Sunday, 22 March 2015

Out of the Nest -- First Flight

Finally, conditions were looking better and it was time to fly. As Andrew got out his phone Saturday morning to call Chris to make sure things were still on, my heart immediately started to beat faster. I looked at the clouds . . . wondering . . . almost hoping for an excuse. That’s how nervous I was!

We met everyone at “The T” and loaded up Chris’s big Suburban, with all the bags secured in the roof rack on top. Chris tweets his activity and location for the day each morning so there were several other pilots waiting for a ride up to launch. Eleven of us piled in, plus a few more in another vehicle.

It was a long uphill drive on highway and then a narrower winding road up to the launch. But it was paved and we had to be careful to avoid the many cyclists zooming by on their way down hill.

Once out of the vehicle we shouldered our bags and hiked less than five minutes uphill to the launch area. As we came over the crest of the hill, I was taken aback by the strength of the wind. It felt at least as strong, if not stronger, than some times at the training hill where it was enough to make kiting very difficult or shut it down altogether.

From our beginner group, there was me, Andrew and Mel ready to take our first flight. Testing us, Chris called the three of us together and said, “Well, what do you think?” We all agreed the wind was quite strong and coming from the wrong direction. We shouldn’t fly. “Good decision,” he said. “I wouldn’t fly in this.” And he’s got 15+ years of experience behind him!
Fly, No Fly discussions. (Photo: Robin Lempicki)
One of the other pilots had a small wind measurement instrument, which showed that wind gusts were fluctuating between 10 and 22 mph. For beginner pilots, maximum winds are 12 mph with gusts up to 15 mph and wind direction no more than 25 degrees off the direction you want to launch.

After sitting and looking out at the horizon for several minutes we all (including all the experienced pilots) packed up and left. Chris looked at the forecast for the following day and it didn’t look promising. Andrew and I decided we couldn’t put off the long drive home any longer and that we’d head out in the morning.

Later that night we got an email from Chris. The winds had died down, the forecast for the morning looked good. “Let’s fly!” he wrote.

Again we met at “The T” and loaded up the suburban for round two. This time as we crested the hill to the launch area we knew it was on. We nervously stood around while Chris set our fresh-out-of-the-box radios to the right channel. “Let’s get ready,” he said. “We don’t want to lose this opportunity.” I quickly got my harness on, unpacked my canopy and went through the self-check process.

“Shelley, you ready to go?”

“No! I’m not going first!”

I’d just finished reading an article withadvice for new pilots. Number one on the list was, at a new site, watch a more experienced person go first. And, sure enough, watching one of the other pilots launch was reassuring. But after setting up my canopy, my palms were still sweating in my gloves and I took several deep breaths and visually triple checked my setup.

Getting ready to go. (Photo: Robin Lempicki)
My launch was good first try, if a little off to one side. I easily found the stirrup to get up into my harness, turned right and then left to follow the spine of the ridge downhill. There wasn’t much wind and, for the most part, it was a pretty smooth ride with only a few little bumps along the way. But those bumps definitely made me catch my breath and made my heart beat faster!

In flight! (Photo: Robin Lempicki)
After Chris told me at least twice (over the radio) to relax I finally realized that I didn’t have to keep my eyes totally glued to the landing zone. That I could actually settle back, look around at the amazing view and enjoy the ride. And the landing zone was still in the same spot when I looked back at it! :-) 

Relax until the next few bumps that is! Then it was back to tensing up until things smoothed out again. I know I’ll get used to it eventually! 

As I got further out, away from the mountains, I had to demonstrate 360 degree turns. I’m pretty sure mine were a bit more tentative than Chris would have liked! Again, it’s something I’m sure I’ll get used to with more longer and higher flights.
Turn! (Photo: Robin Lempicki)
Then was on my own to make a few more “S” turns to decrease altitude and get lined up for landing. “Just like at the training hill,” said Chris. Luckily the landing zone at this location is huge and you just have to avoid some big rocks and a few single trees. The many, many flights and landings at the training hill definitely paid off. We all had great landings.

Andrew scoping out the landing zone.
Andrew closing in on the ground.
Great landing Mel!
I had debated long and hard about whether or not I wanted the hassle of trying to use my GoPro on the mountain flight. Didn’t I have enough to worry about? But wouldn’t it be nice to have some cool footage from my first “real” flight? I tested both chest harness and ankle mount on the training hill and, although it wasn’t ideal, the chest harness was the least intrusive. And it turned out to be really non-intrusive because I totally forgot to turn it on!!!! Once on the ground though I did get some footage of Andrew and Mel coming in for their landings. I had GoPro in one hand, regular camera in the other. Another new friend, Robin, got some video and photos of us taking off. Thanks Robin!

It felt so good to have this first mountain flight done. It was an exhilarating experience and I was literally shaking with excitement at the end of it. Can’t wait til next time!!!

