Mindsets, Flow, and Learning

The Pilot Having the Most Fun

            Mitch Riley,

 

I can’t imagine getting to a level in our sport where I don’t have a lot to learn.  The opportunity to spend my entire life learning and improving at our sport is the most appealing aspect of this pursuit.  The constant improvement I see in my flying keeps me motivated, and having fun.  Lets explore how to learn more effectively and more actively with a story about a flying day in Santa Barbara, California.

 

The winds aloft are light, the day is forecasted to be sunny, its a flying day.  I post a meet time to our club web board and go on my morning run.  During the run through blooming flowers and dew soaked grass I visualize turning my glider into a tight little thermal core.  I imagine myself weight shifting into the loaded side, pulling enough brake to slice into that hard edge, but not so much that I spin my glider.  The visualizations, combined with the run have me pumped up and ready for action.  I find myself in joyous anticipation of the sharp, tight little cores I’m likely to find.  Bring it on.

 

Old friends and new meet in the LZ.  Many pilots in our community have just returned from Columbia.  I listen in fascination to their stories of high bases, personal bests, and touching clouds.  Arron LaPlante arrives, with his usual infectious smile, and his absurdly awkward stuff bag.  Arron, as usual, is pumped on the day.  His typical MO is to show up , totally stoked, during his “lunch hours” and fly a respectable xc flight back to work.  Greetings are exchanged all around, the gliders are fastened to the roof, and the van, squeaky brakes and all is on its way up the hill. 

 

In the van the radio is playing catchy modern rock.  The stories, reuniting questions and discussion flow like beer at the SBSA christmas party.  The general mood is energized, light hearted and fun loving.  This is not the time or place to talk about crashes, collapses, or uncle Ted’s predictions of strong afternoon valley winds.  This is the time to cultivate an excited, fun and relaxed mood, a mood that is going to help us achieve a flow state.

 

Flow:  Named my Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.  Flow is a single minded, full immersion in our present activity, and produces the ultimate personal potential an our present activity.  In flow emotions are positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand.  In order to enter flow we must be in an environment thats positive, energized, and fun.  If we achieve flow state while flying our entire being is going to be completely focused on the flight.  Thus we will be more successful at achieving our free-flight dreams, and safer while doing so.

 

We get to our take-off, EJ Bowl.  The grass in green, the flowers are blooming, and I’ve got a catchy song in my head, “Billy Jean”.  Life is good.  There are launchable cycles coming into to take off, as well as weak cycles coming over the back.  Arron is laid out on launch before I’ve even unzipped my backpack, that absurd stuff bag of his comes in handy.  The cycles coming in all but fizzle out, and the cycles over the back begin to increase.

 

“Its a good thing you practiced your light wind launches the other day”.  I say in reference to an impressive display of running reverse inflations Arron demonstrated at the road cut launch days ago.  “Im great at forwards, get out of my way and Ill show you boys how to do it.”  A visiting pilot says as Arron is waiting.  Soon, we see two vultures catch a climb out front and below us, they climb to our level and seconds later a light cycle comes up the hill.  “O, I got this”  Arron says just before a perfect running reverse inflation to a smooth launch.             

 

Stanford phycology professor Carol Dweck, in her book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success”, outlines two basic mindsets and how they relate to learning.

 

Fixed Mindset:

            Students believe their abilities, intelligence, talents and skills are fixed traits.  They prefer activities and challenges they believe they have talent in, and avoid challenges they believe they have a disability in.

 

Growth Mindset:

            Students believe their abilities, intelligence, talents and skills can be developed through effort, good training and tenacity.  They tend to view deficiencies or failures as results that can change with perseverance in learning.

 

Most of us cycle back and forth between these two mindsets.  Once we learn the language and thought patters associated with them we can strive to spend more time in a growth mindset and less time in a fixed mindset.  Here are some examples of the two mindsets and how they will effect out flying progression. 

 

Fixed mindset: “Im bad at light wind launches.”

            When a pilot in fixed mindset is presented with a light wind launch he will feel stressed and tense before he even puts on his harness.  The stress may make it more likely that he forgets a thorough preflight check, notices the bird thermaling, or sees the dust devil rising up the hill.

