Flying from the top of the tram at Jackson Hole
Flying from the tram at Jackson Hole
After two years of being under construction, the new revitalized aerial tram is back in operation at Teton Village a few miles northwest of Jackson, Wyoming (travel north on the Moose-Wilson road and you'll easily see it high, silhouetted against the sky on your left). And the new bright red cars are big enough to haul your hang glider (even an ATOS) up to the top, inside the car. Previously, on the old tram, hang gliders were placed on top of the car. The Jackson Hole Mountain Resort has a long history of accommodating hang gliding on its lifts (they figured it was good for the tourist trade to see all these brightly colored dots on the hillsides).
A major portion (perhaps the major portion) of the tram business in the summer is paragliding tandem flights (aren't these supposed to be instructional flights?). There are up to a dozen individual paraglider instructors giving tandem flights here and the resort receives about $100 out of the $245 tandem fee (tram ride included). It works with Jackson Hole Paragliding, as you can see from the link above.
Hang glider pilots and hang gliding from the top of the tram is a bit of an oddity as paraglider pilots and paraglider tandem "instructors" vastly outnumber the small community of hang glider pilots and visiting hang glider pilots, like me. But last Friday, six of us showed up reminding the paraglider pilots that we aren't dead yet.
I'm here hanging out a bit with Bart and Tiki of Cowboy Up Hang Gliding. They tow up from Alpine, Wyoming which is just outside of Jackson Hole on the west side of the Tetons. They charge $249 for a tandem flight if you go to 4,000', about the same altitude as the vertical difference from the top of the tram to the valley floor (but you get to fly both up and down, so it's '8000' vertical feet of flying). $169 for the 2000' tandem flight.
The weather was good all week last week in Jackson, with puffy cu's showing up each afternoon and light and variable winds instead of the characteristic westerlies. But it wasn't until Thursday that we could get together in Alpine to tow up after the tandem passengers got their rides.
Cowboy Up's operation is on the lake bed of Palisades Reservoir, right next to the Wyoming/Idaho border. It appeared to me to be lush and surprising green for an area that was underwater just last spring. This year, the reservoir was higher than I had seen it previously, the grass was thick, but well mowed in the Cowboy Up landing strip. Still, this is not a rolled runway, and it can be a bit rough if your are use to the nice fields at Quest Air, Wallaby Ranch, or Highland Aeroports (not to mention the sod farm at Cloud 9).
Bart mentioned that he had broken one of the caster wheels on a cart (he does tandems off a cart) last year, and he had replaced the wheels with the wheels and hubs that come off a Dragon fly. He also used sprung steel pieces that allowed for some shock absorption, which I appreciated.
I have been towed up here before and I knew that at this altitude you have to hold onto the cart for a long time before you let yourself rise out of it. Add to that Bart and Tiki's carts use the plastic cradles (many carts have these). These cradles are a lot slippery than the ones made from wood, which makes them easier to get out of, but also easier to come out of when you get bounced around. Bart is also still using the spectra lines for the pilots to hold onto because he needs the full length to grab onto when he does tandem flights (and the passenger is next to him).
I had Bart loosen up the rope a little on the cart so that I could get a better handle on it, with both my hands wrapped around my carbon base tube, and still holding the rope. I also had him raise the back cradle (his are adjustable) so that I had the proper angle of attack (the control bar out in the trim position).
Tiki gunned the Rotax 583 motor on the Dragonfly and I was pulled down the runway. Normally I would pull myself a bit forward over the bar, but I wanted to make sure that I took the cart with me. This wasn't the concrete payment at Big Spring after all. So I pushed a bit on the cart and held on tight to the rope.
We bounced along for a good long run and then I pulled the cart off the ground and bounced back down. I held on for a few more seconds and then came effortlessly off the cart.
