Tarantulas Owens 2009 Trip

By Paul Clayton © 2009
The pictures (By Rick Devlin)

I saw Rick Devlin and Don Burns at Mission in June. Don was doing touch-and-goes at launch. The buzz was that the Owens trip is on, second week in July, as usual. Most of the usual suspects were going, although some couldn’t make the whole trip due to work and other four-letter words. Steve Rodrigues and I planned to meet at his house in Brisbane and drive up together on Friday the 10th. Don Burns, Rick Devlin and Alex Labiaga would meet at Don’s house in Sunnyvale and we would rendezvous in Sonora. Dave Yount was convinced that he should take a break from teaching other people to fly and come to the Owens on Monday, after teaching all weekend. Steve “the Beav” Inwards had to work on Friday, but would meet us in Bishop on Saturday.

Friday - we set out

We set out as usual at about noon, although Don, Alex, and Rick had to make a last minute stop at Mission Soaring. Steve Rodrigues and I made a slow trip out of the Bay Area due to the traffic, but when we got close to Sonora we were able to raise Don on the 2m radio. We stocked up on food at the local grocery store and headed into Sonora Pass. Steve and I were ahead of the others, and thought we knew where to turn to get to our favorite camping spot. Rick had said it’s exactly one mile past the summit. We drove through the pass until we were definitely going down, and well past the summit, when we decided we must have missed it and turned back. After doubling back and setting the trip OD at the Sonora Pass sign, we found the right turn off, assuming that the other truck was already at the campsite. As we slowly picked our way along in the gathering darkness, we heard Rick on the radio. Seems they were behind us. Rick’s front rack had broken at the base, and they had stopped to fix it. It was held together with duct tape and glider straps. With Rick’s rack barely holding together, we chose a campsite we could get to without any serious 4-wheeling. The wind was howling out of the west, so we found a sheltered spot and made camp. We toasted the beginning of our Owens trip with Moose Drool beer (slogan “hold my beer and watch this”). Don and Alex had brought their wooden flutes. Alex played a rendition of “El Condor Pasa” that perfectly captured the mood of our camp in that windy pass.

Saturday - To Bishop

On Saturday we broke camp and got on the road by mid-morning, intending to do an afternoon flight in the Whites, if possible. We arrived in Bishop to find Steve Inwards already there. He had left the Bay Area at 4 am and already had his tent up. Once we got settled, we loaded up and headed to Flynn’s. Flynn’s is a site with a relatively easy turn-around and a big green field for an LZ. The wind in the valley was south, but at launch it was howling from the southeast. The launch is shaped for a southwest to northwest wind, so we kicked dirt and bided our time. We fixed the windsock and hung out. The wind had changed to a more favorable direction, but was still blowing like stink, with powerful gusts. After some debate, we headed for the Owens River for a swim. At the river, the consensus was that we should go to dinner and get a forecast for Sunday at the airport.

The flight service forecast called for southwest winds at 30 knots at 18000 feet, with somewhat less southwest wind at lower elevations. The restaurant at the airport was open again with new management. It now serves Thai food for dinner and American breakfast. We had an excellent Thai dinner and made plans to get up early to fly Walt’s Point on Sunday.

Sunday - Walt's, Cerro Gordo, High Winds, Glider Damage

By Sunday morning Steve Rodrigues, who had been nursing a cold, was so sick he decided not to fly. He stayed in Bishop and went to a clinic. He had developed laryngitis and could not speak beyond a whisper, so we were communicating in sign language. The rest of us headed to Walt’s and arrived to find a west wind blowing. Then it cycled up at launch. Then it switched back to west. Then it cycled up again. Steve Inwards released a balloon that showed a favorable wind for at least the first 1000’ above launch. Rick had volunteered to drive and climbed up the treacherous slope behind launch to put up new streamers. The wind continued to switch as we started to set up. Then a powerful gust from over the back hit the launch. As we scrambled to grab our gear before it got blown into the canyon, Don was heard to remark, “That’s a skunk”. Not ready to give up, we packed our gear and headed for Cerro Gordo, on the other side of Owens Lake.

The town of Keeler, on the “shore” of Owens dry lake, was like an open air museum. We drove slowly down the main street past the abandoned train station and deserted houses. The lake had more water in it than it has in a long time, and the dust that made Keeler a federal cleanup area was not blowing, but not a living soul was to be seen. We headed up the mountain to Cerro Gordo, past the remains of the aerial tramway and the old mining camp, which is now a bed and breakfast. The wind at the top was strong from the southwest, with abrupt and powerful gusts. Steve Inwards decided it was beer-thirty and sat in the shade with a cold one. Don and Alex started to set up, standing their gliders on the basetubes. Don had walked away from his glider for a moment when a gust knocked it over on its side, damaging a leading edge and crossbar. We decided it was a good day to do some exploring and set off down the east side of the mountain toward Death Valley, testing the skid plates on my 4-runner as we went. The flatlands east of Cerro Gordo were full of Joshua trees, spaced just close enough that the only place anyone could land there is on the road. We found an old mining camp to explore on the edge of the plain. It apparently was the scene of a gun battle, judging from all the bullet holes and spent casings.

