Women With Wings

I haven’t been flying much and am starting to feel antsy. I was surfing online and visited Kari Castle’s page. http://karicastle.com/. She’s a hangliding world champion. She competed in the X-Alps.. I have three of these videos…. if I won the lottery, I would train full time for this adventure…

She’s been my hero for a couple years now. She is hosting an all women’s Paragliding trip in the Owens Valley… An epic venue that I’ve avoided due to the massive air that typifies the site. It’s in mid October, so the intense heat of the summer is gone, and along with that, the giant, ripper thermals that keep most of the beginner and casual pilots away. I book it.

Oct 17. I arrive in Reno. It’s almost too late to go anywhere. I thought I might stay at a hotel. I really want to curl up in a soft bed. My bones are tired. I have been up since 4AM for work.. I even went into the Atlantis casino. The front desk clerk told me he only had two rooms left. It would be $100.

I have only  four hours before I have to be on the road again, so this sounds like a pretty bad deal. I turn around and go back through the ringing, dinging, beeping, flashing, smoky casino. Relieved, I sit back in the rental and pull onto 395 south. I drive for about an hour on empty two lane highway before my eyes are too heavy to stay on the road. I pull into the post office parking lot in Gardnerville, Nevada. It is a strip mall. One seedy bar with a neon beer sign in the window looks open, but there are only a couple cars in front.

I pull out my sleeping bag. It’s in the low 40’s out. I push the seat back and flat, burrow under my fluffy down bag.. before my eyes are closed, I am gone.

I wake to my alarm three hours later. My eyes are gritty and puffy with sleep. I sit for a few minutes before I feel alert enough to roll back onto the highway. I wish I had a Starbucks right now…. I am supposed to be in Bishop, California at 8:30.

I drive through the night with only one more short nap. I am happy when I see the slight glow on the horizon.The Eastern Sierra is stunning. Every time I drive this corridor, I am shocked to tears by its raw beauty.. Especially the sunrises. they are a prayer…  a promise to me that no matter what we do, what wars we might wage, what ugliness happens in the world, the sun on this high, eternal range will always rise and bring the warmth of a fresh new day, a beautiful, serene beginning.     I am in love with this landscape.

I am peaceful as I roll into town and make my last few preparations. I have to get coffee. This is first order of business. Next, batteries, water, toothbrush, snacks for the day, try to find a SPOT locator.. No way.. Not at 8am in a small town. It will have to go on my list of wants…

Find our meeting spot in the city park. Unload glider and kit bag.

The first of the girls shows up.. There are two of them. They are a little older than me.. And brushing their teeth in the parking lot. I am comfortable with  them immediately.

The rest arrive in twos and threes. Kari Castle is late. Some of the girls know her. She’s always late… For some sick reason, this makes me happy. Maybe I’m glad she’s not a whip cracking taskmaster. I don’t really know..

Kari is a big personality. And she’s tall. And blonde. And tan. She’s clearly an outdoorswoman. She has a huge smile. I like her immediately.

As our female crowd gathers, we introduce ourselves. Many of these pilots are relatively new.. Which surprises me.. This is the Owens.. Even in light conditions, I’ve heard this valley can crank off some serious rippers.

Kari is giving pointers on cross country flying, what we are generally doing here and makes us pick a buddy… Mostly so someone doesn’t get left in a crapper somewhere (has happened).

I pick Patricia. She is self deprecating about her ability, but I feel a calm confidence about her. I suspect she is far better than she reports she is. This is the perfect pilot to me… Always striving to be better, listening, watching, and never pretending (or trying) to be a superstar.

We head up the hill (Flynns) right away and launch. Our first flight is little better than a sled ride. Only about twenty or thirty minutes. I watch Patricia fly. She’s good. She can find and ride a thermal. She stays up a little while in the light condition.

Our next flight is great. There is some very nice lifting air. It’s a little punchier, but it’s desert flying. I feel good and am staying up for as long as I like..

We all soar about a thousand feet above launch, one girl goes a bit higher.

She’s tiny, she’s a leaf in the air…. And she’s a good pilot.

I am so comfortable with this group that it doesn’t dawn on me until later that this is more women pilots in one place than I have ever flown with… In total. Maybe six or seven others. And I can name them all. Except for the Norwegian in Brazil. I forget her name, but not her face.

There are fewer lesbians in this group than I would have thought.  Only three others that are out. Two of them are happily married. I had wondered how many there would be prior to coming here. Nobody cares. It’s not special, not even an item for discussion.

