Two Utah Biathlons on consecutive days… my brain feels tingly and my lungs feel scoured. Yesterday consisted of a morning’s flying at FPS and an afternoon’s biking at Corner Canyon. Today involved an afternoon’s crowd-free skiing in fresh powder at Alta and a return-drive stop-off at FPN for a similarly crowd-free evening flight. I am glowing from the physical exertion and mental intensity.
Yesterday morning I found myself with the constraint of needing to be on an 0900 call so I pushed myself to arrive at FPS @ 0730. The wind was hovering at the edge of launchable up top but had been gradually ticking upward so I parked at the bottom and hiked up to the shelf. Joe, meanwhile, running about 15 minutes behind me, opted to go to the top but then found himself momentarily stymied by 17G20 wind. I had made the right call based on my constraints but was experiencing moderate frustration at the margins I needed to build. I might have hiked a little farther up but, among other things… well, let’s be honest, I had made the foolish decision to put a whole jalapeno plus a large amount of Cholula on my nachos the previous evening, thus generating another sense of exigency. With my wing cleanly horseshoed and the wind somewhat weak at my location I tugged on the center As, began backpedaling, scanned the wing long enough to see a clean configuration, spun around, jogged hard and to the left to counter the wings forward and lateral dumping tendencies, and was off for an uneventful flight. I dashed home with adequate expedience to wrangle all of my constraints.
This evening I arrived at FPN @ 1800, found wind distastefully poppy, and took my time by swinging by the restroom and chatting with other pilots, eventually being fully strapped in by 1835. I have of late developed the habit of fully loosening my shoulder straps before clipping into my harness and then cinching them down as appropriate, this providing the necessary flexibility in the face of wearing a widely differing amount of clothing from day to day, one consequence being that I find I can more consistently snug back into my harness post-launch with ease. Once reverse-inflated I worked with the wind to gradually make my way rightward to one finger over whence I usually launch, wanting both to break out of the habit of doing what is familiar and to launch from a location where the brush entanglement risk seems much lower. Having reached the desired finger I began forward kiting to the edge but, having reached it, opted to hang out for several minutes to sample the wind for adequate smoothness. After what felt an adequate period of tasting and having selected a good looking runway I was off.
I sustained flight from ~1845-1930 and generally felt pretty good. The conditions proved moderately thermic, I think I was extra anxious about my wing getting ahead of me owing to a recent misadventure, and consequently I may have had a few undue puckering moments, but never an “oh fuck” experience. I managed to spend a fair amount of time moderately above launch height while ridge soaring, but never quite got high enough to feel comfortable top-landing, and definitely never had the opportunity to bench. Toward the end I had successive passes on a particular location that offered an updraft sufficiently burbly that it creeped me out a fair deal. Between that, plus a recent resolution not to be greedy, plus some exhausting skiing this afternoon, I made the decision that I ought proactively land. The approach to landing, however, proved unusually laborious, with a good deal of lift extant quite far out from the ridge. Eventually, however, I found myself on what appeared to be a perfect trajectory for the aiming point tarp at the bottom and… maybe 30′ short I found my horizontal speed disappear and my body adopt a hovering position quite unexpectedly. Then, maybe 15′ above the ground, circumstances quickly converted from hover to plummet, I punched my fists to my hips to immediately engage a full flare while uttering some manner of curse, and hit the ground hard enough to be like “DAFUQ?” but gently enough that I rolled forward onto and through my knees without injury on the blessedly soft sand.
Moments later I looked up from packing my wing to see another pilot, Alex, suffer a similarly janky landing. Presumably the bottom LZ was offering some unusual low-level wind shear, the bane of pilots everywhere. But, happily, he was also sufficiently non-injured from the mishap to have his priority be getting me to take a photo of him. He turned out to be an out-of-town student of Super Fly who had just had his first experience of ridge soaring at the northside. It is kind of magical so I understand the desire to record the moment.
Journaling immediately subsequent to a flying session offers the best value, but we cannot always attain Perfection, and insisting on it may thwart Good Enough. So, laggard though I have been, here I am playing catch-up.
Thursday left me tingling. Circumstances made for the first day in a while where I could ski in the afternoon then fly in the evening. And ohhhhh the sunlight, leaving me drenched in sweet delicious Vitamin D… I was peeling off layers while skiing then dressed lightly when setting up at FPS ~1730. When I arrived at the flight park the conditions up top were wildly beyond my ability but down below I could get a good workout kiting in dynamic circumstances. The wind continually attenuated and as it did I forward kited my way up the hill. Eventually the wind dropped enough that I felt compelled to grab a sledder back to my car. At the bottom, however, I found the trailer arriving and grabbed a ride back to the top for one more sledder in the dying wind. On both flights I found no-wind conditions at the bottom, and thus my approach feeling quite hot, but both times I held my flare to the last moment then put it in hard and touched down gently. The next morning my L5-S1 disc offered its silent approval.
