July 29, 2018 didn’t look like the typical epic soaring day. Only a handful of pilots headed out to the airport for what appeared to be a typical stable smoke-filled midsummer day in the Cascades. Following Ron and Henry’s great flights six days prior, most of the energy was sucked out of the west-side foothills and replaced by smooth sled riding conditions. While on the surface, things didn’t look great, a look at Skysight gave a sliver of hope – a small window of opportunity that I did not ignore.
As is the case every year around summertime in the Pacific North West, stable marine air works its way from the coastline to the foothills. To get any chance of connecting with pockets of unstable air persisting over the higher mountain tops, ambitious glider pilots tow further away from Arlington – often a pricey bet. The chances of success were further complicated by forest fires that enshrouded the surrounding area in smoke. Not knowing what lay behind this veil of fog, I only had the day’s forecast to go by. Energized by Ron and Henry’s success – and slightly frustrated with the disappointing season so far – I decided to put all my chips on the table and go for a long tow into the hazy sky.
Skysight that morning correctly forecasted flat conditions in the foothills with thermal heights barely reaching Three Fingers’ peak at 8,000 ft. The first lift over 10,000 ft appeared behind Mt Pugh, 15 miles further east. With some hope of staying airborne on Three Fingers’ south-facing ridges, I set out on a tow towards Mt Ditney. Releasing at 6,800 ft., I glided east towards Goat Flats, slowly losing altitude in the inanimate air between my glider and the ridges beyond Goat Flats. I finally felt the first bumps of air pushing up against the rocks protecting the Quest-Alb glacier from the midday sun. Barely strong enough to keep me above 5,500 ft, I held on to the smallest whiffs of air until – half an hour later – a weak thermal broke loose and lifted me over Three Fingers’ fire lookout.
Admittedly surprised, my mindset quickly changed from flying back to Arlington to checking the view of Darrington airport – barely visible through the smoke. At 8,500 ft, I was still far removed from Skysight’s promising forecast area. At this point I could have taking a few shots of the beautiful glaciers and call it a day or push further east – knowing that weak lift would result in an all but certain night at a fine Darrington establishment. The siren call of cumulus cloud sticking its head above the smoke in the distance convinced me to carry on. I left my comfortable position above Three Fingers and glided at best L/D in the general direction of Mt Pugh, a mountain I had come to love as a reliable thermal generator.
My newly acquired confidence in the day’s conditions quickly eroded as I was unable to find any meaningful lift above 8,000 ft. By closely following the terrain lines below while assessing wind flow and sunshine, I managed to continue the 15 mile journey between 8,000 and 7,400 ft. With its peak at 7,200 ft, this was barely enough altitude to cross the Sauk river valley. Luckily Mount Forgotten produced just enough energy to throw me across the river and line up my Discus over Mt Pugh’s ridge line. To keep things exciting, a first circle around the pointy peak was a dud. The depressing low tone coming out of my vario started to pitch higher as I headed further south and finally hit the jackpot with a boomer that propelled me to 12,000 ft.
Having reached Skysight’s promised land, the joys were plentiful. Despite poor visibility the central mountains produced strong 10 kt thermals with cloud bases up to 14,000 ft. The contrast was surreal – leaving an hour long 20 mile journey over desolate land behind me. I lined up under a cloud street facing north-east and simply kept pushing the stick to cross Lake Chelan just 30 minutes later. Turning around at Oval peak, near Twisp’s Methow valley, I headed south towards Mt Rainier. Within the hour I left the Alpine Lakes Wilderness behind me and headed towards Mt Stuart to then follow a convergence line over the Snoqualmie ski area. I finally turned around at Stampede Pass, 20 miles shy of Mt Rainier, and set my final waypoint to Arlington airport.
Flight trace: https://skylines.aero/flights/95350