There are few sites in the world that symbolize beauty and adventure more than Yosemite National Park and the Owens Valley; Yosemite of course the beauty, Owens the Beast (and yet beautiful in its own way). Lucky me to fly both the same week this July.
The setting sun greeted me as I entered the park, producing a spectacular gradient of yellows to reds grander than any red carpet. What a welcoming! Winding my way along the curvy road, giant trees towered along the sides—moments like this are why sunroofs exist. My first visit to Yosemite and already living up to expectations.
Soon it was dark as if the curtain fell after the first act. Tomorrow, act 2. I pulled into a trailhead parking lot to sleep for the night. My cell phone stared at me blankly without coverage, and I happily accepted the broken bonds with civilization. So quiet was the night, and a nearly full moon illuminated the tree tops. I had no idea exactly where I was, though I knew the following day would be something special.
The morning came. Not knowing what time setup and launch was, I arose extra early. I completed the winding journey to Glacier Point. There it was, Half Dome perched above the valley. My ears made out the faint roar of waterfalls. Scents of pine and granite mixed into a freshness unpolluted by urban centers. Arriving early meant a solitude unavailable once the herds arrive, and time for me to relax alone and in peace before the focused ritual of getting ready to fly.
7am. Time to setup. The site monitor gave us the site intro and walked us out to launch. Without a glider, I sweated, inching my way across the steep granite face. One misstep and I would roll down rather than fly away from the cliff. Without a glider, like many pilots, my fear of falling is a very forthright, yet protective friend to have, saying “gravity is not your friend, and neither are your klutzy feet.”
And then 8am. The launch window opened. My turn came and again I inched my way, stepping carefully, across the granite, this time with a glider—my trusted Speedybird. I felt naked and vulnerable without being hooked in*. A few stops to rest later, my wing and I were in position to launch. I carefully turned to hook-in (ahhhhh, much better), and then pause to soak in the experience along with deep breaths.
(*I typically hook my harness in before getting in, but site protocol requires us to hook in just before launching.)
A dream awakened…
In a few steps I was in the smooth air floating near silently above one of the most wondrous sites in the world. As I launched, the whoops of the crowd made the experience even more memorable, reminding me that I was doing something few have ever done, and most people can hardly begin to dream of doing. Yet, here I was slipping past the sheer granite faces, the Yosemite waterfall, and above the meandering Merced river and the valley below.
That we are allowed to fly here at all is an exceptional privilege. Big props to the Yosemite Hang Gliding Association for managing the site and working with the park service to make it possible. And a special thanks to Arthur and Barton for assisting us this particular weekend.
Those that have flown here realize how lucky we are.
My friend also flew here recently and produced this awesome video that goes far in attempting to capture the experience of flying Yosemite.
The mention alone of the Owen’s Valley can send shivers down pilots’ spines. The valley is the site of legends, and has been the cause of many “there I was, I was gonna die” stories. And yet, if you give the site the respect it deserves, safe flights are possible. A few very trusted friends planned to fly the weekend after my Yosemite trip so I decided to join them.
Located between the Sierra Nevada mountains to the west—some of the tallest mountains in the continental United States—and the Inyo and White mountains to the east, the Owens Valley is among giants. Mount Whitney stands at 14,505 feet, along with many other “Fourteeners” nearby.
My route to “base camp” rolled me down 395 past the small towns of Bishop, Big Pine, Independence, and finally Lone Pine—the towns I’ve read about. The ride was a good intro to the valley, passing lava and boulder fields where I most definitely would not want to land. I half wondered if I’d have a Kari Castle sighting.
Lone Pine is an adorable town radiating adventure. Yes in our world of hang gliding it’s a famous hub for pilots, but it is also the closest town to Whitney Portal, the start for many hikers climbing Mt. Whitney, and any of the other many climbs nearby. Many movies are filmed there, and this visit the airport was a staging area for yet another film.
Walt’s Point launch sits 9,000 feet above sea level, 5,400 feet above the valley floor, and my highest launch ever. A couple other pilots were setting up when we arrived. We were more than happy to have “wind dummies”. The wind was light, the direction was good, and the day promising. The first pilot to launch immediately climbed well above launch and on his way up the range. 30-45 minutes later it was my turn and I was pleased to receive similar results.
Yet, we could only climb to about 12,000 feet. Puttering up the range we scratched every chance we had to stay above 10,000. Though not having an oxygen system I was somewhat relieved to know I would not be tempted to reach for the stratosphere. Ridge after ridge, that was the highest we could get. The site known for tumble producing turbulence was today a gentle lamb. I sank to less than 9,000—still high, but getting to a point where I needed to consider flying out to the valley to land near the road.
Scratch, scratch, scratch. Win some, lose some. My luck was not over. I found some lift to slowly climb my way up a finger, and then WHAM! My vario howled and without even turning I seemed to hover above a spot and climb straight up in my winged elevator. A few thousand feet higher I began turning and watched as I finally passed 12,000, and then 13,000, and 14,000. That’s when it became turbulent and I realized the lamb could roar. My friend had continued on north and so in the turbulence I decided to leave the thermal and follow. “Stick with those who know the site,” I thought.
This is where we passed the Onion Valley. Before yesterday, the name was unknown to me. Today I had been warned. The valley runs from the Owens Valley west and is a funnel for west winds to flow. Apparently sometimes known for torrents of wind to flow. Though the winds were light this day, passing Onion Valley was not a smooth ride. Not scary, however not pleasant either. I gripped tight on the base tube and pressed on north. What would a flight at the Owens be without at least a taste of its potential?
Beyond the turbulence my next thermals drifted me toward the east. Were the west winds coming through? I decided to cross the valley to try my luck on the Inyos. My friend stayed back on the Sierras. I love learning from cross-country decisions, especially crossroads like this. From the middle of the valley, the view was impressive. Cinder cones speckled the landscape, appearing as merely hills from the ground, from the air burgundy dimples on those hills shed light on the dynamic geographic history that played out eons ago.
Once across the valley I realized that my lack of knowledge about the valley would likely doom me to the ground. Despite some light climbs, I found myself over lava fields and behind a river with no noticeable roads. To fully commit to the Inyos meant a possibility of landing in difficult retrieve territory. This is when I heard on the radio my friend was sinking like a brick on the Sierras, and heading out toward the road. I decided to meet him out there and try to work lift on the small hills in the valley. It seems either decision led to the same place today.
Three hours after launching, we met again in the center of the valley a few miles south of Big Pine. The wind was strong from the south, and a light thermal I found could have drifted me to Big Pine. I regret not sticking with it, but after a nice flight I like to land with company and especially when a nice LZ is below me. Yes, I succumbed to LZ suck. Three hours and 44 miles—I’m ok with that.
Now why didn’t someone tell me to pack a swim suit for the post-Owens dip in the river???