Friday morning’s session found me pinched between business obligations, before flying some contractual wrangling around an upcoming opportunity, afterward an exploratory conversation around another. I found myself again working uphill from the bottom to an eventual vanilla sledder. The interesting facet was the work toward a launch. Finding a moment to launch when I had neither a twig induced line pinch, nor a gust triggering cravat, nor competing traffic offered a struggle. Eventually, however, I made it work and chalked up a more-than-zero-but-not-that-inspiring kind of flying day.
Today, Sunday, offered nothing particularly inspiring in the realm of actual flying, but the ground handling component was fantastically valuable and confidence inspiring.
I arrived at FPS ~0815, was ready to inflate ~0830, found wind conditions just tipping past my comfort level, but decided to power through anyway. By the time I was inflating ~0835 the nearby sensor already showed 13G14, that inflation suffered some delays due to wing folds and line pinch knots, and yet with some help from nearby folks those impediments proved surmountable with an As-and-Cs inflation. By ~0840 the sensor showed 14G15 and it might have been that late by the time I got the wing up. I had to sit waaaaaay back to prevent the wing from pulling me toward the back of the hill, and I had to be very careful about brake pressure, but to my surprise I made it work. Sort of. I could not make it to the lip but never once did I feel out of control. At one point I yelled at a nearby Richard “I am regrettably close to you!” to which he calmly replied “I’ll stay down.” “What is the wind?” I asked, to which he replied “fifteen gusting seventeen”, which I felt ought have been alarming, and yet there I was managing my 37m wing tolerably well. Twice I got close to the edge, spun forward, and tried to approach a launch, but got plucked and tugged slightly backward. I vaguely recall a nearby instructor on one such occasion shouting “HANDS UP!” but on both occasions I touched down gently, spun back to a reverse position, and kept it together. Eventually, however, some manner of turbulence managed to deflate my wing, and before it could execute an explosive reinflation I ran askew it and rapidly spooled in 4-6 rotations of brake line to shut it down with confidence. I then took in several coils of rears before coiling the rest of the lines, ensuring no subsequent inflation would catch me off guard.
I decided that the strengthening wind and the messy state of my wing argued against attempting a side-hill launch and so packed up, drove to the bottom, and set about cleaning up my wing in controlled circumstances. I then forward-kited my way up the training hill to two successive sledders. On the first one the most notable thing was that on my final inflation the wing came up with a huge twig in it, I got plucked enough to end up in a forward facing position, I leaned backward while looking upward and slamming on the brake toggles to dislodge said twig, saw it come loose then pressed the gas to get going. I was mindful of safety issues and resolved them pre-flight but don’t love the possibility that I could have been forced into flight before fully resolving them. Probably the line pinch would have been no issue, but… more margins less problems. For my second flight the most interesting component involved the uphill progress to launch. The wind had gone very cross and I found myself struggling to accomplish a pre-flight ascent. At Joe’s suggestion, however, I worked on a technique whereby I would take two sets of As in hand wind-side and one on the other while also having the Cs in the other hand and brake toggles at the ready as well. The first few tries were a hot mess but then… everything just kind of clicked and I managed a really clean ~100′ uphill run with my wing diagonal to the fall line. It was like finally living first-hand the thing I had long jealously watched other people do. WOO! At the end of this run I spun forward, executed a snap safety inspection, then flew down to the bottom.
No epic flights today but a whole other level of ground handling that just shortly prior I did not know was within my power!
On Sunday morning I arrived at FPS shortly after 0900, noted some seriously crack-a-lackin wind up top (20-25MPH), pulled into the parking lot below, preemptively dumped my tank at the porta-potty (which apparently went for a flight in today’s 50G60), and was hooked into my wing by ~0930 for some bottom-hill practice.
I have found that 20-25MPH wind atop reliably creates just barely manageable combat kiting conditions below for my P2-rated ~300lb body strapped to a 37m tandem wing. I spent an invigorating and exhausting hour kiting in conditions regularly on the verge of plucking me and continually trying to hurl my wing into the ground. I am happy to report that despite the turbulent conditions my wing only reached the ground when I chose to allow it for want of a break. I mostly stayed on raw brakes and by the end my abs were burning from how hard I had to pull to stay on the ground and how rapidly I had to dance to stay under the wing. These be some weird ass cross-fit shenanigans where the equipment has a mind of its own.
By ~1000 Joe had parlayed one of his side-hill launches into some out-front soaring that looked fun and reasonably safe but caused me some concern. He was maintaining good distance from the hill and substantial clearance from the ground but I did not love the confluence of signals I was seeing. Spring is a notoriously messy season to fly, we’re both without experience flying in the spring, we were 2.5 hours after sunrise on a clear-sky day, the wind was quite strong (19G21), I was getting micro-plucked even being at the very bottom, and the seven wings aloft consisted of six hang-gliders and one paraglider (him). Nothing noteworthy happened to him, and I’ll admit to being mildly jealous, but we spoke at length afterward about how both of us should be reasoning about risk.
