In May, I finally released all four of my books focusing on the Southeastern US, a product of spending nearly a year there before arriving here in Wyoming. Covering wild horses, the outer banks, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and the 40 peaks over 6,000′ in the South, it was quite a year of adventure. Without further adieu, here they are (click on any image or link for more info):
Apparently, there is an informal scale of pilot insanity (from “respect” to “crazy”). I stumbled across it during some hangar talk up the road, where I had the rare occasion of running into another Garrett (who happens to fly). The similarities were disturbing. Nonetheless, the introduction was made advising that [counterfeit] Garrett has “balls of steel.” “Well, if he has balls of steel, then where do I fit in?” <<Pause to deliberate>> “You fly where angels fear to tread.” I get the inkling that designation sits closer to “crazy,” though I will acquiesce to the fact that it pretty much takes a hormonally-induced willful ignorance of engine out risk to take a flight like this.
The very next flight after this conversation (inspired, undoubtedly by my new designation), I decided to head to the glaciers of the Wind River Range. Containing 5 of the top 10 glaciers in the Continental US outside of Washington State, I figured its time to take a crack at it. I am working on a book on glaciers of Wyoming, after all. There is a limited 45 to 60 day window where annual snowfall is melted off and glaciers remain, and it starts now.
Its hard to put words at what its like to fly over this terrain. Home to over 25 glaciers, as well as the highest peak in Wyoming, Gannett Peak (13,809’), the place is disturbingly harsh. In fact, it is the most dangerous terrain I have flown over to date. Roads do not exist. Emergency landing zones consist mostly of a field of giant boulders, and in the event of survival after catastrophe, a 10-mile or longer trek awaits to get out. There was not only a timberline, there as a line where grass doesn’t even grow, and if that is not enough, there are glaciers, where the snow never melts. This was Siberia or Alaska, except it was all at high altitude (whereas Alaska has these features down at 1,000 feet above sea level). To quote a sexist ad I saw once: “sometimes the juice is worth the squeeze.”
For a little background on the airplane, carbureted piston engines lose 3% of their horsepower for every 1,000’ of altitude above sea level. Thus, my meager 100hp engine (which is not enough for most pilots), was producing 59.5hp, assuming I was at full throttle. I used cruise power to coast up to altitude and fly around, resulting in a likely engine output of 48hp. After enough time spent at altitude, that nasty thing called high-speed wind becomes useful, where I turn into a half glider and ride the updrafts high into the sky. On this particular day, I had hoped to ride them up past 15,000 feet and get the glaciers on the east side of the range. With a cloud deck at 13,700’ to 13,900’, that was not possible. Steel balls or not, I am not stupid. There will be more flights to get the rest of these glaciers, presumably on a nicer day.
Riding the updrafts up the “foothills.” Merely, 11,200 feet at this point.
I do a pretty crappy job of explaining what I am after when I go flying. It must look like I have some form of addiction not all that different than a crack addict, flying around aimlessly in the most dangerous terrain possible, just to satisfy some queer fix to be hypoxic and nearly freeze to death on an ongoing basis. Maybe some of all of that is true. Nonetheless, I am working on a book on the Green River, which starts in glaciers in the Wind River Range and ends in the Colorado River in Canyonlands National Park, Utah. This is one of somewhere between 6 to 9 books I am working on at present. I set lofty goals, and weather and other concerns get in the way of some of them, and I net down to a finished number (Washington state smoke is messing with one of them….).
This flight was to get the east side of the Wyoming Range and then head up the Green River itself through the middle of one of the desert basins in Wyoming. The rest of the Green River will wait for other flights.
Mr. Toad resurfaced. Yet again, I am flying east of the terrain, with westerly prevailing winds, and the rough, messy air accelerates as it opens up to an east-facing desert area, and I get the crap beaten out of me. The pictures really weren’t that good of that part, anyway.
As I rounded La Barge, WY and headed north, I first thought I was wasting my time. A river running through desert? Yay. Thrilling. Like I haven’t seen that before…. I opted to fuel at Big Piney, WY, just in case, and then went north. The Green River got quite pretty at that point, and my mood improved. As I wandered over the Wyoming Range coming home, it became evident that the wind was more than a light summer breeze.
