Sunday, November 30, 2008

Eagle Flight



Chuck Rhodes

14 May 2002

In the late spring of 1985 I went to fly the great Owen's Valley of California. Here the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the west, and the White-Inyo’s to the east, form the Owens Valley in between. From the summits of the towering 13-14 thousand foot peaks on both its east and west sides, all the way down to the valley floor averaging around 3000-4000’ above sea level, it is America's deepest valley. Due to this unique geography the Owens can produce some of the strongest thermals and most magnificent and demanding soaring conditions in the United States, if not the entire world. For this reason it has been called the “Mt. Everest of Hang Gliding”!

I had launched my Progressive Air - Pro Star 190 flex wing hang glider around 1030 in the morning at the eastern Sierra take off site known as Horseshoe Meadows. The Horseshoe launch is located on the eastern slope of the Sierras above the southern end of the
Owens Valley. At about 18 miles south of Mt. Whitney as the crow flies, the take off area is on the side of a mountain and faces southeast. It overlooks the southern region of the Owens valley and the Owens Dry Lake bed, well over 4000’ below. During the soaring season hang glider pilots from around the world seeking long, high cross country flights flocked to Horseshoe Meadows. There their dreams of record breaking 100 + mile flights along the high spine of the Sierras and White-Inyo mountains could potentially be realized. Several flights of well over 200 miles had started here and altitude gains to 15-18,000’ were common. Rough mountain air turbulence, strong down drafts, and afternoon high desert winds were also not uncommon adding to the challenge, difficulty, and potential danger of flying the Owens.

Soon after taking off I hooked a good thermal and climbed out rapidly to about 2000’ above launch. Soaring and circling upwards past the top of the high ridge north and behind the launch site, suddenly the entire snow covered range of the Sierra Nevada Mountains sprang into view. The sky that morning was a deep blue contrasted against the brilliant white high mountain snow fields and grey-brown rocky peaks. A few wispy white cumulus clouds were beginning to form high above indicating good soaring conditions. Numerous lakes, some still frozen, dotted the high Sierra alpine valleys below as far north and south as the eye could see. Directly to the North was the lofty 14,495’ peak of Mt. Whitney, the highest mountain in the continental United States outside Alaska. Climbing higher in continuing good lift to 13,500 I flew straight toward it over jagged rocky peaks, sheer granite walls and sharp precipitous rock ridges.

Slowing about 5 miles from Whitney to gain more altitude in a small thermal I climbed up to around 14,900' and soared directly on until I was directly over the summit of Whitney. I could see several mountain climbers coming up near the top, now only about 500' feet below me. It was a magnificent view. Wanting to put cross country miles behind me however, I took one last look at Whitney and continued my glide north.

Unfortunately I failed to encounter any thermals and began to slowly lose altitude. About 10 -15 miles farther north I was down to 11,000’ and desperately looking for lift. When you are in this area, and find yourself down to approximately 10,500' with no lift, you have to head east out over the Owens Valley. This is because the only available safe landing areas are way out beyond the western valley floor. Here the valley is full of steep foot hills, sharp treacherous volcanic flows and generally rough terrain. Because of this if I did not find lift very soon I would have no choice but to turn while I still had enough altitude to glide out to a safe landing area on the valley’s east side.

Then just at the last minute I spotted two big Bald Eagles not 300 yards from me and lazily circling up in light lift over against the side of the mountain. I turned left and headed right for them hoping to catch the same thermal lift they were riding. I fully expected the eagles to be scared off and fly away. However, much to my surprise and delight the eagles did not leave. As I entered the thermal and started to circle they instead closed in to about 10 – 15 feet off my wing tips, one eagle on the left and the other on the right. Together the three of us made big lazy circles slowly gaining altitude in the light 200-300 foot per minute up lifting air. The eagles perfectly matched my speed and turn radius while sticking like glue to my wing tips as we soared ever higher. I could see their beautiful white heads, sharp yellow beaks and bright eyes turned and looking intently at me. I was able to clearly see their primary wing tip feathers moving up and down in the airflow vortex off their wing tips while their tail feathers banked from side to side subtlety controlling their flight.