Monday - Gunther to Benton

On Monday we slept in and planned to fly the Whites in the afternoon. Rick took his Explorer into town to get the glider rack welded. A bit after noon we headed to Gunther. Steve Rodrigues was still under the weather, so he and I were drivers for the day. Winds at launch were favorable and before long Don, Alex, Rick and Beaver had launched. The 4 of them climbed to altitude and headed north. As Steve Rodrigues and I made it out to route 395, a familiar voice was heard on the radio. Dave Yount had just arrived in the area and suggested we all meet at Benton Hot Springs. Rick and Beav landed in Benton, but Alex decided to go through Montgomery pass and try for some mileage. Steve Rodrigues picked up the Benton crowd while I chased Alex. Don stayed high near Boundary Peak to relay messages from Alex. Alex called on the radio to say he had seen some blue roofs. Yeah, but what highway are you following? I asked. Are you going north or east? Alex said he had left the Sierras, but I pointed out he had been following the Whites. I’d forgotten that “sierras” means “mountains” in Spanish and Alex seemed to speak mostly in Spanish at high altitude. At one point I asked Don to translate, but Don couldn’t understand him either. I stopped several times as I went east on US6, wondering whether he had gone northeast following route 360. Finally I spotted him, heading straight east. The wind was steady from the north, and Alex flew a few more miles and made a nice landing, uphill and straight into the wind. He was thrilled at having made his best flight ever in the Owens. We packed up and joined the rest of the group at Benton Hot Springs. We had a long soak and some tasty Big Daddy IPAs (thanks, Beav). Alex was given the Tarantula name “Blue Roof” in honor of his colorful if not very informative directions during the chase.

Tuesday Gunther to Mina

On [Tuesday] we decided to go to Gunther again. Don and Steve Rodrigues, who was still speaking in whispers, were drivers for the day. Dave and Alex got off the mountain early, then a long lull set in. Rick, Beaver and I lined up at launch and waited for a good cycle. The cycles were weak and short and switchy, for the most part. An apparently solid cycle started and Rick began his launch run. We all held our breath as his glider skimmed the weeds. Then his basetube caught on something, and the glider nosed in. Don and Steve Rodrigues scrambled to help Rick. After a few minutes Rick walked away, holding one arm with the other. Steve Rodrigues drove Rick to the emergency room in Bishop, where he found out he had a broken collarbone. Ironically, Rick’s glider had not been damaged. After Don had moved Rick’s glider, Steve Inwards decided to break down. I started to move to a more south facing launch (the wind had been crossing from the south most of the time) when a cycle came straight up the face. I moved back to where the others had launched and ran off. Alex was already miles to the north, heading for Boundary Peak and I headed that way too. The lift was sketchy at lower altitudes, but there was plenty of lift at altitude, with cumulus clouds forming over the Whites. Alex and I crossed Montgomery pass and headed northeast, following route 360. By the time we got a few miles past Basalt, overdevelopment had caused a big cloud shadow to form. The wind was from the east, with the clouds closing in from the west. Alex landed in “downtube alley”, where route 360 passes through a canyon, and sacrificed some tubing, as others have done there in the past. Wishing to avoid a similar fate, I hung out under the cloud, slowly climbing to 14K. That was enough altitude to glide to Mina Junction, where Don reported a steady north wind and the flying day ended without further carnage.

We decided to check out the nightlife in Mina, a few miles further north on US95. The only place that looked open was a bar owned by a lady named Carol (Carolina in Spanish, as she pointed out). We seemed to be the only customers in the place and asked if they served food. Seems they have frozen pizza, or, uh frozen pizza. Under the circumstances that sounded pretty good, so we stayed for dinner. After we ate, Carol asked us what we did for a living. Don said he worked with software, and Carol asked “you mean like Avon?” Well, not exactly. As we got in the truck to leave, Carol stuck her head in the window and said, “weren’t there 4 of you? Just kidding, that was a test. I’ve had a little wine”, she explained. At least she had a couple of customers and maybe didn’t drink up all her profits for the day.

When we got back to camp, Steve Rodrigues and Rick were already on their way back to the Bay Area, having left as soon as Rick had been treated at the emergency room. Don was concerned about the damage to his Talon and low on downtubes. He decided to drive to Wills Wing to stock up on parts and fix the Talon the following day. The rest of us decided to take another crack at Walt’s.

