2004 Rat Race
Woodrat Mountain, Ruch, Oregon
The 2004 Rat Race held in Ruch, Oregon stands out in my mind as an exceptional competition. I received a letter from Mike Haley in early May outlining the Rat Race as an educational competition geared towards first time competitors. The sanctioned race also threw out a carrot to top competition pilots offering points towards the US Team rankings. A lot of my friends in Santa Barbara had greatly enjoyed last years event and a large contingent of local pilots were headed back. The price was right at $125 for early registration and I decided to throw in my hat and head up north for this years Rat Race.
I received the sad news of Dixon White's passing on the way to the event. Dixon was going to be the Meet Director and I was looking forward to spending time with an instructor who was so committed to safety and education. At the registration Tuesday night, all of the pilots felt Dixon's absence and Mike Haley suggested that he would have wanted us all to continue on with the event and we could turn our sadness into celebrating Dixon's life. Throughout the week pilots gathered and celebrated stories of their times with him.
Mike and Gail Haley had worked hard organizing the event and it showed throughout the week. We started by getting our individual photos taken in front of a painting depicting a near collision with a small plane. Mike's daughter, Amatie had painted this fun addition for the event and would also be creating a DVD of the flying footage gathered throughout the week. We enjoyed a baked potato dinner as Bill Gordon, Mike Steed and Len Szafaryn put on a GPS and race strategies seminar. Bill Gordon also was the Scorekeeper and stayed up late each night fighting the GAP Scoring software demons. Our hats off to Bill for taking on that task and flying so well throughout the week to boot.
In the Wednesday morning briefing, Jeff Farrell suggested a mentoring program matching first time competitors with seasoned competition pilots. I was matched with Katia Rosas from Peru. She and her husband had travelled all the way from Peru to help Mike and Gail put on the meet. Katia told me that she had done a lot of thermalling but had never flown cross country and was nervous about not understanding how to work a GPS thoroughly. She was considering dropping out of the competition before it even started. I encouraged her to consider just having fun and not to worry too much about the GPS issue. She agreed that flying across the valley, getting a turnpoint and landing safely in the LZ would be fun and a great accomplishment considering her experience. I was glad to see her overcome her fears and show up on launch ready to go.
The task committee included Bill Belcourt, Len Szafaryn, Mike Haley, Bill Gordon, Brad Gunnuscio and Hayden Glatte, a local pilot who really nailed the weather forecast each day of the competition. Conditions looked good as the wind technicians climbed 1000 feet over launch. Our first task of 20 miles included a tour around the valley then running downwind downrange. Tom Chesnut, Jose Rosas and T White helped lay out the wings on launch and help everyoneÕs pre-flight check. The launch window opened and 76 pilots took to the sky. It was a beautiful sight to see all of the gliders circling over launch waiting for the start window to open.
Our first turnpoint was Rabies, across the valley. I was holding my breath on our glide across the valley as we fought a slight head wind. Rabies was working well and we climbed strong into the sky. We headed back to launch to tank up on altitude before heading to Squires turnpoint. Not much lift over Squires so we headed back to launch again to get high enough to get to Burnt turnpoint. It didnÕt seem to be climbing very high so I headed out trying to catch up to the lead gaggle. They were low and starting to climb a bit on the way to Cemetery turnpoint. The light lift didnÕt inspire hanging out and we all headed on getting lower. That's when I made "the mistake". Unfamiliar with the area, I failed to realize a light North wind. Instead of going to the windward side of the spine, I went South to the sunny side not realizing that it was the lee side of the hill. There was a great LZ accompanied with no lift, so down I went. As I landed I thought that the conditions were very tough to complete the task and I would be surprised if anyone made it to goal that day. As I started packing other pilots began filling up the field and eventually half the field landed close to the Cemetery turnpoint. Some of the lead gaggle was holding on to the lightest lift. 7 pilots eventually formed a small gaggle and started to rise slowly. It was impressive to see. Eventually they split with some pilots heading down the valley and some heading back for the hills. Turns out that only 5 pilots made goal that day and they had run the valley line. Brad Gunnuscio won the task with Josh Cohn coming in a close second.
