Yosemite and The Owens Valley: Beauty and the Beast

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.

Owens Valley

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???

My track on Airtribune

Above the Sierras

Above most of the Sierras


Flying Goals: Mid-year Eval

Back in February I set out some goals to strive toward. About 6 months later here is my self-assessed report card:

  • Fly more sites

Success. Though I have not added a lot, I did fly in Americus, Georgia and recently Garlock, California on the southern edge of the Owens Valley. Americus was my first real experience in the flat lands and more towing for me than ever before. Skeptical about how I’d do in the unfamiliar landscape with no hills or mountains to rely on as thermal triggers, I could not have been more happy with my intro to flat lands taking home 3rd place in the sport class. Woohoo!

  • First flight(s) in the Owens Valley.

Nope. Not yet but possibly later this season. Garlock is close, and we hoped to fly over the back into the Owens, but that did not happen.

  • Fly more without my vario.

Half Success. I’ve found it tough to force myself to forgo the vario when flying challenging cross-country flights. I never fly Torrey Pines with a vario, but I hardly feel that counts. On a few flights I turned off the sound and rotated the display away for a while. As the season winds down I’ll focus on returning to my non-beeping roots.

  • Fly my first competition (and maybe more).

Success! Third place at my first competition, the Flytec Americus Cup. Racing some very good sport class pilots I am super ecstatic with how the comp went. Comp #2 coming up soon in September with the Santa Cruz Flats Race. Will I fly sport class or open class? That’s the big question, though it’s looking very likely I’ll get one more sport class comp under my belt (wing?).

  • Learn to think ahead on an XC.

Fully mastered. I’m an XC queen. Kidding! Definitely kidding. If I ever master this I’ll be surprised. So far this year I’ve experienced much trial and error. There’s a point in every flight requiring a critical decision, and often it’s a difficult decision. Figuring out which way the convergences meander around has proven challenging, especially on the days with fewer clouds or less defined markers. I feel like I’ve learned a lot, but I’ve also both had a lot of luck, a lot of failure, and some limited success. I can only keep improving from here. I can tell I am getting better and I’m happy with that. Now I’d like to get to a point where I can “read” the land better so when I fly new territory I can know where lift will be.

  • Push a little harder to stretch my distances, but not so hard to stretch my luck.

Success. First 50 mile flight this year! That’s my big accomplishment so far. It was not an easy flight by any means, including a low save about 300 feet off the deck, but except for a few critical points the miles came easily. The real lessons I’ve learned were from the flights where eking out only 10 to 20 miles was difficult. I have found myself down and out with no good place to land within gliding distance, and pushed myself to climb out of the hole I dug.

  • Graduate from my Sport 2.

Success. I had my doubts about jumping, or is it giant leaping, to a topless glider, but found it much easier than many made it out to seem. Of course I cautiously approached the new gliders, first flying in smooth evening air, and then on later flights making sure I stayed aloft beyond the roughest times of the day to land. As of now I have time on the Moyes Litespeed RX 3 and the Wills Wing T2C 136. I can’t wait to get my very own.

  • Get instructor rated.

Success. Sooner than expected, I passed the tests and got my rating from Rob McKenzie. I am still collecting gear to teach with so have not yet began to teach much, but soon. Next year the plan will be to get tandem instructor rated.

  • Concentrate on refining my techniques.

This is more difficult than it seems. With at most two or three launches and landings a week, most of my effort has been focused on cross country flying. I need to make more use of Torrey Pines to get touch-and-goes in, though the launch there is primarily one variety of the many types we see flying the many sites we have. Palomar always challenges with a low-wind, shallow slope launch. I’ve noticed that at sites I rarely fly, my launch techniques are less than ideal. Recognizing more closely the differences and adjusting is my goal moving forward.

  • The cop-out to make it an even 10 goals…have fun, be safe.

Success. I have definitely had fun and flown within my safe envelope. At the same time I’ve kept moving toward the stretch envelope to improve my flying.

It’s been a wonderful year so far. I’ve flown 80 hours, should top 100 by the end. August has been a light-flying month after the marathon of flying in July. September will again be a flying-filled-fest. Bring it on!