Again, HUGE THANKS to Chris Grantham of Fly Above All

Friday, 20 March 2015

Harder Than It Looks!

Our paragliding training days (with Chris Grantham of Fly Above All) melded into a somewhat predictable pattern. Up early, long coffee/breakfast; meet at 9:30 or 10 at the training hill at Elings Park in Santa Barbara; light winds and several flights off the training hill in the mornings; tacos and smoothies for lunch; higher or changing winds and kiting practice in the afternoons. If we were lucky, the winds would calm again and we’d get a couple more flights late afternoon. We usually wrapped up about 5 or 5:30 pm. The long and hot days meant we were usually exhausted by the end of each afternoon.

Due to wanting to get the flights in while the winds were good, we often didn’t take a lunch break until about 1:30. As most people know, I tend to get a bit (a lot??) grouchy on an empty stomach so I quickly learned to pack emergency rations in the pocket of my harness. I was convinced Chris was trying to starve us! And of course I teased him just a little bit about this. 

After the first couple days I was covered in bruises. On my biceps from doing forward inflations and fighting with the glider, on my calves from the stirrup and speed bar banging into them, and at the top of my thighs from the leg straps of the harness.
Seriously, Chris. My arms don't go back any further than that!
My neck and shoulders were stiff and sore from looking up at the canopy while kiting and from being totally tense the entire time. “Relax!” was a frequent piece of advice. My arms and legs were sore from hours of doing somewhat different motions than any other activity I normally do. I had grass stains on the knees of the pants I was wearing on one particularly long and tiring day from falling down on my last three flight landings of the day. Ibuprofen was my friend!

In addition to Andrew and I, there were several other students during the two weeks we were there. Bill, an 84-year-old retired ER doctor who was learning to paraglide after hang gliding and sky diving in past years (Georgie, his feisty little wife, was an avid spectator); James and Bianca, a pilot and flight attendant for United Arab Emirates, who presently live in Dubai; and Mel, a pretty southern girl from North Carolina who was great fun to spend time with! Her Italian boyfriend, Lorenzo, is an experienced paragliding pilot and often helped out at the training hill and was trying to get a few more tandem flights in to earn his tandem pilot rating.

With all these people, plus students from another paragliding school and local pilots out training, the van going up & down the hill was often packed to the rafters! We even had "star sightings" a couple days as Cedar Wright and Matt Segal (professional rock climbers) were also there learning to paraglide. 
People and paragliders! (Photo: Melody Isenhour)
Kiting seems like it should be easy and more experienced people made it look effortless (i.e. Chris and Lorenzo on a day that the winds were too strong for us beginners to kite).

Lorenzo making it look easy.
Reverse kiting involves totally counterintuitive motions. For example, if the glider is tilting one way, it seems to me the logical reaction would be to pull the opposite direction to bring it back, right? Wrong!! Because you’re holding the opposite brake lines (i.e. reverse), you actually move and pull in the same direction the kite is tilting. Sounds easy, right?? Not!!!!

Thankfully for our own sanity, we improved every day. I know the exact time the light bulb came on for me. Craig, one of the assistant instructors, was standing behind me giving directions as I was kiting and suddenly I said, “I get it!” I knew and understood what I had to do to keep the glider in the air.

Unfortunately, the bulb has a dimmer switch on it and there were still several ups and downs. Times when things totally clicked and times when . . . well, they didn’t.
Chris helping Andrew learn to kite.

As the days went on, we practiced various in-flight maneuvers required for our certification, had a “ground school” discussion about wind, clouds and other need-to-know topics and wrote our P1 and P2 level exams. All this, in preparation for our mountain flight . . . all the while praying for the stars to align and give us the right weather, wind speed and wind direction, before we had to head home.  

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Paragliding Fun

Andrew posted photos from our first full day . . . now it's my turn.

In the morning, the wind was again appropriate for us beginners to do several flights off the top of the training hill.

Shortly after noon the wind picked up a bit and, after lunch, we spent the rest of the day reverse kiting. Although we both did better at it today, it was still an exercise in frustration.

One of our instructors did a demo and he made it look so easy!!! When our canopy lines get so muddled up they look like spaghetti that we think will never untangle . . . they just come over, pick a couple lines, give them a couple pulls and . . . voila! No more tangles! They both pointed out how long they've been doing the sport though and one of them has won paragliding aerobatics competitions and is a stunt pilot. They assure us we're doing okay for Day 2.

Ready, set, go!
Run, run, run!
Enjoy the view!

Get ready for the "flare."
A gentle landing.
It doesn't always look this pretty!

Monday, 2 March 2015

A Biased Guide to Climbing at Red Rock Canyon

Do you hate crowds and chaos? Does walking into a casino give you audio sensory overload? If so, you might think Las Vegas isn’t for you. Well, if you play your cards right (pun intended) you can go to Vegas and pretend you’re not really in Vegas.

