California Distance Record- 172 Miles



California Distance Record



When the 2012 paragliding season was coming to an end in the Owen’s Valley, I set myself a lofty goal for the next year. I wanted to take the California distance record the following summer, and I was prepared to work very hard to make this happen. All year long I had been getting better at XC, and had broken into the 100+ mile club. But once the High Sierra cooled down in October, and the first snows fell, this dream would have to wait for the next season.

All winter long I trained by flying, hiking, studying maps and info, and anything else I could do in order to get ready for the upcoming Spring/Summer season. I put aside my normal EN D wing and bought a new IcePeak competition wing in order to have a faster rig. I scheduled all my work to be finished by early June, so I could dedicate the summer to sending big. I sold my acro wing to remove distractions, and help pay for the comp wing. Everything was being lined up for a great season.

By the time Spring rolled around, I was already flying 5+ days a week. I was so hungry for it, I could taste it. During the month before making the record, I flew 5 flights of 100+ miles while trying for the big one. Two 160+ mile flights of mine were especially close to the 168 mile record, set by Dean Stratton and Jimmy Huang the year before. And to top it off, I had made the first complete crossing of the High Sierra the week before. It was time.

The morning of the 14th seemed fairly routine, with Brad and I waking up at our bivy spot in the Alabama hills just outside Lone Pine. Although, the night before was nothing close to routine, with an amazing show of lightning and thunder that was spectacular. There were also gust fronts ripping through at more than 40 mph; the Owens Valley does not mess around. There was something special about the night, and I could feel it as I laid there and watched the sky rip apart. I could not sleep, as I knew that tomorrow would be the day. I told myself to go to sleep, because I knew that I would need the energy and focus the next day. But all I could do was lay wide awake until almost 3 am, occasionally taking short midnight strolls through the labyrinth of rocks that made up the Alabama Hills. Eventually somehow I fell asleep, only to shoot awake again at 5 am, ready to rock!

Brad and I got up and moving, and instantly started bumping the music at full blast as we packed up. We rolled the Tacoma into town, pounded a few cups of coffee at the local coffee shop, and then hauled ass up to launch. On the way up, we fantasized about the day’s potential. Brad had been very close to making the 60 miles from Walt’s Point to Bishop three times now, and today he hoped to make his personal best. I wanted to land at Lake Tahoe, 170 miles away, and would be pushing hard for this.

We arrived at launch early, so we could take stock of the day and see how conditions at launch were. Already the cycles were coming in, so I suited up. I wanted to launch as early as possible without bombing out; this would give me the longest possible flight time. Brad was going to wait just a bit longer, to ensure a better chance of climbing right out. None of the hang glider pilots were even up at launch yet, but I knew about eight of them were in town for some XC action.

Launching from Walt’s Point-



At 9:16 am I took off. The lift was light as the day was just starting to turn on. I soared on up above the launch, and immediately started heading north. As I climbed up, I could see the hang glider pilots start to arrive. They were probably surprised that I was up and out before they even finished their drive up!

Looking down from just above launch-


I couldn’t climb very high at all and passed the first mountain, Wonoga peak, below the level of it’s summit. I was not where I wanted to be. The nice ridge above me led to the peaks and guaranteed thermals, this is where I wanted to go. Instead I was heading into the rocky bowl below, which was in the lee side and had claimed the life of a PG pilot a few years back. I carefully jumped spine to spine, and made my way around Owens’ Point and Mt Langley.

Wonoga Peak on my left, Owen’s Valley on the right-


Looking north, a few miles from launch-


I was still fairly low as I passed in front of Lone Pine Peak, which is an impressive granite peak with serrated teeth ready to bite if you mess up. I squeaked on over to Whitney Portal, where I caught my first real thermal of the day. I was now in it; the day was on. I knew the way from here very well, Walt’s Point and the Sierra are my home spots. As I climbed above the peaks just north of Mt Whitney, I started to dive back deeper to try and surf the crest. I crossed more spines on my way to the watershed division. These spines extend out from the Sierra crest like speed bumps for an XC pilots- you have to climb up high, sink on glide while crossing the next valley, then climb again on the following spine. Slow and tedious. But if you can get real deep, and ride over the crest top itself, you can fly a straighter line and not have to stop to thermal very much at all. But, bomb out and you will be top landing, or find yourself in a serious situation.

