Rainy, But Good

Telluride Hang Gliding Festival’s 25th Year

© John Heiney 

The atmosphere of the 1998 flying season has been somewhat overbearing for the majority of hang gliding enthusiasts.  Not since the early days of the sport have pilots been inundated with so many decisions regarding choice of gliders.  And since mainstream promotional hype has crept into the hang gliding industry, many flyers have found themselves forced into an identity crisis (not to mention a financial crisis) over which wing they should be buying/flying.   Pilots are showing signs of stress not before seen in this traditionally most free-spirited of all recreational activities. 

Fortunately, toward the end of each season there is always an event geared toward the real meaning of the sport - having fun flying with your friends.  There is a place to go where the mountains are tall and beautiful, the air is clean and cool (sometimes wet) and where the flyers go, to fly.

For twenty-five years the pilots at Telluride have put on a party-in-the-sky, an Airman’s Rendezvous and invited all advanced pilots to attend.  Hang gliding at Telluride started in 1972 when Jeff Campbell made the first flight in the ski area.  Jeff and some of his ski patrol friends and others got heavily into hang gliding at Telluride.  Once they proved that they could fly hang gliders there, the next thing to do was have a festival. 

The Coonskin Carnival was an established festival of ski racing organized by non-flyer John Micetic.  He decided that hang gliding should be a part of his festival, thus the first hang gliding festival took place in 1973.  The original TAF members were Jeff Campbell, David Stanfield, Mitch Stanfield, Bob St. Onge, Garry Gross, Joe Kray, Clint Wolf, Jack Carey, Dennis Stenslin and Peter Slack. 

Jeff Campbell spent two of his early years of hang gliding (‘73 and ‘74) in New Zealand flying and skiing for a film called “Off The Edge”.  If you ever get a chance to see this one, you will not be disappointed.  It is a superbly filmed half skiing, half hang gliding adventure story shot at Mount Cook National Park.  Some might remember when Jeff showed us the hang gliding half at a festival several years ago.  When I went to Mount Cook for an “Expedition-Earth” film in 1990, our head guide, Gavin Wills who also guided on the “Off The Edge” shoot, showed us his 16mm copy.  It is a great film!

For those underprivileged pilots who have never been to Telluride, some explanation is in order.  Telluride is a 123 year-old mining town at 8750 feet elevation in a box canyon in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado.  It was originally called Columbia, but the name was changed when the element tellurium was discovered in the area, which occurs in nature as an ore called telluride. The surrounding area has many peaks around 14K which, of course remain snow-capped all summer.  It is an alpine area.  Mountains this high tend to create their own weather, and it is seldom good weather. 

Understand that it precipitates often in Telluride.  There would not be a major ski area there if it did not.  In the winter it snows.  No one complains about the snow.  Skiing, you know.  In the summer it rains.  No one complains about the rain except visiting hang glider pilots.  The people who inhabit Telluride know it rains a lot, and they like it there anyway.  They have gotten their minds right about it.  And that is what attendees to the Hang Gliding Festival should do.  In order to fully enjoy the Telluride Hang Gliding Festival, you need to get your mind right about the weather.

This year’s festival was very enjoyable and there was plenty of flyable weather; even though it rained often.  To take full advantage of the flying at Telluride one should understand that the normal weather pattern during late summer is a southerly flow of moist air.  This usually means clear sky in the morning with overdevelopment and thundershowers in the afternoon.  Those who think of it as a vacation with the right to sleep in, expecting to fly only in the booming afternoon thermals (enjoying the great altitude gains for which Telluride is famous) can be in for a big disappointment. 

I have competed in the freestyle contest since 1984.  In the early years they ran only evening rounds.  I would go up on the earliest transport (around 8:30-9:00 AM), set up at the Bear Creek launch and take off for a practice run about 10:30 to 11:00 usually into Bear Creek.  By this time the sun has been warming the west side of Bear Creek for a few hours.  I found it soarable almost every time.  If a light west wind happens to be overpowering the Bear Creek convection, you can launch to the west and, perhaps cut across at Temptation.  Then you can still work the early Bear Creek thermals.  You should not expect to set an altitude record this way, but you can get an hour of thermalling in light lift above launch.  And you will be way ahead of those who sleep in, arrive at launch in time for the overdevelopment and ride down the mountain in the rain.  Then if the weather still looks promising, you are ready to go up for the big air in the afternoon.  