It’s hard to know whether some of our occasional out-of-sync’ness stems from my having a lower baseline tolerance for risk, my having recently had an extremely unsettling experience, his having had more time under wing, or some combination thereof. We’re also flying quite a lot which pushes two factors in opposite directions to unknown relative degrees: flying a lot keeps you current and progressing but simultaneously piles onto cumulative risk. Three nines reliability for catastrophic outcomes seems pretty safe unless you log one thousand flights.
Meanwhile Ariel was beginning his drive back to WA after four glorious months sojourning in the area. I’m sad to see him go but grateful for the mentorship I received owing to his visit. He arrived just as my P2 training under Ben was wrapping and thus provided a continuity of tutelage that doubtless played an outsized role in keeping me on a good path. The handful of home cooked meals I could offer as recompense seem inadequate to his tirelessly good-natured support. He represents the very best of this community.
The last time I had an experience as disconcerting as my previous session, circumstances blessed me with a delightfully vanilla flight the subsequent day to reset my mind state. That flight involved a quick Northside circuit ending with a top-landing after which I said “good enough!” and shut it down. I am grateful to have accomplished similar today though having four intervening days provided a lot of time to allow recent experience to play havoc with my head. Generally the best thing to do after a rough ride involves getting back onto the horse as soon as possible while also scoping the experience to a very short ride.
I arrived at the park by ~1620, took a moment to help Joe set up on an unfamiliar demo wing, swung by the restroom, then found myself fully geared up by ~1645. The wind proved cycling in intensity, varying in direction, and generally gross. In no hurry to fly in such conditions I spent 45 minutes kiting and parawaiting. The experience played very “Walmart parking lot” and I tried hard not to inflate with anyone downwind of me lest I clobber them. On one occasion I found myself getting tugged gradually but inexorably toward the cars and so took an extra wrap of the toggles, sprinted forward, snapped the brakes hard, and had the wing come down satisfyingly… right up until the point it gift-wrapped another pilot. UGH. Then no sooner had I sorted out that situation did another pilot get dragged by their collapsing wing through my lines. What a mess! Thankfully an assortment of generous onlookers helped us muddle through the ensnarements.
By ~1715 I sensed I might have an opportunity to launch. “You should probably not stand so close to me” I suggested to a nearby observer who was watching a friend get set up for a tandem flight. With them clear I reverse inflated, spun forward, and began fighting my way up the finger. “Holy crap that’s a big wing” they remarked (all of your flights are tandem flights when you are two humans worth of human). They wished me a nice flight, I eked my way past them, and then I got hard plucked, spun around, shut things down, and replied, “weellllppp, I guess not yet”. Another pilot fought her way past me in an attempt to launch and had about as much success, her wing collapsing into the tandem setup in a way that required some help to disentangle. Setup to go again she had an explosive inflation that resulted in her nearly colliding with me but she angled sideward and just managed to get it under control. She re-inflated and in time successfully fought her way forward to the lip of the finger for a launch.
With this data point and others offering encouragement I again reverse-inflated, spun around, and began fighting my way forward. It was some work. On a few occasions I got micro-plucked but scrupulously avoided brake pressure to keep in control. On other occasions the wing strived to surge past me but a timely combination of brake pressure and forward sprint kept things on the level. Maybe thirty feet short of the lip I found the wind taking an increasingly vertical aspect to a degree that I regularly quasi-hovered with just my toe-tips grazing the ground. As I came within striking distance of the lip I glanced rightward at the windsock and noted a substantial eastward component. Visions of my two-months-prior bush-entangling tumble down this very hill danced in my head and so I angled eastward to ensure a wind aligned launch. I saw an assortment of menacing bushes but also a path between them that I would follow. Feeling the wing tug me aloft I swung my feet upward to maximize my clearance and then focused on preventing the wing from getting ahead of me like nothing else in the universe could be more important.
And I was off. I swung rightward, wriggled backward into my harness, and then proceeded to make two or three circuits. The wind proved somewhat rowdy but non-crazy. With greedy flight extension being the furthest from my intentions I took an extremely conservative approach regarding ground clearance and pilot distancing. Having launched at ~1725 I was happy to accept a ~1735 landing after an uneventful experience. Meanwhile keeping touchdown smooth required an extremely aggressive flare which would seem to indicate a substantial downdraft at the LZ, corroborated but several pilots sinking out during my return hike.
