Waihe’e Coast (Maui)
He hiked a nearby trail, Waihe’e, with his girlfriend at the time and realized that the neighboring ridge fingers were providing lift – certainly enough to launch and fly, but the clouds were foreboding and the mist, unpredictable as the wind, switched on and off like a light. Moments of blissful sunshine and a timid breeze were followed closely by white-outs and gusts strong enough to push you off your feet. “Yeah, totally flyable”.
She laughed him off and wondered if he’d ever settle down. She thought to herself, “He never seems to be happy unless he’s on the edge; it’s always fly this and jump that.” The truth was, however, that no one had ever flown from the “L” in Lahaina on the South side all the way to the Waihe’e Coast.
Resting place for David Malo, a Native historian of Hawaii and local church founder and minister, the L is a beautiful hill, roughly 2200ft above sea level overlooking the historic town of Lahaina on the West side of Maui. While most Maui pilots choose to fly the Haleakela (or East) side of the island, a select few endure the grueling hour-and-a-half hike up the L mountain in the sweltering heat for a taste of the island’s only true thermic action. Days with light trade winds are usually the best, but on others, you may find yourself battling sharp lift, angry rotor, and ever-changing conditions. The L is unpredictable. In addition to the dangers of lee-side flying, the locals aren’t especially keen on “howlies” climbing its trail. Hawaiians are a tight-knit group, and while generally friendly, they can be a bit possessive of their land. Given the general history of the Hawaiian Islands and their transition into the United States, it’s best to offer respect and gratitude, so we tread lightly and leave nothing but footprints.
A pair of apple bananas, the local kind, and a small handful of almonds. He remembered that bananas were good for cramps on long hikes and threw them on the convenience store counter along with a liter and a half of water. “Going flying again?”. “Yeah, the weather looks good today”. “Ok, you fly safe now with your crazy magic backpack”. Gotta love the locals. Bill Hofmann, a friend and fellow pilot, offered to drive the short distance to the trailhead, so after a quick gear sort, he, and a third pilot, Louie, piled in. Bill mentioned that a few other local pilots were on their way, which always makes for a good time. They started up the long trail together, chatting about life’s ups and downs, but quickly fell out of sync and into the normal hiking rhythm that “the regulars” follow. While some of the path can be tread side by side, a single-file style is ultimately much easier work. He bounded ahead with Bill and Louie close behind. With such a long trail and everyone hiking at different speeds, they didn’t bother to wait for the others to arrive knowing that they’d all meet at the top. By the time they arrived at the steepest section, Louie was pushing for the lead, but when the trail leveled out, it was Bill, age 66, who could out-hike the others every time.
At the top, the other pilots soon arrived and happy greetings were shared. For many, it was the first flight of the new year. Conditions were good. Base was higher than usual and the typical ominously dark clouds threatening rain were all but absent. His impatience got the better of him, so he set up quickly and launched well ahead of the group. The lift was immediate, but smooth. Looking down at the other pilots he hoped they would see his fortune and soon follow. His 777 Queen rose much faster than usual so he performed some wing-overs to get back to the same height as launch. “It’s wonderful guys, like buttah”, he called. After several minutes, both Louie and Bill joined him in flight. Unfortunately, their cycle was not as permitting and they both languished for another 20 minutes before gaining altitude. Bill wrangled his Buzz Z3 along and up the knife edge of the mountain, while Louie searched out in front on his Delta2. Soon, Bill was the highest of the group and began his pilgrimage down the Luakoi ridge toward the Kealaloloa windmills. Soon after the wing-over he knew he shouldn’t have eaten right before flying. He was beginning to feel lightheaded and was still nursing a headache from the party the night before, but when he saw Bill at cloud base and heading downrange, he couldn’t resist the urge to give chase.
The L was beginning to work and there was ample lift in all the usual areas. Louie was back to his usual skyscraping while he was in hot pursuit behind Bill. The early afternoon sun pierced through the scattered clouds causing the morning’s dew to shimmer from within the lush green left behind by the holiday’s heavy rain. Bill and he worked Launiupoko with ease, jolting up higher and higher with every turn. Soon, they had jumped the first of several minor valleys to the windmills. The typical route had always been down to the windmills and back, although with only one good flying site, the regulars had to get creative. Bill and another local pilot, Jeff, were racking up the points on Leonardo’s website. In his latest feat, Bill had made it down and back to the windmills twice on a single flight and was well ahead, leading the pilots in raw points. He had rounded the corner of the windmills once heading north in an attempt to reach the other side of the island, but was thwarted by the prevailing northeasterly trade winds that are usually constant at 13 mph, but can peak to 30mph. He made it to Waikapu, a first among many pilots and approximately a third of the way to the Waihe’e Coast, before landing on full-bar while flying backwards – the Maui trade winds were certainly to be respected.
