once you get into the valley. Ironically, the lower you leave Frazier the farther south you have to go, and the longer you have to glide in order to give yourself a chance of getting established in the Antelope. It's north along the Grape Vine, but just a few miles into the valley the prevailing winds turn SW. On Sunday that meant we were right smack in the middle of that thermal killing marine air that I wrote about above. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Looking south down I 5 with Pyramid Lake the distance.

On the ground Eddy was reporting north winds all the way to Quayle Lake, which is located near the start of the Liebre Mountains (the valley's southern border) a few short miles east of Interstate 5. I was hoping to leave the mountains with 15k so that I would be well above all of that lower level north, but instead I was down below 7k and actually flying into a bit of a headwind as the winds were wrapping around the east end of Frazier. Fortunately, the air above Hungry Valley turned out to be be pretty buoyant. Unfortunately, it also wasn't very smooth; my motion sickness problem kicked in a tad earlier than usual. But I fought through it and found myself climbing out to just short of 9k just west of the Interstate near Rte 138, which was actually not that bad of a position to be in in order to drop into Antelope. However, the air just on the other side of the Interstate before the start of the Antelope is generally pretty turbulent; due to the topography it seems like the winds come together here from every direction. This mixing zone usually provides plenty of lift, but because of the way I was feeling I elected to fly through it. That's the thing about feeling lousy: everything becomes half-arse. You would like to fly longer, but you no longer have the motivation to do everything that you can to make it happen; when you fall out of the lift you're working you don't go searching for it again; if lift is turbulent you fly out of it. And that is where my mental state was once I got into the heart of the Antelope. It would have been nice to have flown farther but I was ready to land.

The flight was only 43 miles or so, and of course I was feeling sick at the end of it, but because of the low save at Dry Canyon, and the way I was able to work my way over to the Antelope in relatively good shape from my position at Frazier, it was pretty rewarding none the less.

Tony would end up just short of Mojave.