Flight: WY: First Snow, Belated

There are occasions in life where certain highly desirable activities happen more than once in the same day. Because of the rarity of said activities, it makes the days where a double header occurs all the more noteworthy. This particular flight happened a few hours after the flight that comprised the prior blog post.

I failed to mention in the last post that this was effectively the first snow down in the valley. Sure, we flirted with wet, gross dustings of partially frozen defilement mixed with taunting snows on the mountaintops. This was the real thing, finally. Seven+ inches of it in the valley, and probably a foot or more in the terrain.

I don’t really remember why I felt the need to go up for a second time, other than the fact that everything I have seen since arriving in Wyoming is different. What previously would be a repetitious flight around Alpine, over some mountain ranges, or down the valley now becomes a voyage of discovery, and it’s new all over again.

The flight wandered over to the Salt River Range, where the sun was shining on the western, snow-clad slopes. Then the sun bestowed itself on Ferry Peak in the Snake River Range, so I went over there, only to find a section on the lee side of said peak where clouds were forming at the ridgeline, presumably due to a lower pressure area created by winds. Those comprised the photographs at the end of the post.


If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, it should be recognizable that this is Alpine, WY.
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Salt River Range – its ironic that I blather about it being the first snow in the valley and then proceed to photograph the summits instead.
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Ferry Peak – Snake River Range. Note lee side cloud formation to the right.
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Flight: WY: Snow, Above the Clouds

Weather forecasts are, to say the least, imprecise in the Rockies. Moisture is limited, may or may not show up on radar, and rams into localized terrain, dumping prodigious amounts of snow in fickle locations with sometimes minimal predictability. The forecast earlier in the week had called for some glorious orgy of snowflakes, and we got a cold rain instead (I accounted for this misery a few blog posts ago). The forecast for the prior night called for 1” to 3” inches of snow. Reading the 3 page forecast discussion (yes, I read the 3 page forecast discussion twice per day because I am a weather nerd par excellence), I told my wife “We’re going to get slammed. They’re missing this one.”

Despite my meteorological brilliance, I decided to drive to Jackson anyway the prior evening. On the way back, we smacked into the snow that I personally forecast. All 7” of it falling in a perfect mix of moisture, cold, frozen roads, and treacherous driving.

The next morning, it was partly cloudy. Naturally, I saddled up the airplane (heated hangars are cool) and went up for a ride. I didn’t quite have a “plan” but it would be a foreign notion to think that I didn’t have something devious up my sleeve. With snow showers at the peaks, sun in the valley, ice-cold temps, and mid level puffy clouds, the formula was set to fly around the weather.

I climbed above the clouds as fast as I reasonably could, while enjoying some pretty snow showers to fly through. For the record, airframe icing is completely overrated. There are limited temperature bands where that happens, and I have yet to experience it after flying in falling snow at least twenty times.

Clearing the clouds at 12,000’ feet or so, it was absolutely gorgeous. 100-mile visibility, glorious Rocky Mountain blue skies, and a sea of puffy clouds everywhere. “Is that Grand Teton poking up through the clouds?”

Poking up through the cloud deck about 30 miles away, Grand Teton was, in fact, sticking out about the clouds. I pointed the airplane in that general direction and flew toward it.

A few miles in, I realized I was in the approach path for airline traffic to Jackson Hole. Granted, what I was doing was legal, however it didn’t mean it was smart. Dialing up Jackson Tower, I radioed in:

“Jackson Tower, Piper Cub November five-five-four-seven hotel.”
“November five-five-four-seven hotel, Jackson Tower, go ahead.”
“Jackson Tower, I am presently at 12,500’ approximately 20 nautical miles south of the airport, northwest bound estimated 60 knots. Basically, a Piper Cub is in the ILS and RNAV approach for runway 1, above the clouds, no transponder.”
<<Long pause>>
“November five-five-four-seven hotel, say aircraft type again.”
“Piper PA-11. That’s a Piper Cub.”
<<Pause>>
“Right. Northwest transition approved. Report southwest of the field.”