Reaching the top I watched a crew of folks collaborating on a Project Airtime wheelchair tandem launch…
… the first of which was unsuccessful but quickly followed by a successful one…
Between these two attempts I observed something alarming and heretofore unseen: a pilot attempting to launch while flying through the adjacent gully. After they dipped out of view I sprinted to the other side of the finger and was relieved to see they were merely horribly entangled, seemingly more embarrassed than injured. “Do you need help?”, I shouted down. “I think I’ve got it”, came their sheepish reply. “I don’t believe you”, I thought, knowing all too well from a similar recent misadventure of my own that having help in this situation makes matters 10x-100x easier both logistically and emotionally. I worked my way around to the other side of the gully, saw that they were still badly ensnared, came over to their location, remarked “I was rescued from this only worse just a couple months ago so I am obliged now to help you“, and worked at lifting and disentangling their wing while they balled it inward. Eventually another person came over to help and we sorted things out in short order.
Having resolved this situation I hiked back up the field, retrieved my gear, and hoofed it up to my car. Along the way I ran into Ted who had months ago been the first to arrive on the scene of an ordeal of my own. He asked if I had had a nice flight, I replied that I had, and remarked on how it was always a bonus to get to help out someone in trouble given how many times other pilots had rendered assistance to me in difficult situations, remarking on the experience I had had a couple of months ago where Ariel got me disentangled but quickly realizing that it was Ted’s own arrival in one of my moments of need months earlier still that was presumably on his mind. This would have been less ambiguous if I could have managed fewer misadventures over my first six months of flying.
Later still I ran into Jeremy and we chatted for a bit. He had been one of the first people to reach out after my terrifying Monday misadventure, for which I was very grateful, and we spoke more on this and related matters. He also noted that he had just returned from a California flying trip that had included “putting a friend on a helicopter”. Yikes. This shit is real and your only defense is constant vigilance (also humility and gradual ramping up through lots of practice). Our conversation proved wide ranging but in one of the more memorable moments I found myself recounting and analogizing to a technical driving course I took a decade ago during my government days. During the high-speed track driving component an instructor remarked that we would be training in a succession of short blocks because our brains were not prepared to deal with such a high cognitive load for sustained periods without unacceptable degradations to safe operation. This feels highly relatable to my present quest to survive spring flying: I must engage in active piloting at a heretofore non-required level if I am to remain safe, that work will provide a draining cognitive load, and I would do well to execute this training in small bites to ensure I don’t unduly fuck it up.
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”.
I have been pretty good about journaling shortly after the day’s activities but not this time. I am presently writing on a Saturday evening about what transpired Wednesday morning. I offer no single reason for this, but rather note that I have been feeling a bit overloaded and burned out lately, a matter I will attempt to put to page elsewhere. For now I will power through on sustaining a worthy project despite the momentary fatigue.
I woke up at ~0430 on Wednesday, about 1.5 hours before I would have liked, but after accumulating a respectable six hours of sleep, so I resolved to stay awake for an early arrival at FPS, filling time with assorted mindless tasks and getting to the flight park moments after 0800, not long after dawn in our recently initiated daylight savings regime.
The wind sustained an intensity just short of soarable and a character messy enough to offer a fairly technical experience. I imagine I was geared up and inflating by ~0820 for what would prove a long initial kiting session. Like my last session I surprised myself with my ability to keep the wing in the air through a variety of struggles initiated variously by turbulent weather, students impatient to go on sledders, experienced pilots doing short loops with high-up side-hill landings, and the occasional tandem wing. I focused particularly on managing the disruption of a passing wing’s wake with rapid response braking followed sometimes by a let-off of the brakes coupled with a sprint forward to re-power a wing threatening to collapse, occasionally requiring a spin-around but often not and even then finding I could recover things.
Eventually I saw the trailer doing a lap and… I declined to do a sledder. I imagined sinking out just in time for the wind to strengthen and my return to come as it became too strong for a top-hill launch. I patiently continued with my kiting and… another trailer lap induced me to go for a sledder in the persistently slightly-short-of-soarable wind.
Just after launch something felt off. There was no way I was going to be able to ooch backward into a seated position. My leg straps had been too loose on launch, leaving me dangling strictly by the straps, with my tail bone below the seat-board such that no leverage could be found. Ugh. Not directly a safety issue, per se, as the straps should be able to hold my weight, and I am exceedingly diligent in pre-flighting them, but still I would much rather have my weight supported by the seat and in turn by the beefy carabiners, and furthermore I found this arrangement restricting my breathing at moment when I would have liked to have been catching my breath.
At first my approach was to aim directly away from the hill, thus building a margin for error to focus on the harness, but this proved futile and so I resolved to end the flight as expeditiously as possible. During what I hoped to be my penultimate track along the hill, heading east, I saw Joe slightly ahead of me and of a similar altitude looking back at me with what I took to be a concern that I was constraining his options. I deemed that he was carrying enough altitude that at worst I was imposing a convenience/enjoyment issue, not a safety issue, so I continued my track just slightly longer, my goal being to minimize the complexity of my flight while dealing with a compromised situation. I swung a 180 back to a westward track and aimed to land in the farther end of the parking lot, both to give Joe more breathing room to land and myself a longer final. I got down without incident but after several minutes aloft in a sufficiently uncomfortable configuration as to have being on the ground offering a huge relief. Oof.
