|It's a long story and there will be more, but we summited today.
Like our abortive test flight yesterday, my engine wouldn't start, or
rather it started, and then stopped a few seconds later and then refused
to start again. Weather forecast says today is the last good weather day
for a week or more. Plan is to see how things go; as we haven't tested
things properly we may have to just call this a test flight, or if all
goes well then we'll just carry on. Just as I was beginning to despair
that the engine would ever start, Beto (my hero) arrived from Mendoza to
help, he'd got up at 3.30 AM, a big suprise, I wasn't expecting him at
all. I thought it was just too rich to start, let it rest a while
perhaps. Pushed it up the track from the station to the road where the
entire local Gendamerie were waiting to close the road for us... it must
start now. Just as an afterthought, lets give it some oxygen just to
help, I whipped off the air cleaner and Beto held the end of my
emergency oxygen system next to the intake while I pressed the starter
button - worked like a dream, started straight away and once warmed up
it started easily. Everybody looked pleased.
Hugo and Isobel sorted out the tow line just like they had been briefed
but because we hadn't the opportunity to practice yesterday, Nicky and
Alex had a bit of an adventure getting me dressed which is not a simple
operation. Nevertheless we managed before Angelo had to wait for too
long, my visor and glasses stated to mist up which was a bit worrying,
but I thought it would be OK once we got going.
The Gendamerie closed the road and Angelo was pushed back up the hill a
bit, but my takeoff would still start in the dip, so a bit of an uphill
takeoff but the road's three lanes wide so mo problem with width.
Engine, now warm seemed OK, got lined up, Beto attached the tow rope and
then there was a couple of minutes delay while I got a proper oil
temperature. Angelo said he was ready and then we were off. Engine
coughed and choked a bit shortly after takeoff, but at least I could
land back on the road rather than just having a 2000 ft chasm full of
rocks the size of houses like we had in Nepal. There only seemed to be
two or three trucks waiting at the road block, so we hadn't made too
much of a nuisance of ourselves. Engine cleared up, but rather low
revs, propellor piitch still not entirely right but never mind, climbing
nicely, probably couldn't reach Everest height, but we're only going to
First turn in the valley quite tight but Angelo hanging on in there
nicely. Very little turbulence. As we got higher the valley widened
and circling above our camp became less of a problem, cylinder head temp
rather high at 120 but stable, In due course the great hump of Aconcagua
came into view.
The wind is always from the west here, our route as to fly nearly up the
the Chile border and then turn North up the valley to cross a ridge over
to the Aconcagua massif. Still climbing well, on average 3 or 400 ft
per min we got up to about 18,000 ft before I risked any rotor from the
ridge, my Oxygen regulator started the familiar 'wooshing' perhaps a bit
lower than the regulators I've used before, would my Oxygen last, or
leak past my beard? I should have trimmed it, but there wasn't time, I
could just see the gauge in my mirror, it looked OK, but I couldn't be
sure which way was empty. Over the ridge it all stayed very calm, a
light wind as forecast, a slight orographic cloud over the great hump of
the summit itself, it was -22c at summit height, but all my kit was
working well, no unpleasant drafts, toasty fingers in my heated gloves
but no need to switch on my electric suit.
I got well above summit height before turning downwind east to cross it.
We circled around a couple of times and then I called for Angelo to
release, perhaps, but one of our radios not working again so I waved
Angelo off. (I later found I had inadvertently altered the frequency
when it was in my pocket). He released with the line rather tight and I
could see it springing towards me, drogue fully open, I yanked the bar
in to get some speed just to be sure the line wouldn't do anything
catastrophic like get in my propellor. Thank goodness the extra towline
bits arrived from Pegasus the day before yesterday, fantastic service!
I'm not sure whether our bit of rag which has served as my drogue chute
until now would have performed so well.
I circled round the east side of the mountain in considerable sink, full
power and going down at 4 or 500 fpm, fortunately no turbulence. Caught
a sight of Angelo as I circled round, but I was by now quite a lot lower
and didn't think it worth going back up again, took a few more photos
and then headed back home, I throttled back very gently just so it
wouldn't do anything silly like freeze up on me like it did in Nepal,
the inlet manifold temperature dropped from +10c to ambient. I then
noticed the oil pressure had risen from the normal 40 or so to 150; not
normal at all, temperature OK though, I thought possibly an electrical
problem, not an oil pressure problem at all, downhill all the way now
Arrived back over base camp at great height; circled down, it seemed to
take ages, mask becoming quite uncomfortable. Gendarmes seemed to know
when to stop the traffic and I landed without drama slightly downwind on
the road; entirely forgot to drop the tow line but it didn't snag on
anything. It was a relief to get the mask off, American military pilots
must have different shaped faces to me. Plenty of oxygen left though,
only used about half. My flight was quite short in the end, 1hr 11min.
I reached 23768 ft which is some 940 ft above the summit. Unlike
Everest, I didn't see anyone on the mountain at all, but maybe a closer
look at my photos will show different. Looking at the GPS track, there
was actually quite a strong wind at summit level, about 50Km/h, I was
doing 50Km/h on the ground into wind and 150 downwind. Had we known
this I'm not entirely sure we would have gone, forecast was less than
30, and 35 or 40 is normally our limit for towing as it is likely to be
far too turbulent with anything more; but generally the flight was
Angelo arrived overhead our landing area maybe 20 minutes after me and
circled round to land, it looked like he was going to hit the windsock
Beto had tied to a road sign, but didn't and he floated on... and on.
Nice touchdown, but still a bit fast, the thing is impossible to steer
on the ground; in a last desperate attempt to stop it veering off the
road and down the embankment a corner of the A frame caught in one of
the cracks in the concrete road and his flight terminated in a rather
inelegant crunch, the glider on its nose near the edge of the road.
After a few moments Isobel observed "he's still twitching anyway", as
people ran towards him. Turned out that there was no damage other than
a broken upright which is a fairly common occurrance in hang gliders.
I can make a small claim to be an Andinista now, so what next? We've
still got a couple of weeks of the expedition, Angelo is still quite
keen to do a tow to 10,000m, though both he and I agree this is maybe
not the best place to do it, the weather's too delicate, forecast is not
good for at least a week. What we might do then is go east a bit, maybe
to St Martin 50 Km east of Mendoza where there's a big gliding field and
there is supposed to be fantastic soaring weather in Andean wave. It's
new year's day tomorrow though, so we won't be able to get the
appropriate permissions for several days so we're off to the beach in
Chile for a couple of days; believe it of not the Pacific ocean is only
two or three hours drive away.