The controller’s disbelief was quite amusing.

It was absolutely freezing, and I was battling a strong wind, so it took 45 minutes to get to the Tetons. With takeoff temperatures at 10 degrees or so, one can apply the rules about temperature decline at altitude and derive a temperature of somewhere between -22 and -15F. And I have no heat.

Grand Teton above the clouds was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen in this airplane. Some of the work I produced will be the centerpiece of an upcoming gallery exhibit in Jackson, as the work is one of a kind. I can’t show that stuff here, though I can give you one little clue.

Of course, the wind was blowing at a good clip, so I had to fly northwest on the backside of the mountain to get photographs. If I tried to point to the southeast, I zoomed by very fast, and also had to orient the airplane dangerously to execute the shoot. That meant that I was flying with the entire door open, with temps well below zero.

At one point, I thought I got frostbite on my face. Despite gloves, feeling in my right hand wasn’t working. So I closed the door, “warmed up,” and went at it again. This definitely takes the cake on temperature extremes. In fact, it was so cold that the engine would only produce 115-degree oil temperatures, and the cylinders weren’t running all that smooth due to being too cold.

The flight home was over a sea of clouds. I didn’t have the map with me, as I didn’t intend on such a flight. Sure, I had the iPhone and some aviation software on it. I didn’t want to pussy out and resort to using GPS above the clouds. I was finishing this flight by dead reckoning.

After a few confusing moments, I worked it out, sailed over the Snake River Range, and back into Alpine.

Mission accomplished. Unspecified deviousness achieved.

Snow showers against the Snake River Range
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Snake River meets the Salt River
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Alpine, WY
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Sea of clouds. This is the general direction I went to Grand Teton.
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So much for visual navigation aids.
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Jackson, WY. The thrill is getting replaced with the reality that I might freeze to death.
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Grand Teton (13,770′) peaking above the clouds. This is just a preview. Only a rational pilot would fly into this stuff.
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Home is somewhere over there.
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The heavens opened so I could get this shot of Jackson, WY. The engine is too loud to hear the angels singing.
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Snake River Range. The clouds make the Idaho border even more indistinguishable than it already is.
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This visual navigation thing is really confidence inspiring as to my location….
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This lovely reminder of wilderness terrain is a helpful clue as to where I am. 
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Now what is that over there?
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Ah ha! The Snake River Canyon and US 26.
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Coming around the bend into Alpine.
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Flight: WY: Eastern Jackson Hole & Northern Teton Range

There are times where I don’t even really know why I take certain flights. This was one of them.

It wasn’t like I hadn’t photographed the Tetons before.

Even my wife asked, before I went, “So why are you going again?” “Because I need photographs of eastern Jackson Hole and the northern Teton Range!” Clearly unconvinced, she gave me a questionable look and I got in the plane and left.

Truth be told, I didn’t really have photographs of the east side of Jackson Hole, and I had not ventured into the northern Teton Range area. I have lost count the amount of times that I have flown through JH as a corridor en route to other destinations, and somehow I missed a spot for one of my books.

And so it was. I wandered northbound over the aforementioned section, and had an inclination to head into Yellowstone to get a few things I had not gotten before. Wind was, as usual, howling in there, so as I got to the northern edge of the lee side of Tetons, I decided to just forget it. The thing about Yellowstone is that it’s like a giant windstorm trying to push a sailboat out to sea, never to be heard of again. The Absarokas are like a giant vacuum, sucking wind over the range and blowing it into the Bighorn Basin, with no real hope to ever get back over on the west side. I wasn’t in the mood.

I opted to take the national forest path between Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park. It’s a little sliver that constitutes neither national park, just national forest. Arriving at the spine of the Tetons, I went straight south.

Some would call that stupid. There were lenticularis clouds everywhere, which means that the winds are both screaming at altitude, and smacking into mountain ranges and getting kicked up tens of thousands of feet. Perfect. Then there was the matter of the terrain being about as smooth as the blades of a saw. I know, we’ve all heard it before, “what if the engine quits?” I mean, seriously, when ever do I have to do an emergency landing (hint: wait for a future blog post to answer that question)?