Over the years the Telluride Hang Gliding Festival has been host to many esteemed guests.  Dr. Paul McCready who innovated the speeds-to-fly theory, and designed and built the Gossamer Condor and Gossamer Albatross human-powered airplanes attended in 1981.  Chuck Yeager was at the festival around 1980 to see hang gliding, and he really saw hang gliding.  Jack Carey Took him tandem!  1n 1997 Bill Lishman of “Come on Geese” and “Fly Away Home” fame gave a great presentation about his geese migration work.  These are just a few that come to mind. 

The Telluride Hang Gliding Festival has had TV or film coverage just about every year since its inception.  In 1985 National Geographic Explorer covered the Festival.  I recall ‘85 as one of the rainiest years ever.  All but one round of the freestyle contest were rained out.  But still there was enough good flying weather to get great footage for the segment called “High Altitude Hang Gliding”.  It was Mitch McAleer’s first of five wins.  Mitch has won the World Aerobatics Championships more times than anyone else.  The footage was shot in 16mm film by Scott Ransom, Ron Kanter and Dan Eitemiller.  This was an excellent piece with spectacular footage seen by millions of Americans on one of the most prestigious TV shows.  Hang gliding schools should have been inundated by student applicants after the airing, we thought.  It is obvious by now that the average human just does not care about hang gliding.  And perhaps that is a good thing. 

As usual, the organizers of the Festival kept us entertained in the evenings with programs and such at the Nugget Theater and the Pubs.  This year of course the topic was the early days of hang gliding.  Craig Perazzi put together a slide show of Jeff Campbell’s and Bob St. Onge’s photos of the first few years of Telluride flying.  Jeff, Reggie Jones and David Stanfield narrated the slides and a video made up of super-8 films from David Stanfield, Milt Moore, John Dunham and John Coyne showing the locals and visitors flying standards off the ski area and in the Telluride valley. 

The film included the often talked-about but seldom seen shot of Reggie Jones landing a standard on “Main Street” right in front of the Last Dollar.  The glider-mounted film of this was credited to John Dunham, another of the very early pilots and Reggie’s traveling partner at the time.  The story goes that Clint Wolf had a lumber yard on “Main Street” (which is really Colorado Avenue) that became the first TAF “hangar”.  Several pilots were landing there regularly for a week or two until Clint got a ticket (which he still has) for landing a hang glider on a public street.  That was the end of the infamous street landings. 

The older pilots in the crowd saw flyers they had not seen in many years, and the younger audience saw things they had never seen before, like a Quicksilver flying without an engine.  We saw film of people flying off Ajax, Ballard and Imogene Pass.  These are sites that no one has flown from since those early days, except Craig Perrazi.  Craig has done some sky mountaineering involving landings on and launches from Ballard and Ajax.  This program was extremely well received.  I believe it was standing room only in the Nugget that night.

Luigi Chiarani, this year’s festival organizer had one of the best ideas I have ever seen at the Telluride Hang Gliding Festival.  He put a TV/VCR under the “high tension membrane” tent in Town Park and stacked some videos on it contributed by Tom Tatum and others.  It gave people hang gliding to watch any time of the day.  At times people brought their own tapes to show.  I noticed “Double High” showing often as I passed by. 

I suffered a mild knee injury that precluded my flying at the Festival.  Fortuitously Brad Gryder of Foothills Flight Park in North Carolina volunteered to fly with my camera mounted on a demo Saturn on Sunday.  I had mounted my camera on his Predator on Saturday.  Brad and I arrived at launch around 11:AM.  Everyone else was already setting up on the west launches, even though the wind was up Bear Creek at 5-10 mph.  We set up the glider and camera, and Brad launched into Bear Creek.  Within several minutes he was 2000 over and heading off toward Palmyra to take some pictures while everyone else was still sitting on the west launches where it was still blowing down.  Of course, before long the launch cycles became favorable and all flyers got their share of the four necessary “food groups”: adrenaline, altitude, airtime and speed. 

One feature of the area that plays a major role in salvaging bad weather days is called Paradox.  When the wind is south and it looks like a general rain for the day at Telluride you head northwest about 1 ½ hours to a very interesting arid place almost to the Utah border know as the Paradox Valley.  It is about twenty miles long, about five miles wide and hosts a 2000 feet red cliff facing south-southwest.  The cliff was formed by the tilting of a gargantuan chunk of sedimentary rock a long time ago, about when Bill Bennett started hang gliding, I think. 

