Mountain Launch

A pilot returning after a 1-year hiatus launches while we watch

A pilot returning after a 1-year hiatus launches while we watch

There are some moments in life that leave a lasting impression–a shadow of the experience that lives on long past the moment, perhaps even a lifetime.  One of those moments for me is the moment I crossed the “Danger!  Risk of Falling” line on the launch ramp on Lookout Mountain.  It was my first mountain launch as a novice hang glider.

The Danger! line is literally a line on the launch ramp

The Danger! line is literally a line on the launch ramp

We have returned to the Lookout Mountain launch a couple of times since that monumental day, but we haven’t been back to fly.  It’s been over a year now since I last hooked myself into a hang glider.  My husband has remained determined to return “eventually” to flying.

This is the view of the launch ramp that nearly caused me to lose consciousness the first time I saw it

This is the view of the launch ramp that nearly caused me to lose consciousness the first time I saw it

On Sunday, we found ourselves back up on top of Lookout Mountain at the hang gliding launch.  Soon, we were inside the office checking on our membership status and filling out paperwork to renew.  Then, we realized one of us was going to be out of town every weekend until July.  And so it appears we are likely to be celebrating our 18th anniversary on the training hills together.  At least, I will be on the training hills.  Pat may graduate to the mountain in a day (if hang gliding is like riding a bike), but I have no plans to go off the mountain ever again.

Hang glider pilots are not the only ones equipped to soar the ridge

Hang glider pilots are not the only ones equipped to soar the ridge

Of course, I had no plans to go off the mountain the first time either.  I just found myself there after getting to the point where I felt confident and comfortable enough on the training hills that it just seemed natural I would run off a mountain with a kite hooked to my body.

Standing there on the launch ramp, looking over the fall line, I found my knees remained solid.  I had only a brief wave of nausea thinking about stepping over that line, then, the shadow of the memory, the feeling of the hang glider on my shoulders kicked in.  The weight of it lifting in the wind assuring me I could, in fact fly.  All I had to do was look at the ridge on the other side of the valley and that’s where I would go.

I switched cameras to catch the hang glider as it pulled away from the mountain.

I switched cameras to catch the hang glider as it pulled away from the mountain.

Then, the memory faded and I looked down and another memory kicked in.  The memory of our first trip up to the hang gliding office–seeing the launch ramp for the first time.  The sudden terror that overtook both of us thinking we might be launching off that ramp.  The physical weakness, barely able to stand in the face of the fear of running off that mountain.

The bib on the launch slopes away from the fall line, making it more probably that if you fall, you'll fall away from the cliff

The bib on the launch slopes away from the fall line, making it more probably that if you fall, you’ll fall away from the cliff

The contrast struck me as profound.  I am the same person.  My response to the same stimulus went from paralyzing terror to confidence (with a few vestigial belly butterflies).  Like so many things in life, the launch ramp is what it is.  We can respond to it however we choose.  As I look over the mountain one more time, I find myself wondering if perhaps, one day, I will launch from this ramp again after all.

Close-up of the flight part logo on the side of the launch

Close-up of the flight part logo on the side of the launch

Monkey Feet

It all started on the hike to Grinnell Glacier in Montanna.  Pat and I were working our way up the mountain trail with me in my hiking boots that felt like giant led-filled balloons when we passed a couple on their way back down.  They looked impossibly fresh.  They weren’t limping.  They looked relaxed and comfortable.  As I looked down to find footing, I noticed their feet.  Low and behold, they were wearing fivefingers shoes.  I had heard of fivefingers before, but it hadn’t occurred to me people would wear them on the trail.

After limping our way back at the end of the hike with me barely able to put weight on my knees and hips, I found myself wanting to try fivefinger shoes.

When we got home, I bought a pair like the ones we saw on the trail–black neoprene.  Although I didn’t give them a true trail test for many months, they turned out to be a miracle on the treadmill.  My knees and hips felt better than they’d felt in years after the initial adjustment period.

There definitely is an adjustment period!  A whole bunch of tiny muscles in my feet and ankles had to be reborn and developed before I could walk as fast or as far as I had been walking.  But, once I’d adjusted my stride and footfall and developed weakened muscles, I was pretty sure I could walk forever without getting the shooting pains I’d become accustomed to.

Alas, the neoprene was hot.  It was hot indoors and hot in the fall and spring, but not warm enough for the colder temperatures I’d hoped to wear them in.  That led to the trekking pair.  They have a mesh weave that breathes.  Unfortunately, they weren’t made to be drug across the ground on their tops, which is exactly what happens when one is learning to hang glide, resulting in excess wear and tear.  My feet also do not like the tread on those shoes.  If I walk on hard surfaces in them, I get blisters on my big toes.

