Mistral, the saga continues. So we are going to … you guessed it, St.Vincent.
The previous days top to bottom proved to be a decent confidence booster for the crew, helping them realize that the LZ of death can be conquered. In my case, it opens up the possibility of making a few more higher risk/return plays in pushing out and trying to score a big climb, as opposed to playing it conservative and staying close to the ridge.
Upon arrival, the sky bluer and the winds lighter than I expected. Looks like something more than sled runs and gale hanging is in store for our intrepid crew. We are informed that the upper winds are still too strong with the Mistral and that we have to remain in the area of launch and the peak to the south, Dormillouse.
Most of the crew had taken the chance to go via ferrata in the morning, meaning those of us who remained behind would have the hill to ourselves (and the locals/tandems). Having kitted up and about to lay out on launch, the conditions look a little on the light side. But the promise of immediate retrieval if I happen to bomb out is encouragement enough to go for it. One of the crew is already in the air and maintaining, as are the local tandems.
Off I launch with little drama…
…straight into a flush cycle.
The air that had been previously heated (providing lift) up the ridge was now cooling (sinking). The flush affects the entire ridge, drilling down not just newbies to the site like myself, but the tandems as well. Ten gliders, all at about the same height, now have to contend with where to land.
The bailout LZ?
Starting to look a whole lot smaller, especially with no air traffic control.
Chris had mentioned during one morning briefing that if one finds themselves in a situation where everything shuts down (such as a flush), a change in gears is needed.
Do not focus on the landing, for you will go down.
Do not focus on climbing, for you will burn up altitude trying to chase false leads.
Focus on survival. Take the 0 m/s to 0.1m/s thermals and milk them for everything they are worth. The secret is to buy time for the flush to finish, the valley to reset, and the thermals to start anew. The longer you can hold at your current altitude, the better the chance that you will be high enough to capitalize on the next cycle.
Taking that advice and really focusing on the techniques taught by Kelly the year previous, I position myself over the high tension power lines separating launch and the bailout. The towers are going to be good triggers for what residual heat is crawling up from the lakeshore fields and odds are that the lines will be warmer than the cool mountain air surrounding them. A slow flat turn of ever widening radius.
Eventually I come across an area of zeros.
Just what the proverbial doctor ordered.
One by one the tandems slide off the mountain and below me. Instead of the bailout, they fly further west for a cleared field next to a collection of tents. I had heard of a second unofficial LZ used by pilots who were camping near the lake – I gather this is it.
Amongst the tandems are a handful of solo pilots, most of whom head straight for the bailout. One breaks away from the group and tries searching around the area near me. Another soon follows. But their carve is far to steep, their movements too aggressive. As Kelly has said, ‘match the air’ -> if the air is gentle, be gentle and if the air is aggressive, be aggressive. Today a very soft hand is needed. My counterparts must not have gotten that lesson.
The zeros eventually form into 0.1m/s and 0.2m/s climbs. Spotting a bird circling to the west, I slowly crab/crawl my way too it, making sure to have at least a 0.0 m/s for most of my turn. The bird is what I understand to be a Kite, a local bird of prey.
I try to match turn direction with the Kite, but it quickly does a turn reversal, a pair of turns, and flies off. Guess it wasn’t too impressed with my technique.
But the climb, oh the climb. A few minutes later I am back above launch height with the sky to myself. No tandems, no solos. To have a soar-able St.Vincent les Forts to yourself to a rare gift.
How did I enjoy it?
By promptly sinking back out.
A call from Dave on the radio indicates he has spotted me, has retrieved the remainder of the crew, and if I can set down in the tandem LZ there is an immediate ride back up the hill.
I reply on the radio, ‘Don’t count me out just yet.’ Thankfully he didn’t understand that I was going for low save #2, because it failed.
A sharp right turn at tree top height over the road and I put down in the tandem field, throw the unpacked glider into the middle row of the van and we charge back up for round two.
From the time the flush started till the time I landed was nearly an hour, an hour of survival.
The day has just started and a low save already under the belt.
The wing is a spaghetti of fabric, lines, and webbing in the 2nd row of the van as we race our way back up for a second go. The majority of our crew has returned from a morn of via ferrata and itching for a different sort of climb. And unlike the day previous, the overdevelopment daemon has not yet reared its head overtop of the peaks. This will allow for a wider swath of experience levels to get out and clock a few more hours of airtime.
Emboldened by my earlier success, I quickly stake out a claim in the prep area and begin sorting my al dente Delta 2. The rush to get back up the hill has made for a rather jumbled mess, costing valuable time in getting kitted up.
In the meantime a tandem is set up, using a single helper as ballast. The tandem master pulls the wing up and the passenger is plucked a foot in the air. The TM maintains control of the wing and sets the passenger back on the ground. One thing that has consistently impressed me here at St.Vincent is the kiting ability of the TMs. On launch the wind is a gusting mix of west and north – typically west at flag and wing height, north some point in between. It is not uncommon to have a wall built, pull up, have the wing turn 90 degrees, then snap 90 degrees back on heading. Failure to control the wing through this process often times results in being dragged south over the back of launch to the top landing area.