            If the launch goes well the fixed mindset pilot will think; ‘I got lucky on that one’, or ‘the wind must have come up, because I’m bad at light wind launches’.  If the Launch goes badly the fixed mindset pilot will think; “Of course that was shit, I suck at light wind launches”

            Years down the road this pilot will still be bad at light wind launches because anything that reinforces their definition of their talents is seen as truth, and anything that undermines their belief is explained away as luck or circumstance.

 

Growth mindset: “I can improve my light wind launches.”

            When a pilot in a growth mindset is presented with a light wind launch she will think about the actions she needs to take to execute a good launch.  Most likely she has sought out advise and done visualizations, and will be at a heightened state of concentration and awareness, a flow state.  This flow state will help her perception of time slow down, and her awareness increase.  She will be more likely to notice subtle changes in the wind, to notice the bird out front, the knot in her lines, or the unbuckled legstraps on a friends harness.

            If the launch goes well she will think; “What did I do right to make that so smooth”, then she will replay that launch in her mind and her skills will improve.

            If the launch goes badly the growth mindset pilot will think; “What can I do differently to have a better takeoff?”  She will ask for advise, and integrate that advise into her visualizations, next ground handling session, and her next light wind launches.

            The growth mindset pilot will be improving their light wind launches each and every time because wether they had a success or a failure they will analyze their (in)actions and strengthen the skills that lead to success, while discouraging the actions that lead to problems. 

 

I find myself laid out on takeoff for more then five minuets with no sign of a upslope cycle and the over the back wind increasing.  When the over the back wind is kiteable I ball up my glider and suggest we drive down the Skyport Launch which is 700 ft lower and more likely to be anabaticaly blocked from the light north (back) wind.  While Im walking off takeoff with my balled up glider I notice that its completely possible and reasonable for me to launch off the backside, and shoot the gap through a saddle, to search for thermals on the south facing side.

 

As I choose my takeoff cycle Im energized, loose, and bobbing my head to “Thriller”.  My launch goes great, and the turbulence I encounter just south of the saddle is easily managed, I made a good call.  I am completely focused on the task at hand, under my glider, and feeling very good.  I get on the radio to let the launch crew know that only pilots with a desire to fly through some turbulence should think about repeating that move, and begin searching the usual places for lift.  Nothing, yep I mean nothing, up high, searching the usual triggers I find no lift.  Not until I am way lower and out front near a feature we call the Antenna Farm do I find a tight little usable thermal.  

 

My mind is completely in the present, and taking on all the information it can gather to help me achieve my goals and desires.  Right now my goals and desires are to stay in the air.  Aaron is in another sharp little core nearby when we learn that the thermals are not going over 2,200ft.  We make a move to a ridge further East.  We are flying about 1000ft lower then we would be on a decent day, but there is some height to play with, and we are both completely in the zone, focused on the task at hand.  The risk is not a lack of good LZs, or wind, or turbulence, the risk of going to the next ridge is landing out and having to find a way back.  Landing out will just take one wrong turn, our height is so low that mistakes will mean landings.

 

We start completing micro out and backs, challenging ourself’s to continually make low saves, and choose the best glide lines.  Soon Arron flies out to land, back to work, and I am flying by myself.  The crew that drove down to Skyport come out and fly, and land.  I am totally in a state of flow, and really enjoying myself, so keep challenging myself to catch that thermal lower, or try this glide further out front.  Each and every decision is based on years of creating and testing theories, allowing my conscious and subconscious mind to absorb data, then being in a state of flow allows me to be open to what my conscious and subconscious mind think I should do.

 

Eventually I find myself in the Parma LZ, where the Skyport launchers are just finishing packing their equipment.  I am absolutely stoked on the flight, huge smile, gushing about views, birds etc.  I soon catch myself and notice that the other pilots are kinda bummed.  One of them says “Your really good at thermaling Mitch, of course you could make those shit conditions fun”, “I practice a lot” is my reply.  “Im better at flying when the conditions are good” another pilot says.  They walk off the landing field, while I still have a smile on my face.            

