Life on the Road, Part 1 – Bay Area Invasion

It’s been a great start to my trip east. Friday night was mayhem packing, a little bit of remaining work, and tying a few loose ends. I always seem to overestimate how much room I have in my car, and so I spent much of the night reorganizing and ditching stuff that I probably didn’t need to take anyway (I hope). Late into the night I gave in to sleep planning to wake up early, finish packing/repacking and head out to Dunlap California. I almost gave up on that too knowing I needed to arrive by early afternoon after a 6 hour drive, but I made it. Me, my two gliders, and a car full of stuff departed San Diego about 7:30am. On the road finally, yay!

Dunlap turned out to be great. Climbs to about 8,000 feet, and a fun day running up and down the ridge, looking back at the snow capped mountains, meeting the local group of pilots, and simply enjoying the novelty of flying a new site. The swing in the LZ, teeny kittens in the dome house, a nearby monastery with nice affordable rooms to stay all make it a quaint, fun site. Can’t wait to fly it again when I return to the west coast.

funstongroupThe next day, Funston also welcomed me with open arms. On a clear day with good winds, after buzzing around launch for a while waiting and waiting for the locals to guide me over to the higher, longer cliff face called Westlake, I decided to go it alone. Soon I was 1,000 over the ocean, with the best view of anyone (any non-pilot at least) in the Bay Area. Super jumbo jets departed over us from SFO, the Golden Gate bridge rose above the hills spectacularly keeping watch over the glistening ocean, whales frolicked…I smiled. After what felt like three hours of a dreamlike state, I landed to realize I only had flown for an hour and forty minutes. Funston is special. Maybe it’s just that I typically avoid Torrey and the paragliding apocalypse that explodes there in good conditions, so finally being able to relax at an ocean cliff site let me more fully take in the experience. More likely it’s special because Funston and its taller sibling Westlake provide an unparalleled view of any metropolis in the world—and it’s on the ocean with world renowned icons like the Golden Gate Bridge. Though I am to my core a mountain pilot, having a fun, relaxing site like Funston makes me understand what it is about the Bay Area that attracts so many pilots.

Ed Levin on the epic day

On Monday the call was for Ed Levin aka Sled Heaven. Arriving, paragliders were cruising around above launch and the day looked like it was going to treat us. I scrambled to setup. Eager to get in the air, I decided to follow a couple locals to launch. They hesitated to launch, and I accepted a slight crosswind at an adjacent launch to become the first in the air.

…I should have waited. There was lift but not yet well formed, and apparently just after I launched the cycles backed off. I scratched for fifteen minutes before having to wave the white flag and land. A few other locals waited and launched a bit later to better results. Breaking down quickly it was back to launch for another attempt. I love having someone willing to drive. By the time I was setup and ready for round two, the sky had filled in more obscuring much of the sun, but the lapse rate seemed better and the wind was stronger. Back in the air the ridge lift kept me aloft. Sporadic thermals allowed me to climb a few hundred feet above launch, but never very high. And then the magic happened. I caught a thermal which at first drifted with the strong wind back toward radio towers, but then the drift decreased. Up I went. 1,000 feet over launch, 1,500 over. “Can I make 2,000?” I asked myself. Sure enough I soon climbed through 2,000 feet and on up to 2,500. “Oh the view!” The rolling hills, the bay, the reservoir behind launch. I nearly did not realize how cold I was getting.

Then I did. Ignoring lift I sank back to launch only to climb back up. After a few yo-yos I had had enough. As I descended toward the LZ a thermal toyed with me. Still cold, but not wanting to turn down good lift I soon found myself 2,000 feet above launch, again. This time however was different. I glided to west of the LZ, far from the hills only to find myself higher than where I started. The vario laughed at my predicament stuck above a large mass of lifting air. Wingovers, high banked turns, steep dives. Nothing seemed to eat much altitude. Brrrr. In 30 or more minutes the ground finally seemed to inch closer. On the ground my fingers were numb, too much so to undo the carabiner. Oh what a great flight though. Long time pilots of the area stated it was one of the best days they’ve seen at Ed Levin.

Tuesday became my rest day. No, I still flew, but I didn’t drive much, I had lunch with friends, and I didn’t worry about the logistics of a mountain retrieve. I decided to fly Funston again. Upon arriving, dark clouds, rain, and 30+ mph gusts insinuated the site had other plans for me, and my streak of good weather was on the line. Believe it or not, the gust front passed, the sun came out, the wind calmed. Time to fly. Giving my Sport 2 a rest I setup my Northwing Ezy 170. It’s been neglected since the Sport 2 came along to hog its attention, and it was a nice change to fly the single surface again. Later a pilot offered me a chance to fly his Northwing Freedom 190. What a big glider for me, but I had fun taking it to Westlake and back, and skying out relative to the pilots on more appropriate gliders for their weight. Wow. So much great fun and flying in four days. What else did the Bay have up its sleeve?

Well, Mt. Tam, that’s what.

Mt. TamWednesday would be my last day in the area. Five days of flying. Four sites. Mt. Tam, short for Tamalpais, is a beautiful site above Stinson Beach and adjacent to Muir Woods. It offers a great launch, and landing on the beach. There really aren’t any downsides to the site. Oh, wait, just that the locals say it is a finicky site soarable only about 10 days a year. This particular day looked good and why not play the Tam lottery? After setting up, no one was super excited to go first. Cloud base was low, nothing showed signs of much lift, there was very little wind on launch, and the “over-the-back” windsock was bipolar. Meh.

A few minutes later I spotted a gaggle of locals (aka birds for my non-pilot friends), circling up slowly. I decided to get ready to go, with the intention of watching the conditions from launch. I’ve heard the site can have a short soarable window, and with no one very certain with what conditions are ideal, I became impatient. We all agreed a sled ride would be more than enjoyable. I launched.

On glide I felt a few bumps, but nothing to turn in. I arrived over the house thermal site and began preying on the air. I’d turn in light lift to maintain, and then sink a bit. Once I climbed a few hundred feet and was ecstatic. If this is all the soaring I get here I felt my life was complete enough. And then something amazing happened. After scratching and scratching, I connected with a well formed thermal. Up and up and up. I glanced back at launch and watched with awe as I rose above, and then kept rising. From that moment on, the lift continued into the afternoon. We were some of the lucky few who have soared Mt. Tam! One last incredible flight, with incredible views, and an incredible landing on the beach. Simply incredible, and what a way to end my Bay Area Invasion.

So after a super time meeting great pilots and flying beautiful sites, it was time to mosey on east. Sad to leave but excited for what the road would bring, I packed back up and set off into the sunrise.

Many thanks to everyone in the Bay Area who helped make my visit super fun. I will most definitely return. See you all again soon!