Outer local sierra safari on the ende
Written by Antoine Laurens   
Wednesday, 10 October 2012 03:54

When, on October 3, Eric Reed landed his wing at Lakeview, Oregon, he did more than finish up a fun day’s flight. His landing, which was soon followed by those of fellow pilots Antoine Laurens and Gavin McClurg, concluded an expedition that may well have ushered in a new chapter in American paragliding.

Bivy flying consists of self-supported journeys by air and, where necessary, on foot through sections of mountainous terrain. Pilots use thermals and wind to fly as far as possible each day before landing near a suitable launch. After a bivouac, they begin flying again the next morning, seeking to push their route as far as weather, daylight and terrain permit.

While bivy flying enjoys a (very small) degree of popularity in Europe, in the US, fewer than a dozen pilots actively engage in the pursuit. It is, to paraphrase pilot Matt Gerdes, the offshoot of an already fringe sport.

Or at least, that was the case before the Sierra Safari hit the air.

On September 14, Reed, McClurg, Laurens, Nick Greece, Brad Sander and Oriol Fernandez, members of the so-called Sierra Safari Expedition, launched from Walt’s Point (4,028’) near Lone Pine, California. Their goal: to fly the length of the Sierra Mountains all the way to Oregon or, should conditions permit, the Canadian border.

Over the course of the next nineteen days, as they flew point-to-point for more than 1,000 miles through rough and technical terrain, they experienced numerous mishaps, near misses and extraordinary moments. They also inspired a number of pilots around the country to embark on bivy flights of their own.

The 2012 effort was not the first time pilots had ventured out on an American “vol-biv”, as it is known in France. In September 2011, Reed, accompanied by Sanders, had flown from Walt’s Point to Pevine Peak near Reno, Nevada. Reed then continued solo on to Likely Mountain near Alturas, California, at the start of the Werner Range.

But the pair didn’t publicize their effort much after the fact. As a result, the adventure received little attention.

This year was different. Not only were there more members, which provided more camaraderie and complexity. There was also social media. As the expedition unfolded, both its Facebook page, which provided frequent updates to the team’s progress, and its Spotmap page, which tracked their physical journey, attracted more and more followers.

During the expedition, a number of pilots, including Dave Turner and Honza Rejmanek, hiked up to various launch sites to accompany the team on its journey. And around the country, pilots who were following the expedition online made smaller excursions of their own.

The team’s inspiration had its basis in a couple of facts. Not only was their goal of the longest bivy flight on American soil unprecedented. The terrain they were flying through was a challenge as well.

In 2010, Fernandez, Reed and Laurens had flown more than 600 miles across the Himalaya—the longest vol-biv flight then on record.

The Sierra proved to be more difficult.

“In terms of engagement,” said Laurens, “the Himalaya is engaging, but the Sierra has big pieces of terrain where there are no roads, you are high in the mountains, there are bears…. Also, the weather [in the Sierra] is more technical. The proximity of the desert and the Pacific [affects] the stability of the weather.”

“The Himalaya is a giant range,” Reed noted, “but the winds always blow up from the flats. They always blow from the south. Our route in the Sierra faced east; the winds come from the west. That makes the route less obvious, and not such a slamdunk.”

“Those guys were like, yeah, if you want to do a relaxing bivy, come to the Himalaya or the Karakoram,” said Greece. “The Sierra are much more intense, because they’re so remote. You don’t find people.”

Indeed, the Sierra expedition demanded multiple skill sets to complete.

“Flying through the Sierra represented the culmination of all the disciplines of paragliding I’ve learned over the last ten years,” said Greece. “Aerobatics: in order to topland or take off in strange places, you need good wing control. Big-mountain flying: we were flying at altitude the whole time. Picking lines and open-distance flying: we had to fight until the bitter end of every day. Competition flying: each day you only had a certain amount of time, so you had to maximize that time by flying fast.”

“Then you had the whole beauty of camping, followed by a huge waiting game every morning to see if you could get up and keep moving through the mountains.”

“You just never knew” how the day would unfold, he said.

As documented here, the expedition began with a bump. The first day, Sander, who has more hours flying the Greater Ranges than anyone in history, was forced to exit the expedition after a bad landing sent him to the hospital.

On September 19, the remaining five team members took off from a launch point above Mono Lake. Only Reed and Fernandez got away. “Gavin, Dave and I sunk to the valley floor,” recalls Greece.

After scrambling to get to another launch, the three pilots joined their partners for an “epic flight,” only to watch, helpless, as Fernandez landed on a mountain six miles north of the Sonoran Highway.

“Erik, Gavin, Dave and I flew down to him,” said Greece. “You can’t leave someone alone” in country like that.

The next morning, the four pilots were stranded for an hour and a half at 12,000 feet as they waited for the thermal lift necessary to fly on.

When the winds finally complied, the group shot northward. Near the end of the day’s flight, Fernandez flew along a ridge but failed to connect with any lift and ended up landing in a remote canyon.

The hike out took six hours and included three encounters with bears.

Greece calls the Sierra “tough, technical country.” But two other elements also defined the trip.

One was the need for focus. “I felt like Forrest Gump every day,” said Greece. “I just kept running.”

This focus appealed to his sensibilities as a competitive pilot. “I knew what I had to do every day: Wake up, make breakfast, get on the hill, pick a route through the Sierra, and hopefully go a full 60-mile length. And land at a place where you could do it all over again the next day.”

Another element was team flying.

“It’s a little like soloing versus a team expedition,” Reed, a recovering climber, said. “If you’re not used to soloing, it’s surprising how quick and easy it flows. The more people you add, the more complicated it gets. Two people is fairly simple, three is a little harder, and four or five…. The complexity expands geometrically.”

Greece was forced to pull out of the expedition on Sept. 29 for work. Reed, Laurens and McClurg kept going. Four days later, to the acclaim of, for bivy flying, a large audience (the expedition’s Facebook page currently has 470 fans), they were in Oregon with a new US record.

Reed, for one, was surprised by the team’s success.

“I’d been pretty lucky the previous year with the weather,” he said. “It’s not as straightforward a route as most of the stuff we’ve done, even in the Himalaya.… [But] we had fantastic weather this year, and this route that seemed improbable has now worked two years in a row.”

“Maybe it’s also a little more viable than I thought.”

The expedition’s success motivated the team members as well as those who followed them.

“At the end of the odyssey,” said Laurens, “we asked ourselves, when will we meet again?”

“We’re going to keep doing this,” said Greece. “We have huge, untapped routes in the US.”

“This is just the start,” he said.

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