 

We can help our flying buddies cultivate a growth mindset with the language we use both in praise and in constructive criticism.   In multiple studies, Carol Dwek and her colleagues noted that mindset could be altered by praising the process through which success was achieved.  Lets look at some examples;

 

“Nice flight, your great at thermaling.”

            This statement is an example of fixed mindset praise.  The pilot is likely to think ‘Im great at thermaling’.  If the pilot falls for this fixed mindset jargon he is likely to stop seeing any reason to challenge and improve his thermalling.  Any future evidence of the pilot thermaling less then great is going to be explained away as a situational fluke.  Their deficiencies in thermalling will not be, or be slow to be, corrected because they will blame something other then their learning effort.  Any success at thermaling will reinforce their belief that they have an inherent skill at it, and will not lead to learning or improvement.

 

“Nice flight, you were thermaling really well today, looks like that tour to Colombia is paying off.”

            This statement is an example of growth mindset praise.  The speaker is linking success with effort and diligence.  The pilot is going to think ‘I am thermalling well because I’ve been working hard to improve my thermalling.’  Any future evidence of the pilot thermalling less then well will be seen as evidence of a lack of learning effort, and will quickly be corrected by putting in more effort.  Evidence of the pilot climbing well will buttress the work they have done.

 

I recently moved out to California and restarted surfing after a sixteen year hiatus.  On one of my first days out I was flailing in biggish surf, kinda getting my butt handed to me.  Out in the line up I mentioned to another surfer that I had a lot to learn and relearn about surfing, his response stuck with me.  “You know who the best surfer out here is?”   He asked me.  “Who?”  I asked, looking around for the likes of Kelly Slater.  “The one having the most fun”.  He said as he caught a big wave.  Lets strive to be the pilot having the most fun!

 

 

 

            

Santa Barbara 9 Trails 35 Miles Endurance Run, With A Paragliding Pack

March 23rd, 2017 was a pretty normal day, in the middle of a normal week of training hard for the Red Bull X-Alps, flying and working.  I had two tandems from Skyport, a Santa Barbara mountain takeoff then Neal Michealis and I drove up to retrieve the van, conditions looked great, so we got our XC gliders out and hucked off.  It was late in the day, and the thermals were weak, with a low base.  Challenging, low flying kept it fun and interesting.  I went down range a couple of crossings, before side hill landing at the Tea Cups.  I packed up, then walked a private trail to Cold Springs trail, and up to Gibraltar road.  As I crossed the Rattlesnake trail a ultra runner type (form fitting hydration pack, short shorts, and GOO wrappers falling out of his pockets) was putting in race trail markers.  I asked him "which race is tomorrow".  "The 9 Trails" was his response.  "Do you know if there are any spots left" I asked.  He chuckled, I must have amused him, hiking up a road fast, with a loaded pack, and asking about entering an Ultra marathon that started in 11 hours.  He told me to check the website.

 The Santa Barbara 9 Trails Endurance Run, has become a classic California Ultra.  The course is steep, 11,000ft of Climb, and 11,000ft of decent in its 35 miles, on rocky technical single track trail.  Poison Oak, rattle snakes, spectacular views, wildflowers, and STEEP trails make this course legendary.  I heard one runner I passed say "Western States 100 was a good training run for 9 Trails", hilarious.

I decided that If I did the race I would do it with my Paragliding Pack, at X-Alps weight, just under 10kg.  While finishing my hike I considered the advantages and challenges of doing the race.  

Advantages, If I finish the race

The phycological benefit of knowing that I complete 35 miles of rough terrain, and 11k feet of accent and decent with a pack on, after 5 days of hard training will be huge.  It would confirm my training, nutrition, pacing, and mechanical tactics, helping affirm that the work Ive been putting in is paying off.  It takes long days for our bodies to figure out the adaptations that are needed to sustain constant movement, fueling, and mental toughness that are required for a race like the X-Alps.  These adaptations just don't happen on 5 hour days, they take long hard days to come into play.  I often have pains come up on 2-5 hour training sessions.  It takes a much longer training session to learn the adaptations that are necessary to protect myself against that pain.  The ultra running community is filled with a great bunch of people and being part of an organized event brings you into an extraordinary shared group experience.  These trails are right out my back door, and I train on them all the time, what makes entering a race unique is the 130 other participants doing it with you, while you cheer each other on. 

