King Mountain: Big air and big distance
by Will Gadd
It seems that only the really good sites have tough reputations-Chelan for its
dusties, and Aspen for horrendous gust fronts. Just like the two previous
Paragliding Nationals sites, King has a big reputation for rough air and
inhospitable terrain, but I recently interviewed Othar "OJ" Lawrence, King's
most experienced PG pilot, to expose the REAL King Mountain. Othar (rhymes
with Lothar) has more flights at King than any other PG pilot, and he has also
competed well internationally for the last two years. He currently flies for
Edel/Firebird, is the #2 ranked pilot in the US and will represent the US at
the World's in July. He also set the US out-and-return record from King
mountain last year, flying 100 plus miles in six hours.
WG: Tell me about the King Mountain area.
OL: It's basically a big, 70-mile ridge with three major crossings. The launch
faces west over a big flat valley that basically runs north-south with a bit
of Southeast-Northwest trend. The thermals tend to be strong, often more than
1,500 up on a good day, about 1,000 up on an average day. It's simply awesome.
The main King launch is at about 7,500 feet, with the valley at about 5,000
feet, so getting up isn't too much of a problem. The terrain is certainly
desert just seven miles south, flat as a board and really hot, but the
mountains are more alpine, with big grassy areas and trees and rocks. It's
still very arid there as a rule, especially in the bottom of the main King valley.
WG: What's the flying like?
OL: Flying King rips. It's fast, so you get a pretty good sense of
accomplishment because you go places so quickly. It's also relatively simple
because it's basically a ridge, so there's not a whole lot of tactical
decisions to make. There's either a big face in the sun, a big face in the
shade or a big face in the wind. Go for the big faces in the sun and wind, get
high, glide, repeat. The mountains are at 12,000 feet, so you usually have at
least 7,000 feet of altitude to work with before you even have to think about
being low. King will be good for racing, even the sport-class will be able to
The whole valley is a landing zone, there are no obstructions, not many
powerlines or anything but sage. The worst thing about King is that if you
land out you definitely might have a long walk. I've had to walk for an hour
to get to the highway before.
WG: Is it worthwhile for intermediate pilots to show up?
OL: The evening conditions are simply unreal, with amazingly smooth, strong
lift. Intermediate pilots can definitely fly good thermal conditions for hours
in the evening-I've done 25 miles launching after 6:00 p.m.
WG: I've heard it's sometimes very windy there, is that your experience?
OL: The wind can be strong, but it seems like it's either an issue or it's
not. It's not always windy, but if it's windy it's probably too windy to fly.
WG: What are the amenities in the area?
OL: Everybody in the valley is pretty cool toward pilots, and I'd definitely
like to see it stay that way. Leave the attitude at home. Moore is the
micro-little town almost at the base of the hill, Arco is seven miles south,
Mackey is 25 miles north. There's camping in the Moore town park, and then
there's commercial campgrounds in Arco and Mackey.
WG: Any good bars?
OL: I haven't been to the bars there, I was actually trying to get to know a
few locals before I went in. There is a good bar in Moore, but it's a bit rough.
WG: How would you compare the flying at King to Chelan?
OL: Chelan is a very low-maintenance site, basically candy because there's
almost always a plowed field with a dusty and a cloud to mark thermals. King
is also pretty easy because there's always a windward face in the sun. I try
not to fly lee at King much because the gullies and canyons are pretty steep.
At Chelan you don't have to worry about wind direction or mechanical
turbulence, and it doesn't matter if you get whacked really hard because
you've usually got a lot of altitude to figure it out. Thermals in Chelan are
generally smooth once you get past dust-devil altitude, but I've had my worst
epic at Chelan, so it's not total candy, but it's even more straightforward
than King. You do have to think about the wind in the lee at King just because
there is wind and lees, but that's basic mountain flying.
WG: How about King compared to Aspen?
