First Complete Crossing of California’s High Sierra!

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Here is the link to all of the report’s comments on Supertopo

Here is the link to the report’s comments on Paragliding Forum

Click here to see the flight track on Leonardo database

Fresno Bee Article 


The morning of July 1st saw Tawny, Brad, and I at Walt’s Point. Pretty standard scenario, except it was gusting from all directions and already OD’ing with some light rain at 9am. Needless to say, we were hesitant and kind of skeptical about the less than ideal conditions. After an hour, it started improving so we suited up. I was out first, and at 10:30 am the thermals were already on.
Walt’s is pretty much my home launch, and is my favorite flying site. I was enjoying this flight quite a bit, like normal, and was pretty sure I could make a big flight to the north. Two days before I nailed a 166 mile flight, and this day was seeming similar. I pointed north and headed for Mammoth.
Normally the further up the Sierra you go, the more the west wind develops, and starts to push you off. The best days are when it’s southeast, and the wind helps push you along the crest. Straight magic. But this day was different. It started out with the magic SE flow that takes you up range, but became the even more elusive straight east. With this E wind, it was very easy to soar up on the crest, making XC progress possible towards the northwest. Once I made it to Mt Williamson, the idea was starting to take hold; cut loose and head west.

Now, heading west over the Sierra is a serious endeavor no matter where and how you do it. Only one pilot has ever pushed over the High Sierra, and that was Stephan about two years ago. He took a route just to the north of mine, and landed somewhere around Lower Kings Canyon, halfway between the crest and the Central Valley.
His flight gave me the idea to start looking for routes that would allow me to fly from the Owens Valley all the way into the flats of the Central Valley. The FULL crossing. Not only would I have to cross the wild, remote High Sierra and expansive forests and foothills of the west side, but I would also have to risk flying over the National Park for quite a while. I saw potential through the heart of Sequoia National Park’s central ridge line- the highest and most remote stretch of the entire range. I wanted a proud line, and this was it….

I tanked up on altitude over Mt Williamson, then started testing the waters to the west. The lift was good, but the clouds were obviously starting to over-develop to both the north and south(!) of me. There was still a streak of sun out to the west along my proposed route, and the tail wind was enticing. I was telling myself to just head one or two peaks over, as I was trying to stay a bit conservative. But who was I fooling? I was so damn psyched to lay it out there, that I was smashing the speed bar down and pointing west with pure enthusiasm.
Heading west from Williamson, you have multiple ridge lines of peaks staring you in the face. And I’m talking big, scary peaks with granite teeth and no LZ’s. For miles. And miles. This was my first obstacle- get past the 26 straight miles of granite peaks, then deal with the crazy big forest of the west slope later.
The climbs started to get a bit smaller and further apart as I flew deeper, and needless to say, I wasn’t psyched about this. I had left the crest at about 15-16,000 feet, and the further west I went, the lower I got. Very soon the situation became questionable- I had flown into the most remote section of the Sierra, and was flying a wet comp wing over a spiky granite basin dotted with tall trees. The clouds were blocking almost 85% of the sky, and it was starting to let loose with hail and rain.
Ah shit, I gotta dig deep here and focus. I laced my way ridge to ridge, soaring and thermaling my way in a zig zag pattern to stay at ridge height. I got lower and lower, but it was mattering less and less. With no options but to thermal out, it’s easy to make a plan. Fly. Up.
As I passed the last of the high peaks, I was already below the forested ridge leading west from the last alpine peak. I still had another 22 miles of forested national park, ranger infested trails, and rolling foothills to make it out to the Central Valley. I was far from being done, as now there was virtually no LZ’s through lower Sequoia National Park. Landing in the NP was guaranteed confiscation of gear and they would arrest me. For sure.
So, keep heading west. And up.

This is where the story gets weird. Sometime around this section the Rangers took notice of me, and started to chase me on the ground in their SUV’s. Five Rangers in three cars were hot on my trail, and wanted blood! I wasn’t super high, so they probably saw me up there, having fun, and wanted to jack my scene. After avoiding dangerous peaks, deep valley crossings, expansive forests, and turbulent clouds; the Rangers were just one more ingredient to this high stakes flight.
I continued west, passing mile after mile of forest, and made my way to Moro Rock. I quietly soared my way up the face, and gained a bit of altitude, and got back above the ridge for once. Tourists waved and birds soared. I was getting great footage.
Not one to hang out long on a route like this one, I was eager to leave NPS ‘controlled area’ and get back into the National Forest. I cruised down the perfect ridge line and had just the right blend of ridge soaring and thermals to frisbee my way out to the foothills. After a nice sigh of relief to leave the NPS behind, I relaxed a bit. The Central Valley was just a few miles now, and I could taste it.
Nice warm thermals with slow, mellow climbs greeted me along with some ravens to the Central Valley. There wasn’t much lift, but enough. The birds and I cruised out over the final lake and foothills together, and as they flew on, I landed in a series of orange groves and fields with a giant smile on my face. The first full Sierra crossing had now been completed- valley to valley.

I was so excited with the day’s flying, that I hardly noticed at first- four NPS Rangers approached me, and it was obvious they were not as psyched about my flight as I was! I couldn’t believe that they had been following me the entire time, even though I hadn’t done anything wrong. Why had they chased me all they way out from their jurisdiction, and followed me to the San Joaquin Valley? At first they asked for my ID and info, which I gladly gave them. They asked me where I took off from, intending to bust me for flying from the National Park. I told them I took off from south of Lone Pine, and they obviously were not buying that. I said I could produce evidence on the spot with definitive proof of my flight path, and proceeded to show them my flight log from XC Find. Yes! That’s right! From the east side!
They couldn’t believe it, but the proof was right there. They let that one go at this point, but then it got even weirder. They now were accusing me of shouting and yelling at people as I flew by Moro Rock. What the F*ck???!!! I thought they were confused or something, as this was ridiculous now, and I wasn’t sure if they were messing with me or not. I think they were just desperate to bust me, or were confused on who or what the f just happened. Weird and weirder. Is this what the NPS should be doing?
I got the entire Moro Rock section on video with HD GoPro footage, with full sound, and make not even a yell or anything during this section of the flight. In any way. So, no. Not that one either guys.
They kept me there for a short time while they ran my info and took down my details. As I went to the Ranger cars, the fifth ranger was there with yet another vehicle. They had nothing, so they had to let me go. Damn, I almost felt like a criminal at this point! A few minutes after they left, I was back psyched again. I kicked back under some orange trees, and began my six hour wait for the retrieve. Poor Tawny had agreed to drive for us today, and now had to circumnavigate the entire Sierra Nevada Mountains. We made it home the next day.

In the end the flight was only about 52 miles of A to B distance, but it took everything I had. The route was long, complex, and had never been flown. Commitment and determination was the name of the game, and some risk and luck thrown in for spice. At times I was unsure of how it was going to turn out, but that was the entire reason for being there.


-Dave Turner

July 1st, 2013





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