Challenges

I was right in the middle of a hard training week, and my legs would most likely be soar in the morning from a lot of hiking, running and strength training day after day.  I have not trained for 11,000 feet of downhill in a day, I usually do some downhill in a training week, but a lot of my hikes include a fly, and no downhill.  If I was deluding myself with over confidence I could Injure myself, and having to take time off my training schedule would make me weaker for the X-Alps.  Not finishing the race would have negative phycological effects, making it hard to regain my confidence if I were to fail.

  As I drove the van down I called Rob Sporrer, best employer a flying/exercise addict could ask for, and secured the day off from teaching for Eagle Paragliding.  I met Neal, and a bunch of other friends at a happy hour around 7:30 pm, got out my phone and signed up for the race that started at 6 am.  After Giving Neal a ride back up the mountain to retrieve his truck, eating dinner, and convincing my badass photographer friend Jason Lumbard to come to the start with me, I was in bed at 10:30pm with a 4:45 alarm set.

I woke up at 4:30am, energetic and ready to crush.  I devised my strategy for finishing the race;  No running allowed!  The downhills had the potential to crush me if I didn't treat them with a lot of respect.  I promised myself that I would be as smooth as possible on the downhills, letting a bunch of people pass me, then crush the uphills, because thats what I do.  I got out of bed and started thinking of how unprepared I was, while stretching out my fatigued legs, and brewing some coffee.  I had the work van in front of my place, and my truck was across town behind a locked gate.  Inside my truck was my good headlamp, good shoes, running shorts, and best water bottle.  I settled for my worn out trail shoes, drove to the 24hr 7/11 to get batteries for an old headlamp, and decided on some cotton leggings (to protect against the poison oak), covered by baggy shorts with cavernous pockets.  Lumbard, he's my neighbor, came over and gave me four Huppy Bars (delicious "real food" energy bars), I slung my pack over my shoulders and we walked 400 meters to the start of the race.  In the pack I had, a UP Trango X-Race(rad glider), Skywalk Range X-Alps Harness(light pod),  an Oldie 4 flight instrument, a jacket, my helmet, phone, and water bottle, everything I take to complete long(100 miles +) flights through remote mountains.  

The registration official was not as optimistic as me.  Photo: Jason Lumbard

The registration official was not as optimistic as me.  Photo: Jason Lumbard

At the registration tent I picked up my # and 9Trails trucker hat, perfect hat for the race.  Volunteers asked me about the pack, and chuckled at the idea that I was going to carry it for the event.  The race organizer Luis Escobar said "If you finish, talk to me about a t-shirt", 'IF I finish my ass' I thought, the challenge was on.  Despite the darkness I still noticed I was getting a lot of weird looks as we listened to the pre race briefing, everyone else was in techy ultra running gear and I was wearing baggy shorts, cotton tights, a truckers hat and a huge backpack.  I visualized moving down the hills smoothly, and not falling into the trap of being competitive with the non-pack wearing runners.  As we all walked 500 meters down the road for a group start I was drinking out of my water bottle and as I tried to put it back into the side of my backpack I dropped it, first of many times, a guy next to me picked it up.  It was dark, but this guy looked familiar, "John, is that you?", "Yeah, is that Mitch?".  It was my good friend and paragliding buddy John Pitt, from Elsinore California.  We chatted as we found our place in the mass start.  John is a professional trainer, and an endurance badass.  He spent last summer running up and down 50 of the highest peaks in the state, and writing a book about the experience.  We chatted about that, and about misadventures with women (another of his expertise) while finding a place at the back of the start pack.  Everyone was told to raise their right hand and repeat "If I get hurt, disabled, or dead its my own damn fault".  

And it begins.  John Pitt, the legend, next to me starting with a quick pace.  Photo: Jason Lumbard.

And it begins.  John Pitt, the legend, next to me starting with a quick pace.  Photo: Jason Lumbard.