Wednesday - Wills Wing, Explore Day

As we headed north on Wednesday morning, there was a lot more wind in the valley than we expected, mostly north or west. By the time we got to Independence, we gave up on the idea of flying from Walt’s Point and decided to have a leisurely breakfast, then head to Black Eagle. Black Eagle is a west-facing launch near a mine of the same name. It’s in the Inyos, south of Westgard Pass. The road to Black Eagle snakes several miles across the face of a mountain before heading out to a point that is the launch. The wind at launch was similar to what we had seen at Cerro Gordo on Sunday, and none of us were keen to launch, so we explored the abandoned mine. A sign warned us of poisons, explosives and other “peligros” too numerous to mention. There was one shaft that blasted cold air out the entrance and an assortment of abandoned bunk houses and equipment. After touring this monument to Gold Fever, we decided it was beer-thirty and headed for Keough hot springs. Meanwhile, Don was at Wills Wing checking out his Talon. It turned out the damage was superficial. They tested his crossbar on their carbon fiber stress tester, and it was good as new. He mentioned he was on an Owens trip with a group that hadn’t been doing a lot of flying lately and had no more spare downtubes. The Wills folks kindly offered to sell him as many downtubes as he wanted.

Thursday - Walt's to Dust Devil Valley

Thursday looked more promising for flying from Walt’s Point. The wind in the valley was light, and when we got to launch it was blowing up consistently. There was another pilot with an ATOS who launched first. Even with his presumably superior sink rate, he didn’t climb very fast. Dave and Don launched a bit later and the conditions still were pretty weak. Dave was struggling below launch and Don was barely above. From the ground it looked like he was dragging his toes through the treetops. After a little while Don started to climb and Alex and I launched. Once we got above the rim of the Sierras, there was good lift and we headed north, enjoying the spectacular scenery above the timberline. There were hundreds of blue lakes nestled between the near vertical granite peaks. A couple of them were still frozen over, and there were many patches of snow. When we got near the usual valley crossing point at Tinemaha, Alex and I took the route over the big cinder cone, on a vector for Black Mountain. We both got across with altitude to spare after working some lift over the cinder cone. Don continued north past Birch mountain and crossed over Bishop. He worked a thermal near Laws and then dove into the Whites near Gunther. There wasn’t much lift in that area and Don was forced to land at Freebase, a patch of white sand in the foothills that was a common bailout in the days when contests were flown from Gunther. Alex and I continued north to Boundary Peak, staying high and cruising in the cloud lift most of the way. We crossed Montgomery pass and headed northeast, following route 360. In the middle of the pass we saw the now notorious blue roofs. By this time we were both tired and hypoxic, having been in the air nearly 7 hours. While there had been good lift, there was no tailwind, so it had been a slow trip. Alex landed just north of route 360, while I continued north to the north end of Dust Devil Valley. Both of us had personal bests that day, having gone between 110 and 120 miles.

Friday - Walt's to Lunning!

Friday looked like another day for Walt’s Point. Alex and I initially said we were not planning to fly, as we were nursing sore muscles from the day before. Don insisted on driving and urged us to go for it. It was looking good on launch, so Dave, Beaver, Alex and I set up. Beaver launched early and sank out of sight. We thought he was a goner, but then spotted him thermalling up on the spine north of launch. He soon got above the rim and headed north. Dave also thermalled up and headed north. I launched and flailed near launch for nearly half an hour. Alex, who launched after me, caught a good thermal and drifted toward Wanoga Peak. I was able to follow a short while later. We made a slow trip north on the Sierras, there being again no significant wind. There was again good lift above the high terrain but not much working below 12000 ft. Dave flew to Keough Hot Springs and landed, having gotten the best flight he could before having to start home. He was scheduled to teach in Hollister the following day. Beaver crossed the valley first. He got very low and was thinking about where to land before pulling off a save and getting up on the Whites. Alex and I crossed the valley without much drama. I left the Sierras as sleet was beginning to fall. The area near Walt’s was obscured by clouds and rain as I bailed into the Owens Valley. In the Valley there was lift coming from both cinder cones, the smaller red one and the big black one. The Whites were producing strong enough lift that over the higher terrain it was only rarely necessary to circle. Most of the way it was possible to dolphin fly, slowing down for the lift and speeding up in sink. At Boundary Peak we all headed north, toward Dust Devil Valley. Don urged us on to Luning or maybe Gabbs. Beaver got low again and was circling down to land in Dust Devil Valley, when he caught some lift and climbed high enough make it to Luning. Alex and I also made it there, and the three of us landed at the highway junction, having flown 141 miles, a personal best for all of us. There was some minor bloodshed due to the thorny bushes and another downtube bit the dust, but we were all thrilled with the flights we had. Thanks for chasing, Don.

[ who loves ya, baby! - db ]

Saturday - The trip home

We took our time going home, stopping to check out Hot Creek near Mammoth and have our traditional picnic in Tuolumne Meadows. In spite of a few mishaps it was a great trip, with some spectacular flying and several personal bests. I’m already looking forward to next year.