This led to the much softer and cushier black and gray pair, which I love.  However, they are a little too soft for the trail, which brings us to the orange pair.  They are supposed to have some extra support to protect against rocks.  I’m testing them tomorrow for the first time on the trail.

There are definitely tradeoffs.  Kicking a rock or stepping on something sharp feels a lot different (and not good!) in fivefinger shoes than in hiking boots.   They are also not good in cold and/or wet conditions.  My feet turned to blocks of ice on a short 2 mile walk that started off slogging through mud last November.  I was glad I’d brought my boots for the longer hike we did right after that.  For this reason, I bought a new pair of boots, too, much lighter than my previous pair.  I wish I didn’t need them.

Taking Lessons

As I rode my bike home from my first day of Learn to Row, it occurred to me I’ve been taking lessons my whole life.  I began to compile a list of all the classes, workshops, lessons I’ve taken.

First, there was ballet.  This always shocks people for two reasons.  First, I am approximately 2x the size of the average ballerina in all directions.  Second, I am incredibly clumsy.  Although, I did have a guy tell me I was graceful once.  When I protested that I’m always falling, he said, “Yes, but you fall gracefully.”  Maybe I learned something.

There were summer swimming lessons, which were re-taken as an adult when I wanted to learn how to swim freestyle efficiently.  There were ice skating lessons which were also repeated in adulthood until I realized 30 is not the right time in life to learn how to jump on ice (after partially tearing an MCL in my knee).

There were gymnastics lessons.  I was exceptionally good at the uneven parallel bars for my age.  Perhaps it was because I was the only one who could reach them?

I took piano lessons and learned how to play “Happiness Is” from some Charlie Brown musical I’d never head of.  It still gets stuck in my head from time to time.  I had slightly better results when I switched to the clarinet, but having no sense of time was a problem.

I settled on horseback riding and for 4 years was pretty much dedicated to nothing but horses, paying for them, and school.  By my senior year of high school, I realized I had to choose between having a horse and going to college–my minimum wage jobs weren’t going to pay for both.  That’s about the time I managed to come up with the money for a package of skiing lessons.

In college, I took a weight lifting class and aerobics–both part of my PE requirement.  When I was a little more settled again, I started with a trainer at the gym.  Then it was nutrition classes.  I even took a cooking class, although it turned out to be a rather alternative cooking class based on the yin and yang of food.  My husband wouldn’t eat anything I prepared from there.

I took a motorcycle class and friends taught me how to water ski, bowl, and play softball.  I took a rock climbing class and eventually took up yoga classes.

Later, Pat tried to teach me to play the drums, then I resorted to learning to play a hand drum.  Still no sense of time.  I switched to trying to learn to speak German instead, but I wasn’t much better at that.

The list goes on and on.

Since coming to Chattanooga, I’ve earned my novice hang gliding pilot rating, started learning how to care for non-releasable birds of prey, gotten some informal lessons on kayaking, and gone to several photography workshops.

Jack of all trades, master of none. As I rode my bike home from my first day of Learn to Row, it occurred to me I’ve been taking lessons my whole life.  I began to compile a list of all the classes, workshops, lessons I’ve taken.

First, there was ballet.  This always shocks people for two reasons.  First, I am approximately 2x the size of the average ballerina in all directions.  Second, I am incredibly clumsy.  Although, I did have a guy tell me I was graceful once.  When I protested that I’m always falling, he said, “Yes, but you fall gracefully.”  Maybe I learned something.

There were summer swimming lessons, which were re-taken as an adult when I wanted to learn how to swim freestyle efficiently.  There were ice skating lessons which were also repeated in adulthood until I realized 30 is not the right time in life to learn how to jump on ice (after partially tearing an MCL in my knee).

There were gymnastics lessons.  I was exceptionally good at the uneven parallel bars for my age.  Perhaps it was because I was the only one who could reach them?

I took piano lessons and learned how to play “Happiness Is” from some Charlie Brown musical I’d never head of.  It still gets stuck in my head from time to time.  I had slightly better results when I switched to the clarinet, but having no sense of time was a problem.

I settled on horseback riding and for 4 years was pretty much dedicated to nothing but horses, paying for them, and school.  By my senior year of high school, I realized I had to choose between having a horse and going to college–my minimum wage jobs weren’t going to pay for both.  That’s about the time I managed to come up with the money for a package of skiing lessons.

In college, I took a weight lifting class and aerobics–both part of my PE requirement.  When I was a little more settled again, I started with a trainer at the gym.  Then it was nutrition classes.  I even took a cooking class, although it turned out to be a rather alternative cooking class based on the yin and yang of food.  My husband wouldn’t eat anything I prepared from there.

I took a motorcycle class and friends taught me how to water ski, bowl, and play softball.  I took a rock climbing class and eventually took up yoga classes.