Boom, we started up the asphalt road, where John quickly ran through the thronging pack, to funnel into the single track Jesusita trail.  The Jesusita trail starts with rolling hills and multiple stream crossings.  It was beautiful to watch the long train of headlamps ascend the bends of the trail.  Soon we were climbing steep and I began passing competitors.  I got a lot of comments about my large pack, and anyone who was going my pace, a rarity(thanks for the conversation Baylee), got to hear all about the X-Alps and my prep for it.  We reached Inspiration point just in time for the spectacular sunrise where we went into the first down hill to 7 falls.  The twenty people I had just passed, quickly passed me.  I concentrated on my being smooth, and non competitive.  Next was the tunnel uphill.  Tunnel trail is the most technical trail in our front country and a points requires scrambling to ascend.  I was full of energy and bounding up the trail, passing people left and right, and feeling fresh, strong, and energized.  On the next downhill, you guessed it, a bunch of people passed me, while we got a light rain, keeping the morning cool.  The pattern would continue as I began to get to know the people who where at about my pace, making some good conversation and friends.    

Nine miles into the race we passed the Gibraltar Road full aid station.  I made quick work of refilling my bottle, pouring some Hammer Perpetuem into it, grabbing a couple of bars, a couple of gels, shoving some warm quesadilla, and bacon in my mouth, and continuing on.  Relentless forward progress!!  RELENTLESS FORWARD PROGRESS!  The competitive side of me saw the 5 competitors that I passed by breezing through the aid station.  At the Cold Springs, Warm Springs divide, at hour 3:40 the leader, Kris Brown, was coming back, looking fast as he bounded up a hill.  Kris would go on to break the current course record by nearly 20 minutes.  

I frequent these trails, running, mountain biking, and hiking, despite that I got into a zone where I was just following the trail markers (excellently marked) and in a type of daze as to where I was.  Each uphill felt short and easy, I was charging the ups at my top hiking pace and feeling great at the top.  The downs were a different story, I was being careful, and reminding myself no to try and pace the slow runners passing me, it was hard self-control but it would pay off in the long run.  

Its an out and back course.  The turnaround point being the Romero trail-head.  On my last long downhill I met John coming up.  We stoped for a few seconds to catch up.  I told him I was feeling great and strong, he told me that he was trying to work through a bonk (over exertion while under fueling caused fatigue).  I had been eating a half Huppy Bar at the start of every down hill, and taking in a half an energy goo at the bottom of every up, and I was well energized, never got hungry, or experienced any digestive problems.  He took my picture and we went our ways.  As I made my way to the aid station Baylee was comming up the trail and said, "Mitch your running".  I had told her that my plan was to never run.  I looked down at myself and I was running/shuffling the down hill, and it was feeling great.  I found it, I found my smooth downhill run with a pack on.  Pretty soon I was shoving quesadilla and orange pieces into my mouth at the aid station and turning around to do all those trails the other way.       

Photo: Jason Lumbard

Photo: Jason Lumbard

The race continued on.  I noticed that fewer people were passing me on the downhills, I guess everyones quads were getting tired, and I was still passing on the uphills.  By the time I was back at Gibraltar Road I was pretty damn sure that I was going to make it to the finish, feeling good.  I saw my paragliding buddy Tom Truax with blood on his face inspecting his glider.  He said something about crashing it, and promised he was fine.  Tom didn't seem to even notice that I was running an Ultra Marathon with my pack on, so I asked him if he was sure he was fine.  He promised and said he was going to relaunch.  The sky looked perfect and I knew he would have a great flight.  I was walking up the road with Luis Escobar, the organizer, who asked if I could launch and fly to the finish.  "Yeah I could fly well past the finish."  He joked about having a special prize for that.  Luis Escobar has become known for organizing classic "no-frills" trail running events.  The Nine trails was excellently organized, with no B.S., on a phenomenal course, Thanks Luis.

As I descended the steep, technical tunnel trail I called Jason and some other close friends and told them I'd be at the finish in an hour and a half, just a quick jaunt on the days standards.  Jumping down rocks, and navigating tight steep switchbacks I asked Jason, via speaker phone, to bring me a big order of spaghetti from the local Italian place.  My legs where fatigued but working just fine, In fact on this steepest and most technical downhill I was gaining on other runners, and able to hop and dance down the rocks.

