Skycamping the Sierra Nevadas

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On the first of April this year everything came together for my friend Honza Rejmanek and I to head out for a 4 day expedition in the Sierras. Our plan was to fly or paragliders over the mountains, land and make camp high, and then walk to a place we could take off and start flying the next morning. In the right conditions we can fly for hours and cover many miles in the air. Since our paragliders have no motors we rely on catching updrafts called thermals to climb high and then glide down the mountain range. Honza and I have been going on flying adventures since 2012 and I’ve been part of his support crew in the 2013 and 2015 editions of the Redbull X-Alps, a 600 mile paragliding race that follows the European Alps from Salzburg to Monaco. Honza is a great pilot and a great photographer. Most of the photos in this blog are his.

Our first day got off to a slow start. I missed my flight out of Seattle in spring-break travel chaos and had to rebook a couple hours later. Kudos to Alaska Airlines for only charging a $25 rebooking fee. Honza picked me up in Sacramento and we began making our way towards the Sierra Nevada Mountains that run along the California-Nevada border. It’s easy to over prepare and after a stop at Trader Joe’s we definitely had more food than we could eat in 4 days. I was a little concerned about pack weight management when Honza bought a couple of rib eye steaks, but the wisdom of this became apparent to me later in the trip. We drove to Slide Mountain between Lake Tahoe and Reno since it was the closest flying site and the day was quickly going by. We planned to return to the car after flying and drive further south to the Mammoth Lakes are that night where we would start out skycamping the next day. At Slide Mountain we found the wind too northerly to use the normal take off spot so we went back a little ways back on the road and pulled quick guard rail hopping road launches at 3:17 PM.

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I found a nice thermal just upwind of launch and soon climbed up above the peaks where I had a nice view of Lake Tahoe. Then I headed south, getting a little lower and working the terrain on the East side of the range. If I had committed to flying the crest I might have stayed higher and made it further down range. Our plan was for Honza to retrieve the car and catch up with me and I didn’t want to get stuck landing in the mountains far from roads so I stayed closer to Hwy 395 and skipped along to just south of Carson City 13 miles away. I landed on a little street between a fancy housing development and picturesque open range land. A lady from one of the houses who had seen me land came out with a glass of water for me and chatted while I packed up. Like most Americans she knew nothing about paragliders and was blown away to see me come dropping in. I had good cell coverage to text Honza my location and he showed up in about an hour with snow chilled beer and we drove south towards Mammoth.

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The next paragraph is a little digression on communication devices, you may want to skip over it. We made a stop a Target to buy a pair of cheap little hand held radios since Honza’s normal radio was having battery trouble. The cheapy radios were also a lot lighter than our normal HAM band radios. Communication gets very complex on a trip like this and our equipment wasn’t matched up very well. Honza has a sat phone and a Spot satellite tracker; I have a Delorme InReach satellite communicator. We were both carrying cell phones which would get coverage in some places, though not reliably. The small radios were a good choice for chatting in the air and we planned to use our satellite devices to locate each other if we got separated and out of radio range. If we both had InReachs we could send our locations to each other and communicate directly by text but with our mismatched devices we would have had to go through a friend to relay messages, fortunately we never got separated so this wasn’t an issue. I want to do some research on getting the best communication functionality with the fewest devices and hopefully I can cover that in a future blog. At this point I’m convinced the Delorme InReach satellite tracker/communicator makes the best core device functioning as a tracker, SOS device, and a 2 way text message communicator anywhere with a view of the sky. I fly with my cell phone running the XCsoar app as a flight instrument and would plan to keep it as part of any wilderness flying kit. Radios are great for air-to-air chatting but I hope to get small light a low powered radio transmitter that interfaces with my cell phone instead of carrying stand-alone radios in the future. My current Yeasu FT-270 radio has a powerful transmitter and good sound quality but it weighs around a pound which is more than ideal for trips like this.

After a long drive down the 395 we camped at the hot springs off Benton crossing Rd outside of Mammoth. We had a nice soak in the hot springs but the night was chilly down in the bottom of the valley where the cold air pools. The next morning we headed into Mammoth to  met up with local X-Alps paraglider Dave Turner and his fiancé Tawny. Dave gave us some good local advice and agreed to come out to fly with us although he had chores to take care of in the afternoon and couldn’t do any camping.

