Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Tiger to Blanchard

by Matty Senior

Ask any Seattle pilot and they will tell you, “Tiger Mountain’s an afternoon site. No body flies there before noon in fact the 1st shuttle to launch doesn’t leave until 12:30, you have to wait until the day heats up and the sun moves around to light up the hill”. For years I subscribed to this same view I just assumed that years of experience from other pilots and the fact no body ever launched before lunch time were a pretty good indication that it was in fact an afternoon site. 

Some days especially in the spring you can find perfect looking cumulus clouds peppered across the sky sometimes as early as 8-9am I’ve always stared at those clouds wondering why no one was in the air taking advantage of these perfect looking clouds. Why wasn’t I in the air? So few weeks ago I picked a good day and hiked up at 9:30 excited about the possibilities of maximizing the day and trying to fly as far as I could. The forecast was predicting cloud base to be around 6500feet, a south west wind at 5-10knots and from what I could see there was a slight chance of overdevelopment. So I had figured if I can get in the air by 11am and fly north with a light tail wind try and stay under the clouds it should be possible to make it to  Sumas at the Canadian Border before the lift ends sometime after 6pm. 

At the trail head the sky was 95% blue with the only four small cumulus clouds dotted down wind from the West Tiger summit. After emerging from trees on the south launch I was stunned to see that things had developed quickly in the 45 minutes it took me to hike the trail. The sky had changed to 80% cloud cover reinforcing the need to get off the hill as quickly as I could to avoid getting caught on the ground, all shaded out. 

Launching into a good cycle I climbed straight to base gliding off down wind under some clouds towards the only sunny patch available within glide. Arriving there low I found only light broken lift that alluded me putting me on the ground in less than 30 minutes 7km into my big plan.
Frustrated and excited at the same time I packed up quickly and was retrieved by good friend Drew McNabb on his way to Tiger so I could catch the 12:30 shuttle and have another crack at it. I was frustrated at that fact I’d dirted so early, but excited to confirm my suspicions that those lovely looking AM cumulus clouds do in fact indicate good lift just like their afternoon cousins. 

On Launch for the second time the sky had changed once again, now with 40% cloud cover and big fat wide streets running downwind.  Launching into a blue hole at 1:20 I didn’t have the success I did on the 1st attempt. I took me 30 minutes to climb to base and get in position to head off. Once I did I found the blue hole that was around launch extended down wind for a long way. 

It was super frustrating to have such a painstakingly slow climb out while the rest of the sky looked so amazing. As I reached base my gut feeling about dirting again by going down wind just got stronger and stronger so I decided to quarter the wind to the west and try and link up with a great looking cloud that had broken off the top a Squak Mt. about a mile west of Tiger. Finding only light lift under the cloud as it drifted downwind of its source I found my self Thermalling above down town Issaquah for another 20 minutes before I had the height to link up with my 1st cloud street of the day. 

Once I reached the leading edge of the cloud street and the lift became more organized is started to get super excited. Excited to finally be in a position that I’d always dreamed of. 

As I climbed to base I could see in the distance my street had a slight curve in it ending in Everett about 40km to the NW of Tiger, seeing this I knew if I wanted to fly further than Everett I would at some point have to switch streets to the one running parallel to mine about 5km to the east. 

As I glided off under the clouds I found my self looking at some pretty cool numbers 17:1, 54km/hr and 5000 feet. This was going to be a good day! 

Loosing a little height switching over cloud streets I promptly found the lift line that took me to Monroe and pretty much the most northern point we had flown to before from Tiger. Everything beyond Monroe was unexplored terrain with the exception of Tom McCune’s flight some years ago to Arlington. Just north of Monroe base lifted as I connected up with my 3rd cloud street of the day. Now with more than 6000 feet of terrain clearance a 15-20km tail wind and a cloud street running off in the distance as far as the eye could see I cruised along snapping a few shots with a huge smile on my face with out really worrying about anything at all. 

After another 20km my cloud street finished and this time I had to jump about a mile to the west to pick up the end of cloud street number 4 and the best one of the day. Hooking a climb to base at the downwind edge of the street to ensure I got loftiest line under the cloud street I flew another 40km barely turning hauling ass doing 60km/hr lossing hardly any height. 

30km north of  anything familiar I was stoked to see Arlington written in giant letters on the airports runway. After Arlington things just started to go off getting better and better, again base lifted a little and my instruments started to go from showing 15:1-25:1 to showing 25:1-35:1 this is where I started to laugh aloud in the air, taking more pictures as I followed my cloud street north towards Sedro Woolley at the head of the Skagit Valley. 

As I approached the Skagit my tail wind started to increase from 15-20km to 25km+ and the cloud street I was under continued past the opening of the Skagit valley over the top of Lyman Hill and all the way up to the Canadian boarder and my original goal for the day. 

At around the same time I noticed my tail wind increase another smaller cloud street veered off to the north west aimed directly toward Blanchard Mountain my favorite flying site in Washington. Knowing there would be friends  flying there, beer and possibly a ride home I changed my goal from the boarder to the Blanchard LZ . 

After taking one more climb over Burlington to again reach for a cloud street I changed my radio to the Blanchard frequency and radioed in to see who was flying. To my surprise I got good friend and fly buddy Roger Brock on the radio who immediately said “they were expecting me“. What the? Expecting me? How did he know I was on my way? I thought I was lost, alone in my own little adventure. Little did I know people had been sitting in their offices watching my spot page and posting updates.

Talking to Roger on the Radio and finding fellow pilots in the air at the end of such an amazing flight was super special. It was also very convenient as Roger arranged with a random Photographer taking pictures on launch to meet me at the LZ and give me a ride back to Seattle. By the time I was packed and half way through one off Murdochs beers my ride back had arrived. Thank you random photographer dude!

One thing I learned from this whole experience is that the tracking function on a spot device actually serves more functions than I imagined when I bought it. I thought a spot was just for safety and for efficiency in retrieves when flying with friends. In addition to these 2 very helpful functions it also allows others to follow your flights while they‘re at work. It was hard to believe that by the time I landed I had dozens of voicemails, text messages, emails and face book posts congratulating me on a great flight. Many thanks to everyone that messaged me that day. 

A week or so after this flight I had people asking me why I didn’t keep going to the border. At first I thought my decision to fly to Blanchard was the beer, convenience, a ride, friends and to pee. But after some thought I think my gut feeling was telling me “you’ve just flown from down town Issaquah to Blanchard Mt 120km in 3 hours and 10 minutes in the most pleasant conditions without taking any risks why fly into the mountains with 25km/hr of wind that’s increasing to squeeze out another 40km“. 
Every February with the help of Brad Sander I organise and guide paragliding tours to Nepal. If flying XC in the Himilayas with huge vultures is something you’ve dreamed off please check out my web site for more info

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


As first published in the August 2011 issue of Hang Gliding & Paraglidingmagazine

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