THE SIERRA SAFARI
Crossing the Sierra Nevada in California « SIERRA SAFARI 2012″
As imagined, i was totally surprised when i arrived in North America for the first time. The images I had of old TV shows like Starsky and Hutch, The Dukes of Hazard and John Wayne were all i had to go on… SLAP!!!
My first port of call were the streets of San Francisco (not the Tv show!!!)
Which in fact were really, really steep, however, thanks to a magic bus service covering the whole place, equipped with live-tracking of each bus at each stop, and free WiFi in all public areas, life was easy, even for a Frenchy like me!!!
Everyone was very welcoming and friendly that I met throughout the journey in California. Here, everything is BIG: cars, roads, scenery and of course the adventure that is present all the time.
The Sierra Safari expedition was a « first time » in America… where a group of pilots attempted a « Bivy flight » in Paragliding, performed by a succession of distance flights camping at high altitude.
Objectives : covering the maximum of distance in the safest way possible as a team.
The goal: Depart over Los Angeles and Mojave Desert, in the foothills of the Sierra and head North West towards Oregon.
California is made up of a large basin to the Pacific Rim, rich with fruit plantations, and closed on the north-east by the Sierra chain that make the border with Nevada desert.
From volcanic origin, the mountain is home to Yosemite National Park, as well as the Giant Sequoia Park, and many more mind-blowing delights. Rich in flora and fauna, as well as minerals …. spread on the west side, the vertical chain is sharper on the eastern flank …. Much more arid and dry above the desert .
We spent the first official day of the expedition grounded with strong wind, but we met the director of nearby school who invited us to make a small presentation for the students, in the small town of Lonepine.
The children were surprised to learn that this place was one of the best in the United States for free flying. With enormous potential, the valley is huge and the roads are straight to the infinity. It’s wild, adventures and the unknown is present at every step, every minute of the way.
The next day, the risk of strong wind was present in altitude. We finally take off at Walt’s 2500m at 10am. Nick was the first one off, a little over motivated as two weeks before he established the new American record in paragliding distance, over 200 miles.
Oriol and Gavin followed him and I took off with Brad and Eric (my buddies from Himalayan adventures) It was cool to be together. The last time it was about 60kms from the Indian border of Sikkim after a month and a half and covering 1360 km of the Great Himalayas of India and Nepal.
Eric Reed is one of the pioneers of this type of flight in the United States. In fact, he crossed the Sierra in solo a year ago.
We make our way slowly through this arid place and passed in front of Mount Whitney (4400m) The highest point of the Sierra. The sharp crests, peaks and deep giant voids displayed to us a terrain very dry. At only 200kms from the Pacific coast there was a » Foehn effect » due to westerly wind warming and drying the downwind part to the east of the Sierra, thus, creating dry and strong conditions. It was September, thermals still very generous, but not too much, however, enough to make the flying comfortable .
After 40kms, the opportunity of a first « top-landing » Nick went for it… a little too strong; He ripped and pierced his harness and his water pack during a great crash landing in the middle of blocks, thankfully, all was ok.
The air mass moved and became stronger ….
Brad tried an approach but destabilized as thermal cores started rising along the slope, spinning his glider. He released it… but impacted on the slope and could only slide down the hill. Feeling his hips hurt he kept sliding and took off again, giving himself a chance to self auto-rescue by flying down the valley, it was amazing and pretty heroic!
We talked on radios, and organized an ambulance in the valley. Everyone landed down with Brad…. I decided to stay at the top, not to leave Nick alone for his first « bivy » high on the mountain top.
Knowing that Brad was in good hands in a small hospital in Lone Pine, we organized our camp at 3200m, watching the Sierra Blanca on the other side of the valley. Red enlightened the sky before giving way to the spectacular star show that followed. It was the first time I seen the celestial vault like that, with the lack of light pollution on hundreds of miles, and our altitude. It offered us an unforgettable sight.
Day 3 /
Nick and i were ready to take off after our first nights sleep, some porridge and a cup of tea! 80 km on, we stopped at Bishop, where we could easily connect with the car and the rest of the group. Gavin and Eric took off behind us at Walt’s …. They flew 120 km, and landed at the top of a ridge known as Maggy’ s. After news of Brad, we joined them. Oriol decides to stay with Brad to help him move. With nothing broken, he hoped to reach us before the end of the adventure.
Day 5 / We took off at 9 am. The day was bright and we made transitions of 4200 m in the direction of Mammoth ski resort, leaving behind the « Half Dome and Yosemite Park’s vertical walls on the left. I felt the day could be long and i called for a « top landing », just to warm up ….