Andrew and I have been making the almost-annual trip to Red Rock Canyon, a short drive west of Vegas, for several years. Lots of our climbing friends, thinking of coming here, have asked us for advice and there have been several questions lately on the ACC Sask Section Facebook page so I thought I’d write this guide, biased as it may be.


Red Rocks, A Climber’s Guide by Jerry Handren – This is the best and most recent detailed guidebook. However, it was published in 2007 so there are a lot of climbs not in it.

Fun Climbs Red Rocks by Jason D. Martin – This book focuses on “moderate” climbs up to the 5.10 range. Published in 2009, there are a few more areas listed than in the above-noted book and often with a bit more detail. has some of the most recent information. You can download the app on your phone. Be sure to also download the photos -- there are no route topo maps. Check it out before you go, as it is sometimes hard to figure out where things are on the go. We've found that the locations only listed on are pretty quiet. Maybe one other party there at most.

There is also a bouldering guidebook if that's your thing. 

We generally climb, at most, in the 5.10ish sport range so the following, unless otherwise noted, are good suggestions for that range. These are just a few of our favourite areas to give people some suggestions to get started. There are far more really great climbs than what I've listed here! 

Sport Routes

Calico Hills - First Pullout
·      Panty Wall (a good range of sport climbs from 5.6 to 5.11 and a few trad routes in the 5.10 range) 
·      The Hamlet
·      Ultraman Wall (Slabby, very long routes. Watch your rope length for lowering or rapping off.)
·      Civilization Wall  (Info on only. Several routes in 5.10 range. Mostly in shade.)

Calico Hills - Second Pullout
·      Magic Bus (Also a couple trad routes here.)
·      Meetup Wall (Info on mountain only. A couple really fun "pumpy" overhanging routes on the shady side of the wall. 5.9 and 5.10a.) 
·      Black Corridor (Wide variety of grades and lots of them. Shady narrow corridor that is great, but crowded, when it’s really hot out.)
- The Gallery (Wide variety of grades and lots of them.)

Single Pitch Trad Routes

Great Red Book - 2-pitch 5.8 at Calico Hills Second pullout
Ragged Edges area at Willow Springs pullout

Multi-Pitch Routes

There are many great multi-pitch (mostly trad) routes of all levels to enjoy. All the ones we’ve done have been true to grade if not easier and all the get a 2 or 3 star rating have been well worth the effort.  (Yes, I wrote this before we did Group Therapy!) Some of our favourites:

Tunnel Vision (5.7) – Its namesake is a really fun vertical tunnel that you climb through. Not much for pro on that pitch. Look above/behind you, about ½ way up to find a gear placement. 

Cat in the Hat (5.6) – A very popular but fun route. Unfortunately you have to rappel the route, which makes it worse with crowds. Suggest going early and not on a weekend. The first time we went, it was such a gong show that we bailed off after three pitches for fear of getting in the middle of a major accident.

Birdland (5.7+) – Really fun route. 

Olive Oil (5.7) - Really nice route. Don't let the "poor protection" comments about pitch 5 scare you. Very easy where it's run out and then good pro further up. 

Solar Slab (5.6) – NOTE: When doing routes in the Solar area, we recommend parking along the highway, just west of the exit from the scenic drive loop, rather than in the Oak Creek Parking area which is noted in the guidebook. It’s a slightly longer hike in but you more than make up the time by not having to drive the scenic one-way loop. And trust me, if you’re at Red Rock for a week or more of climbing you’ll get your fill of the loop!

Also note that to do the upper routes on Solar you have to first climb Solar Gully or Johnny Vegas. In the Handren book the Gully is rated as 5.3. It is not 5.3. Other versions describe it as 5.5 which is more accurate. 

Crimson Chrysalis (5.8+) - Long route, mix of sport and trad. Quite popular and have to rappel route so try to go early and not on a weekend.

Where to Stay

Summerlin is the area on the west side of Vegas, closest to Red Rocks. We usually stay at the LaQuinta Inn& Suites on Sahara Ave. It’s relatively inexpensive, clean and has a small kitchen which is great if you’re staying for any length of time and don’t want to eat out every night. We stayed on the strip once but driving from there and dealing with heavy traffic cuts significantly into your climbing time.

If you know the dates of your trip for sure, you can find a few places on Friends of ours stayed at one called “Base Camp” and is owned by a climber. They said it was good.

The Red Rock Canyon campground is just east of Red Rocks. The one time we stayed there, many years ago, we found it to be very basic, dusty, dry and desolate. No shade, no showers. There are now shade canopies over the picnic tables. At the time, you could shower (for a small price) at the Red Rock Climbing Gym beside Desert Rock Sports on Charleston Ave.

