MAKING IT BACK TO TRUCKEE
By Sergio Colacevich
There are people that say that making it back to Truckee is so difficult. Others say that it is a piece of cake. Believe neither. The truth is in the middle: There are objective difficulties that need local knowledge to be overcome.
In summer I fly out of Truckee because I can reach it from Sacramento in one and a half hours and I can get back home the same evening. But then, it is not only matter of being close. The special people and the beautiful surroundings make the glider area a delightful place to be. Being at the hidden end of the airport blends the convenience of the nearby civilization with the remote atmosphere of living in contact with nature, among the pine trees, the chipmunks, the birds that wake you up in the morning.
In the course of many flights I put together solid experience of making it back to Truckee. I have the fame of being the one that “always makes it back”. I graciously accept the fame but the “always” is undeserved.
The first year that I flew there I had a very hard time making it back. Therefore I would listen to the advice of other pilots. The most common advice was to “head for Virginia City: if you can make 13,000' there, you can make it back to Truckee”. So I would go to Virginia City, struggle for one hour at 10,000', land at Carson City and get a tow.
Another suggestion was to get to 14,000' at the north end of the Pine Nuts. So I would go all the way to the end of the Pine Nuts, reach it at 9,000', land at Dayton Valley Airport and get a tow.
Another common advice was to ”Go all the way around to Air Sailing”. So I would go to Air Sailing, land at Stead and get a tow.
I asked Les Sebald. The old pilot knew: “Go to Spooner Pass. In the proximity of the pass, in those hills around there, you can find lift and make it back”. So I would go to the Spooner Pass, find generic turbulence, land at Minden and get a tow. I would return to the old pilot, he was beginning to like me. He would confide his secrets: “Go to Freel Peak: if you can reach 14,000' there, go toward the middle of Lake Tahoe, or even more to the west of the middle, you will find zero sink and be able to come back.” So I would go to Freel Peak, reach 13,000' and find myself dealing with Tony Sabino in Minden.
Bob Korves says you can go to the downwind of Mount Rose, approximately a little bit north of the Slide Mountain, which is the hill from which the hang gliders take off. I never tried that but a couple of times that I was coming back high enough to overfly Mount Rose I actually found lift in the place that Bob says.
With time my Rate Of Return improved and I was able to verify that these advices are good; I tried all of them one time or another and they work. So I pass them on with the caution that none of them is valid every day and it takes good judgment and experience to decide what will work on any particular day. In addition, what can be done at 4 o’ clock cannot be done any more at 5.30.
I have the habit of flying until late and I needed more consistent methods of reentry. When I am in difficulty I resort to ridge soaring, and this is what I did whenever I estimated that I could not reach the required elevation in the various places named above. In the late afternoon the east side of the Lake Tahoe basin can be ridge soared pretty well because of the strong west flow. I ridge soared all the way to the north side of the lake but from there on the slopes are almost downwind. I tried to continue around the north side of the lake and although several times I made it, I cannot give the advice to do the same. Do it according to your own experience and character strength. I think it may work every time but I did not try it every time. I tried it when I could see from the wavelets in the surface of the lake that the wind had a southern component.
Anyway suppose that you want to try that, and find yourself in a doubtful position, don’t give up until you reach the peninsula that encloses Kings Beach. From there a ridge starts, that goes up to the top of the hills between Truckee and Lake Tahoe. Tim, the instructor-tow pilot of Truckee for the past couple of years says that he flew it with a hang glider and it works very very well. The slope is called “Day Dreams” by the hang glider pilots. Dean Aldinger who by the way is also a hang glider pilot used this slope several times to make it back with the glider.
If you cannot make it even with that ridge, then you have to land. Do not attempt to land in the golf course (because of the people), land in the water. Remember to lower the wheel down and have at least 5' of water depth, because the glider fuselage will dip that much before floating again. Landing in the water produces no particular harm to you or the glider and the retrieve is easier than landing in many fields. Besides, you will have a lot of help from the crowd. The only thing likely to be hurt is one’s pride, not a big deal if you are a pilot with inner balance. Think about the great story instead.
I have to say these things because there are people who are horrified at the thought of crossing a water expanse and possibly landing in it. This possibility is very remote, I mean very very remote but has to be considered so one is prepared for it, which in turn removes the worry of it. Anyway there is no need to try to go around the north side of the lake, I just wanted to cover the topic exhaustively and remove the fear of the unknown. Caution is good, panic is bad. The better one is prepared for an eventuality, the more unlikely it is for that event to happen and the more mundane it becomes if it happens.
It was during these adventures that I discovered the Elevator. The Elevator is great. I came to call it that because that is what it is, and you may feel the same way when you try it. The Elevator is just a little bit north of the Marlette Lake, which is the very noticeable lake 5 miles north of Spooner Pass. Here the slope of the mountain is quite steep, producing an unusually strong ridge lift effect that reaches a good deal above the ridge itself.
