All photos by Nancy Treadgold
Tater Hill: Exactly What I Needed
So you’ve learned the basics, you’re not 100% terrified to bite into a friendly thermal anymore, and you’re sick of flying that same little fly site where lift is an un-crackable code. If you feel like you have more skills to learn, or you feel like you’ve plateaued in some areas, your next step should be Tater Hill. I’m here to give you the push.
I can’t speak to anyone else’s experience, but this Appalachian learning competition upped my confidence in flight exponentially (I attribute half of this newfound confidence to the expert advice and clinics I attended, and the other half to the campground’s post-flying hot-off-the-slab evening moonshine). You know what they say, teachers are all around you.
Since that’s really all you need to hear, and you’ve already decided to attend next year’s event, I’ll just walk you through what to expect from your first day at Tater.
When you arrive at Tater Hill, there will be a small group of pilots hanging around the registration area. They’ll be giving hugs and shaking hands. This is when you’ll start to see the Tater magic. It will be in the form of the same two questions:
Other pilots will ask you and your friends, “Is it your first time here?” and they’ll ask each other, “How many years have you been coming to Tater Hill now?” You’ll hear this dozens of times because these Taterheads are into it. It’s a pilgrimage for them.
Tater pilots who’ve been around for a few years will tell canonized stories about each other, they hold cute little rivalries, they have code names, they remember each other’s routes from years past... They seem to really care about each other. Also: Welcome to the club. You’re in now.
On your first day, you’ll learn quick: If you hear a whip cracking, that’s Bubba, the Tater Dictator. But don’t let the authoritative hat embroidery fool you... Bubba’s here to make your week the best you’ve had all year. When he says you can bench up that dark, scraggly gray wall of convergence clouds like it’s a ridge, take his word for it. He’s been flying tater for 25 years. The man knows his microclimate.
Next year will be the 13th Tater Hill Competition, and at this point, Bubba and his crew have the whole thing dialed in, with all the tools already in the toolbox. From the start, you’ll get a detailed site introduction and recommended landing approaches for the three very accessible, beautifully manicured LZs in the valley. The veteran pilots will gesture up to launch from the LZ, but it won’t do justice to the large green clearing nearly 2,000 feet up.
To get up there, you’ll hitch a ride in one of Bubba’s custom Suburbans-- in the one of most well-coordinated retrieve/rides up the mountain I’ve ever seen (Just wait until you’re scrambling to re-light mid competition. You’ll want to send flowers to your retrieve driver for the promptness and order).
On launch, you can buy sandwiches and cold drinks from the coolest para-kids you’ll ever meet. Or, if you prefer, you can spend your time picking fresh blueberries from the bushes nearby. Most people shuffle around, unpacking their gear, chatting and getting ready. It’s a pleasant way to start the morning.
In Boone during early August, the morning breeze is actually cold (It’s no wonder Lance Armstrong says it’s his favorite place to train). You’ll sip your coffee atop a mountain, wearing your favorite wool socks, overlooking the haze in the blue valley. Then you’ll think of your buddies at home who are undoubtedly sweating in their harnesses-- or if they’re really unlucky, their suits and ties.
The task committee surveys the morning weather and selects the day’s tasks; one for the open class and one for the sport class. Then the energy shifts from mountain morning to excited fly day.
If you’re like me, and you had no idea how that little Flytec on your deck works, you’ll join a small-group breakdown session to learn the ins-and-outs of using your vario in a comp. It’s remarkable, the details they cover. An added bonus: you’ll make friends this way, almost like a team building exercise (but with more beeping).
After you input your route, I strongly recommend you take one of the 10-year-Tater guys aside to get the cheat codes... Ask them to explain how they would approach the route, how long they might wait until going for that next waypoint, where they would find lift in the valley, when they would launch in these conditions, anything. They’ll happily tell you because, like a friend sharing their favorite movie, they want you to see the best parts.
And then, after that: You fly.