Flying spine to spine, having to cross deep valleys-


The first half of the flight-


Once over the crest, you can get very long sections of high speed, efficient gliding. The cloud base today was very high, maybe 21,000+ feet in altitude. We are limited to stay below 18,000 feet due to airspace restrictions, and flying the crest often has astronomical altitudes! Today was pretty mellow by Sierra standards, lift was only averaging about 1,500fpm and the wind was not too strong at all. The wing was staying open, which is nice. Normally in summer over the Sierra, the wing is trying to sabotage your fun by being hard to manage. At least so far, so good.

Taking the high line, over the crest-

I proceeded on north, towards the Palisades. Once I reached the southern tip of the Palisades, I got blown off the crest, and had to fly out front for this section.

Turning tail, and headed for the front peaks-


Looking at Middle Palisade, and the crest (where I wanted to be)-


Looking at the flight track, you can see where I turned off of the crest and came out front a bit-


I wasn’t very happy about getting pushed off the ridge tops, as it cost me probably 20 extra minutes, and is quite stressful to fly somewhat deep without being super high. I headed for Cloudripper as I passed over the Big Pine Creek drainages, and got back on the higher peaks from there. I had to cross Coyote Ridge with not much clearance, and popped out above South Lake up above highway 168 out of Bishop. Up over Table Mountain, across Lake Sabrina, and towards Mt Humphreys I went.

Looking north towards Mt Tom-


At this point I got very low, for the first of a series of four low saves during the day. As I came up to Humphreys, I was getting lower and lower. I found nothing, and kept heading to Basin Mountain. I was maybe 300 feet above the hillside, when I took a whack and got cravatted up on my right side. It was in there pretty good, and had to be fished out by the stabilo line. By the time I got it out, I was almost landing and had to glide out over the foothills super low. All that, only to drift my way back up to the same shitty hillside and try again. This time I squeaked out a few hundred feet of altitude, and glided over to Mt Tom super low.

Not doing so well-


You can see in my elevation profile that I was very low through this section-


Wishing I was higher-


Once I made my way around to the NE face of Tom, I got boosted. Finally. From 8,200 feet, I took the same thermal up to 17,700 feet, and headed on towards Mammoth Lakes, taking the deep route again. I flew over Mt Morgan as I made my way north, quite a ways behind Rock Creek Lake in the backcountry. I was flying in the middle of nowhere, and loved it. I knew that I would be rewarded with a sketchy top land and lengthy hike out should I bomb out, so I focused.

You can see Rock Creek Lake in the middle of this photo-


My plan was to fly behind Mt Morrison while on my way to Mammoth and Tahoe. As I passed behind Mt McGee, the west wind started to push me off the Sierra. When this happens, you must listen to her, as the Sierra is not messing around. The west rotor will smack you from the sky, and take your life before you know what happened. Being that I have had my ass handed to me many times by this real-deal mountain range, I know when to head on out to the flats and other ranges to continue your flight (and life). I gladly turned off of the Sierra at Convict Lake, and headed out on the Hawthorne convergence line towards the Glass Mountains.

Looking good-


The whole time, I had no idea what Brad was up to. He had launched after me, and we had lost radio communication. Once I pushed off the crest, I started to hear him again. He was on his way north behind me, and was having the flight of his life. I knew he had his personal best beat toady, and I hoped that possibly he could even make it the 100 miles to Mammoth. As long as he could keep his wing open and pointed north, big distances were guaranteed; for the both of us.