Day 2 was similar to the previous day with a valley tour and then heading out southeast for a flight down range. Conditions were lighter than the previous day and the lead gaggle headed off lower across the valley. I decided to hang out a little longer and wait to get higher before the first crossing. This cost me as the lead gaggle made the first two turn points and was back to launch before I had even set out. I eventually headed out and found good lift over Rabies and Burnt and was back to launch as the lead gaggle was coming back from Squires, the third turnpoint. Woodrat mountain seemed to be the area of weakest lift that slowed us all down a bit. We crossed over to Rabies again and climbed high enough to make it over to Burnt. That's where I experienced the best lift of the day. Zach Hoisington and I climbed high over the Oregon terrain before heading down range in search of the lead gaggle. Mike Haley laid out a large white line at goal and it was a joy to join 18 friends after a beautiful day of flying.
Day 3 started off with light conditions on launch and a forecast of winds increasing in the early afternoon. A few brave pilots took their chance early, struggling to stay up and eventually bombing out in the L.Z. Additional points are given to pilots who leave the start cylinder early. Also "re-lights" were permitted throughout the competition, so launching early may have give you an advantage if you did connect early. Eventually about half the field launched and was working crowded light lift. All of a sudden the first good cycle took the early group up high and the rest of us were scrambling to get into the air. The lead gaggle crossed over the valley and got very high in the start cylinder over Rabies as the rest of us struggled in the weak lift near launch. I was cursing my decision to wait for better lift before launching as I struggled to even stay up and dodge my competitors in light weak lift. Eventually I headed out on course only to find the winds had picked up. One by one, we realized we were not going to make it to the first turnpoint. Many of us bombed out in the LZ. Gabe Jebb encouraged us to pack up quickly and he would give us a ride back to launch. It seemed desperate. We only had 25 minutes to get back up the mountain and the conditions had gotten windy. Len, Rob, Zach, Jeff and I jumped in the back of GabeÕs truck and we flew up the hill back to launch. Jose helped us lay out and we got in the air with a minute or two to spare. Conditions were windier, but there seemed to be more lift. I followed Len across the valley. He veered left and started to sink so I shifted right and ended up not losing much on the way over. Zach, Gabe, Jeff and I survived back to launch and climbed high enough to make it over to Burnt. Like the previous day we found exceptional lift and climbed 1200Õ per minute up to 7400 feet MSL.
What a great view of the area, especially after bombing out on the first flight. Again Zach and I glided downrange together in search of the white line. We found a bit of lift along the way and celebrated our lucky second flight at goal. 33 pilots made goal, with Josh Cohn winning the day and boosting himself into a comfortable lead. As we helped take up the goal line, Mike Haley called out on the radio one last time looking for any pilots still on course. A broken transmission indicated one lone pilot hanging in there with the possibility of making goal. At first glance we didnÕt see anyone, but 10 minutes later a green glider carrying Topher appeared over the last ridge. We all got excited about the possibility of him reaching goal for the first time. He did make goal and kissed the ground shortly after landing. It was really fun to see his enjoyment of a flight well done.
On day 4 the winds picked up and eventually the task was cancelled. Brad Gunnuscio, Josh Waldrop and Kevin Biernacki entertained the crowd with some nice aerobatics before we all headed down the mountain. At the awards ceremony, Jeff Huey expressed his great joy in seeing all of the new pilots participating and bringing their joy and enthusiasm to the event. Josh Cohn showed great humility while receiving the winnerÕs trophy and thanked Mike, Gail, the volunteers, the local club and his fellow pilots for a great competition.
For me the 2004 Rat Race has come and gone, but I will enjoy the memories for a lifetime. It was an awesome event with a great gathering of pilots enjoying flying over the beautiful terrain of southern Oregon with their friends. I know I'm headed back next year and I hope to see you there. DonÕt miss it!