White Chuck Mountain: Portal to the Cascades

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After years of having the “why don't you come out and enjoy the mountains” conversation with numerous glider pilots, some who have been soaring for years without venturing into the Cascades, and some who are relatively new to soaring, I think I have unraveled at least part of the puzzle. It's a four letter word that begins with the letter “F”. You know the one: Fear. Yes, that old bugaboo.

LS3 sailplane homing in on the clouds. Surprisingly, the thermals that produced those clouds provided good climbs. Peaks from L to R: Glacier Peak, White Chuck Mountain, Mt. Pugh, and Sloan Peak

We're talking real fear here, not the non-trivial fear of midair collisions, rope breaks, getting on the no-fly list, and all the other mundane scary stuff. I'm talking about primal fear brought on by glacier capped peaks filling your view through the canopy while being tossed around by random turbulence that seems hell bent on swatting you from the sky. Oh yes, the mountain flying conundrum. “How do I get over the butterflies in my stomach while trying to be comfortable in this environment?” The instructors really didn't spend much time training you in mountain flying techniques, and the guys that are doing it have been flying gliders for decades, and of course, that old standby, “I don't have any mountain flying experience.” And yeah, it's pretty scary. Some guys say “intimidating”, but we know what they mean.

Fear isn't entirely bad. It's a crucial response to physical danger. There are definitely some legitimate things to fear out there. On the other hand, psychology journals say it's best to expose ourselves to our fears in order to move past them. and I agree with them.

Some of our fears are pretty irrational and should be repeatedly told to go away until they do. For example, the fear of your glider breaking up in flight due to turbulence. Modern (and even not so modern sailplanes) are incredibly strong, and everyday mountain turbulence will not remove parts of your aircraft. In order to break your glider in turbulence you would need to blunder into a cu-nim, or get caught in mountain wave lee side rotor turbulence of the sort we rarely see around here. I'm not saying it's impossible, but extremely unlikely for the reasonably observant pilot.

Another more insidious irrational fear is the general paranoia of being over un-landable terrain for long periods of time. Flying over the basin, or over the big fields surrounding KAWO allows the pilot to process available land out information by visual confirmation. Conversely, in the mountains the thought process is decidedly more abstract. You must use your imagination and strategic thinking to remain mentally connected to the land-able real estate within the reach of your glider. This is just a matter of repetition until confidence is developed.

Another irrational fear is the fear of landing out. People don't want to land out for various reasons. The best way to get over that fear is to get four or five landouts under your belt. Done.

So, how do we stick our toe in the water without getting eaten by crocodiles? Well, there are a couple of choices. The most sensible method would be to fly with an experienced pilot that is willing to let the aspiring mountain pilot do the majority of the flying. As in nearly all the flying. If the experienced pilot is doing the bulk of the flying, you would do better to go home and fly Condor.

Another method, which hinges on the skill level of the pilot, is the tried and true strategy of taking baby steps on the journey to proficiency in the peaks. The title of the article here alludes to White Chuck mountain. Mt. Pilchuck is often recommended for gaining proficiency for mountain flying, but White Chuck Mountain offers some advantages over Mt. Pilchuck. Especially if flying from Darrington Airport.

1) White Chuck Mountain is taller at 6,989' elevation. (Mt. Pilchuck is 5,341')

2) White Chuck Mountain is only 9.3 miles from Darrington Airport.

3) White Chuck Mountain is 20 miles further east than Mt. Pilchuck. This makes it less likely to be invaded by marine air, allowing more robust thermals later into the day.

4) White Chuck Mountain looks like the Matterhorn, and is sufficiently craggy to allow the full mountain experience.

A tow directly over the peak of White Chuck Mountain, with a retreat back to Gold Mountain when your internal warning alert starts talking to you would be a good way to get over the intimidation power of the big granite massif. Rinse and repeat. When you finally find yourself in close proximity to the steep faces you should be far less fearful because of your graduated methods. Keep your speed up 10 or 15 kts over best glide. Be ready to to exercise full control deflection with aileron and rudder should you get rolled toward the face of the mountain (If you fly in the mountains you WILL get rolled toward the rocks. Sometimes repeatedly. It is just the nature of the beast). You will learn to fly in a manner where this does not scare the bejeebers out of you. It takes time. And caution. Do not fly as close to the rocks as the more experienced pilots on the ridge with you. They may have lost their minds a long time ago. Be prepared to use full rudder in concert with aileron control to maximize roll rate. Practice this ahead of time. Do not look at your vario/radio/computer while in close proximity to the terrain. You don't need your vario when close to the cliff. Visual cues will tell you everything you need to know.

The next important skill is learning to negotiate thermals over the crests of peaks and ridges. It is the most important skill, but also the most dangerous if not done properly. You must never commit to a 360 deg turn unless you are certain you will be well clear of the terrain on the downwind portion of the turn. You will want to practice these thermal coring techniques well above the crest of ridges and mountains until you are confident in your abilities. Only when you are extremely confident in your abilities should you attempt to core a thermal on the face of a mountain cliff. I cannot emphasize enough how important being able to fly comfortably and relaxed in close proximity to the rocks and ridges is. It takes time, but you have to continually work on this. You cannot fly cross country in the Cascades without this skill. If you fly conservatively and carefully you may not be down on the trees and rocks very often, but you most certainly will be eventually. Again, don't attempt to emulate the more experienced pilots in this maneuver until you gain experience.

Google Earth view of White Chuck Mountain looking ENE.

White Chuck Mountain seems to be a near perfect location for practicing and perfecting one's mountain flying skills, with the added benefit of an airport within easy gliding distance. Give it a try. You will feel like you are flying in the Alps right in your backyard.

Another Glacier covered mountain somewhere in the North CascadesA little more emphasis on cross country flying in the mountains/foothills should become a club goal. Amazing adventure and unforgettable sights are not being enjoyed for want of a little training and education. A pristine mountain range is within easy reach for those willing to make

At a little effort to get there. People who want to fly in the mountains could organize and lobby for trips to Darrington. I am surprised how little we utilize our mountain airstrips.

Obtaining some skill in flying the local mountains will provide the springboard for more challenging endeavors, such as flying the east side of the Cascades from Twisp. That is arguably the best flying location in the North West, with high cloud bases and relatively easy access to the high peaks in the North Cascades.

Brad Hill's video titled March Madness provides an outstanding example of early season soaring on a snow covered Whitechuck Mountain. The Whitechuck sequence starts at 5:00. 

Photos by the author
Google Earth view courtesy of Google