Awakenings

To me, the sport of foot launch flying is a sport of continual awakening. The first time my feet left the ground I was awakened. The first time I flew with a wake of buzzards, the first time I shared the thermal with an eagle, the first time a hawk postured at the sight of my wing, the first time I touched a cloud; all were awakenings. More recently, I was awakened by an unexpected and forced landing high on the side of a mountain and by friends who wanted to make sure I learned from the experience.

By Steve Messman

I left my mountain at a little over 10,000 feet, some 3000 feet over launch. The first task was to cross a valley of approximately five miles and hit the next ridge as high as possible. The wind was at my back; my speed and glide were good; and I reached the next ridge at a decent altitude that seemed workable. I worked myself in close to the trees where I found very weak lift, but lift it was. I stayed in it and, ever so slowly, worked my way up the hill. I was close to the mountainside though, perhaps fifty feet over the tops of the trees, so I kept mental track of three possible "outs." There were two ranches below me within easy reach, and as I looked ahead, I could see a clearing in the trees where I could land in if I had to. My strategic error was a failure to notice that the clearing in the trees was not on a steep slope; in fact, it was as flat as the eighteenth hole at the local golf course. As I flew over the flat, the lift I was in quickly stopped and was immediately replaced by sink. Every option I had except one suddenly vaporized. The two ranches were now unreachable. The next ridge was unattainable. Turning back was impossible. Going up was just not going to happen. The only option that remained was the clearing I could land in "if I had to." It was a long and very tough hike off the mountain.

Back at camp, two friends and I discussed this flight. I was merely able to see it as some inescapable event. One friend, relentless as he was, made sure I saw it not as inevitable, but as a mistake. A flight of poor judgment. A second friend asked a simple question. "How steep was it where you landed?" The answer: "It was flat, like a huge shelf on the side of the mountain." My relentless friend reminded me that I was not in the ridge lift I thought, but in fact, I was in thermal lift. When I reached the flat, I flew out of the thermal and into the sinking air that it left behind. Awakening.

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