Later, Pat tried to teach me to play the drums, then I resorted to learning to play a hand drum.  Still no sense of time.  I switched to trying to learn to speak German instead, but I wasn’t much better at that.

The list goes on and on.

Since coming to Chattanooga, I’ve earned my novice hang gliding pilot rating, started learning how to care for non-releasable birds of prey, gotten some informal lessons on kayaking, and gone to several photography workshops.

Jack of all trades, master of none.

When Wrong Goes Right

We have been taking a break from hang gliding for several months now.  It’s one of those things–first we were taking a break so our knees could heal.  Then, Pat started working every weekend getting his new guitar-building business going.  All work and no play was getting old.

Then, when Pat’s family came to town to celebrate Pat’s milestone birthday with us, we managed to talk his sister into going for a tandem flight.

Talking someone else into doing a tandem flight is different from deciding as a couple that it’s something you want to do together.  There is a completely different sense of responsibility–probably heightened by the fact that this was Pat’s baby sister (never mind that she’s now in her 30’s and more than capable of making up her own mind).  While I felt obligated to make her aware that there were risks, I didn’t want to scare her out of it because it’s one of those experiences you keep for a lifetime.

As we headed out to the mountain for Pat’s sister’s flight, I had one of my mental glitches that caused me to take us completely the wrong way.

As we drove as fast as was allowed in the wrong direction on a lonely 2-lane highway, we spotted a large dog staggering toward us in the middle of the lane.  We also noticed it had a collar, so we swerved around it and started looking for houses, assuming its home had to be close–it was barely able to walk.

Pat’s sister immediately wanted to stop and pick up the dog.  I think we were all thinking the same thing, but we didn’t want to steal someone’s dog.  As luck would have it, we soon realized we were going the wrong way and needed to turn around.  By this time, we realized there were no houses in the vicinity and there was no way that dog had gotten there on its own.

When we got back to where it was, it had collapsed in the middle of the road.  We blocked traffic with our car, got out Tisen’s water bowl and gave the dog water.  Then, we managed to urge it to get into our van, although Tisen wasn’t so happy about sharing his ride.

Since our safe-harbor dog shelter didn’t open for hours, we went ahead and took Pat’s sister to the flight park.  When we finally got Pat’s sister signed up for her flight, we asked if anyone wanted a dog.  It looked like a poorly bred Mastiff.  Her hips were so bad, she could barely walk.  She was dirty and smelled like she’d been lying in poop.  She had ticks and probably fleas.  We were certain she’d been dumped.  No one was interested.

Pat’s sister took her flight full of joy knowing that the dog was safe. She said the tandem flight was 2nd to rescuing the dog on her list of things that made her trip.  She wasn’t alone in her thinking.

Relapse with a Bounce

I had to quit cold turkey.  It was tough, but after I got through the initial withdrawal, I discovered there were endless subjects to shoot besides the Chattanooga riverfront as seen from the North Shore.

The toughest step of my recovery was having to go through my photos and delete about 7000 images to free up drive space.  I think 5000 of those images were of the Chattanooga riverfront.

But then yesterday, I was walking in the park with Tisen.  I was going to go for a bike ride afterwards, but the clouds started rolling in and, well, I skipped my ride in order to shoot.  I guess we could call it a relapse.

When I started gathering up my gear, I peeked out the windows to discover a double rainbow forming in the East as the sun cruised toward the Western horizon.  I rushed to find a good view and get setup, worrying that I would miss the rainbow.

As it turned out, the brightest rainbow remained visible for the entire 45 minutes I was shooting.

The second rainbow never did get very bright–it just sort of hovered on the edge of visible.  It’s visible in the second image if you look closely.  As much as I love seeing rainbows, I find I enjoy shooting clouds more.  Perhaps because it’s difficult to get more than one perspective on a rainbow, but the clouds continually shift and create new images for you.

I’m not sure where my fascination with clouds started.  When I was a child and my family went on long road trips, if there were clouds, we would amuse ourselves by finding complex and, often, outrageous shapes in them and trying to get everyone else to see what we saw.

Every time I fly, I hope for cloud cover.  I love looking down on clouds–especially when there are thunderheads or other masses of clouds that look like some sort of special effect created by hollywood.  Of course, when I’m in a plane, I wish they were just a special effect!

As part of studying for our hang gliding rating, we learned a little bit about clouds and how they can help predict the weather–a life and death issue if you’re a good enough hang glider pilot to stay aloft for hours (my longest flight so far was about 4 minutes–makes weather changes sort of a non-issue).  We learned hang glider pilots look for big puffy cumulous clouds as a sign of thermals. From the look of things, the thermals were in full force.