If you have never seen Paradox you are in for a real treat.  It is one fantastic looking place, and one of my favorite sites for taking pictures.  Once in the air above this spectacular cliff you might almost imagine you are soaring sixty million years ago, sharing a thermal with a pterodactyl.  But there are signs of humanity to snap you back to reality such as the world’s largest open-pit uranium mine several miles to the southeast, and a very nice retrieval road through the valley.  Be sure to stop into the Bedrock Store if only for a cold drink.  Stepping across the threshold is like a trip back in time. 

Several years ago I was privileged to speak with two interesting and very experienced gentlemen who maintained the road to launch and beyond.  They told me about how this place got its name.  Normally a river runs parallel to and through the valley.  Here the Dolores River runs across the valley.  Most rivers in North America run from north to south.  The Dolores runs south to north.  They said you can drill for a well and hit bedrock 20 feet down.  You can move over a short distance and drill for hundreds of feet without hitting anything.  Up the road a ways towards Utah there is a flowing well alongside of the road that has never dried up.  The locals will tell you to "fill your jugs, its good water”. 

Paradox has a lake on top with an unimproved camping area.  It is often flyable at Paradox when it is raining or too south at Telluride.  There are two launches on top.  The cliff launch is in a better position for getting up, but is sketchy in strong wind.  The road launch is somewhat more rounded, but still rather cliffy and can be dangerous in strong wind.  It faces a slightly different direction.  The wind is often too strong, but do not give up until sunset.  The wind often abates in the evening leaving you with a wonderful glass-off and fabulous lighting and shadows for your photographs. 

Please be aware that there are hideous stories of blown launches at Paradox.  Once you see it you will know this is no place to make a mistake. You will need an advanced understanding of launch techniques and conditions plus a responsible attitude in order to avoid mishaps if the conditions are moderate to strong.  A responsible attitude means not trying it if you are not sure.  Of course conditions can be excellent, but be ready for anything including switching wind, sudden showers and power lines on your late dusk landing approach. 

One evening about a dozen of us landed in the obvious field along the road right below launch.  As we folded our wings a local woman stopped to warn us that we had landed in the wrong place.  She said the owner was mean.  We hurried to get out, but it was too late.  The owner had arrived with a rifle in the rear window rack of his pickup.  He told us that the sheriff was on his way and no one was going anywhere.  I had a bad feeling about this.  I wondered if this was the notorious landowner we had heard about for years.  The one who seemed to hate hang gliders.  As it turned out, it was. 

His initial demeanor was quite unfriendly, but I thought I recognized it as the “best defense is a good offense” technique.  He was approaching a large group of people trespassing on his land, so he did not know what to expect.  It was understandable.  Fortunately there was not an arrogant person in our group.  I spoke with him for a while and found that his only real concern was liability.  That was it.  We had found a common ground on which we could agree.  That is, the absolutely goofy liability situation we have in this country. 

JT told the landowner about our USGHA insurance, and about a law in Colorado that protects a landowner from litigation if someone gets hurt while trespassing.  He gave us his name and address and said if his lawyer likes our insurance and the new law he would be glad to let us land there.  But until we hear official word from him it is very important to not land on his property. The only legal place to land is a light colored square field to the far right of launch and some glide out, so leave yourself enough altitude to make it.

So, the man we most feared turned out to be a very reasonable person.  In fact he is a retired forty-year professional pilot, so he knows the love of flying.  When the sheriff came the landowner told him that everything had been worked out.  Once he had gone the sheriff told us he thought the man’s bad reputation had come from a run-in with a pugnacious and belligerent hang glider pilot in the past.  I wonder who that could have been.

Telluride was rainy this year, but I think everyone got a good amount of flying in between the showers.  It did rain every day between Monday and Friday, but I believe only one day was a total rain-out.  People went up the hill all of the other days and got good flights by watching the conditions and launching at the right time.  The best procedure was to go up early and get your flying in before the overdevelopment.  Then the weekend brought two absolutely fabulous soaring days.  Those who stuck it out during the trying days during the week were rewarded with an entire weekend of the kind of flying for which Telluride is famous.  There were plenty of fair-weather CUs, blue sky and that outrageous San Juan Mountain scenery for everyone.

We saw the increased number of rigid-wings which is the new “norm” at many hang gliding sites in this country.  Jim Zieset and Bob Lowe skied out on their Exxtacies and Steve Lantz zipped around on his brandy new Millenium. 