Back at the top I re-geared and cinched in my leg straps with a mind to prevent that from recurring. And probably I slightly overdid it. Not too much later conditions amped up enough that reaching the ledge provided a modest struggle and once I got airborne attaining a properly seated position in the harness offered more of a challenge than it ought have, probably now because with snugger leg straps my shoulder straps were too constraining. Bleh. I got in a nice thirty minutes of soaring for my troubles, noting a launch of 0925 and a landing of 0950, but also other harness strap issues diminished the enjoyment. As the flight played out I felt an increasing burning in my neck and abs, indication that I was not getting the back support I need out of the harness. Presumably resolving this will entail better configuration of the lateral and seat straps. Guh. I gotz 99 problems and my straps are one. So many small details, so many nuances, so many micro-challenges to iron out…
At my next opportunity I need to spend some time suspended from the simulator playing around with my harness. I also clearly need to make a comprehensive assessment of my strap situation an integral component of my pre-flight and adopt a much more dynamic approach to them. I gather the widely varying amount of clothing I am wearing from one flight to the next makes this critical.
Also the hill is starting to get uncomfortably busy as we roll into spring, requiring much more active decision making about flight paths. I eventually sunk out on this flight as the result of getting repeatedly boxed out of the track I would have preferred to take. I would rather stay safe than risk getting pinned but landing much earlier than would have been necessary with an emptier hill or more thoughtful pilots is a bit frustrating. When there are ~25 wings in the air in such a confined space a combination of diligence and courtesy make for a much better community experience.
On my return hike I saw a pilot with his wing laid out in these nasty looking bushes in preparation for a launch. I was perplexed and alarmed that he would not have laid his wing out just a few feet lower in a location that offered no such obstructions. I had a mind to shout up to him as much, worrying that he would launch with lines impinged by ensnared twigs, but was distracted with trying to understand if the person standing not too far away was his instructor. In fact it was his instructor which makes the whole affair all the more upsetting. This sport offers adequate risk without taking pointless ones. This student reverse-inflated and with two ugly looking twigs pinching his lines together in different locations went for a flight anyway. Ugh. This offers a brutal reminder that at all experience levels it is you who are hooked to the wing, you who is responsible for all aspects of safety, and you who will have your body mangled as consequence for mistakes. Always be building safety margins to blunt the effects of bad luck. Adopt an attitude of “this will _probably_ be fine” at your own peril. And, when you see someone else doing something senselessly risky, don’t hesitate to tell them. It will be easier to live with a standoff-ish response from an ungrateful pilot than to see someone get hurt knowing that you might have prevented it.
On my way back to the top I took a moment to appreciate Brian’s finesse in taking someone for a tandem flight. I can barely do a high-wind side-hill launch by myself so watching tandem pilots do it with a whole other human complicating the situation is certainly a sight to behold.
Arriving at the top I ran into Chad and asked him if he had been flying. He remarked that he had just been on a quick sledder and decided to shut it down, noting that he felt he was in a mental fog, likely owing to the stressful experience of being in the final days of closing on a house sale. We spoke of the high consequences of this sport, the value of extreme conservatism in deciding to fly on any given day, and how the best thing you can do for the safety of other pilots is to scrupulously avoid providing _any_ pressure at all to fly. Everyone needs to be making that decision for themselves every day with great awareness not only of their general skill and current conditions but also based on whether their head is in the game. To the extent that one ever pressures another pilot about a decision it had better be to _not_ fly. Far better to be wrong in that direction than the other.
And now, possibly because I have of late been watching BoJack Horseman, I am imagining this dog trying to talk his human out of flying.
Late February: I’m out. Here’s four weeks notice. Think I’ll take a sabbatical, see the world, move to Utah, live the life…
Early March: Uh… COVID-19? Hrm…
Late March: Leeeeeeeeeeroyyyyy Jenkins!
April: I guess I could do some consulting while the world sorts its shit out.
May: Man I would love to pull the trigger on the Utah relocation but shit is getting weeeeeird.
June: I did not know what weird was.
July: This is not getting any better.
August: I guess I have to thread the needle of ongoing pandemic and impending civil war…
September: Leeeeeeeeeeroyyyyy Jenkins!
January: I did not know what weird was.
February: Man I am really starting to feel a new depth of weariness.
March: *Brain Melts*
What a strange, intense, educational, and disorienting year it has been… For everyone, yes, but I can only tell you how I have experienced it, and in my reality a big part of that has had a distinct “wherever you go, there you are” flavor to it.