The launch has lots of room. Depending on the wind, four or five pilots can set up and launch at once. You’ll quickly notice the launch crew, a few people whose job requires that they get “all up in your junk” to pull on your buckles, straps, and carabiners: a safeguard for competition jitters. They’ll fluff your wing, give you a pretty setup, and even help you pick a cycle if you ask their opinion. Then, go, go, go and you’re out over the blue yonder.
I can see how Tater would be an ideal ridge soaring site for tons of pilots, because of its multiple large faces and nobs. This year, however, we didn’t get much time to play on the ridge. The wind direction wasn’t quite right, but the thermals were fat and happy. With 2,000 feet of ground clearance off launch, there was plenty of time to soak up everything each thermal wanted to teach-- and to take a few elevator rides to the top.
For the competition newbies like myself, the sport class tasks are built around designated LZs, which means you have a phenomenal opportunity to learn XC and competition skills with one less thing on your mind. You can bounce from waypoint to waypoint; And if you have a decent head on your shoulders, you’ll always have glide to a safe LZ, free of powerlines or grouchy landowners (as an aside: the people in Boone are some of the sweetest out there. And they make some killer BBQ.)
While you’re in the air, learning new skills and smashing personal bests, you might look across the thermal and see a skinny glider flying fast in your direction. Look at the wing. Remember this pilot. Tonight, around the campfire, you two will share a cold drink and smile about that moment. And, if you request it, you’ll get one-on-one advice on your thermaling technique, or anything else you’d like to improve. When teachers are all around you, listen up.
Tater Hill lives out a culture of education and mentorship. Which, for a group of paraglider pilots all competing against one another, is totally remarkable-- Especially when you think of all the sweet flying loot they put up for grabs on the final night of awards and acknowledgement.
This year, they filled up an entire picnic pavilion with outdoorsy giveaway-swag. At Tater, the trophy-for-all mentality isn't disingenuous or philanthropic-- It seems like they really just have too much free stuff to give out. It’s clear to see why: People fall in love with Tater. Then, those same lovestruck pilots donate other stuff they love to keep the competition going strong, thereby infatuating another generation of hopeless sky-eyed goobers like myself.
One Boone local sends nearly a hundred chicken sandwiches to the competing pilots every year. This generous chicken-man has the sandwiches delivered to launch by airplane... and then by gravity. (If you’ve never eaten Chick-Fil-A flown in and airdropped onto a fly site, I highly recommend it. There’s got to be some sort of flying super-power involved with that kind of thing, right?)
But Tater isn’t about the free stuff or the amenities-- or the freshwater mountain spring you pass every day up to launch-- It’s about the flying. And the flying is good. For my skill level, there was enough security built-in to feel comfortable biting off more than I typically might.
On days when it threatened to overdevelop, I watched other pilots for my queue to land instead of bailing early. I took more thermals because of the high launch. And when I wanted to try for a destination: I went for it, knowing LZ was always within reach. All of this, combined with genuine encouragement and support from other pilots primed me for a home run-- and I was able to nail a good number of them as far as personal accomplishments go.
For your first visit, Tater won’t be a neck and neck competition-- But it will push you. The Tater Hill Open, as my first comp, pushed me outside of my comfort zone, which had been holding me back from seizing XC flights at my local site. It pushed me to fly faster than I ever have; and to aim for goals I normally wouldn’t. It also pushed me into an amazing community of pilots whose names I’d heard, but never met before. If you’re smart, you’ll let it push you too.
You’ll spend your 10 days at Tater with a group of pilots who aren’t “too good” to talk with the P2s, and who genuinely want to help you fly. They’re pilots who see the value in this place, isolated from everything and consistently flight-worthy. I’m lucky I got pushed into Tater Hill the way I did; And I intend to join in on next year’s campfire stories... a Taterhead like the rest of them. I’ll see you there.
Every year the Tater Hill Competition is held the first weekend of August in Boone, North Carolina. The 2018 dates are July 29- Aug 4, with practice days on July 27-28 and a fun-fly on Aug 5th. Visit www.flytaterhill.com for more info.
We are a group of paragliding pilots based in the St. Louis area.