Back to Marshall :  Cross Country / Vol Voyage

March 20, 2004 :  Crestline à Dam à Marshall

by Jérôme Daoust.

This page is focused on decisions.  Good decisions are one of the most important things in XC flying.  I'm trying to get better at it myself.  Sharing my decisions process will help me through feedback from this page, and possibly help others by knowing what goes through someone else's head.



I had no particular ambitions for the day.  Just to go out and fly with friends.


Previous experience.

Went to the Santa Ana river dam (or beyond) 6+ times, and placed well in the 2001 Dam Race event.  So the terrain was familiar and lessons were learned from previous failed attempts.  I had made a previous out-and-return attempt from Mt McKinley (location #3 in maps below) but landed about ½ mile short of the LZ after failing to find good lift in front of the Antennas (location #1 in maps below).  Basic understanding is that one has a good chance of reaching the dam from Marshall when these conditions are met :

·        Gain of 600 m (2000') above Marshall launch.

·        Thermal are not too rough at the edges :  The flight will be relaxing, low saves will not be too trashy.

·        Tailwind component during flight (some West).

But the above conditions are not a requirement.  In a previous flight, I reached the dam without getting significant altitude over Marshall launch during the whole flight, making many low saves under a cloudy sky with low ceiling.  Biggest lessons learned :

·        The toughest part of the Marshall à Dam route is the first half, as the pilot has to cross a distance of low foothills before reaching the first predictable climb after Marshall, which is at Mt McKinley, behind the San Manuel Indian reservation (close to location #3 in maps below).  It is best to optimize altitude and sacrifice speed during this first part.  Typical sink out area is the Indian reservation where I have been escorted out twice before, from the reservation police with a warning to avoid the area.

(from Rob McKenzie of High Adventure)

This recovery map has come in handy in the past, to facilitate retrieval :  Recovery road map (625 kB). Printing on 11"x17" sheets, will produce fine print but will still have readable street names.


Morning forecast.

I gathered the following info at 9 am :

1. was predicting mostly sunny afternoon, with 8 mph West wind in middle of the afternoon.

2.      Weather station Harvey, was showing light (gusts less than 10 mph) North wind and decreasing.  It had been blowing lightly from the North during the night, helping to clear the valley of its typical haze.  Such conditions often lead good days as the sun's heating can have direct access to the base of the mountain.  The risk is that it keeps blowing from that direction during the day, so I was hoping the convection and typical on-shore flow would take over and allow for flying.

3.      Rob McKenzie posted his daily forecast confirming my hopes :
Saturday Mar 20th :  The morning north trickle should swing around to upslope later in the morning for an afternoon of flying at Crestline.

4.      This link showed predicted light West wind for the afternoon :  Surface wind speed and direction, at 3-hour intervals – NOAA.

Confidence was at 70% that Marshall would be flyable.  Flying buddy of the day, Bob Barry though this was good enough, picked me up, and we carpooled to Marshall LZ to pick up Dave Metzgar, and soon after headed to Crestline, judging that winds should be light enough to launch our paragliders from there and avoid the 35 min hike to Marshall launch (dirt road closed by Forest Service, but allowed to hike).


Crestline launch.

The plan.

During the drive up, I notice the unusually clear air near the mountains, with only a low valley haze pushed out in front.  This triggered memories of previous epic days.  The clean air was a consequence of the North wind blowing from the desert (over the back) overnight.  Dusty Rhodes was already soaring his paraglider about 300 m (1000')  above Crestline.  Wind on launch was straight in and ranging 15-25 km/h.  My plan was to feel the air and if too strong would head out to Marshall for a top landing.  No ambitious flight plan.  I set my vario reference altitude as zero.  Launch altitude is 1585 m (5200') MSL.

The reality.

Strong thermals at Billboard (East end of Crestline ridge), too much for my taste.  I decide to maximize current lift and head forward to Marshall and attempts a top landing.  I get 300 m (1000') above launch and head forward.  I loose 600 m (2000') during path to Cloud.  Much more sink than anticipated.  At Cloud peak, lift is found and allows me to reach Marshall.



Boating around Marshall.

The plan.

Having reached Marshall, there is plenty of lift and conditions are within my comfort zone.  I plan to fly in this area for a while, and eventually top land.

The reality.

Dusty Rhodes and Richard Smith (both flying paragliders) join me and fly in the area.  We get altitudes similar to those at Crestline.  I join Dusty in a thermal at the limit of the valley and the foothills, get height, then go towards Richard, which is getting significant lift near Cloud.



Cloud :  The first big climb.

The plan.

Big climb from Cloud peak and I hear Stan Koszelak on the radio say he is passing 8000' (2440m) MSL and having fun at Strawberry peak.  Stan says later he reached 9000' and is heading East.  I keep climbing with a little drift towards Crestline until I reach 8800' (2683 m) MSL.  I plan to head East and reach the Dam.  My first objective is to glide to Arrowhead mountain, then maximize altitude to cross the low foothills before Mt McKinley.

Picture and caption from Rod Clark (his report for that day).

In this picture, you can see the shear line.  The moist, hazy sea breeze was pushing north into San Bernardino.  While the dry desert air in the bottom half of the picture is pushing in from the north.  In the battle of the weather systems, the big winners are the hang glider pilots.  As the two systems push against each other, the air has only one place to escape… UP!  In the bottom left of the picture is Marshall Peak (elevation 3000’).  It is the mountain with the little clearing on the summit (like a dot).  And on the bottom right of the picture you can see Cal State San Bernardino.  If you look really closely, you can see the landing zone.

The reality.

During the glide I put my gloves on.  Flying over Arrowhead, I find no lift and decide to push on along my east route.  Altitude is being lost fast.  Even without a GPS I feel that I am battling a light East wind component.  This is confirmed later :

Weather station Harvey snapshot for the day

The yellow-green color reveal some East wind component between 11 am and 4 pm.

