Going to bed last night I had low expectations for this morning but upon waking I found a gathering southerly wind that offered enough hope to vector my body to the hill. Arriving at ~0810 I found wind just on the edge of what I can comfortably top-launch but by the time I was gearing up I sensed it surpassing my comfort level.
After strapping into my harness with the wing anti-oriented to the wind I bundled and bear hugged the wing and began marching down the hill for the shelter of a side-hill launch. Ariel saw me doing this and, bless his heart, side-hill landed to offer guidance and support. I suggested that he be mostly physically hands-off to force me to figure things out but to tell me if I was doing anything dumb and offer general counsel. His main suggestion was to be really sure that my wing tips were clear and, had he not been there to help lay out my wing, to be unclipped from the harness while arraying the wing. After prepping the kit he suggested building a wall with an As-and-Cs approach with hands on the brake toggles and I obliged. Once I observed that the lines looked clean I brought the wing up and… woo, a little spicy, but I mostly kept things under control. To my recollection the wing dumped a bit to my reverse-facing perspective of rightward, I spun forward and jogged laterally to get under it, then it dumped in the other direction, I spun back to a reverse position, I got tugged upward and sideways, but eventually got close to aligned with the wing, spun back to forward, ran more laterally to get under the wing, and then… awwaaaaaayyyyyyy we go.
I had put a good deal of pre-launch care into fiddling with my harness straps and found myself duly rewarded. Not only had I ensured good relative configurations between my leg and shoulder straps but I had also snugged up my lateral straps a bit. Post-launch I found I could mostly ooch back into a seated position with minimal effort and after acquiring some altitude I needed invest only a modicum of additional time in getting fully seated. The most wonderful realization, however, was that with the snugging of the lateral straps I had acquired a nearly perfect amount of back support. I was so happy to have figured this out that I let out a whoop of joy to accompany a shit-eating grin.
The character of the conditions engendered both great joy and great caution. The boosty nature of the wind afforded me altitude I had never previously enjoyed at the southside but also had me taking great care to generally stay well out front, to regularly validate my ability to penetrate, and to avoid the venturi of the points of the face. There were not many pilots aloft, but a few, some of them roughly of my body-to-wing ratio, to include Joe, so I figured that if I flew a pattern at least as conservative as they were I would be ok. This worked out great, offering me one of my most enjoyable flights ever, right up until the point it didn’t.
On an eastward track I found myself sinking a bit and so cheated back toward the hill. I was beginning to cross the east-end gully when *WOMP*. To my recollection my hill-side left-tip rocketed upward while the other side collapsed in a fashion so instantaneous that I felt I had been teleported from ordinary flight to facing 180 degrees backward and diving toward the ground. As I worked to correct this situation *WOMP* and I was whipped around 180 degrees in the opposite direction, found my wing unbelievably far ahead of me, and noted my body was hurtling toward the west berm of the gully at presumably ~30-40 MPH. Some part of my brain screamed “PULL RESERVE!” while an even another louder voice roared “NO! TOO LOW! ONLY MAKE WORSE!”. With this argument settled the next one ensued: “BRACE FOR IMPACT!” paired with “NOT TODAY!”. Then, with the wing in a more normal relative position, and trying to find the right brake pressure: “DON’T EAT HILL!” and “DON’T STALL!”.
Leaning rightward away from the hill and pulling as much brake as I imagined would not make a terrible situation even worse I screamed over the berm with maybe 10-20′ to spare.
Having avoided calamity by razor thin margins I immediately aimed directly away from the hill and vectored myself to a landing at the bottom. Later I would learn that in the instant between my dropping below line-of-sight of the ridge and my surging upward post-recovery that pilots in the top parking lot thought they had witnessed a likely fatal crash. I feel terrible about having done that to them.
Arriving at the bottom I took off my gloves to massage the bitter cold out of my hands. Moments later Ariel landed alongside me, having seen at least the tail-end of my ordeal, and remarked that “it looked like you were just standing there for a while pondering life”. “Yeah”, I said, “that and my hands were really fucking cold”.
Later I would get to be the day’s local celebrity in a fashion equal parts mortifying and gratitude producing. I had a series of deeply appreciated conversations with Ariel, Jeremy, Josh, and Joey as I struggled to piece together what happened and how I can prevent future such occurrences. There are a lot of nuanced reflections to journal here but at the present I am fried and need some time to digest.
I am glad to have gleaned another lesson so valuable so cheaply but I could really do without the small margins for error.
Probably the most stand-out lessons are:
- I don’t adequately know what the hell I am doing in thermals.
- I need to fear terrain features waaaaay more in strong/thermic conditions.
- I need to build in much wider margins when dealing with unfamiliar circumstances.
- I need to get my ass enrolled in an SIV course as soon as possible in lieu of “self-study”.