The morning glow of the screen reveals the day’s forecast, which unfortunately leaves me wanting. My old friend and flying buddy Paul is back in town for a few days with the hopes to fly/camp across a remote mountain range in central Idaho. Vol Bivy (fly camping) we call it; yeah, its French, but then again so too is Paul. We had a few back up locations set aside in Logan, Southeast Idaho, Wyoming, and even eastern Utah that we could draw upon if weather demanded. With constraints on time, and now a poor forecast looming, decisions need to be made. The forecast reveals super light winds, perfect for mountain flying. However, it lacks the necessary thermal potential showing a dismal lift index, cloudy skies, and a potential of climbing no higher than 5,800 feet above sea level. With a sigh we both know the big range will have to wait for another day, but we move forward in the spirit of adventure nonetheless.
A thought that has guided me through most of my paragliding career, is to always move forward. I am not much of one for making excuses, so long as things are safe. Paul tackles his flying in the same way, so we load the truck and move forward. The yellow lines of the road tick by as we head north to Logan, through Preston and turn east over the pass towards Wyoming. As we enter a small valley we spot one of our small backup ranges on the Idaho/Wyoming border and decide this is ‘the’ place. We follow a short dirt road to the base of the small 18 mile long mountain range, ditch the truck and set off on foot. There is a light southwest wind (0-3 mph) and absolutely no lifting air. We shrug our shoulders and continue scurrying straight up the mountain face under the weight of our larger than normal packs knowing there is absolutely nothing wrong with a sled run. About 1200 feet above the valley floor we reach a steep grassy knoll, perfect for launching. The still air begins to slightly swirl. I smile at Paul and say “I think we can get out on one of these small bubbles.” He looks at me like I am a bit crazy, but he too smiles, dumps the pack and starts setting up.
A few Moments later our packs now turned into harnesses, gear stowed and clipped into our magic pieces of fabric and string, we are ready. The air slightly swirls, and I tug on those red lines. My trusty blue and black Chili 3, and Paul’s Delta2 take shape over our heads and we are off. A few short turns against the ridge then we are circling together in a small bubble of air, rising above the ground, leaving that dreaded forecast behind. We decide to fly upwind and head 8 miles or so to the southern end of the range. Here we enjoy the views, soar with golden eagles and look for a nice place to set down high in the mountains. No great or clearly safe options present themselves so we decide to head back north. The lift is surprisingly good and we quickly reach our launch site, climb up to around 10,000 feet then continue another 8 or so miles to the northern end of the range. We spot a nice peak to land on. After and hour and half in the air I realize after noon is quickly turning to evening and the thermals weakening. As we approach the summit we are slammed by another thermal. Paul, takes a turn or two, I just fly through it. After all, we have plenty of altitude to top land. The air turns to sink and I find myself a few hundred feet below Paul, and below the summit. I tuck in tight against the hill, looking for any kind of residual lift, but find nothing. I search and search to no avail and end up landing on the side of the mountain well below the summit.
Folding up a paraglider amidst high mountain sage and buck brush is not that fun. Nor is hiking straight up a mountain through shale rock with a 50 pound pack on your back. All the while cursing myself for not taking those two short turns in that last thermal. As I shoulder my burden and slowly march up, I reach the top with lessons learned. The frustration all melts away as I hear the bull elk bugling to one another across the canyons. The air is calm and the sun setting.
Vol Bivy adventures are more like extended survival situations and less like camping, so one must call upon various skills to make it a pleasant experience. A small clearing of shale, some dry grass, dead branches of a nearby tree, and a few glints of flint and steel and I have a nice warm fire going. Good for conversation and eating whatever small amounts of food we brought along, which for Paul was not much. Strange because Paul is the eater in the group, not me. Together we have enough, so we share.
Darkness falls upon us as the elk continue to bugle through the still mountain air. The moon is nearly 3/4 full and illuminating the beautiful surroundings as I retire to my plot of wild earth. I never realized that a paraglider could offer such a soft and warm shelter amidst the grass riddled rocks. The moon sets and I stare up at the overwhelming star filled sky. A sky that stays hidden from most our eyes in the city, but out here away from the lights reveals divine thoughts. A spiritual recharging with moments of clarity and purpose. I roll over, close my eyes and wait for morning.
The sun rises slowly, but the wind is not so patient. I wake to a steady wind of 10 mph out of the southeast, typical for a mountain morning. As the morning hours tick by, the winds unfortunately stay constant and the clouds on the west side of the valley start to build. Uncomfortable with the way the situation is developing I decide it is time to get out of the mountains, or we may be hiking down. A few minutes later we take off and fly out of the mountains in a desperate attempt to get as far south as we can. As my feet leave the ground I look back at the vanishing summit, now clear, showing no signs we were ever there. It is in this moment that I am reminded how special adventure flying can be. A time when I can connect with nature, on every level of my senses. From the force of the invisible air, to the sound of natures symphony, the touch of sun on my face, to the glow of stars. It is a special moment, a memory not soon to be forgotten.
We push onward to the south against a diminishing headwind. As we reach the edges of the valley the air is smooth and predictable, but we are only able to make it a few miles further to the south. I turn over a lonely dirt road and land softly on the edge of a field of barley. The sound of crickets keeps us company as we fold up our gliders, shoulder our packs and start the 6 mile walk south. A few miles later a curious local drives by and offers a ride. I am grateful for the kind act of service on our behalf, as I know he probably had much more important things to do than drive two stinky paraglider pilots back to civilization. We reach our truck as the rain starts to fall.
Adventure has always been a part of my life and I hope it is a piece that never dwindles. It continues to define me, offer me experiences, and teaches me lessons along the way. It is an honor to continue and create these new adventures with my friends, whom I learn so much from. Just remember when you are flying late in the evening and you feel that last thermal….turn!