Rest Day Activities

Hiking – There are several hikes to choose from in and around the Red Rocks area. Hiking/scrambling up Turtlehead Peak provides a great view of the area. On a hot day, Icebox Canyon is the place to be. On a recent cold & rainy day we did the loop hike from Red Springs in Calico Basin, to the Quarry, around the front of Calico Hills and back to Red Springs. 

Hiking Las Vegas by Branch Whitney is a good resource for this area as well as others in the area. 

Springs Preserve – This is one of our favorite places! And it’s right in the middle of Vegas. There are several hiking/interpretive trails, a lovely gardens area, a sustainability centre, a couple museums with always changing displays, and a really nice restaurant. Andrew and I buy an annual membership so that we can go in early (8 am instead of 10 am) and it often seems like we have the gardens and trails to ourselves at that time. The number of blog posts we've both written about the Springs are proof of how much we like it. 

Pahrump Winery – Pahrump is located an hour west of Vegas. The winery is only one of four in Nevada and specializes in red wine grapes, as it’s too warm here for white. There is a nice restaurant and they have daily tastings and tours.

Movies – There are several Regal Cinemas. At the corner of Sahara Ave and Fort Apache Rd (walking distance from the LaQuinta if you're staying there), one at Downtown Summerlin mall and one in the Red Rock Casino Resort. The one in the Resort also has an Imax theatre. 

Valley of Fire State Park - Just over an hour drive from Summerlin area. Beautiful red rock (hence the name), interesting rock formations and several short hiking trails. 


Desert Rock Sports – 8221 W. Charleston Blvd.
REI – 710 S. Rampart Blvd. 

Groceries - One can easily find a grocery store in the Summerlin area. These are our favourites:
·      Whole Foods - 8855 W. Charleston Blvd.
·      Sprouts Farmers Market - 10000 W. Sahara Ave.

Coffee Shops and Restaurants

·      Starbucks – they’re everywhere, they’re everywhere!
·      The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf -- also several locations. We usually go to the one at 10834 W. Charleston Ave on the way out to Red Rock. 
·      Sambalatte (near REI in the Boca Park Mall)

There are tons of restaurants in the Summerlin area! A couple suggestions:
  • Honey Salt - 1031 S. Rampart Blvd. Casual and laid back but very nice place. 
  • Vintner Grill - 10100 W. Charleston Blvd. This is for a classy, “fine dining” special night out. Although the address is on Charleston, there is only a small and easily missed sign on the street side. Drive around to the back to find the entrance.
  • If you’re looking for a relatively quiet place to have a drink (which seems to be a rarity in Vegas) check out the bar area beside the reception desk at the Red Rock Casino Resort.
Other General Advice

The Visitor’s Centre at Red Rocks is quite good. Stop there one day before or after climbing and, in the warmer months, look for Mojave Max (the tortoise) in the area out back.

You can get a 7-day pass to Red Rocks but if you plan to visit other national parks or conservation areas, buy an annual National Parks Pass. We didn’t figure this out until after our first few trips.

Note that the park gates and the scenic loop drive closes at varying times depending on the time of year and how early it gets dark. Locals have warned us that the park staff are very strict about ensuring people are out of the park shortly after closing time. Fines are handed out if you're late. However, climbers and hikers can apply for a late permit if they are on a very long route and know they will be late or overnight. 

If You Must . . .

If you just can’t leave Vegas without trying your hand at a slot machine or two, check out the Red Rock Casino Resort and Spa. Get your fix without braving the chaos of the strip. 

If you need more than just climbing/outdoor stores and grocery markets to get your shopping fix, check out Downtown Summerlin mall. Close to the Red Rock Casino, between Sahara and Charleston Avenues. Has an Apple Store; voted as the local’s favourite shopping mall. Sorry, I have no clue where the nearest outlet mall is! 

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Red Rocks to Ojai

After our last day of climbing at Red Rocks on Friday we started heading further west. We first stopped just an hour away, had a great supper at Symphony's Restaurant at the Pahrump Valley Winery and spent the night in one of the cottages at Wine Ridge RV Resort and Cottages next door.

Sunshine and wine.
The next day we continued meandering westward. We try to stay off the interstates and other main highways and are always rewarded by interesting landscape and the ability to stop and take photos pretty much anywhere.

Well, ok, for Andrew to take photos pretty much anywhere and for me to take photos of Andrew taking photos. It was a cloudy and sometimes rainy day so the sky was quite amazing.

At one location there were rows and rows of these flowering trees dropping their petals so quickly that it looked like snow on the ground.

Where in the world is Andrew?

Driving along a very winding road just before getting to Ojai, the combination of sunshine, rain and clouds created drama at every turn!

I know Andrew will have some excellent photos from this part of the journey! 

Stay tuned for our next adventures in Santa Barbara.  :-)