Setting Goals and This Site’s Flight Plan

Sadly I am back from vacation, but happily back to flying…with a long weekend coming up. During my trip I had time to think about where I want to take myself, and this site in 2014. Admittedly, this isn’t the most interesting post, but hey, it helped me focus my thoughts and formulate a plan. I’m a big fan of setting goals, if for no other reason than to force oneself to consider the status quo, and where to go from there.

My two main objectives for this site, this year, are to:

  1. Document my continued training to better qualify my progress and force me to think about how I am flying and my weaknesses; and,
  2. Document what it’s like to begin competing, how one gets started, things to consider, and hopefully show my improvement as a pilot because of competing.
Now these goals may sound boring, so know that they do not at all limit me from posting about all my flying adventures along the way, with more photos and videos. I also invite you to write me with suggestions (the little @ icon up on the right).
My Goals for 2014 (in no particular order). They are mostly general so I expect to revisit each of these in future posts:
  • Concentrate on refining my techniques. Launching, landing, thermaling, XCing. Whatever it is, do it better and more efficiently.
  • Fly more sites. In the past year I branched out to aerotowing (which opens many new doors), and traveled to Santa Barbara for a week to experience their amazing sites. I’d love to travel more (don’t we all?). On my list are the bay area, Utah, Arizona. This brings me to my next goal…
  • First flight(s) in the Owens Valley. Either early season or late season. I suppose my goals of 50 or 75 miles may be more easily obtainable…or not. Our San Diego site Horse Canyon can have comparable turbulence and big air many compare to the Owens, so I feel comfortable and ready to spread my wings there. And I’m sure I will have good guides on my first flights.
  • Learn to think ahead on an XC. I’ve heard cross-country flying is like a chess game. One must be a few steps ahead to fly well. This I need to work on.
  • Fly more without my vario. My first 25 hours were without a vario. I learned a lot and became very good at it. I need to return to my roots.
  • Fly my first competition (and maybe more). A few local pilots urged me to begin competing, and so I gave it some thought. In 2013 I attended the Santa Cruz Flats Race to see what the fuss is about. I drove for the Norwegians, earned my aerotow rating, gaggled in gaggles, and met some very cool—and legendary—pilots. I took in the whole experience. I quickly realized that to improve my flying and connect with others who share this affliction—I mean passion—competing is the way to go. Above all, believe it or not, I had fun. So now the question is, which comps? Santa Cruz Flats Race is nearby but the last of the year. It is definite. Do I debut with the Americus Cup or Big Spring? Will I sky out or bomb? How does one support this?
  • Push a little harder to stretch my distances, but not so hard to stretch my luck. Last year I flew flights close to 40 miles. On one I was 30 miles into a flight at 10,000 feet in the convergence over the LZ where everyone else had landed. It was a nice airport with drinks and snacks that we have permission to land at, so I don’t blame them. Being the overly courteous person that I am, I joined them…this after two low saves and my current state of ecstasy high above the plains. This year I want to continue until my abilities bring me down, not my conscience. I am confident that on the right day I can surpass 75 miles.
  • Graduate from my Sport 2. Now this is very debatable and everyone seems to have an opinion on this. Some say skip to a topless, others say get more time on the Sport. I certainly do not want to be one who rushes a decision like this. At the very least I would like to test fly other gliders to begin to sense the different characteristics of different gliders. “What’s wrong with the Sport?” you may ask. Nothing. It has served me well for nearly a year, and I do not yet feel it is holding me back. However, I feel I am ready to begin experiencing other gliders so that I can make an educated decision. I do know that if I do graduate I will do so cautiously—flights at well known sites with comfortable LZs. No cross-country flying until thoroughly familiar with the new wing. Another consideration: First I will need to get comfortable in the “new clothes” of a new harness. Stay tuned for a post specifically addressing the advancement to a higher performance wing.
  • Get instructor rated. I would love to begin passing on my passion and love of flight to others.
  • The cop-out to make it an even 10 goals…have fun, be safe. Enjoying hang gliding should always be our number one priority. It is why we started and why we fell in love with it. To forget this is to risk losing focus to secondary goals. Besting personal records is very satisfying, but nothing can beat those moments of realization when you look out from high above launch and recognize, in awe, the sheer beauty and indescribable essence that our sport offers.
I hope you’ll join me for the journey. Happy Flying!