I love that. I can focus on flying.. and meeting these brilliant personalities.

The third day, we drive up to a very high launch. It is at eight thousand feet. It’s name is Paiute. It is a gorgeous drive up. Myself and one other girl want to hike for a while. We jump out of the truck about a thousand feet below launch and hike straight up the mountain. I can tell the air is thin as soon as I take my first steps. It’s a fun scramble up the sharp slippery shale.. a little more work navigating around the smallish scree fields My ankle gets whacked a couple times (I’ve got my tennies on) and I get to meet Julie as we crank up the hill.

I didn’t admit that I had just been working in Denver, I was already acclimated to the higher altitude. She had just rolled in from Washington state and was working much harder than me.

We make it to the top just in time for the site checkout. Kari reminds us of the sink in canyons, the venturi and of being careful not to land in the rotor behind any peak.

We want to let the less experienced pilots launch in the early light conditions. Three pilots launch and land. The fourth is struggling with her launch. She is all heart, but clearly hasn’t practiced her kiting skills. Forty minutes and several launch attempts pass when I spy a hawk circling lazily over a nearby knob

An unknown force controls my mouth and I hear myself say I’m going to launch. I butt in front of the hapless pilot and spread my wing out. My radio check is bad. I landed a little violently in a bush yesterday at a ridge we visited which yanked the mic cord  out of it’s plug in connection.  

I was able to hear talking though, so took the launch anyway.

I waited a minute for a cycle to come up the hill. I see the flags flutter, I feel the wind on my cheek. I lean back into my harness. I feel the pull of my risers. The wing flies above my head. I check it’s surge, turn and RUN. The air is thin. I have to put some energy into this launch.

It’s a perfect takeoff. I steer to the place I saw the bird soaring… I find the thermal she was using. I crank around to the right. I’m going up! I’m almost immediately above launch. I’m so happy, focused and am hoping my new friend will launch right after me.

Three others launch, but it’s not the blue green and white wing I was hoping to see. None of the three gets as high as me… I am enjoying my flight in this desert wonderland and try to find a bigger thermal but they are small and broken in front of the mountain. I decide not to try to push out cross county. I land safely in the Landing zone. My hiking friend was there too. I love her enthusiasm for free flight. She’s all smiles and energy.

There is a support truck to greet us, and someone has had the good sense to pack a few Negro Modelos. It was a fantastic way to wrap up a flying weekend. The weather for the following day is unfavorable and I’m planning my return already.

I say some goodbyes on the ride back to camp, but right before I go, Patricia and Kari ask me to join them for one last flight in the morning. I can’t resist these two and agree.

Patricia and I wake up early and snap some amazing pictures of the desert sunrise. It is the perfect morning.

We enjoy coffee and breakfast from the Great Basin Bakery.. And of course, Schats (Bishop’s legendary  lunch spot and bakery) Soon, we are meeting the group and riding up the bumpy mountain trail.




I have some serious concern for the weather. I make a decision not to fly. I would watch the others. There are lenticular clouds in the valley and over some of the ridges. This is a bad sign. High winds aloft. I don’t need to check the weather report to know this.

The newer pilots are going to launch. They are to get the first sled ride down before the weather turns…. It is blowing over Mammoth lakes. Supposed to snow tomorrow.

The same girl with the tough launch the day before sets up her wing.

She has a couple attempts and on the third one, gets airborne but doesn’t control the glider off launch. She whacks into the sharp shale on the left side of the canyon and seconds later again  into the right. Finally, she’s airborne. She makes some giant, lazy turns. Finally, with some coaching, ten minutes later, she makes it to the landing zone.

She reports a nasty scratch and then admits her leg may be broken..

One other pilot launches and meets our injured girl on the ground. Conditions are poor at best and I ride the truck down the hill.

When I arrive, she is in good spirits but her leg looks horrible, its badly scratched and is swelling quickly. I decide to splint and transport. The hospital is pretty close.

We carry her a few hundred feet to the waiting truck and haul her off to the hospital..

I have to drive back to Reno to catch my flight. Now. Or I will be late. I hug the few other people at the emergency room and smile goodbye. I don’t have time for much more.

On the way back to Reno, I get a text. No broken bones.
Thank goodness for an easy lesson on this last day. I am peaceful again, my soul is full, I am ready to tackle anything.

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