The lift normally is not powerful, but is smooth and it continues up to an elevation that allows one to cross the waters. In addition, when leaving the ridge in direction of Truckee there is very little sink. And of course if you chicken out (do not be ashamed, it is a good solid instinct) you can still come back to the same place and try again or get high enough to reach Minden.
So this is the procedure: From the Pine Nuts try to reach the Tahoe basin, any place is good. Often the only sufficient altitude (13,000' or more, depending on the ship you have) is at the south end of the Pine Nuts; in that case go in direction of the Kingsbury Grade, recognizable by the hotels on top and by the road climbing on it.
If the elevation is not enough to do that one can try going around to Mineral Peak (follow the clouds) and continue in direction of Spooner Pass. When reaching Highway 395, almost always some weak lift of an undulatory nature can be found. Take it in enough quantity to make it to inside the lake Tahoe basin, remembering that some strong sink has to be expected on the downwind of the basin’s ridge.
On bad days there is not much lift even going this way and one has to fortify him/herself and try Spooner Pass without additional help. Approaching Spooner Pass one will find sink, then stronger sink, then horrible sink. Proceed at great speed and keep in mind that even if the Pass is made at low elevation, beyond it there is safety and quiet. Do not give up easily, consider that the alternative at this point is much worse and remember that your speed can be converted to 500' altitude at any time.
If you seriously think you cannot cross the Pass and want to come back, a bad experience is awaiting you. There is terrible, turbulent sink coming down Spooner Pass at low elevation. The ride is most unpleasant. I recommend very strongly to avoid going in direction of Minden or Carson City Airports, instead go at great speed directly downwind. When reaching the vicinity of Highway 395, the sink disappears completely and zero sink and even good lift can be found. At this point one can make the decision to go either to Carson City or Minden, or even to go up and try again, as I did successfully at least once.
Follow any of these methods. The important thing is to get inside the Tahoe basin. Once you are there, you are home. Of course one does not have to lose sight of the escape to the Minden valley, staying high enough to cross the mountains in that direction. This means, one has to have enough elevation to reach either the gap of Kingsbury grade, or that of Spooner Pass. Normally there is plenty of altitude to do that. Do not turn if you find lift, go straight toward the Elevator (may I call it Sergio’s Elevator?). North of Spooner Pass, the slopes become steeper and if you need altitude you can get it there, always going straight or, if really necessary, doing a couple of passes in front of the slopes.
You can pass east or west of the Marlette Lake. Go a little north of Marlette Lake, where the slope is evidently steep over Lake Tahoe, and begin your beats up and down. The area of lift is short and narrow, one mile long and a quarter of a mile wide. Stay with it. “Sergio’s Elevator” will take you home.
Coming from the northwest in general it is much easier to make it back to Truckee. But at times the west flow is pretty strong and the thermals die early. Here too, ridge soaring is the solution. The initial point of this route is the last mountain 10 miles west of Loyalton, elev. 8,058'. If you can reach it, you are home. The mountain forms a natural basin that conveys the air and one can climb somewhat above the top of it. Proceeding south along the ridge, the first mile or two are worrying. But then turbulent lift may appear that can take a pilot temporarily out of trouble and allow him/her to continue. This first stretch is somewhat critical and at least once I had to go back and begin again.
This route was never flown by me as a pure ridge, meaning, going straight with no turns. It may be possible to do it but I never had the guts. Instead, there are very frequent (every mile or less) outbursts of orographically induced, turbulent thermals, and pretty strong at times. I try to get the most from these outbursts and pass quickly through the following sink.
Reaching the guard station TA-5, elev. 8,760' the situation usually improves a lot and it is possible from here to cross the gap to the ridge of Verdi Peak. Do not be afraid to cross the gap: If you arrived up to here, then there is lift on the Verdi ridge.
Here there is another guard station, TA-8, elev. 8,444'. Just in front of it one can find enough lift to reach Truckee. A pilot that I know, who has a Pik 20, says: “If you can see the white of the watch-man’s eye, you can make it back to Truckee”. He means that if you are at the same elevation of the guard station, you have enough altitude to reach the airport. I believe him, but personally was never that low. There is always some lift there.
Disclaimer: These late-afternoon solutions are based for good part on ridge soaring, an activity that in the Sierra may be demanding. And of course they work only with the west flow, which anyway in this area blows 95% of the time. I am not trying to tell you what to do or teach how to fly; I am just sharing my knowledge of the area. Take what best fits you.
When I last saw Les Sebald at the PASCO Banquet I promised him I would write this article on Truckee, the place he loved so much. I did not know I had so little time to do it. The old pilot can make it back to Truckee every time now - I know he will be there with us each summer.