Still feeling queasy, he refrained from using his speed bar and allowed Bill to navigate back up Launiupoko ridge. Both were at almost 4000 feet when Bill swooped around the peak and shot straight up into the sky. He rushed in hoping to catch the same thermal and was rewarded handsomely. He and Bill climbed up to 4700 feet (a rare occurrence in these parts) and before he could join, Bill pushed on toward the windmills. He continued to work the lift, edging his glider closer to the vertical rock face that was so graciously providing lift. He marveled at how clear the sky was this day, how high the cloud base was and how you could see down Iao valley, all the way to the other side of the island. He had been here before, looking down this valley, but never with so much height and so much clarity. He looked at Bill gliding away and remembered that the windmills would always be there, but that this opportunity might never come again.
He recalled the story he once heard about the alpine hikers who attempted to cross the Iao Valley once before, but turned back after seeing first-hand the impassible dense brush and perilous cliff faces. In all honesty, he wasn’t prepared for the inevitable sink in the valley that had threatened him and all other pilots lucky enough to fly this close to the precipice. He turned back to face the valley only to find the rock face providing even more lift than before. The āina was being so kind this day, sharing its aloha, beckoning him higher and higher. He turned back to look for Bill, but Bill was already well down the range. Louie was also high, but too far back to join or even witness what was about to occur. He turned back to face the valley once again. He remembered the last time he was here and how he flew deep enough in to feel the sink quickly pulling him down to the floor below. He recalled how the trees were so dense they looked like a wonderful grassy park to land on, but were just the tops of trees, likely a hundred feet from the valley floor. However, this time he wasn’t feeling the sink.
He edged in a little closer. Still, no sink. He quickly looked back over his shoulder. He wasn’t far enough in that he couldn’t still turn back. He looked deep down the valley and could see at the end a bright green acre of land that was surely someone’s back yard. He thought he could certainly reach this yard on glide, but no one knows the glide you’ll have once you enter – no one has ever tried. No time to think, the sharp-edged wall that separated the North from the South side was approaching fast. He knew he had enough height to clear it, but not enough to make it back if the conditions were poor. A slight eastern wind continued to provide him lift the closer he crept to the rock face on his left. Height was his backup plan and within seconds he had crossed the point of no return. Exhilaration and fear raced through his veins. For two years, he had dreamed of this moment, but never thought his journey to the Waihe’e Coast would take him through the valley – he had always envisioned traveling around the windmills. The path he had chosen this day was reserved only for the handful of helicopter pilots who frequently toured through the Iao valley.
At first, the valley was eerily quiet, then came the rush of waterfalls, chirping birds, and rushing rivers below. It was so thick and tropical, yet imposing with its chiseled rock face starkly contrasting against the green backdrop. It reminded him of the Green Wall in Pokara, Nepal – another challenging flight that he struggled to accomplish. He remained along the rock face as long as he could, but it quickly dropped back and he didn’t dare follow. He knew that the trade winds were going to be strongest along the upcoming ridge he needed to cross. In fact, the path to the Waihe’e Coast would require him to cross a half-dozen mountain ridges, upwind. He chose the middle of the valley, knowing that this was the area that would likely have the least rotor, but likely the most sink. He was trying to err on the side of caution and not risk a collapse too deep in the valley to survive. He carefully pulled out his iPhone from his flight deck and snapped a few quick photos before stuffing it back to safety. His body was rigid as a log as he tried to better his glide ratio. He eked out an extra few points on his vario and worked out where he would need to be to make his first crossing out of the valley.
Spotting the crossing point, he let up on his speed bar and braced for the rotor that was surely coming. The bright green yard was waiting for a bail-out maneuver if necessary, although now closer, he could see the powerlines that surrounded it. He relinquished all fear; he turned off his brain and just let his experience guide him. Those subtle sensations felt through the risers and harness, the whispers of the wind that paint an invisible picture of the path that lie ahead. There’s an inescapable quality to paragliding that only a pilot can know, yet barely describe. Flying is like an illumination of the senses while at the same time completely muting all other thoughts. It puts you squarely in the moment as even a momentary lapse of reason can send you spinning into the abyss. But the rotor was light, if not imperceptible. No collapses came and he crossed the ridge heading due north without incident. He looked out across the unfolding land to the Waihe’e Coast and a wave a relief washed over him. The path that lay ahead was a field of ridge-fingers all similar in height, roughly 500 meters above the sea, but he was only 50 meters higher than the land. The ridge hadn’t slapped him down with its typical rotor as the trade winds that usually haunt this side had taken a break, but those same winds were badly needed now to provide the lift necessary to continue his flight. He took a moment to consider his situation. To his left was the brutal Maui terrain of un-tread ground and thorny kiawe trees juxtaposed with the epic beauty of freshly nourished waterfalls and a thousand shades of dense green foliage. To the right, a handful of reasonable places to land married to the unenviable fate of having made it through the Iao Valley, but not all the way to the Waihe’e Coast. He pushed on.