I did not wait the response of others and landed on a round crest. Jody, our ground support, anticipated our tracks with the signal Spot, using her smart phone, following us constantly, chasing our co-ordinates on her car GPS and finding the closest path to join us. Sometimes with no access she camped not far on the road, giving us a chance in case of bad weather.
Everyone joined, it was 14:00, we had flew 80 km. The day was exceptional. We re-took off after a tasty picnic for a photo shoot, looking at Yosemite National Park. At 16:00 Eric had never seen conditions like it in this season, we were at 5300 m under the clouds a few kilometers away of « Half Dome and El Kapitan »
Oriol joined us by road during the evening and we had our first camp together since the beginning of the adventure.
Day 6,7 / The group « cruised » at 4500m on a high line of peaks, and the overflown terrain was totally wild. This was a hundred miles portion of land with bears, lynxes and pumas living in peace, very rarely bothered. Somewhere we didn’t want to go……
Thankfully a few fishermen on their return from a salmon expedition weekend could give a lift to Oriol, tired from his 6 hour walk out…. crossing a bear and her cub!!!!
The day finished in the crater of lake Tahoe where we all finally met coming from different directions.
Day 8 / We were joined by Honza Reymanek, successful X-Alps pilot who took us to his favorite site on the side of the lake. This was a new departure for us, with new terrain and different conditions . After the arid and desert peaks, it was the alpine meadows, we were now in a lush forrest zone.
Following the eastern side of the Sierra , the west wind could be pretty dangerous if it was strong.This time, it was a little more turbulent than the other days. We just tried to stay high over the ground.
The group landed in various locations at 70 km all around the city of Reno. We had arrived in the state of Nevada, « gambling allowed », which explained the all casinos in comparison to California. We didn’t participate, we were already gambling enough in the new skies above!!!!
Days 11,12 / The game has changed. Now jumping from island to island of terrain, the rest……desert. First bivouac on top of Peterson Ridge allowed us to group again, a night together and the next day, the group broke up again.
We flew towards the end of the Sierra Nevada Range, by 16:00 it was flat land. I made the highest climb of the day, plus 4000m but it was too late to catch up with Nick who was at the goal. We camped at the top of a little hill with a « fire lock out tower ».
Day 13 / The « fire look-out » guard woke us up with some coffee, it was the first time he saw paragliders in this area. He was even more surprised to see us taking off……As the land was totally flat!!!!!
Only two of us were lucky to find the lift. The others had a 3 minute flight going down. Nick and i climbed up 4200m above the desert, it was breathtaking.
We flew at a good speed with 2, 3 low points further out …That was not too bad for the desert, we happily covered more than 30kms. This was the big gap between the Sierra and a little eccentric chain: the Warner. We approached it gently, but landed at the foot, missing it by less than 1km. This was the last flight of the trip for Nick, he had to go. He finished satisfied, setting the last two days average at more than 200 km in total.
Days 15,16,17 / Late in the season now and conditions were getting slow. In 3 days we flew 70kms! all along the Wartner ridge.
The landscape was so diverse with all this huge dry lakes…. once full, some say.It becomes really hard to progress in these storable conditions. And finally Eric brilliantly took the last flight of 45 miles over the border of the state of Oregon, to the small town of Lakeview.
Day 18 / We spend a day in the small town of Lakeview, analyzing the weather to eventually push the road to Washington State but uninviting forecasts lead us to stop. The first bivouac flight of American history stopped after 800 km and 18 days later. He will remain in our memories, a fantastic welcome from the people and local pilots, a great desire to discover and develop the business and open new sites, although a huge potential, with beautiful paths in protected nature and untouched for many parts with human presence. An incredible contrast in the most modern country in the world.
Jody McDonald (photographer, assistance)
SupAir, Niviuk, Kaenon, Keen shoes, Kavu, Princeton Tech, and Go Sharkies pro
Gliders: Niviuk Artik 3
Harnesses: SupAir Altirando 2
Duration: 19 days, including 13 in flight
Distance: 800 Km
Longest Flight: 136km (Gavin & Eric)
Shortest Flight: 1 km (everyone)
Average distance in a day: 51.07 km
Max altitude: 5300 m
Climb max: +6.5 m / s
Animals encountered: Antelope, Bighorn Sheep, Many raptors …
Brown bears (6 total but everything went well)
A horde of Coyote gathered not far from the camp one night.
Bivouac Altitude: 7 (regularly above 3000m)
Liters of consumed water: 360