Much about this past year has been awful but I would be remiss not to note that much has been wonderful: I experienced a renaissance in my cooking, dove into the novelty of consulting being my primary work modality, reconnected with a bunch of people over Zoom, moved to the outdoorsman’s paradise of my dreams, and took the time to decompress and process after a comprehensively horrific 2019. The freedom has been wonderful, yes, but in many ways also overwhelming, the lack of structure and inversion of contexts inexorably wearing me out. I’ve had to pull the brakes, step back, and reflect.
Arriving in Utah mid-September I gave myself about two weeks to decompress, deploy, and re-orient. Then I dove in with both feet: I bought a mountain bike, a rifle, and paragliding kit and lesson-pack. I was going hard all the time, to the point that my body was screaming at me, playing outdoors whenever circumstances permitted, and packing consulting work into the cracks when weather, injury, or fatigue forced a break. October and November were wildly intense, unlike any other period in my adult life, and incredibly satisfying, that period culminating in the accomplishment of attaining my initial paragliding rating. And then I launched into skiing season, racking up in just December as many days at Alta and Snowbird as I might have reasonably hoped to get in a whole season in recent years.
Blowing into January, I… was starting to feel off. Then we found our capitol overrun by violent extremists and I felt really off. But maybe this was a convenient excuse to feel off, placing it on external events and ignoring what I was doing to myself. Yeah, the world is kind of fucked, perhaps especially fucked presently, but also wherever Andrew goes there he is, and despite changing so many variables I was doing to myself what I have always done, cycling through periods of mania and depression.
Cooking was transitioning from an artful love to an obligatory grind. My engagement with social media was turning from an augmenting reality to an ashes-in-mouth replacement for real interactions. I was seeking out opportunities to ski and paraglide so aggressively that I was risking converting the most magical parts of my life into chores. With my consulting work packing into all the cracks between my outdoors adventuring I was warping a freedom producing arrangement into a No Days Off one. And with all of this the constant optimization problem was generating serious Decision Fatigue and the Always On attitude was gradually scorching my brain. I was doing an increasingly poor job reasoning about Opportunity Cost and Diminishing Returns.
I enjoy leisurely brewing pour-over coffee from precisely ground fresh beans and carefully managed temperatures…
… and, perhaps not coincidentally, I’ve found recently that I enjoy watering plants, especially when done with a contraption not unlike the kettle I use for coffee…
… but it’s worth noting that in the course of developing my paragliding cadence I cultivated a routine wherein I would rise from bed and grab an energy drink from a mini-fridge I had placed in the path to the toilet sitting on which I would ingest the day’s first caffeine coincident with excreting the night’s waste products, after which I would head downstairs to pound water and swallow vitamins while feeding the cats, then shower and dress and right before leaving scarf down a bowl of yogurt that also facilitated my swallowing a 200mg caffeine tablet. #efficiency #jackedupandgoodtogo
You can do that for a while, but it’s not a good permanent configuration, and yet there is a real danger of it becoming permanent when you have set up your daily life in the place you used to vacation. Hrm.
This past Thursday I spent a bunch of time cooking then had a really nice backyard dinner with friends…
… sufficiently nice that I drank just a little too much, the consequence of which was my first hang-over in longer than I can remember, definitely mild enough not to be debilitating, but real enough that flying would have been stupid, skiing probably would have felt gross, and working would have been inefficient. And so, quite by accident, I unexpectedly had “permission” to do fuck all with my day.
I wondered what I might do with this situation that would be out of the recent ordinary and thought I might play a computer game which apparently I hadn’t done for almost four (!) months…
I fired up my old friend Rocket League, ensconced myself in a large LoveSac, and… almost immediately the game crashed. And then I remembered part of the reason why I had fallen out of this habit. My PC has been a bit flaky since a nearby lightning strike shortly before I left Ohio and Rocket League became especially flaky after it migrated its back-end from Steam to Epic in the fall. I guess I was deep in the experience of getting my P2 paragliding rating when I gave up on Rocket League and the coping mechanism of computer games evaporated from my reality.
In this moment, however, I persisted, feeling a deep conviction that my present funk required a change in approach to escape. After trying a bunch of things the Internets suggested, only to have none of them fix the crashing problem, I found myself rolling up my sleeves and reading Rocket League’s debug log file, thus converting what was supposed to be a fun bit of decompression into something that felt lamentably like what I get paid to do. #nodaysoff Eventually I saw something that looked promising: “timed out while waiting for GPU to catch up”. Sonofabitch. I cranked down Rocket League’s graphics settings, the crashing stopped, and I got to playing for a bit.
I would take a break from gaming for a few hours to wrangle an assortment of stuff but then return for a pre-bedtime session and… wow I must have blacked out afterward the instant my body hit the mattress because I woke up at ~0200 feeling like I was being sous-vide’d because I had forgotten to crank down the Chilipad Ooler, then could not find my iPhone to do it, then went to ping my iPhone with my Apple Watch only to discover that it was not on my wrist (I would the following morning find it on the floor by the bed which has never happened previously), thankfully found my iPhone somewhere in the blankets which allowed me to dial down the heat, and then I blacked back out for another six hours of the deepest sleep in longer than I can remember.