Last aid station; they were impressed that I had made it this far, and asked about the 'parachute' in the bag.  I grabbed a packet of recovery powder that I would mix with my water on the last downhill.  My mind was starting to think about the best way to recover strong, get enough rest, yet get back to my normal training schedule.    

On the last downhill, one of the longest ones of the course, I was tempted to start running as I was so close to the finish and runner after runner was passing me.  It took all my self control to look at the long game and remind myself that this was a training day, and the only one I had to compete with was myself, I was the only one wearing a 25 pound pack.  If I had to take training days off for a little injury to get me a couple of places further ahead, I would regret it during the X-Alps.  I smiled, let them pass, with encouragement, and continued my shuffle.  This trail is my training ground, I knew every turn I needed to pass and every creek I needed to cross.  I was filled with joy for having set myself a lofty goal and completed it well, by sticking to my plan.  My confidence in my training method, mental toughness, and ability to carry a pack for miles and miles and miles was swelling.  My body was feeling tired, but good, I could have gone on for hours and hours.  My fueling and hydration had been spot on, and I never felt a bonk, or gastro trouble.  As I neared the finish, I heard "Yeah Mitch".  Some of my best friends were at the finish cheering me on, and celebrating my success.  I high fives my friends, crossed the finish line, I huged a stranger who was hugging everyone at the finish, it was a fantastic hug, and went to hang our with my bros.  Great Day!

Photo: Jason Lumbard

Photo: Jason Lumbard

Hikes, bears, bushwhacking, and moonlight rotor.

After returning to Santa Barbara from my adventure filled summer in the Alps, I got right back to work teaching paragliding students and doing tandems in beautiful Santa Barbara, California. Sept 15th was my first day off, and I was in the mood for a memorable day. The winds aloft forecast showed light winds, and the day was predicted to be sunny. I called my good friend Andrew Byron and asked if he wanted to do a hike and fly off Little Pine Mountain. “Sure”, he said, 
‘I get off work at 11pm, and don’t have to work till 2:30pm tomorrow”.  
‘Really? We need to start hiking at 6am and the trailhead is at least 1.5 hours from your house.” I said, fully expecting him to opt out. “Great, send me the trailhead location” was his only reply. Dedicated adventure buddies are a wonderful thing. 

We met at the trailhead just as the first pink and purple colors of morning were braking the nights darkness. Facing us was a sign saying “Area Closed, due to recent fires...” We looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders and started walking the trail. The area we were entering is normally a huge wilderness area with only the occasional single track trail and even more occasional grandfathered in Off Highway Vehicle rough dirt road. The whole area being closed meant that it was now just us, in this huge rugged area we would not see or be seen by anyone. If you want to imagine the terrain we were in think back to all the western movies you have ever seen. Think about the driest, dustiest most rugged landscape on display in those movies and you will get the idea. Flying back here would challenge all our flying skills, and landing out would challenge our survival skills. The trail entered an apocalyptic, ash-covered, firescape. the air was still and smelt strongly of mass burning. The early morning was completely silent, even our footfalls muffled by two inches of fine grey ash, leaving the only tracks for miles around. I couldn't help but think that it was beautiful, the lack of color, sound and life gave a chance at rebirth. Come spring this same area will be teaming with fresh wildflowers, bugs, birds and rodents. All those species will have to adapt to fill the very specific niches presented to them.

I hadn't seen Andrew since my return to the States and we soon passed the time with funny stories, philosophical discussion, and flying geek talk. Andrew has been flying for just over a year. He has worked his ass off to progress in his skills, knowledge and risk assessment. He asks the right questions, and does a good job interpreting the answers. This is not a mission for a novice pilot, but Andrew has proved to me time and time again that he is humble, capable of making wise decisions, and knows his limitations. The hike passed quickly with lots of laughs among good friends. 

Upon finding a good takeoff we saw hawks catching small thermals and not going very high with them. Only one guy had ever flown off this mountain before, as far as I know, so we needed to be ultra perceptive about what the air, birds, ash, landscape and sky were telling us about what to expect, decisions to make, and actions to take. There was a defined haze/inversion line showing on the horizon, at about our altitude. Hawks where catching small sharp thermals just out in front, but only taking them a couple hundred feet before gliding in search for another. 