Now below Marshall launch altitude, I reach the first spines of the foothills and desperately search for lift. I am considering heading out to the valley for a landing.


Low save in the foothills.

The plan.

Near the back of the first significant foothill spine, I find some light lift.  The red dot marks the location.

Picture taken previously by myself on 2001/6/30.

Slow climb, averaging about 1 m/s (180 fpm).  I climb high enough that I could glide to McKinley (first real mountain) to about 2/3 its height over the valley, and hope to get a solid climb.  Lift along the way would facilitate the connection.

The reality.


I use half speed bar during extended period to counter heaving sink and what seems like a light headwind.  I find solid lift in the valley before McKinley, a little before the red dot in this picture.

Picture taken previously by myself on 2001/9/2.

It now occurs to me that the best lift would be to the West of main features, as the Sun is heating more this side, and it is also slightly more protected from the light East wind component :  Lee-side thermals.  The good news is that the first (and difficult) half of the course is now done.



The plan.

A climb over McKinley, puts the next mountain summit (Harrison) on glide.

The reality.

Easy glide to Harrison summit, crossing highway 330.



The plan.

I find lift on the West face of the peak, shown by the red dot in this picture.

Picture taken previously by myself on 2001/9/2.

I could glide to the Santa Ana river dam form here, and choose to do so.  I hear Stan over the radio inviting me to land with my in the valley next to his girlfriend's place.  I resist the temptation and push on.

The reality.

More extended periods of half speed bar use.  Glide towards the base of the dam remains feasible.

I find lift over the foothills before the dam, shown by the red dot in this picture.

Picture taken previously by myself on 2001/9/2.

I climb back up to 2285 m (7500') MSL and let myself drift to almost directly over the dam.


Santa Ana river dam.

The plan.

With a high altitude at the dam, I contemplate being the only one to retrieve if I land here.  I have dreamt many times in the past of making it back to Marshall from here.  The valley haze is reaching the foothills in this area with more margin in the direction of Marshall.  Over the radio I ask Nicolas Pisar in the Marshall area for conditions there, and he report a light East component.  This disadvantage for reaching the dam, would now become an advantage for the return trip.  Worst case would be that I would have a shorter retrieve even if I can't make it back completely.  It makes sense to try.

The dam view from the valley.

Picture taken previously by myself on 2001/9/2.

The reality.

Easy glide to over the top of Harrison.



The plan.

I climb back to 2085 m (6840') MSL.  The top of McKinley is an easy glide.

The reality.

Easy glide to over the top of McKinley, behind the San Manuel Indian reservation.



The plan.

Here lies the main obstacle for reaching Marshall :  the long stretch of low foothills ahead.  Not enough altitude here and I will fail to reach Marshall as I did previously after turning around from this point.  I set my minimum objective to 2085 m (6840') MSL, so I can glide directly to Arrowhead mountain and regain altitude from there, for a final glide to Marshall.

Picture taken by Stan Koszelak the same day.

The reality.

Painfully slow climb averaging about 0.5 m/s (90 fpm).  I resist the temptation to leave early and focus on gaining altitude despite all the radio chatter.  I turn down the volume on my radio to focus better.  Totally focused on my climb rate I only look at the terrain every few turns.

Finally, I reach my minimum departure altitude goal, but the climb is worth continuing, and I add another 100 m (328') to reach 2185 m (7170') MSL.  I start to relax with the thought that I should be able to reach Arrowhead on glide.  I declare my goal on the radio and head out towards Arrowhead.


Convergence before Arrowhead.

The plan.

The haze has reached the foothills, but I don't think much of it at first, as I am focused on connecting to Arrowhead.  In the valley before Arrowhead I start finding on and off climbs along my path of 1-2 m/s (90-180 fpm) but only stop to gain height once I realize I am constantly climbing at 2 m/s (180 fpm).  Not sure why there is lift here, but start climbing in this unexpected surprise.  Now I make the connection to the obvious haze line under me, and claim over the radio that I'm in convergence.  Reading material :  Recognizing a convergence by Gary Brock.

Back up to 2185 m (7170') MSL and close to Arrowhead mountain, I now take aim directly at Marshall and forget about finding lift over Arrowhead.

The reality.

Easy glide to over Marshall launch, which I reach with Crestline launch altitude :  1585 m (5200') MSL.



The plan.

With plenty of altitude over Marshall launch, I wait to be directly over to realize that this is a done deal.  It's a funny feeling where you realize you have just flown beyond your expectations, and that it will take time to sink in.  Final goal is to top land on Marshall launch.

The reality.

I spiral down to top land on Marshall launch and join with Nicolas Pisar and Dimitri Keller.  Windy on launch :  20-25 km/h, and coming from the Southwest at that level.  I have a heavy feeling in my head, probably a combination of some fatigue, dizziness and slight dehydration, so I drink water.  Fun talking and sharing experiences with the other pilots before re-launching towards the LZ.  Nicolas explains how he got a 2000 fpm climb over Pine and found it too much for his taste.  Conditions seemed to have been stronger in this area than what I have experience during my out-and-return trip to the dam.  After the passage of the haze, thermal activity subsided and pilots at Crestline sank out.  I'm guessing that if I had returned much later, I may not have succeeded.


The task.

The numbers :

·        45 km or 28 miles (15 miles from Crestline to the dam, 13.4 back to Marshall).

·        Total flight time of 3.5 hours, with probably 2.5 dedicated to the actual out-and-return.

This flight has been done before in a paraglider, by Gary Brock, Len Szafaryn and Nicolas Pisar, but it sure felt good to join the Dam out-and-return club.