Friday, March 30, 2007

Heckler’s Tree

Written by Rich McManus

It was about 6:30 am in a heavy drizzle when Ashley pulled into the QFC parking lot in North Bend. She saw us right away. There was no one else in the parking lot - in the cold wet drizzle at that time of the morning. Bob Rinker, Mark Heckler, Mark’s dog Toby, Scott Lovell, and I were moving gear between cars and laughing about the slim likelihood of actually flying.

Bob had posted an email with the nwparagliding Yahoo group lobbying for pilots to accompany him on a hike-n-fly that morning. Of all those that read the invitation - only the five of us were there to attempt to hike and fly the fog, drizzle, and rain obscured Mt. Si. Ashley looked skeptical of the whole idea. She asked if any of us had checked the weather that morning. I laughed - I knew if I had checked the weather I would never have come. After a short chat regarding the length of the hike, the gain in elevation, and the likelihood of actually flying, Ashley decided she would rather not spend the morning hiking in the rain, loaded down with paragear, only to arrive at the summit, wait to not fly, get really rain-soaked, and then hike down - Which seemed the likely outcome of this adventure… She was obviously the only reasonable individual in the group.

The rest of us climbed into Bob’s car and followed Mark to the trailhead. We left Scott’s car at the QFC. At the Mt. Si trailhead, Mark told us that he thought we should hike up by “the back way” - an old logging road that in the long lost past had been used by hang glider pilots to access the mountain. “So if we can’t fly - we can hike down the main trail and do a loop.” Bob had a concerned look as he asked about this “back way.” Mark assured all that he had hiked the route in the winter and knew the way. Bob still looked concerned. At the time, I didn’t know that Bob had experience with Mark’s route-finding expertise…

Photo caption: Hopelessly lost, we decided that if we ran out of food we would eat Mark first. (We donned helmets to stay dry - having left our umbrellas in the car to save weight).

Hopelessly lost...

So Mark and Toby hopped in Bob’s car and we headed to this alternate trailhead - that doubled as a school bus stop. Bob started the car, turned on the windshield wipers, and put the car in drive - then Bang! “Ruff!!, Ruff!!, Ruff!!”, Mark’s dog shot between the seats and slammed against the windshield, barking wildly. I was riding shotgun and struggled to peel him off the dashboard. Mark said calmly, “He hates windshield wipers…”

After only one short detour, we found the bus stop. Sure enough - a dirt road - that Mark assured would take us to the old hang launch. The road was gated and in excellent condition. Off we went. Time went by easily as we gabbed, laughed, and hiked up the road in the fog, drizzle, and occasional rain. Mark had said that toward the top we would find a side road that would lead to the hang launch. And, sure enough we found what looked like a road heading off into the snow after a couple hours of hiking. Yes - snow. There was about 3 feet of show remaining in the woods on either side of the main dirt road. So we tramped off into the snow, occasionally post-holing, trudging through snow, in the fog, the drizzle, and occasional rain…

The “road” seemed to disappear and we found ourselves bush-whacking through the woods - post-holing in two to three feet of snow, in the fog, the drizzle, and occasional rain. Then I understood Bob’s concern when Mark brought up the idea of an alternate route… We went on for a couple hundred yards and emerged from the snow onto the western side of the ridge. Mark claimed to see the Mt. Si haystack through the trees ahead. The rest of us thought he was hallucinating. Bob and I were dropping crumbs to facilitate road relocation should Mark ‘Pocahontas’ Heckler get us hopelessly lost… At one point we gave up, decided to bag the whole idea of flying, and head down when Bob thought he saw a more promising route through the woods. Always the optimist, Bob post-holed off in the snow in a new direction. Willing to follow a friend in folly, the rest of us post-holed after him - in the drizzle, the fog, and occasional rain…

Finally, we emerged from the woods, found the hiking trail, and found ourselves at launch - in the fog, the drizzle, and occasional rain. Launch conditions were less than optimal. Ignoring the fog, the drizzle, and occasional rain, we couldn’t even see the valley below. We were confident there was a valley below because we had been there before - but it was totally obscured by heavy cloud cover - so we waited - in the fog, drizzle,and occasional rain…

We found sheltered spots amongst the rocks and settled in to let the weather improve. If you look up at Mt. Si from North Bend - on a day when the summit is not obscured by clouds - you’ll see the obvious rock point that jets up from the summit ridge. That’s the Hay Stack. Launch is just to the right: A steep rocky slope that terminates at a cliff about 30 yards down slope. Large boulders mark the launch to the right, and Heckler’s Tree marks the launch on the left. As I understand the story, the 30-foot tall pine earned the name Heckler’s Tree after Mark spent quality time suspended in it on two occasions.

So we waited in the fog, the drizzle, and occasional rain. After about an hour we decided it was about time to give up and head down. It was decided that we would wait until noon and then pack up. At five-till noon the cloud cover broke - momentarily. It was enough for us to see the ground and there was a light breeze blowing directly up launch. We were good to go! Bob was the first to get ready. He waited for a break in the clouds - then pulled up his wing - oops - as his wing came up, a steering line caught on a rock and the wing came up facing Heckler’s Tree. Bob turned to launch, Mark yelled “Right!”, Bob took three steps and applied right break, and flew into Heckler’s Tree.

Scott deftly scampered up the tree to initiate wing removal procedures. It took about 30 minutes to free Bob, and for take-off conditions to improve to marginal. Mark laid out and put Toby into his flying harness. Mark says he likes to fly. The wind was right, the visibility lousy, Mark looked over his shoulder (likely couldn’t see anything), brought his wing up and off he went. I was next - laid out, waited for a good cycle, looked over my shoulder (definitely couldn’t see anything), brought the wing up, and off I went.

It was a magical flight. There were layers of clouds up and down the valley. Above, below, left, and right. It made for a wild scene. After a couple of minutes I located the North Bend QFC and spied Mark cruising in that direction. The flight was smooth and uneventful. I saw Scott take off and follow me out. Landing was a bit stressful. We landed in the softball fields behind QFC where Bubba and his eight best friends were having batting practice. On final I was a bit concerned about being on the wrong end of a ground-rule double, but landed uneventfully.

We packed up and waited for Bob to follow, but no wing appeared. Finally we got a phone call. The instigator of this adventure was unable to fly. The lines of his glider were hopelessly tangled. He was going to walk down. But at least he could walk down the trail and do a loop!