Conditions have picked up considerably from this mornings scratch fest. A jaunt up the mountain and over the ridge to the main landing zone is easily within reach.
Some assistance from Stuart and I am ready to go for round two.
Another uneventful launch is followed by a series of beats from launch to the northern end of the 1 km long ridge, maintaining above launch height in the aggregate valley wind and thermals.
This trip has provided an amazing opportunity to work on ridge soaring in blended dynamic/thermic conditions, especially with respect to getting in close to terrain. Being able to differentiate between the two while still keeping mind to the gaggle of tandems is not a trivial task but critical if one wishes to leave the ridge and try for Dormilluse.
Sufficiently high above launch (for my liking anyways), I move to the bowl demarking the base of the mountain. Moving back to the bowl is not without risk, as the slope is shallow and the bailout is a very long glide into wind. Failure to quickly find a climb out means a tree skimming race back to the ridge with hope of at least enough of a climb to eek out a top landing. Despite these concerns, I place faith in my ability to scratch and dive in at launch height.
It takes little time to spot movement in the trees leading up the gentle slope towards the bowl. I approach and feel the wing being pulled in by the air. A flat figure eight is all that is needed for this conveyer belt of air to take me up along the slope with it.
The air reaches a high point and releases.
In the meantime, an Ozone tandem (Chris) and Advance Sigma (Andy) catch my attention above and to the west. I hook into their thermal from below and climb up to them. While flying with partners is advantageous in finding lift, it can work against the pilot when lift is found. Working a thermal alone only requires attention on the feel of the lift, adjusting course based solely on the thermal.
On the other hand, flying in a pair+ requires attention with respect to sharing the thermal and not hogging a core especially if relatively narrow. This can mean lift is not capitalized upon as efficiently as possible, leading to a situation where a lower lone glider thermals up in the core to a pair of wings. Such as in my case now.
Before reaching Chris and Andy I slip out into weaker lift and try blending into their left hand turn.
My attempts to tighten up again on the core while level with them appears to cause some frustration as they head southwest shortly there after.
Meanwhile, what was a peak backgrounded by blue sky is now clouded in and getting dark rather quickly. The shadow of this quickly materializing beast pushes upwind into the middle of the valley. A glance across the lake to the sister peak, Morgonne, reveals a similar situation unfolding.
Time to skeddale.
A straight line shot away from the peak and I begin setting up an approach to land. The wind, as expected, is coming up the valley from the lake at between 20 and 30 kph. The upwind side gets rather thermic this time of day and one could spend quite a bit of time getting bounced around without losing any height if they were to dwell there. So I set up just downwind of the lz and creep in.
A right hand turn onto final just above tree top height. A pair of mild chirps from the vario.
The left side of the harness drops with an immediate 90 degrees left turn and the start of a dive.
A sharp jab of the left brake, a touch of right, and as best a right weight shift as I can do hanging out of the harness. The dive stops, I ease the wing back onto final, and land.
Word on the ground was that it looked like a 50% left asymmetric collapse. Up high, a non issue. On final, a perfect way to get ones pulse racing.
In anycase, daylight remains. Pack it up and jump in the bus for round three.
Racing the setting sun and a blend of pleas to call it a day to retire to either home or the EckoBar down on the lakeshore, I set up for Round Three.
This will have to be a short one, lest I lose my ability to select my seat for the bus ride home. With the pilots on our course having differing opinions on how often flying clothing should be cleaned, one should keep in the back of their mind the ability to grab a seat with an open-able window for the hour plus ride home. The key is near window, upwind.
The ridge is still working and folk are maintaining easily in the residual valley westerly. After twenty minutes of beats back and forth, I decide to finally give the top landing LZ a go. Both because the conditions have tamed enough to reduce the combined effect of rotor and compression zone lift AND because if I land in the bailout, any chance to avoid a two front variant of the Battle of Ypres is kaput.
Top landing is a rather new beast for me with early landing attempts by local pilots at our primary sites being accurately described as top crashing. My attempt would be caveated with:
1. Do not go over top of the parking lot as the rotor could still be nasty.
2. Be mindful of the compression zone lift.
3. Keep out of the way of the tandems still flying and landing.
4. Make sure the attempt, if aborted, still leaves enough height to make a bailout of some form.
A few extra beats to ensure no tandems would be landing soon, I start a down wind run.
The plan: hook in low directly from the downwind leg with a diving turn that should have me on the ground before the parking lot, have me in the compression zone as short a time as possible, and leave me a lot of runway if I do need to kill altitude.
Chris approaches to inform me that while the landing was beautifully executed, it was poorly planned. As the site is still prone to westerly gusts, if one were to occur while I was on final, I could have been blown into the parking lot to my right. A wiser approach is to do the same downwind leg, but turn away from the hill then back upwind and drift in at an angle. This gives the best chance of mitigating the effect of a gust. The point was well taken and will certainly be a significant consideration in future top landing attempts.
The day done, the wing packed up, and a windowed, upwind seat of choice acquired in the bus.
So ends the Hat Trick Day – a scratching low save when all others bombed out, fun with clouds and low collapses, and a first top landing. This is the sort of day that builds a better pilot.