Hikes, bears, bushwhacking, and moonlight rotor.
March 27, 2017 / Mitch Riley
After returning to Santa Barbara from my adventure filled summer in the Alps, I got right back to work teaching paragliding students and doing tandems in beautiful Santa Barbara, California. Sept 15th was my first day off, and I was in the mood for a memorable day. The winds aloft forecast showed light winds, and the day was predicted to be sunny. I called my good friend Andrew Byron and asked if he wanted to do a hike and fly off Little Pine Mountain. “Sure”, he said,
‘I get off work at 11pm, and don’t have to work till 2:30pm tomorrow”.
‘Really? We need to start hiking at 6am and the trailhead is at least 1.5 hours from your house.” I said, fully expecting him to opt out. “Great, send me the trailhead location” was his only reply. Dedicated adventure buddies are a wonderful thing.
We met at the trailhead just as the first pink and purple colors of morning were braking the nights darkness. Facing us was a sign saying “Area Closed, due to recent fires...” We looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders and started walking the trail. The area we were entering is normally a huge wilderness area with only the occasional single track trail and even more occasional grandfathered in Off Highway Vehicle rough dirt road. The whole area being closed meant that it was now just us, in this huge rugged area we would not see or be seen by anyone. If you want to imagine the terrain we were in think back to all the western movies you have ever seen. Think about the driest, dustiest most rugged landscape on display in those movies and you will get the idea. Flying back here would challenge all our flying skills, and landing out would challenge our survival skills. The trail entered an apocalyptic, ash-covered, firescape. the air was still and smelt strongly of mass burning. The early morning was completely silent, even our footfalls muffled by two inches of fine grey ash, leaving the only tracks for miles around. I couldn't help but think that it was beautiful, the lack of color, sound and life gave a chance at rebirth. Come spring this same area will be teaming with fresh wildflowers, bugs, birds and rodents. All those species will have to adapt to fill the very specific niches presented to them.
I hadn't seen Andrew since my return to the States and we soon passed the time with funny stories, philosophical discussion, and flying geek talk. Andrew has been flying for just over a year. He has worked his ass off to progress in his skills, knowledge and risk assessment. He asks the right questions, and does a good job interpreting the answers. This is not a mission for a novice pilot, but Andrew has proved to me time and time again that he is humble, capable of making wise decisions, and knows his limitations. The hike passed quickly with lots of laughs among good friends.
Upon finding a good takeoff we saw hawks catching small thermals and not going very high with them. Only one guy had ever flown off this mountain before, as far as I know, so we needed to be ultra perceptive about what the air, birds, ash, landscape and sky were telling us about what to expect, decisions to make, and actions to take. There was a defined haze/inversion line showing on the horizon, at about our altitude. Hawks where catching small sharp thermals just out in front, but only taking them a couple hundred feet before gliding in search for another.
The recent fires cleared out a nice takeoff for us.
We dragged our feet for as long as my patience would allow before I set up to launch(around 9:45am, you cant fly all day if you don’t start in the morning). In the air I found plenty of small weak thermals, but getting more then 150ft above takeoff was not happening. I toplanded to take care of a radio issue, told Andrew that it was working and soon we were both in the air. We bounced along the mountain, struggling to gain much altitude, and soon Andrew went on glide toward his motorcycle and an evening of working as a Navy aircraft controller. Now I was flying back there alone and I had an internal dialogue that went something like this; ‘Its got to be working up in the higher deeper terrain, dive back there’. ‘Yeah, but thats really really deep, there aint shit out there’. ‘Your strong as shit, you have plenty of food and water, what are you afraid of? Walking? Sack up Mitch, its double down time.‘ And thus I talked my self into diving one spine deeper. That one didn't work much better, so... Yep, you guessed it, I dove deeper... and deeper....and deeper. Soon I was close to the bigger mountains, and properly in the middle of nowhere. I needed one smallish crossing and a thermal off a lowish spine to get to big rocky stuff that was bound to be above the unrelenting inversion. As I made the crossing I looked down to see no trails in the shrub covered landscape below me. There was one small open looking meadow at the bottom of a canyon, and that was the only landing option anywhere near my intended trigger. I remember thinking ‘its more then an 8 hour walk out from there, don’t land there.‘ I arrived at the spine, but didn't make it work, searching, searching, searching and nothing. When I was low enough for no other choices, I flew to the meadow and landed in tall green grass, a rarity in these parts. I balled up my glider and set it in the shade next to a giant pile of fresh bear shit. I then took off most of my sweaty flying clothes but opted to keep on a long-sleeve Helly Hansen shirt and some women's leggings ( purchased in an Austrian supermarket on a cold night in the Alps) on as cover against the multitudes of Poison Oak plants that are famous for ruining beautiful nature memories in this area. The unusually numerous green healthy plants in the area led me to believe there was a spring to find, so I left my gear next to the bear shit and went to find the water. I topped up my water supply, drank my fill, all while my smartphone played Stevie Nicks tunes. I was in a great mood, and decided to walk a little ways out the canyon till I could get to a slope to scramble up and find a relaunch.
Bear shit and a Delorme.