OL: Aspen is a lot more difficult. The thermals and basic air are pretty
similar at King, but the wind-associated turbulence can be much worse in
Aspen. At King when there's any sort of wind there's nothing major it has come
across from the West before it hits the range, so it's OK. Climbs are about as
strong both places. The Aspen valley system is really complex, and it can be
more difficult to stay in the air if you get low. At King if you get low you
can probably find a sunny hill in the wind and ridge-soar back up.
WG: What's the most similar site to King?
OL: Golden is pretty similar, except it doesn't rain as much at King so it's
WG: The air at King is somewhat renowned for being rough. Is it?
OL: I don't think it's exceptionally rough. I definitely keep my wing well
under control, but I've definitely been more hammered in both Aspen and
Chelan. I've been out in strong conditions in all three places.
WG: How high do people get at King?
OL: I've been to over 18,000 at King, but I don't generally fly with O2. Bring
Oxygen if you're not well-acclimated, as base is generally at about 15 or 16
grand, but it can go much higher, maybe 22,000 on an exceptional day.
WG: How would you fly safely at King?
OL: I'd always be thinking about ground clearance. You're going to find better
thermals farther away from the ground anyhow, so there's no reason to be
really close to the ground.
I'd also always be aware of what the wind is doing at different altitudes.
There's no reason to fly high; you can fly low and fly fast, so there's no
reason to really go high and get blow over the range if its windy. Dave
Bridges and I flew 50 miles in 2.5 hours, never getting above 12,000.
There are some spots where you could put yourself in a position where you
might not be able to glide out to the valley. Venturi and compression areas
are something to be very conscious of. There are three big constrictions that
could hose you if you're not careful.
WG:What are your tactics on launch?
OL: I'd get to launch well before it turns on. I like to sit there on the hill
and watch it come on rather than arrive when it's already really on. The
launch is in a small venturi, so you want to be off the hill before that
really happens, and the thermals are definitely on before it Venturis.
WG: What's the Official OJ plan for success?
OL: 1. Stay in the air. You can't win from the dirt.
2. It's going to be a pretty racy competition; you want to try and stay with
the lead gaggle; maybe it will be an elapsed time task, so you want to fly
during the best part of the day.
3. Fly safe. You're not going to win if you get hurt. There are certain risks
you have to take, but being reasonably safe isn't something to jeopardize.
WG: What's the best map for the area?
OL: If you go into the Pickle restaurant in Arco, the placemats are pretty
good maps, and you don't mind destroying it when you take it flying. You don't
need much of a map there though, the Pickle map tells you the names of the
towns that you're near, but it's basically one range.
WG: Is a GPS essential for this comp?
OL: A GPS is probably useful for wind speed, but I've never flown there with
one. As far as locating turnpoints goes, you don't need a GPS there because
the features are really big.
WG: Let's talk tasks. What's going to be called?
OL: Probably a good one would be to Dickey Peak, landing at Dickey Pass.
Dickey peak is at the end of the 50-mile run down the range to the North. The
valley basically ends at Dickey Pass, but then it drops back down into the
Salmon River valley.
Another would be to Invisible Mountain and back, a 35-mile task with two
difficult crossings each way.
A straight-line to Mackey, which is 25 miles, would also be interesting, as
would trying to jump the ranges and head toward Howe. Maybe crossing the Lost
River Range, which is the King Range, to the Lemhi range. If it's going to be
a really good base day and the wind's cooperating, that would be a good task.
Another really good task if everybody feels good, would be flying to Challis,
which is 70 miles north at the end of the Lost River Range. That's very doable
Blackfoot is another possible goal, although we'll have to be careful of the
Idaho Nuclear Experimental Laboratory (INEL). You (Will Gadd) and Chris
Santacroce have both flown there on South days, that would be a good long task.
There's numerous other little tasks such as Arco to Invisible or Sunset peak
and back, and there's lots of features to call turnpoints on. I expect we'll
stay pretty much in the main valley though.
For anyone interested in XC or preparing for the nationals, OJ is teaching an
XC clinic from the 10-13 of August at King Mountain. This comprehensive clinic
will cover the various XC routes and prepare pilots for the demanding XC
conditions. Call 970 963 2520 for more information. Space is limited.