That was a powerfully stark indicator that I’ve been kind of an asshole to my brain, depriving it of the care it needs, instead push push pushing all the damn time. I remarked to a friend at one point during this mini-journey that “I find myself wondering on why I allow things like this that I love to slip away” and that “maybe I get so busy doing the things I think I’m supposed to do in service of the person I think I’m supposed to be that I forget to be happy”.
And so on Saturday I plonked down the cash to buy a new high-end pre-built gaming PC. I’m realizing belatedly that I let my new Utah reality consume my whole being when really what I want is to integrate it into a larger collection of activities that in concert give me balance and happiness. And none too soon as I’m entering a particularly crazy part of the year where the mountains still have the snow for skiing but the hills are becoming ready for biking and thus the opportunities to play outdoors are truly overwhelming.
Early in my paragliding training Ben got into the habit of saying “you live here now” but the import of that has taken a while to really sink in. I would have to go turbo for several more months and reach a breaking point to really appreciate the meaning.
I don’t have to go paragliding just because the wind is perfect. I also don’t want to feel agitated when the wind is uncooperative for a long time. And I definitely don’t want to make exploiting the bounty Utah has to offer feel like a job. But I also don’t want an overly structured routine with an extremely smooth and predictable flow. I would like, rather, to find a way to surf seamlessly between an assortment of modalities and intensities and feel like they’re all OK.
That feels like my big overarching project for this year as I continue to re-invent my life, both personal and professional, and not fry my brain in the process, a very real risk for someone who spent most of his adult life living on the east coast and working a very conventional and predictable schedule. These are good problems to have but it would be folly not to accept that they are problems. Wherever I go, there I am, and this has been a very strange year indeed.
On Sunday evening I resolved to wake early enough to exploit what might prove a narrow band of fortuitous southerly wind just after dawn.
Come Monday morning, however, the wind looked wild and so I took my time, eventually arriving at FPS at 0830.
Seeing only a single lonely hang glider aloft I pulled into the bottom parking lot.
The wind up top was ripping sufficiently violently that I doubted even the safety of side-hill launches and so focused myself on simply kiting at the very bottom. And, if venturing into the wilder winds above felt inadequately foolhardy, the mob of students arrayed near the bottom of the training hill sealed my decision. Hard pass. I can appreciate why some of the more seasoned pilots have expressed a reticence to be at this flight park at all come Spring.
I was inflating my 37m at the bottom at 0845 when the wind at the top was 22G25. This is about the limit of what I can do comfortably on this size wing and I was on the cusp of being plucked more than once even at such a remove. And yet…
I had perhaps the best kiting session I have ever managed. I realized that, despite wind of wildly variable direction and intensity, I could keep my wing up indefinitely. In the end my bladder would prove the limiting factor. My hands danced between raw brakes and center As, my posture proactively adopted a seated stance, I employed opposite brake-and-A, and my legs danced both side-to-side and forward-and-backward in a way that ensured the wing always did my bidding. Whoah… I experienced this as a huge quantum of improvement. Just like that an assortment of techniques suddenly collectively crossed a critical threshold and the experience flowed.
At 0915 the wind briefly quiesced, my wing expressed a desire to descend, and I obliged it not just by staying off the As but also by running hard to the right to spoil its wind alignment while furthermore switching from raw brakes to brake toggles and subsequently spinning my wrists rapidly so they reeled in brakes like a trawler bringing in the nets.
Conditions were a bit wild and the wing was big but I always maintained full control and that felt really good. FPS is kind of awesome for the range of configurations it supports. What I was doing in this moment would have been reckless had I been at the top with the hoods of cars just tens of feet away but in this controlled environment at the bottom I could test and stretch the limits of my ability in a low-risk fashion. Win.
I thought I might re-join a couple of friends in the afternoon of their final day of a three day trip to Snowbird but with mineral basin and the tram shut for wind the value prop diminished sufficiently that sadly I passed. At least I had an awesome Friday with them.
I instead got to FPN at 1700 in hopes of some aerial shenanigans and… was moderately disappointed for my troubles, but not entirely. Driving to the park I could see only two hang gliders soaring, always a bad sign, owing to their operational range greatly exceeding that of paragliders. Arriving at the park I saw an assortment of paragliders kiting but experiencing a serious degree of violence. I did not even have to look at their wings to understand their plight. I could hear it. Crinkle-crinkle-crinkle-crinkle-woosh-SNAP.