The canyon bottom was thick with logs, plants, and natural debris. The easiest passages were bear tunnels, and I found myself alternating between crawling under debris, and using log bridges to walk above. I was on one such log bridge, that was about as thick as a 26” bike rim, looked strong, and made no sounds as I put my weight on the first portion of its span. When I reached the middle this natural bridge made an awful, for me (there is no good or bad in nature;), braking sound, and I went crashing through smaller logs, sticks, and debris to the ravine floor 8ft below. When I settled I reached out to steady myself and saw that my right ring finger angled at 90 degrees toward my pinky at the ring knuckle. I concentrated on long steady breathing for five breathes to settle my nerves, and then pulled traction on it with my other hand. It reduced back to a “normal” position with a lessening of pain, and no harsh sounds. ‘Phhue’, I though ‘just a dislocation. Shit! You should have taken a photo’. I got up and continued down the canyon, bushwhacking with just one hand. I passed another spring where the water briefly pooled before cascading down a waterfall only to disappear back into the ground. I took a moment in that spot to appreciate how amazing being In the middle of nowhere, among beautiful scenery, with all I need was. I felt incredibly fortunate for all I have and have learned, the health the skills and the boldness that allow me to pursue these unique experiences.
My beat up hand, and swollen knuckle, just after I relieved the dislocation.
This little oasis of water is a wonderful site in drought stricken California.
Soon I arrived at the steep, loose, shrub crowded slope that I needed to ascend. I was protecting my hurt hand, which at this point was throbbing in pain, and the scrambling/bushwhacking/climbing was very slow. The soil was of the dry gravel and dust variety that allows half a step up for every two attempted and quickly fills the very fibers of your shoes. The Plants were thick, sometimes poisonous shrubs with a plethora of sharp sticky pieces, and the sun was baking. I had turned off the tunes to conserve battery power, and I’ll admit that my moral was not not high. I had to give myself a little talking to; ‘Come on Mitch, that pain is just data. You can climb, you can move, you can force yourself through these plants, make it to the top of this slope, get it done’. The pep-talk did the trick and although I was not pumped I was able to take all emotion out of the experience and just get to work at making slow progress up that slope. Hours later I found myself at the top of a ridge, with a rough dirt track in sight. I made it to the rough track and reveled in the feeling of walking upright, full strides without having to fight through plants and rocks.
Fighting my way through this stuff with only one usable hand.
This old road follows a ridge that leads back to where I had launched from hours before. I walked it hoping to see evidence of lift and a place to launch. I didn't find either. The birds were still not going high, and launch places were sketchy at best. Another landout now would mean spending the night out, and missing work the next day. The time passed in a nice easy, fast walk.
Hours later the throbbing in my hand ceased and I started jogging on the dirt road towards Little Pine Mountain, my original takeoff, in an effort to fly before the sun disappeared under the horizon. The fire scorched, ash covered, desert landscape was bathed in the bright reds and pinks as the sun filtered through the dense, hazy marine air under the inversion. As I neared a suitable takeoff a moderate north, over the back, wind pulsed through and then eased again. On my chosen takeoff the wind was almost imperceptibly over the back, the catabolic, downward flowing air of the evening had set in. My internal dialogue went something like this; “Its catabatic Mitch, you might have to walk down in the dark, you have a headlamp no biggy”, “screw that, Im flying off this mountain, get the glider out of the bag and check the lines before it gets dark”, “Mitch, be careful, there are no landings down on the North side, and its already pitch dark down there”, “I got this, the North wind is increasing, Im going to be able to soar the north side then dive over the back and land near the truck.” As I cleared the lines in the last sunlight of the day and the landscape took on its moon glow the North wind increased to soaring velocity.
Jogging on a fire break towards my final takeoff of the day, while the sun quickly goes under the horizon.
I inflated my glider and kited it to a spot with just a few burnt-out tree skeletons over the lip. I had to run forward and create a little lift while entering the lift band to clear the sharp, burt tree-limbs. It was spectacular, I was soaring the back side of Little Pine mountain bathed in moonlight. I knew that the dive over the back would be turbulent, and that I had no landings under me, but I was able to relax and enjoy the amazing sensations that soaring in smooth air, over a gorgeous landscape, under a full moon can bring. Internal dialogue: “Aaawww this is awesome, maybe I should stay up here for a while”, “No F-ing way man, get your maximum altitude and dive over, you are in a super sketchy spot, if you sink out your going to be spending the night out with you glider tangled in bushes in the best scenario. Dive over soon.” So I dove over the back into rotorville. It was turbulent, but I’ve been in rougher air. I handled the glider well, and stayed loose, attentive, and positive. Soon I was through the worst of it and tracking lee side convergence lines, and magic air pockets towards the Paradise Valley. It was like flying on a totally different planet, with the moonlight illuminating the ash covered rocky terrain, while I circled in rowdy columns of lifting air. Once I had the Paradise Valley within glide I took my time, enjoying the unique experience of turning circles in lift under a full moon, out there on my own in a that spectacular landscape. Eventually I went on full speed glide, valley wind was cranking, to land right next to my truck at the Lower Oso campground, in 30+kms of wind.
What a fantastic day out!!
I had many amazing adventures in the Alps this summer, and Il be sharing some of those soon. I am pumped that right outside my door I can have an adventure in the wilderness, that requires and tests my skills, boldness, and optimism. Here’s to being Back in the USA!!