Paris Williams dominated this year’s freestyle contest flying a Predator 142.  Paris is a young man who is dedicated to the sport of hang gliding, and to cross country racing.  He also shows himself to be a well-rounded pilot by his enthusiasm and aptitude for freestyle.  He finished fourth at Aspen earlier this year behind Mitch, Aaron and Dieter.  In the absence of those established competitors Paris, in his first year of competition won all four rounds to become the 1998 World Aerobatics Champion.  Since I could not fly I offered my Predator to Zac “Zippy” Majors who flew very smoothly and banked steeply to place second.  John Nagyvary took third also flying a Predator.  Scott Heiple was fourth on an HPII.  It was a good safe contest.  All the competitors had a good time and expanded their knowledge of freestyle.  Paris won $400 for his first place finish plus a special $100 bonus donated by Bruce Hawk of Hawk Airsports (makers of the WINDSOK™).

Many thanks to the freestyle judges without whom the contest would be impossible.  Scott Stuart gets the longest drive award for coming from Southern California to judge.  I think it was worth the drive from an airtime standpoint, since he was seen skying out on Saturday.  Also judging were Jeff Borrows of Aspen, Jeff Mallin and head judge Hugh Sawyer of Telluride.  Special appreciation goes to future pilot McCabe Mallin who worked diligently helping Luigi at headquarters and who made his announcing debut at the World Aerobatics Championships.  He says he will be back next year.

A good number of the old-timers of hang gliding accepted the invitation to the Festival's 25 anniversary.  One group that seemed to be a fixture at the functions consisted of Jeff Campbell, David Stanfield, Jack Schroeder, Bob Keeler, and various wives.  These guys were having fun, which has always been a notable thing about hang gliders.  They like to have fun.  Bob van Wagner flew into town in his home-built LanceAir.  He does not fly hang gliders any more, but I noticed him touring the area in the airplane a few times.  Other old-timers at the 25th anniversary included, Bill Bennett, Reggie Jones, Al Godman, Jim Lincoln, Jim Guest and J.R. Nershi.

This year’s award ceremony hosted the debut of Tom Tatum’s latest hang gliding film covering last year’s speed gliding contest.  Everyone enjoyed the forty-minute film by the man who has made more hang gliding films of Telluride flying that anyone.  A 20 minute cut will be seen on TV.  Tom’s first hang gliding film “Double High” is a classic film of the first aerobatics or freestyle hang gliding contest anywhere in the world, which was held in 1981.  The pilots in the contest were Dan Racanelli, Pat Maggard, Roy Haggard, Greg Duhon, Dave Gibson, Rob Kells, Ron Young, Bill Floyd and Larry Tudor.  This film is well worth buying if you can find it.  It is expertly narrated by David Stanfield, one of the early pilots who went on to an illustrious career in sports announcing.  It is a wonderful trip back in time.

Dave Kilbourne, who made the first soaring flight in a Rogallo hang glider flew to town in his Long eze.  Dave showed us a film of his early days of demonstration flying and launching off un-tried mountains with his friends.  Dave credited Bill Bennett with having the best glider to copy. Bill and Dave became a demonstration team touring the country and creating great memories that they still tell about today.  Dave’s film and narration were a big hit at the awards ceremony.  Bill Bennett also gave a talk and told many stories throughout the week. 

One person who was very much missed at the festival is the greatest and most enthusiastic hang gliding photographer of all time, Leroy Grannis.  Leroy could give a slide show that would document the history of the sport in the USA, and it might last for hours.  If you are reading this Leroy, how about contributing a photo essay to HANG GLIDING Magazine on the early history of hang gliding?

Looking back on the 25 years of the Telluride Hang Gliding Festival I would observe that it is like life.  It is all attitude.  Or is it altitude?  It is an altitude attitude which means, simply, a true flyers attitude.  And the best example of the proper altitude attitude is John Coyne.  John does not check the long range forecast before he goes to Telluride.  He just goes.  He goes every year.  In fact, John has attended every Festival since the first one in 1973!  If that is not enough of a record, he has flown his hang glider at every Telluride Hang Gliding Festival since the first one.  And that is not easy to do when it takes you as long to set up your glider as it takes John.  Buy the time he mounts his vario, his video camcorder, his other vario, his radio, oxygen, GPS, still camera, vego-matic, thermal snooper and snack food it can overdevelop and start to rain.

He has set under his wing through rain showers waiting for that launch cycle.  And it always comes for John, eventually, because he has a good attitude.  An altitude attitude.