For most of my ‘adult’ life I was a frequent user of recreational drugs. Besides the use of the more familiar ‘illicit’ drugs, I used and abused skis, mountain bikes, motorcycles, sailboards and the best of all- hang gliders! -to get high. I started hang gliding in 1975 and tried to get as high as I could, for as long as I could, and as often as I could for all of 28 years. As a result, I literally soared with eagles, and even out climbed a few. It was not an easy life and I‘m now in recovery. The following story describes the best time I had with this particular way to get high.
It was just a few years ago, on a hot August day here at Lookout Mountain, Georgia. We were on the eastern side of a persistent high pressure ridge which resulted in light and variable surface winds and a lazy northwest flow aloft with fat cumulus clouds that filled the sky most days. The flying that week was exceptionally good. It was hot and dry, with drought conditions throughout the region, and daily temps that hovered near or exceeded 100 degrees (F) on the hottest days.
The conditions on the concrete launch ramp (2,000msl) that day were brutal, and made worse with the extra clothing I wore, as I hoped I would get really high. Cloud base was expected to exceed 8,000’ msl. The lack of any wind at launch meant there was no cooling breeze and I had to wait quite a while, fully geared up and hooked in, on the launch ramp for an indication that thermal lift was within reach. When Mack- a pilot who had towed up - began climbing in a thermal I could easily glide to, I launched. It was about 4:20 pm and I immediately began circling in the abundant lift. I flew aggressively, banking steeply and flying as close to stall as possible to maximize my climb rate.
My climb rate was 1,200 fpm at times and averaged 800 fpm. What a rush! I watched a large cumulus cloud form above me and as I approached it’s base I stopped circling and raced to it’s edge, since entering it was both foolish and illegal. I arrived at the edge and the base simultaneously and looked at my altimeter. 9,100’msl! Man, I was HIGH!
As I flew away from the cloud I looked behind me and was stunned to see I was now above cloud base! Whoa! I turned 180 degrees, slowed to minimum sink speed, and, in a state of indescribable bliss, climbed in some of the smoothest lift I’d ever encountered- at a steady 100 fpm- as I made passes along the face of the pure white cumulus. I was now in wave lift, created by a layer of air above cloud base flowing up the ‘ridge’ that the cloud’s mass had created. My ‘glory’ was a vivid rainbow shadow on the white face below me. I eventually climbed high enough to see over the top of the cloud (!) and decided I did not need to get any higher. I topped out at 10,930’msl.
I was, by then, bitterly cold, as the temperature at that altitude was near freezing and I was woefully underdressed. I spent the next two hours touring the north end of the Lookout Valley, finding thermals everywhere, but limiting my climbs to 7,500’msl to stay warm while I waited for the LZ to mellow. My landing was uneventful.
Lookout Mtn, GA