The recent fires cleared out a nice takeoff for us.

The recent fires cleared out a nice takeoff for us.

We dragged our feet for as long as my patience would allow before I set up to launch(around 9:45am, you cant fly all day if you don’t start in the morning). In the air I found plenty of small weak thermals, but getting more then 150ft above takeoff was not happening. I toplanded to take care of a radio issue, told Andrew that it was working and soon we were both in the air. We bounced along the mountain, struggling to gain much altitude, and soon Andrew went on glide toward his motorcycle and an evening of working as a Navy aircraft controller. Now I was flying back there alone and I had an internal dialogue that went something like this; ‘Its got to be working up in the higher deeper terrain, dive back there’. ‘Yeah, but thats really really deep, there aint shit out there’. ‘Your strong as shit, you have plenty of food and water, what are you afraid of? Walking? Sack up Mitch, its double down time.‘ And thus I talked my self into diving one spine deeper. That one didn't work much better, so... Yep, you guessed it, I dove deeper... and deeper....and deeper. Soon I was close to the bigger mountains, and properly in the middle of nowhere. I needed one smallish crossing and a thermal off a lowish spine to get to big rocky stuff that was bound to be above the unrelenting inversion. As I made the crossing I looked down to see no trails in the shrub covered landscape below me. There was one small open looking meadow at the bottom of a canyon, and that was the only landing option anywhere near my intended trigger. I remember thinking ‘its more then an 8 hour walk out from there, don’t land there.‘ I arrived at the spine, but didn't make it work, searching, searching, searching and nothing. When I was low enough for no other choices, I flew to the meadow and landed in tall green grass, a rarity in these parts. I balled up my glider and set it in the shade next to a giant pile of fresh bear shit. I then took off most of my sweaty flying clothes but opted to keep on a long-sleeve Helly Hansen shirt and some women's leggings ( purchased in an Austrian supermarket on a cold night in the Alps) on as cover against the multitudes of Poison Oak plants that are famous for ruining beautiful nature memories in this area. The unusually numerous green healthy plants in the area led me to believe there was a spring to find, so I left my gear next to the bear shit and went to find the water. I topped up my water supply, drank my fill, all while my smartphone played Stevie Nicks tunes. I was in a great mood, and decided to walk a little ways out the canyon till I could get to a slope to scramble up and find a relaunch. 

Bear shit and a Delorme.

Bear shit and a Delorme.

The canyon bottom was thick with logs, plants, and natural debris. The easiest passages were bear tunnels, and I found myself alternating between crawling under debris, and using log bridges to walk above. I was on one such log bridge, that was about as thick as a 26” bike rim, looked strong, and made no sounds as I put my weight on the first portion of its span. When I reached the middle this natural bridge made an awful, for me (there is no good or bad in nature;), braking sound, and I went crashing through smaller logs, sticks, and debris to the ravine floor 8ft below. When I settled I reached out to steady myself and saw that my right ring finger angled at 90 degrees toward my pinky at the ring knuckle. I concentrated on long steady breathing for five breathes to settle my nerves, and then pulled traction on it with my other hand. It reduced back to a “normal” position with a lessening of pain, and no harsh sounds. ‘Phhue’, I though ‘just a dislocation. Shit! You should have taken a photo’. I got up and continued down the canyon, bushwhacking with just one hand. I passed another spring where the water briefly pooled before cascading down a waterfall only to disappear back into the ground. I took a moment in that spot to appreciate how amazing being In the middle of nowhere, among beautiful scenery, with all I need was. I felt incredibly fortunate for all I have and have learned, the health the skills and the boldness that allow me to pursue these unique experiences.

My beat up hand, and swollen knuckle, just after I relieved the dislocation.

My beat up hand, and swollen knuckle, just after I relieved the dislocation.

This little oasis of water is a wonderful site in drought stricken California.

This little oasis of water is a wonderful site in drought stricken California.