Now I had been dreading the tow as I knew it would be a long one, and I was just automatically remembering the tows at Big Spring in the thermally conditions behind the powerful Dragonflies. I had just seen the tandems take tows that seemed to last for ten minutes or more. The tows I had at Big Spring were often ninety seconds to three minutes if there was any lift around and I was happy to get off them when I found lift.
But the tow was smooth and just as comfortable as could be. I really enjoyed being behind Tiki as she circled up around the tow paddock before heading toward the Tetons to the east. It was one of the nicest tows I've ever had.
Now, for some reason, I have never been comfortable with the air that I have encountered over the Tetons on the west side. It just has a strange and disconcerting feel to me. I haven't had an opportunity to experience it much because it has always bothered me enough that I run from it when it gets bouncy.
I don't have a problem flying in mountain air, and I just spent a couple of weeks in France flying in big mountain air and really enjoying it, but somehow this is really completely different (at least for me). First of all, it is high pressured. Second, the lift is only over the mountains. Third, it is small bullets (I assume) coming off the hot rocks). Fourth, it is quite high (thin air) at 8,600'. Fifth, the lift is actually quite weak, so I haven't yet been able to find a solid core. It always seems to be broken up.
Anyway, Tiki towed me up in this nice smooth air, without a bump, until I got over the Tetons and after a few minor, but weird feeling bumps I pinned off and flew to the south end, at 8,500' to get over the hot cliff and rocks area. Unfortunately, I didn't find any sustainable lift there, as it was probably too early in the day, and I flew down for a very sweet no wind landing in the lush grass.
So, as I was saying, the next day we all decided to head up the tram at Teton village and give that a try. The XCSkies/RUC model had been showing light winds at the top of the lift all week, and it looked that way again on Friday.
As I drove Bart, Chris Greblo, and myself to the tram, Bart talked again about the fact that the launch was on the lee side of the Teton range, that a pilot had launched later in the day into winds coming up the hill only to crash 100' below launch in the rotor, that we had to wait until later in the day to get the lift, but we had to launch before it came too strong over the back. He was not making me feel great about this site, and I was already concerned about the air conditions there, given my experience at Alpine and the west side of the Tetons.
We had to get to the tram before 8 AM (in fact we were a little late) so that we could load up the tram with our four gliders (one was already on top, and another pilot would come later) without inconveniencing other passengers, as they took up most of the car. We also had to sign a waiver at the bottom of the tram, show our USHPA cards, and get tram tickets (which for reasons unknown to me or Bart, the tram employees in the little office that handles the paraglider and hang glider pilots gave us for free - besides the tram operator never checked for our tickets).
It was easy to get to the top in the tram, Rendezvous Mountain, with just our gliders and five hang glider pilots. We had a great view as the valley floor quickly spread out below us. You could barely see Jackson itself tucked behind a small hill to the southeast. Only the golf course at Teton Pines (Cheney's place) stuck out like a sore thumb, against the wild beauty of the green valley (or hole) with the Snake River coming out of the Grand Teton national park
Once we got to the top and unloaded our gliders, we had a bit of a walk down (thankfully) to the launch area, at least the one that hang glider pilots use, that is below where most of the tandem paraglider pilots launch. At 9,700' the breathing was labored, not just for me, but also for the locals. We were 4,000' about the 5,600' valley floor and every movement, especially with a glider on your shoulder was difficult. This only added to my internal feelings of anxiety.
The shaley hillside was steep and I put my glider down next to a few trees out of the way of the paraglider pilots launching above me. We had a long wait before we would be launching, but I was moving very slowly. The wind was coming right up the hill at 5+ mph, so launch conditions were good right from the get go. I was considering launching long before launch conditions became iffy with wind over the back.
I looked around the launch area and it didn't seem that steep to me. Also it wasn't at all smooth, with lots of small rocks every where. Oh well, at least the wind is coming in.
Chris and I both set up while Bart and Curt waited. Walt took off on his paraglider for a couple of sled rides before he would set up his Falcon, which he had left on top of the hill. All the paraglider pilots were having sled rides.