You can see the wind lines coming off of Convict Lake, and the vario just screaming away-


Now that I was not on the Sierra, and was pointed towards Mono Lake and the Nevada desert, I had to switch modes. I was in full-contact crusher mode, and needed to calm down and start flat land flying. I needed to plan out my line with precision, and find the lifting line. I did not have a series of huge peaks to follow now, just smaller ranges and cumulus clouds.

The route ahead-


I made my way over Bald Mountain, the northernmost peak of the Glass Mountain Range. Great lift, nice clouds, and a direct route north was what I was rewarded with. I pushed on ahead, and skirted Mono Lake on it’s eastern shore. Up until this point, all was well. But as I got towards the Nevada state line, I started getting low again for the second time of the day. My hopes of gliding on to the Hawthorne Range were falling away, and if I didn’t find some lift, I’d be hitting terra firma sooner than later.

A low save-


The second half of the flight-


I had to switch the plan, and make a move. Not being able to make progress towards Mt Grant and Hawthorne, I shifted slightly towards the NNW, in the direction of the old ghost town of Bodie. In other words, I was setting off into the middle of absolutely no where. I was low, and arrived at a small knob. I was 20 feet above the knob, which was only a few hundred feet above the valley floor. I ridge soared for a while, before I could slowly drift up on out of there. I finally connected to a nice thermal, took it over the ghost town, then started bombing out agin. I was having to earn this one, for sure.

Looking back south towards Mono Lake-


I contemplated my position- land now and hike out a few hours, or dive deeper and maybe make it out flying. I dove deeper into the Nevada desert.

Heading north-


The sky gods were with me, and I was rewarded with a nice cloud street to continue under. I was now getting close to the record, but tried not to think too much about it. I still had a ways to go, and had lost it a few times recently, frustratingly close to breaking the 168 mile mark. I focused, and took account of where I was. To the west of me was the Sweetwater Range, and to the east was the Hawthorne Range. I was on a smaller range between the two, and had never flown this line before.


I passed over old abandoned mines, crazy desert terrain, and high peaks. I could now see Yerington, Nevada, coming up on the horizon. My GPS was letting me know that I only had five more miles to go, and that if I didn’t mess up now, it was looking good for me. Then it all went to shit. I hit some headwind, and started getting low. I hate the Nevada desert, as I always encounter wacky wind out there. I had to turn around and fly back to my last thermal and slowly drift it on up. Nothing was guaranteed now. I pushed bar and hoped for the best.

The GPS says I have it!


Just as quickly as the headwind came, it went away. I glided past the 168 mile mark with a dance party in my pod. I erupted in celebration, my goal was complete. But not over. I was still pointed north, but getting low again. I tried to save it once more, but with so many low, stressful saves today, I let this one go. I glided out to a safe landing location- in the middle of nowhere. I could see Yerington a few miles away, and knew there was a highway there.

Finishing the flight-


A random dirt track out in the desert greeted my feet back to Earth. Not only did I have the record now at 172 miles, but I was down safely. I immediately sent out an ‘OK’ signal on my Spot GPS tracker, as I knew Tawny and the others were watching. I wanted them to know I was safe, and had landed.


I whipped out the phone, took a pic, and started bumping music again! What a flight!

Tawny again saved the day, and for the millionth time, came and picked me up from the middle of nowhere. I’m lucky to have her. Not only is she the best girlfriend, but just the week before, she had to come pick me up on the other side of the Sierra after having made the first complete crossing. That was a 2 day retrieve.


In the meantime, Brad had made his way up to the Mammoth Basin and had taken my advice to head for the Glass Mountains because of the increasing wind. He went that way, and ended up top landing in the Glass Mountains after encountering strong wind. He had a nice hike down the peak and out to a road, where his girlfriend Dulcinea had to come get him. He about doubled his personal best from 45 to 95 miles. Good job Brad Wilson.

It is experiences like these, that form who we are. The summer of 2013 was special to me. It gave me incredible highs, long flights, and unimaginable adventures. I’m looking forward to 2014 and all that it will bring, thats for sure. Fly safe.


Here is the link to the 3D flight track



Dave Turner

Mammoth Lakes, California