© copyright 2003 Michael P. Hamilton, Ph.D.


To soar like the condors

December 9, 1996:

With my Powerbook nestled safely on my lap, I peered from my Black Mountain perch and watched the sky for evidence of the approaching storm front. On the display of the computer was the latest enhanced satellite image of California (courtesy of the NOAA web site), graphically portraying the varied patterns of rain-bearing clouds pulled along by the approaching wave of low pressure. The storm was already bombarding the Central California coastline with warm pacific rain, and giving every indication that it was heading our way. Concentrating on the details of the image and my "real-time" view of the northwest sky, my attention was momentarily distracted by an unusual sound. Looking up I was surprised by a pair of Red-tailed Hawks who were using the strong ridge lift generated by the approaching storm to hover within 20 feet of my head. Wind pushed over and under their smooth wings provided them all the lift they needed to remain motionless and nearly silent as they observed me, perhaps satisfying their curiosity or apprehension that I was not going to harm them. The nearly inaudible vibration of their wing feathers was all that gave away their presence to me.

Watching the hawks soar and hover, my mind was drawn to a scene from my memories. It was nighttime during the summer of 1975, and a small group of friends and I were clandestinely working our way up a back country trail in Yosemite National Park towards the summit of El Capitan, one of the most famous rock faces in all of North America. El Capitan is viewed by thousands of people a year, while an elite minority of enthusiasts chooses to climb the 3,593 foot vertical face using only ropes, chalks, and their wits. We were determined to be the first people to ever throw ourselves off the top -- in hang gliders!

When we were seasonal wilderness patrolmen with the State Park in 1973, Bob Smead and I ran into a couple of guys who had hiked from Humber Park to the top of San Jacinto Peak with hang gliders, intending to jump off the summit. Then there were no laws against hang gliding in the wilderness, why recreational hang gliders had only been invented shortly before that time, and few people were thought to be crazy enough to consider jumping from an 11,000 foot mountain. Bob and I didn't know what to do with these guys, they were clearly exhausted from their efforts at carrying two 80 pound gliders so many miles. So we helped them take their load to Round Valley, and suggested that perhaps the escarpment near Hidden Lake would be a good spot to launch. The pilot seemed happy about this alternative, and gave me one of his business cards with the invitation that Bob and I contact his hang gliding business so he could give us flying lessons.

Their flight was successful (although they ended up flying off of the water tower next to the Tramway), and after a summer of free lessons, I wrote them a check for a brand new Wills Wing Hang Glider. So began a ten year adventure of flying off local mountain peaks, soaring with hawks along the sea cliffs of San Diego, and jumping from several of the Yosemite Park "Big Walls" including Glacier Point. I found myself doing things that I would never have considered possible had I not been learning from the best pilots in the world. The hike up El Capitan was arduous to say the least, but when we woke up in the morning to a clear sky and calm air, our hearts began to soar like the condors we emulated while we assembled our gliders and prepared for the flight. Gradually the air began to rise from the Valley floor and the first of our group of five pilots took a half-dozen or so running steps and launched themselves into 4,000 feet of vertical air space. The butterflies I felt in my stomach seemed to help me gain an extra amount of lift as I earned a view of Yosemite Valley that only four others in the entire world had ever seen, suspended beneath the rugged aluminum and dacron of my condor-shaped hang glider.


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