I vaguely remember a dream I once had of falling through a cloud.  In my dream, the cloud was soft and warm–as if it were somehow slowing my fall.  It wasn’t the kind of fall that makes you wake up before you land; it was the kind of fall where you know you will bounce.  Perhaps I already knew that thermals were pushing back underneath?

Spectator

Tisen and I make it to the training hills.  It’s a mile walk in my barefoot shoes on rough gravel carrying about 40 pounds of gear, but we stop frequently along the way to shoot, so it doesn’t seem so difficult.

Tisen gets confused shortly after we arrive.  When a hang gliding student drives off on a Kubota, Tisen sprints across the field following him.  I don’t realize Tisen thinks I’m on the Kubota until he gets 100 yards away and shows no sign of turning back.  I call him and he hears me, but he can’t tell where I am.  A glider flies into the field about 10 yards from Tisen and he decides it’s me, running straight for the glider.  I call him again, hoping to prevent him from “playing” with the pilot.

Tisen hears me, but when he looks up, he sees a group of people and decides that’s where I am.  I keep calling him, hoping he’ll locate me.  He is now 30 yards from me and running from person to person, eliminating each as a possible me.  After he passes them all, I am the only person left.  I wave my arms high in the air and call again.  At last, he sees me.  He’s so excited, he practically knocks me down when he runs up to greet me.  Poor guy.

After I take a few shots of the training hills half wishing I were flying today, we walk to the top of the big hill.  I take only my tripod and camera with the 16-35mm lens on it.  At the top, one of the pilots asks if I’m selling pictures.  I laugh.  He says he was hoping maybe he could buy some from me.  I take his email address and tell him I’ll email some photos to him for free.  Now I have a client.

I take some rapid-fire shots of his flight, but the wide angle lens looking down isn’t the best view.  Tisen and I walk back to the bottom of the hill and I set up again with my 100-400mm plus 1.4x teleconverter.  I shoot my client a second time, but this time looking up at 560mm.  It looks like I’m standing next to him.

Unfortunately, I cannot pan and focus manually at the same time, so I only get a few good shots during the launch before he drops out of my frame and then I lose focus when I find him again.  This is exactly why I don’t ask for money to shoot people.

I pack up, load myself with all my gear, and Tisen and I head back up the road, stopping to enjoy the sun on more spider webs and the contrasting colors of bright, new leaves against dark evergreens.

When we make it back to the car, Tisen hops in like he wasn’t sure we were going to survive this adventure.  He’s tired.  Come to think of it, so am I.

Fledgling Part II

Recovering from a long day on the mountain.

Continued from Fledgling:

After breaking a down-tube on my first mountain launch, I have to figure out how to pick up my glider and carry it off the field.  I make it across the field and a couple of instructors run over to help.

All-in-all, I am not sure I’m ready to launch again.  But, back up to the top of the mountain we go.  I spend the ride back to the top hoping the wind has shifted.

But, no.  The wind is still good and there are plenty more gliders for me to break.

I set up the next glider with my hands shaking.

When it’s my turn, I am feeling nauseous.  I contemplate backing out.  But, I step up onto the launch ramp for the second time.  I get set, the instructor tells me the wind is perfect, I call clear and start the approach without hesitation.

This time, the launch is good.  However, when I look at the airspeed indicator, it tells me I’m flying too slow.  I pull in for speed, but the glider starts oscillating like I’m flying too fast.  I go back and forth trying to decide if the airspeed indicator is wrong or not.  Then I hit a small bump in the air.  My glider rises suddenly and then drops back down like a giant puppeteer has just jerked an invisible string.  I experience a moment of panic.  I start talking to myself out loud, trying to keep my wits about me.  I keep it together through a few more small bumps and find myself safely over the landing zone.

I have a repeat problem with suddenly being out of altitude.  As I start to make the final turn for the landing approach, I realize I’m too low and I square up the glider and roll it in instead.  No broken down tube this landing.

However, I do end up far from the breakdown area.  Gliders are really not meant to be taken for a walk.

The instructor who helped me after my first landing comes over and congratulates me.  He compliments me for my decision making.  It’s like a consolation prize–in spite of all my mistakes, I didn’t make a final, critical mistake.  I appreciate the compliment none-the-less.  Focusing on small achievements is, after all, how I ended up here one minuscule step at a time.

On the way back to the top, I experience a sense of disappointment.  I remind myself that my learning process has often been one step forward and two steps back.  I remind myself that I just launched from about 1500 feet higher than I ever imagined I would.  I remind myself that I stepped off that launch ramp, focused on the horizon, knowing that I could.  And I did.  I did something I didn’t think was possible until two weeks ago.  I launched, I flew, I landed, I survived.  Twice.  Maybe I’ll suggest a new T-shirt for the pro shop.