Each ridge provided enough constant lift to hold him at 600 meters, although he longed for additional height to secure his journey to the sea; today’s winds would not allow it. “Always have a landing spot in reach” is the pilot’s creed and so with every meter of travel he keenly kept one eye alternating between his vario and the mountains to his left while his other eye leapt from farm, to yard, to any suitable spot to bail out at a moment’s notice if the lift were to subside. Pointing now directly into the wind, he rode the tops of each of the mountain’s fingers running down from its peak. He wasn’t climbing, but he wasn’t sinking either. Hopes of making it to “Sea Cliffs”, a well-known launch on the cliffs of the Waihe’e Coast, were beginning to take form. He laid back, straight as an arrow and became an aerodynamic javelin piercing through the wind riding the lift like a surfer… never riding too high to lose the lift, nor too low to cause his right eye to search in panic. Soon he was upon the glorious Waihe’e ridge and scanned the trail for any hikers who would certainly be waving with grins on their faces, but to his dismay, it was getting late and for the weekend hikers, their journeys had ended and they were likely home preparing dinner. “Food”, he thought as he kicked himself for skimping on bananas and almonds. His only glory over the trail that provided him the courage to make this journey was the knowledge that indeed, his assumptions were correct – it was “flyable”. He thought of Abhay Morrissey, a local pilot legend who had (at least once) flown over Waihe’e from the Sea Cliffs launch. He only wished that Abhay and his friends from launch this morning were there to share the glory together.
The imposing peaks to the left quickly began to slip away following the island’s bold curves. He tacked left slightly and, looking down, saw some of the most beautiful homes he had even seen. A dozen huge villas sprawled down the face of one hill replete with vanishing edge pools, immaculate tennis courts, and lavish gardens that would astonish JP Getty himself. Considering that his landing options had dramatically improved, he was only slightly dismayed that his altitude over the ground was increasing. It was then that he looked out ahead and realized that Sea Cliffs was far off to his right and that he was heading into more unknown territory. The winds were gaining velocity. He spotted a pair of distinct hills on the edge of the island near Kahakuloa and knew that even with the increasing wind, he could reach them before losing height. Half-bar now, he was crossing the terrain quickly as his 777 bit into the wind. He had always liked how his wing performed in conditions such as these. He quickly thanked the Valic brothers (and began to search for a suitable LZ.
A large series of three farm-like plots set up just across from the twin peaks and was easily recognizable as the safest option. There was only a small barb wire fence to the main road and cars were passing by so he knew he’d struck pay dirt. The thought of pushing on further west crossed his mind. “A trip around the West Maui mountains would be epic!”, he thought, but knew he’d already pressed his luck enough for one day. As he passed over the LZ for a sighting run he noticed heavy powerlines downwind, but no farm animals to worry about scaring. He could see the whitecaps growing in both size and frequency out on the ocean surface. The cliff just before the LZ was perfectly divergent from the onshore wind and was creating copious lift. Now he was struggling to descend. He knew that the typical swooping entry would see him kissing the powerlines at the back of the LZ. The land was uneven, the Mahinanui cliff edge vaulted toward the east… he knew this was going to be the most difficult piece of the flight. No time to celebrate, as most accidents occur on either launch or landing, he knew he had to be on high alert.
With three-quarter speed bar he gauged his descent. Not enough. It had been two years since he had used big ears and had forgotten how huge the Queen’s are. With half his wing in tow he began to drop. 30 meters. 20 meters. The unevenness of the LZ and the height of the surrounding hills began to whisper a tale of inevitable pain and destruction. Now below the lift, he was tossed left and right from the rotor. For safety’s sake, he let off bar and released his big ears. The wind snatched his wing from behind and like a marionette, pulling him backwards toward the powerlines. “Full-bar!”, he shouted to himself, but he began to climb again. 30 meters. 40 meters. He looked for room to spiral down, but it wasn’t possible. Off bar, back on ears and then full bar again. Rocking back and forth he attempted to stabilize his pod harness. The hammock seat forced an impromptu ab workout in his efforts to balance against the wind, and finally, the wing began to settle. 30 meters. 20. 10. 5. He let off his bar and got out of his pod. He gingerly let the big ears out to half. A gust passed from his feet to his face and then up the lines to the wing pulling him back and off to the right. He was only a few meters from the ground now and knew he had to pull it in. “No sharp reactions”, he thought and leaned to the left letting out the last inch of brake. Too much. He swooped in left, the ground approaching fast. He gave both brakes a few inches favoring the right and softly touched down. He rejoiced in glee and silently thanked all the instructors who he had taken him under their wing. Gabriel Jebb, Max Marien, Bryan Rice. Mahalo nui loa, brothers!
A huge thanks to the sweet couple who, on their vacation, stopped to pick us this wide-grinned pilot for the two-hour ride back. I enjoyed sharing the Nakalele blowhole and countless stories of travel, adventure, and life on this big blue planet we call earth. Until the next adventure, may your flights be long, your wings be full, and your company be merry. Aloha!