I wished we had been able to start this process a little later in the day, because I'm not great at waiting around. I got all my equipment setup and then helped Chris who wanted to take off early (say 11 AM) in good launch conditions and not wait around for the iffy ones. Bart said that the nice launch conditions that we saw in the morning would go away and we would have light to no winds on launch. He also said that this looked like "the" day. Light and variable winds would mean that we just had to wait it out to get a really grand flight over the Grand Teton to our north.
Chris got off for an extended sled ride, just like all the paraglider pilots. I only saw one tandem paraglider pilot gain any altitude from below launch and then for some reason he left the lift. Maybe his passenger was getting airsick from the rotations.
Finally after four hours I decided that I wanted to go while the going was good at around noon. There were lots of cu's forming on the back side of the mountain range and coming closer to us. Maybe they would provide lift. Maybe they would just portend a west wind. I was still feeling anxious about the launch and what awaited me in the air.
I turned my glider around and got over to the launch area, or what looked like a reasonable place to launch. As I stood there, I quickly noticed one thing, in spite of what I felt earlier, it was in fact quite steep. It was hard to maintain my footing and to stand straight as I wanted to lean back into the hill when I picked up the glider. Right then I knew that I would have no problems with lack of steepness here.
Also the wind was coming in quite nicely, even better than when Chris launched. When I lifted up my glider on my shoulders it wanted to fly and stayed in the air above my shoulders. Right then I knew that launch would be a breeze. I took right off and got away from the hill quickly and smoothly in perfect conditions.
Everyone else had had sled rides before me, but I was going to try to stay up, if I liked the air. It was smooth at first as I headed south to the right to a cliff area that looked like it might be a nice place for thermals to hang out. Sure enough when I got there there were little bubbles coming up the face from the rocky chute down below. I immediately turned and started climbing.
Unfortunately, there was no well formed thermal, no column of rising air, but just bubbles, bits and pieces that I could fly in for a quarter of a turn. I would push out in one and then after turning around, go to another part of the cliff and grab another. Bubbles, but thoroughly enjoyable bubbles as I would gain 100' and then lose it.
I did this for about ten minutes not gaining or losing any altitude and just hanging out above and close to the cliff and the trees. I was not being kicked around and it felt nothing like what I had experienced on the west side so I was happy to be in the air and soaring.
But as I was not getting up I thought that I might try the nearby cliff to see if that had better conditions. Well, it didn't have any rising air at all, and my first goal had been the only place that actually had any lift. I was a fool to leave it. Impatience again.
I had a nice smooth flight down 3,700' to the tiny paraglider LZ next to the village, coming in over the condominiums and restaurants on the base leg. There were no paragliders landing at the time so I didn't have to dodge them.
There were four hang glider pilots still on the hill, now all set up, but when would they go? The cu's were filling up over the mountain range and coming out into the valley a bit. In fact they were beginning to cast shadows over the launch area, which might be reducing the wind on launch.
Finally at 2 PM, two hours after I launched, we saw the first paraglider get above launch, then another. It looked like the day had finally turned on. But then we didn't see any hang gliders launch and we did see a few paragliders come down. After a while Chris and I left as we knew Bart had planned to fly back to his house in Wilson.
Later we heard the story. The pilots had not been quite ready (who knows why) when the first paraglider got up. They scrambled to the launch but by the time that they got there a shadow came over, the winds up the hill stopped and they didn't or couldn't launch.
They wouldn't launch for another half hour, not find any lift, and not quite make it back to Bart's place. Only two pilots, paraglider pilots, had grand flights on this day. I was happy to have great launch conditions, and a chance to get up if I had only worked it harder.
It is a beautiful place to fly and there have been lots of big flights there on good days. I'm looking forward to going back there.
The storm approaches over Rendezvous Mountain looking from Teton Pines (next to where we have our trailer).
Link to this article: http://OzReport.com/1251816007