Running out of options

Once I’ve left the hill on a cross country flight, there’s an enthusiasm that takes over. Mostly, this is positive, as it makes me determined and tenacious, but there’s something about such determination that tends to distort my view of risk. When I’m on glide under a nice cloud street at 5000 feet, I am usually pretty clear-headed, and have time to plan, to enjoy the scenery, have a drink and a think. But at other times (often less than 5 minutes later!) I’m suddenly in a predicament and running out of options 200 feet over a windy, tree-covered spine. After such a predicament, I usually give myself a savage internal lashing, cursing myself for my folly and promising faithfully that I won’t be such a moron in future. But my ability to be a serial moron knows no bounds, and it doesn’t seem long before I’m back in a situation I’d never rationally have put myself in!

A few weeks back on a flight from Bradders, I got myself into such a predicament. I was down to about 2000 feet on glide approaching Lincoln. As I got to the outskirts of the town, I was initially content that West Common was available to my immediate left – a large area with few obstacles – well within glide and an ideal landing area. Then, about 200 meters or so ahead I saw some swifts darting around and I diverted slightly to aim for them. By the time I found slight lift – and circled in it – I could see that I was already getting perilously close to the limit for making the glide to West Common – especially if the headwind was stronger than I’d expected, or if I hit proper sink.

The cathedral looked stunning in the evening light, but I didn’t have time to enjoy it.

Being in lift I circled once more, gaining height slightly while I hurriedly scanned my options in all directions. Downwind, the nearest alternative landing was the sports fields at Lindum (east-northeast over a scary sea of houses) or a very long and risky glide 1500m east-southeast to open ground by the railway behind Tescos… over another scary sea of houses!  My route back to West Common still seemed a better option – especially as it would take me directly over a shrubby park (Liquorice Park?) – definitely an “emergency landing”, but available if I got drilled trying to get to West Common.

As I straightened to the north I found the core of the thermal and was now in proper lift. I immediately decided to keep with it: Every second was now extracting me from my predicament and increasing my options. A few turns later and an infinite choice of open fields were again available to me. Phew!

Looking back on the whole event a few points are obvious: It could have gone badly wrong, and I was lucky. For over a minute, I had only very dodgy landing options and insufficient height to guarantee gliding clear of the town. It was a perfect example of a predicament I didn’t want to be in, but one entirely of my own making.

I tend to enjoy pushing my boundaries, so need to be much clearer in my mind about which ones are good to push and which ones to leave the hell alone. I also have a personal tendency to be tenacious and to persevere where others would give up. Such perseverance can be a strength, but is obviously a serious weakness when quitting is actually the only sensible option!

Whenever I watch MotoGP, I’m struck by how fallen riders (clearly still in “racing mode”) invariably rush back to their smashed-up bike, and usually spend several manic seconds trying to get it going before they’re able to accept that their race is over. I have the same slowness to capitulate that sometimes still gets me into trouble: As I found out the other day, there’s a time to persevere and a time to cut and run, and I need to learn to switch myself out of “XC mode” and into “landing mode” as soon as it’s necessary.

So on XC from now on, I’m going to try and quell that voice that always pleads “let me up!” when I’m dangerously low. Maybe I should start to listen to the other voice – the one that says “don’t be a dick, land”!

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