Eventually I got brave enough to strap into my smaller wing, had ~15 minutes of messily interesting kiting practice and then… got plucked from a reverse-kiting position, found myself facing forward with my legs dangling in the air, thought to myself “I seem to flying” despite being on a wing sized for someone half my weight, was extremely careful to decouple the messy reality of my torso and legs from my brake inputs, and plopped back down only somewhat sloppily, grazing my butt on the ground briefly and quickly returning to a reverse-facing position, and ran hard rightward of my partially depowered wing while reeling in brake lines around my wrists like my soft tissues depended on it. With the wing fully under control I enquired whether Joe might terribly mind sitting on the center cells while I packed it up.
After that I took a break and observed the wind. Some people began to fly but Ben remarked that this was likely more a matter of degrading standards than improving conditions. After some time the wind attenuated enough that I felt I could safely strap into my 37m wing but then conditions collapsed so quickly that I could barely inflate. Bah. Can’t win’em all. I did not get to fly but I got some really valuable ground handling experience.
Wanting to wring what experience I could from the moment, I experimented with a different-than-usual way of packing up my wing. Whereas ordinarily after plopping it in rosette form in the middle of my stuff-sack I walk around its full circumference and stuff it inward I instead stayed at the top of the rosette and repeatedly sucked the wing inward to the center. I found that without much effort this afforded me a sufficiently more compact pack that I could not only pull in the drawstrings but also entirely close the outer zip, thereby converting the pack from the usual floppy spherical-ish mess into a tight pill-capsule-like form that would sit stably on my back. That felt like a tiny but important victory, preparing me for arduous hikes by gleaning critical efficiencies.
This certainly represents a privileged problem to have, but… I am struggling to choose the right course of action at any given moment and paying a price of frustration and fatigue with some regularity. The demands of my work prove bursty and so, too, does the amenability of the weather to my hobbies. In this weird time, meanwhile, self-care seems more critical than ever. Without the right attention to my wellbeing I sink into a funk and that state in turn saps my energy which can take me on a downward spiral for days at a time. I must be analytic and strategic to avoid this pit of despair.
Last week I went skiing on a Tuesday, meant to ski on a Thursday but prioritized work, might have flown on Friday morning but had had a garbage night’s sleep from a glut of work-related stress, chose to fly Friday afternoon vs ski but caught mediocre wind that diminished the pleasure of the experience, got sucked deeper into work-related conundrums over the weekend to the detriment of flying, managed to ski Monday afternoon but then worked late afterward in a way that jacked up my sleep, and by Tuesday found myself mired in a deep pit of jet black agony.
Come evening, however, I had rolled a huge work-related rock over a hilltop, made from-scratch coal-fired pizza while sipping whiskey, and capped it off with a great night’s sleep. By morning I felt like a new human. I ate a small breakfast, knocked out several successful hours of work, ate a satisfying lunch, and… found myself contemplating a regular puzzle. Do I scoot up to the mountains for some skiing, committing to a guaranteed-ish value proposition, or do I role the dice on the wind forecast and commit to flying? Today, surveying the gamut of options, constraints, and odds, I chose the latter.
As the afternoon burned away I wondered if I had made the right choice. I thought about going to FPS as early as 1430 for some side-hill practice but wondered if even that might prove too wild. Eventually I headed that way by 1615 but wondered if I had waited too long, so ambiguous were the conditions that I pondered waiting a bit longer on the thought that FPN would be the right call. I arrived at the bottom ~1630, waited for Joe to arrive, suggested he leave his jeep at the bottom, then ferried him and his gear to the top, leaving us a vehicle at the bottom for a quick return trip as a hedge against weak wind.
On three occasions I found myself patiently waiting for a puff of wind, sniping such an opportunity with a timely reverse inflation, backpedaling aggressively to buy myself just enough time to inspect my lines while holding the center As, then spinning forward and slamming the throttle to the wall. Each time it felt smooth, natural, safe, and effective. Satisfying.
On the first go, Joe launched just moments before me, I arrived at the bottom shortly after he did, and we blazed back to the top. Joe seemed inclined to call it a day but I was in the “once moar unto the breach” camp and game for a return hike. I quickly got going with the expectation that he would quickly follow but… from the bottom I watched him make several abortive attempts to launch. I texted observations from my distant vantage hoping he would successfully launch and join me for a return hike but it was not happening. Eventually he pinged me with the suggestion that he would give me a return ride to the top and the ask that I help him figure out his forward inflation woes. And so I did.
We had him walk through his setup while I closely observed what he was doing. In this process I realized that his right hand was habitually acquiring the As from a forward position in a fashion that was yielding a twist. After having him reset and work through this several times we felt he had sorted out the problem with some permanence and saw him off to a launch.
After getting him on his way I quickly strapped in, waited for my wind, then sent it. By the time I reached the bottom Joe was already making haste to execute his return hike. When I enquired as to the rush he noted he was at material risk of being late for his wife’s birthday party. I wished him well and during my solitary hike wondered what was the most dangerous thing he had done today.