Soon I arrived at the steep, loose, shrub crowded slope that I needed to ascend. I was protecting my hurt hand, which at this point was throbbing in pain, and the scrambling/bushwhacking/climbing was very slow. The soil was of the dry gravel and dust variety that allows half a step up for every two attempted and quickly fills the very fibers of your shoes. The Plants were thick, sometimes poisonous shrubs with a plethora of sharp sticky pieces, and the sun was baking. I had turned off the tunes to conserve battery power, and I’ll admit that my moral was not not high. I had to give myself a little talking to; ‘Come on Mitch, that pain is just data. You can climb, you can move, you can force yourself through these plants, make it to the top of this slope, get it done’. The pep-talk did the trick and although I was not pumped I was able to take all emotion out of the experience and just get to work at making slow progress up that slope. Hours later I found myself at the top of a ridge, with a rough dirt track in sight. I made it to the rough track and reveled in the feeling of walking upright, full strides without having to fight through plants and rocks.

Fighting my way through this stuff with only one usable hand.

Fighting my way through this stuff with only one usable hand.

This old road follows a ridge that leads back to where I had launched from hours before. I walked it hoping to see evidence of lift and a place to launch. I didn't find either. The birds were still not going high, and launch places were sketchy at best. Another landout now would mean spending the night out, and missing work the next day. The time passed in a nice easy, fast walk. 

Hours later the throbbing in my hand ceased and I started jogging on the dirt road towards Little Pine Mountain, my original takeoff, in an effort to fly before the sun disappeared under the horizon. The fire scorched, ash covered, desert landscape was bathed in the bright reds and pinks as the sun filtered through the dense, hazy marine air under the inversion. As I neared a suitable takeoff a moderate north, over the back, wind pulsed through and then eased again. On my chosen takeoff the wind was almost imperceptibly over the back, the catabolic, downward flowing air of the evening had set in. My internal dialogue went something like this; “Its catabatic Mitch, you might have to walk down in the dark, you have a headlamp no biggy”, “screw that, Im flying off this mountain, get the glider out of the bag and check the lines before it gets dark”, “Mitch, be careful, there are no landings down on the North side, and its already pitch dark down there”, “I got this, the North wind is increasing, Im going to be able to soar the north side then dive over the back and land near the truck.” As I cleared the lines in the last sunlight of the day and the landscape took on its moon glow the North wind increased to soaring velocity.

Jogging on a fire break towards my final takeoff of the day, while the sun quickly goes under the horizon.

Jogging on a fire break towards my final takeoff of the day, while the sun quickly goes under the horizon.

I inflated my glider and kited it to a spot with just a few burnt-out tree skeletons over the lip. I had to run forward and create a little lift while entering the lift band to clear the sharp, burt tree-limbs. It was spectacular, I was soaring the back side of Little Pine mountain bathed in moonlight. I knew that the dive over the back would be turbulent, and that I had no landings under me, but I was able to relax and enjoy the amazing sensations that soaring in smooth air, over a gorgeous landscape, under a full moon can bring. Internal dialogue: “Aaawww this is awesome, maybe I should stay up here for a while”, “No F-ing way man, get your maximum altitude and dive over, you are in a super sketchy spot, if you sink out your going to be spending the night out with you glider tangled in bushes in the best scenario. Dive over soon.” So I dove over the back into rotorville. It was turbulent, but I’ve been in rougher air. I handled the glider well, and stayed loose, attentive, and positive. Soon I was through the worst of it and tracking lee side convergence lines, and magic air pockets towards the Paradise Valley. It was like flying on a totally different planet, with the moonlight illuminating the ash covered rocky terrain, while I circled in rowdy columns of lifting air. Once I had the Paradise Valley within glide I took my time, enjoying the unique experience of turning circles in lift under a full moon, out there on my own in a that spectacular landscape. Eventually I went on full speed glide, valley wind was cranking, to land right next to my truck at the Lower Oso campground, in 30+kms of wind. 

What a fantastic day out!!

I had many amazing adventures in the Alps this summer, and Il be sharing some of those soon. I am pumped that right outside my door I can have an adventure in the wilderness, that requires and tests my skills, boldness, and optimism. Here’s to being Back in the USA!!