The terrain was gnarly, to say the least, and the ability to appreciate it is dwarfed by the towering Tetons. If the Tetons were not there, the Teton Range would be pretty rugged. With these giant francophone metaphorical mammary glands ramming into the sky, the rest looks like hills.

It’s still an experience that is hard to describe flying on the west side of the Tetons. They are downright amazing, and I can’t seem to get enough of it.

Snake River, southern Jackson Hole. Lenticularus clouds (looks like a lens) – a sign of lots of wind. Perfect.
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So why I have not flown over here yet, I do not know. Quite pretty if you ask me.
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And then there is this little gem….
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Main JH flying corridor between this little gem and Grand Teton in the distance.

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Jackson Lake
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Teton Wilderness Area (center), Grand Teton National Park (left), Yellowstone National Park (upper right)
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Northern Teton Range, looking south
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Teton Range terrain – nice and harsh – and I don’t give a crap if the engine quits.
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Tetons themselves in upper right distance. Mt. Moran in center – all looking SE.
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Looking the other way, to the NW, into the Idaho Snake River Plain.
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Improbable view of the Tetons.
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Icefloe Lake (spelling is correct).
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Fine. You get a shot of Grand Teton (13,770′). I am keeping most of them to myself because I am not feeling particularly generous at the moment. 
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Wilson, WY
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Snake River
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Tent city – WTF? Multi-million dollar real estate for the rich and famous and some moron decides to string up a bunch of tents? Its probably some celebrity “glamping” for $5,000/night. Just stay in Malibu, please, really……
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Lenticularis clouds for the last leg home. 
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Flight: ID: Manufactured Apocalypse

I thought fire season was over. The wisp of smoke blowing up from the Swan Valley toward Palisade Reservoir gave a clue to the contrary. I had wondered about sunsets for a few days, as the “clouds” looked to be denser than normal in the same location in the sky. I sat there, gazing upon the Western sunset like a cowboy of yore sitting upon his faithful steed, carrying out the patriotic duty of Manifest Destiny, staring off to the west gazing at unconquered lands, thinking to myself “that must be wisps of smoke in the upper atmosphere, blowing in from remaining fires in the thick virgin stands of Idaho pine in remote wilderness.” Complete with thoughts of deep connection to nature and the vibrant, harsh, crucible of a life in the Rockies, I watched the sun go down for a few days in a row with this smoky, earthy feature before going back into my climate controlled, overly spacious, hyper capitalist dwelling to have an espresso and retouch my latest artistic production on Apple equipment that costs as much as a car.

As I saw the smoke blow into the valley during the ensuing day, I decided to dismount my philosophical horse of Western ideation and get into my symbolic steed of economic inequality and fly into the heavens for pure recreation.

Heading northwest, I found the source of the smoke. It was not the white, virgin, monastically spiritual purity of the cycle of forest life 250 miles deep into the wilderness of Idaho. It was a controlled burn, initiated by employees of a massive federal agency, who are paid to start fires in seemingly random locations, while driving off road vehicles, bearing communication gear, and riding around in pickup trucks. And they have fantastic health insurance, and probably all have Bachelor’s degrees.

Oh well. At least the pictures are interesting. And if I lost an engine meandering over this particular national forest, the bitch of a hike out would sell some books. I think I’ll return my cowboy hat to Neiman Marcus; I don’t like it anyway.
“Look! A mushroom cloud! How fast can fly to it?”

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Its not often that one can see the crown of the smoke plume. I opted not to climb 5,000′ up to the top out of pure laziness. Trust me, avoiding air pollution from fuel exhaust seemed to not matter in this context.
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I sense the forest getting prettier already….
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“Oh, thats just the Apocalypse. No worries.”
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Autumn spice.

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Aspen groves in full color with a backdrop of carbon getting belched into the atmosphere.
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