Together we watched the mountain get smaller and craggier as we circled and circled in the thermal climbing ever higher toward its peak. Lift began increasing to over 500 feet per minute at around 12,500’ and each turn took us rapidly closer to the summit, the Eagles still with me all the way. I could not help but think that I was the luckiest guy in the world right then. To soar with these majestic birds in their own element, to feel the same sensation of cold crisp mountain air blowing past your body, hearing only the sound of the wind whistling off your wings, was like a dream. It was as if these graceful but powerful and magnificent soaring creatures of the sky were welcoming me into their world and I was one of them!

As we climbed higher, following the SE side of the mountain face and circling only a couple hundred feet or less from the rocks, I noticed a puffy white cumulous cloud forming about 2000' over the summit. Suddenly we zoomed up past the 13’000’ craggy frozen granite rock that was the mountains summit. We kept on circling and climbing while the mountain dropped away beneath us. Up and up we went 13,500, now 14,000, and still climbing. One man bird and two magnificent American Bald Eagles still stuck to my wing tips. At 15,000 we were right under the cloud and at 15,500 the wispy damp cold fingers of cloud base began to envelop us. I could climb no further without experiencing white out inside the cloud. Suddenly the eagles peeled off and headed south to points unknown in the high Sierra skies. I turned sharply north, yelled “Yeeeee Haaaw” in an incredible expression of excitement as I continued flying on northwards along the eastern spine of the Sierra. I flew straight on course for about 10 more miles maintaining and then slowly beginning to lose altitude.

By then I was still over the eastern slope of the Sierras but just southwest of town of Bishop California. I had only lost about 1000’ since parting formation with my Eagle friends and was down to around 14,500. It was around 12:30 and time to fly over to the White-Inyo Mountains to the East. Once the sun gets high overhead the Owens Valley floor, and then the western slopes of the White-Inyo’s, begin to heat up. This frequently generates strong thermals allowing you to soar across the valley and on northward along the Whites and beyond into the late afternoon.

So I turned east and headed out 10-12 miles crossing over the mighty Owens Valley to the White Inyo Mountain Range just north of Westgart Pass. However, finding no lift but considerable descending air instead as I flew faster over the wide valley floor to maximize my best glide ratio. Still, I continued losing altitude quickly. I was down to around 6500’ when I arrived over the western foot hills of Black Mountain in the Whites. Desperate to find another thermal and to avoid a subsequent pre-mature end to my flight by having to land there, I finally hooked a small, bumpy, but workable thermal back up to 11,000. Continuing on farther North I found additional strong tight and bumpy thermals but they were all petering out around 11 to 12 thousand. Luckily as I flew north and the White-Inyo range got higher I finally caught a good one taking me back up over 14,000’. Then passing just west of the spectacular 14,252’ summit of White Mountain Peak, third highest in California, I could now see the north end of the White-Inyo range stretching far out into the Nevada high desert.

I continued on and out over the end of the range but by then the thermals were weakening, I was cold, tired, and somewhat hypoxic from prolonged high altitude flying and knew it was time to come down. Finally after flying over 6 ½ hours I landed in Nevada 103 miles to the north of the Horseshoe Meadows take off. My driver, whom had followed and maintained radio contact with me during the flight, was waiting there at the landing zone. Upon landing, unhooking from the glider, and squirming out of my harness, he presented me with several well earned and ice cold congratulatory beers.

Although physically exhausted, dusty, but warming back up quickly now that I was down in the desert heat, I found my thoughts quickly racing back up into the cold crisp high altitude air. I could only think, “What an incredible flight! Soaring for miles and miles above the high snow covered peaks and up to the wispy base of the white clouds. No engine except the sun’s energy and warm rising air to power me through the skies. Seeing the world far below for hundreds of miles in all directions. Flying wing tip to wing tip with Bald Eagles! Hang gliding had made this possible. What a sport! What an experience!! I am alive, my life renewed and rewarded beyond all expectation.

Now looking back to that wonderful day I was thrilled, yet totally humbled, to have been one of the lucky few among human kind to have truly soared with eagles! Those few fleeting moments we had shared in the skies high over the Sierra would forever live on in my mind and soul. I knew then beyond all doubt the special honor they had bestowed upon me. They let me soar beyond the human experience into their realm and within the true spirit of the Eagle. Even now, many years later, that spirit remains with me. Whenever I spot an Eagle, or another of the great soaring birds flying high overhead, I am one with them. For there I have been and forever there I shall remain.


P said...

Fkn Wild !!

billy vaughn said...

Fantastic! I want to read more--thanks for sharing the flight Chuck!