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Bringing only what you need is essential to managing pack weight in trips like this and it took me and Honza quite a while to sort out all the unnecessary food and gear that we had in the car. I think Dave who is a very organized planner was probably amused by our mess, but he was a great help eating perishable food that we didn’t want carry or to leave to spoil in the car. We drove Honza’s station wagon up towards the Mt McGee launch until the road was covered with snow and started hiking the short remaining distance. My Kortel Kolibri harness was a bit awkward to get into with all the heavy food and gear. Honza took the 2 lbs. of ribeye in his harness, but I had weighty necessities such as a fifth of scotch in mine, and it wasn’t a light load. Fortunately, the Kolibri has a very large storage compartment and I didn’t even have to trade out any under seat foam padding for gear; everything fit nicely in the main compartment on my back. The great thing about the harness it that it’s super comfortable to fly even with 25+ lbs. loaded on my back. We didn’t have to wait around for long, Dave went off first and promptly hooked a thermal so Honza and I followed getting in the air at 1:12 PM.

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We had nice flying conditions with light northerly winds up high, and followed the front range of the Sierras south making our way towards the town of Bishop. Climbs were high enough that we could get up above ridges where the thermals are usually concentrated. Even though the air was spicey my Advance Omega Xalps glider was its usual solid self, climbing up through the rough thermals and really excelling when I needed it through sinky areas as I jumped from mountain to mountain. I got just over 4,000 meters on my highest climb. Clouds marked thermals and made relatively easy flying for the first couple hours. After crossing the deep V canyon of Pine creek I had trouble finding another climb on the other side, the steep northwest facing slope of Mt Tom.

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Honza and I worked our way deeper into the valley finding small bits of lift rising up the North facing ravines. Honza turned deep into a ravine and hooked into a thermal that carried him up and eventually above the mountain. I tried to hook into the same lift but didn’t want to dive quite deep enough into the ravine to connect with the thermal and I never found a climb in that valley. I worked my way back out the valley maintaining most of my altitude as I flew through shreds of broken lift. I left the valley and continued south along the now shady East side of Mt. Tom, getting gradually lower and slower as I sank down into the southerly valley wind that dominates the lower altitudes of the Owens Valley. I was afraid I might be landing down low a long hike away from a takeoff point for the next morning but I kept focused looking for possible thermal sources on the ground and feeling for the telltale bumps. Once I got around to the Southeast side of Mt Tom I was pretty low over the gentle sloping terrain below the mountain, but I was in a good spot where the valley wind was blowing uphill towards the mountain. There I found a few bumps that eventually turned into a solid climb taking me back up to rejoin Honza, who had flown over the top of Mt. Tom and was watching my progress.

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We thermalled together over the flatter terrain and passed over the Buttermilks on our way towards the high plateau West of Bishop. The day was dying down so we decided to head for a good high landing spot instead of trying to push further and risking landing down low. With heavy packs, a low landing can mean risking not getting to a launch the next day.

Once we landed, we received a text from Dave recommending Round Mountain – about 6 miles east of us – for a launch next day. He had been watching our progress online where our satellite trackers were updating our position every 10 minutes on a map page paraglider that pilots use to keep track of each other. We hiked for a couple hours towards the next day’s take off and made camp on top of Coyote Ridge.

We weren’t carrying a stove and planned instead on building fires to melt water and cook. When we realized both the 2 lighters we were carrying were broken – 0ne didn’t have flint and the other was out of fuel – we almost had a disaster. Fortunately, we could use them together to get a fire going and we were soon warming our snow chilled feet. In the future I’m going to make sure to have plenty of new BIC mini lighters; there’s safety in numbers. We roasted sausages over the fire and ate brie cheese among other things. It was cold enough so we figured the ribeyes would be good until the next night. We wanted to save them in case Dave came out to join us the next day.

After putting a dent in our scotch after dinner, we banked up the fire and got ready for bed. Since being cold the night before at the hot springs I followed Honza’s example and put my glider in my bivy sack on top of my sleeping bag. Once the glider was fluffed up a bit it was a tight squeeze to get into my sleeping bag but I could still roll over when I wanted to and it was nice and warm. We were camped on a ridge around 11,000 feet, but fortunately there was almost no wind so it was easy to stay warm even with our heads out in the open.

I was so comfortable in fact that I slept in until around 8:00. Honza already had the fire going and we warmed up and ate some food while we put our packs back together. We didn’t have a pot to melt snow in and it was slow going melting snow by putting our camelbacks next to the fire. If I did the trip again I’d definitely bring a small titanium pot even if I still didn’t want to carry a stove. We weren’t short on water but we didn’t have any to spare. Later in the morning we found reasonably clean puddles where the sun had melted snow on concave rocks, so after a few puddle sipping stops we were well hydrated.

