A journal of travels

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Not a bird

July 15th, 2010 · No Comments · Adventure

In this excerpt from his novel, Chameleon, John Joss describes the ascent of Mt. Patterson, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains—by sailplane. Mt. Patterson is near the California-Nevada border.

Mount Patterson consumes my attention. I should not have come up, a `climber without ropes’ –an earlier decision, a modest task. My instructor said, years ago: “Don’t go into the mountains alone. If you do, you may regret it.”

If I don’t master this lump of Sierra Nevada granite, I might . . . die. I discard the thought. I have trained for years, mastered the tests from beginner to advanced. Then, freedom. Now . . . fear.

From a distance, this chunk of the Sierra—its nature mostly hidden by peripheral rock outcrops, lesser foothills—seemed benign. Up close, its character is revealed: relentless, uncaring of my intrusion. I am irrelevant to this mountain, as to life itself. Each breath, the next heartbeat, could be my last. Every move must be right: win-lose/live-die. No easy way. Not in the mountains. Poor skills, bad luck, inferior judgment: welcome to eternity.

The tools? Hands. Feet. Eye. Will. Experience controls the possible, the reach upward into . . . the unknown. Nothing else, up here. No audience, no applause or criticism, no judgment. Just the task, the attainment, the descent. That is the implacable measure of a man on the mountain.

Over here, something? Yes. Maybe. No. Back down. Review. Reconsider. The day is ending, the shadows lengthening. It is already wickedly cold at 8,000 feet. Without survival gear—`unnecessary’ on this `easy’ trip—the conclusion is inevitable. Six hours ago none of that mattered. Hindsight, 20/20. How . . . convenient.

Inspiration through intuition? Am I failing, falling? It comes through the fingertips. Touch, the kinesthetics of the smallest act. My muscles spasm, letting me . . . down. My breath comes fast, shallow, labored. I have difficulty breathing, but it is not the altitude.

Why? Why invite the struggle, agony, risk? It is a challenge I must accept, face, master. Unlike unnatural things that can be acquired with mere money, this transcends material. It can’t be faked, bought or sold. It must be done correctly and honestly, humbly. Do it right and live.

When I know I can go no further, doomed to fail, perhaps fatally, a familiar voice: Walter. I look across the expanse of rock: my companion from earlier, at my own level but to one side. He waves a greeting. Walter has found the perfect ascent route. He is brilliant at this game, my mentor.

Joined only by example, we are in a virtual duet, as I climb in his shadow. In fifteen minutes—so short a time!—we meet on the mountaintop. We climb beyond the summit, up to cloud base at 18,000 feet, going on oxygen at 12,500 feet, the long white carbonfiber wings of our sailplanes dipping and weaving as we circle in a glorious thermal that lifts us up into the inviting sky, its arms open in an embrace. The kinesthetics of soaring, the hand-eye coordination, consume every nerve ending.

Another mystery awaits us. At 15,000 feet, we are circling on opposite sides of a thermal, climbing under the inverted bowl of a huge cumulus cloud half a mile in diameter. Lift is tremendous—over 2,000 feet per minute. Suddenly, inexplicably, the air between us is obscured, a shadow flickering in air. I want to rub my eyes, unsure of what I am seeing. Seconds later, the truth is revealed. Rushing upward in the rising air, wings and beaks flashing: a flock of starlings.

That obscuration is a swarm of insects, entrained in the thermal when it broke ground two miles below, probably from an alfalfa field, long minutes before. The starlings—perhaps a hundred—are feeding; they climb in the thermal and vanish into the bottom of the cloud.

Now the milky vapor of cloud surrounds us, our upper wingtips almost in it. Blind flying in cloud, sans instruments? No! We turn as if on cue and dive away. As we penetrate the cloud’s drooping edges we are inundated in heavy rain sluicing from its flanks, hail that hammers on the nose and wings. The moisture will not reach the ground but will form only virga, a veil that will dry and vanish in the Nevada heat. At cloudbase it is a firehose on the perspex canopy but at over 100 knots it vanishes as quickly as it came.

Soaring. Joy.
© John Joss, 2010. Used with permission. John Joss is the author of a trilogy comprised of the novels Lulu, Chameleon, and Simia, as well as Sierra, Sierra (Morrow), a novel about the world of soaring, and other works of fiction and non-fiction. He lives in Northern California.

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