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We only had about 5 straight line miles to Round Mountain where we planned to launch but it was slow going at first as we had some snowy stretches where we were weaving through the trees trying to avoid deeper snow that had us postholing at times. After going over a couple ridges and valleys, the terrain flattened out and we made better time. We got to our launch a little later than ideal but it was working nicely. Dave sent us to a good spot with a nice snow field to launch from and we both climbed out easily at 1:51 PM.

Even though we launched late for the East facing slopes of the Sierras we had a couple hours of good flying before our side of the mountains started to get shady. It was another day with cumulus clouds marking the good climbs and I got almost to 4,500 meters. We got good views of The Palisade Glacier which was still pretty well covered with snow. Although I could see out over the Sierras at the tops of my climbs, I couldn’t pick Mt Whitney out from the other peaks but I was definitely within view of it.

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Now that we were further south, the Owens Valley that runs between the Sierras and the White Mountains to the east was narrower. We had talked about trying to fly across the Owens, to then fly along the White mountains later in the afternoon when the East side of the Sierras gets shady but the Whites are still getting direct sun. Though by the time we tried to get in position for a crossing, the lift was getting weak and we couldn’t get high so we scrapped the idea of going to the Whites. Instead, we headed up a short dead end valley into the Sierras where we landed around 10,000 feet at 4:30. Landing on snowy fields is a nice luxury because you can plow in a downwind landing without worrying about damaging yourself or your gear. It’s good practice for when you might find yourself landing downwind by accident on less forgiving terrain, and Honza and I both took the opportunity practice upslope, slightly downwind landings.

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After packing up we hiked up through the bristle cone pines towards where the valley ended in rocky walls. There wasn’t much flat terrain and we didn’t want to spend too much time searching for a camp spot. There was a strong downslope wind blowing even before 5:00 PM and we were both eager to get a fire going and warm up. After digging some rocks out of the ground we had a flattish spot for sleeping and we got a fire going nearby. Once we had camp set up we got out the scotch and started roasting the ribeye steaks. It turns out cooking a ribeye over a fire on a stick works really well. Just put on a little salt and pepper, get them sizzling around the outside, eat off the parts that are cooked to your liking, go back to cooking it a little more and repeat until it’s gone.

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After packing up we hiked up through the bristle cone pines towards where the valley ended in rocky walls. There wasn’t much flat terrain and we didn’t want to spend too much time searching for a camp spot. There was a strong downslope wind blowing even before 5:00 PM and we were both eager to get a fire going and warm up. After digging some rocks out of the ground we had a flattish spot for sleeping and we got a fire going nearby. Once we had camp set up we got out the scotch and started roasting the ribeye steaks. It turns out cooking a ribeye over a fire on a stick works really well. Just put on a little salt and pepper, get them sizzling around the outside, eat off the parts that are cooked to your liking, go back to cooking it a little more and repeat until it’s gone.

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The next morning we hiked up to around 12,000 feet on the north side of our little valley. The steep rocky slopes below us had been baking in the sun since it came up and we both found good climbs within a few minutes of launching. It was our last day and we had to be back to the car by late afternoon so we had to either fly well or land close to Hwy 395 and hitch a ride. Conditions were good though and we were soon pinging up to cloud base at 15,000 feet with a South wind helping us along.

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The views over the Sierras were spectacular with the patchy snow fields and rock highlighting the mountains contours. We were getting high enough to get a really good view out West over all the snowy peaks towards the California central valley. I was doing pretty well staying warm even in the frigid temperatures above the mountain tops. Honza had showed me a trick of wrapping my sleeping bag around my torso under my normal down coat. It helped a lot, even my hands stayed warmer since my core was extra warm.

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I was flying conservatively at first trying to make short transitions between thermals as we cut deep across the plateau by Bishop, far from the 395. Once I got to Mt Tom though, the clouds were lined up over the ridges marking easy lift and it was easy cruising back to the car by Convict Lake. I want to send a big shout out to Superfly Paragliding and Seattle Paragliding who are making it possible for me to fly the Advance Omega Xalps, it’s an awesome wing! The thermals were zinging that day with max climb rate registering above 10 meters per second. That’s about 22 miles an hour going straight up for those of you who don’t fly gliders. The air was definitely rowdy at times but the Omega Xalps handled it solidly and let me focus on looking for my next climb. In these kinds of adventures it’s huge to have such a high performance wing that weighs in under 8 lbs.

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Honza arrived close behind me and we came down to land next to the car in a solid Westerly wind that had started pushing over the Sierras. We had packed just about as much flying into our 4 days as we could. My tracklogs from a couple of the days are broken in pieces but you can view them on XC Contest here.

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