Arriving at Alpine, it was a 20kt, 90 degree crosswind. For you nonpilots out there, that is very, very bad. The airplane simply cannot land if the wind is blowing that hard from the side, as it will tip over, cartwheel, ground loop, or smash into something inanimate (think a car going around a curve and rolling over). I tried to land on the short parallel grass strip. The airplane was cocked 45 degrees into the wind to maintain a straight path. Yeah, that is not happening. Full power and go around. I tried the grass strip a second time, this time taking more time to line up the landing and get better control of it. Nope. Not happening. Full power and go around again. I decided to make one attempt at the paved strip, taking advantage of a little wind shadow in one section where the trees and some hangars block the wind. Hugging the upwind side of the runway, it was a “bit” of a wild ride on short final. Hovering two feet above the pavement, the wind virtually stopped right as predicted, and she dropped down onto the pavement, got picked up once, and then I was able to brake hard enough to stop the damn thing from flying. If that didn’t go well, I was heading down the Star Valley to a private field that was pointing into the wind. Two days in a row, I go flying with a glorious forecast and come home to a hurricane three hours later. At least this time I had 10 gallons of fuel….
South of Hoback Peak, Wyoming Range
Bottom of the Wyoming Range, looking back at where I came from. Note dead beetle kill trees and patches of living green trees. Those were young when the beetles came, and therefore immune to the attack.
Looking over the divide. Everything on this side of the hill flows to Baja California. On the other side, it flows to the Pacific Northwest. Yellow tinge on the ground are alpine sunflowers. Terrain is approximately 8,500′ here.
Earlier in the morning, I took one of the flights through the “River of Clouds” as enumerated and shown in my prior post. The weather in Alpine was ahead of Jackson by two to three hours, so I figured these wispy, interesting clouds would make their way to the Tetons, and it would be time to photograph them with some texture. Watching the webcams in Grand Teton National Park, my scheme proved correct. The sun was out; and a variety of puffy clouds were forming and moving around the peaks and lower terrain.
I will say this: climbing around really tall clouds, amongst terrain, requires some planning. The clouds are moving, they are tall, air is moving as well, and there are mountains. I need to get over the clouds without going through them (no instruments), and get around the mountains without getting backed into a corner. It requires constant readjustment as well as some circling, as all of the pieces are in motion.
I came over the Teton Range itself (the range extends 30 or more miles, whereas the Grand Teton peaks are in the highest area). Cruising at 11,000 feet, I was west of the cloud formation, under a near overcast deck above me, and trying to avoid getting sucked into the lee side downdrafts over Jackson Hole. That part of the plan worked. I eventually made it around the clouds and up to 14,000 feet, staring down at Grand Teton (13,770’) with clouds forming off the summit and moving northeast.
Flying around in a clockwise circle, I saw the majestic peak from all angles, with a constant veil of clouds coming and going. The whole thing was beyond beautiful.
Eventually, fuel runs low, and its time to go home. As I got within 20 miles, I noticed that there appeared to be thunderstorms toward Alpine. Crap. Cumulus clouds were in the way, so it was hard to get a visual. Fighting a headwind, I pulled a radar refresh on the iPad, and the situation didn’t look good. Enormous cells timed to be on the doorstep of the airport right as I got there (they were nowhere in sight two hours before!). Getting within 10 miles, I couldn’t see much between the peaks and the cloud deck, and I was trying to cut right across the Snake River Range and its highest, roughest point to get home as quick as possible. Fuel was getting very low. Finally able to peak through a sliver, I could not make out the Caribou Range just 5 miles south of the airport, as it was lost in the massive precipitation shield. Concerned about stiff winds, I eyed up my fuel situation, which was now at about 25 minutes (headwinds were coming out of the storm), and decided to make a beeline for Jackson Hole Airport. It turns out it was a good call, as the winds were extremely nasty and the situation just would have been worse had I gone in.
The headwind turned into a tailwind, and I was able to make it in to Jackson Hole with the engine running, appreciative of the tower’s attention to my fuel situation and priority short approach and landing. I waited the storm out for 2 hours in the building (with the airplane nice and tied down, sipping coffee), and left after it blew over. The picture near the bottom is of the storm in a very weakened state.
There are two things about aviation that come to mind. First, “naivety is the mother of adventure,” as said by Rinker Buck, an author that flew an aircraft like mine across the country in the 1960s, and the fact that one of the best ways to learn in aviation is when things go wrong. That’s what backup plans are for.
It appears that the weather in western Wyoming operates in completely divergent cycles. Top 5 warmest April, top 5 wettest May, top 5 driest and hottest June. Each cyclical extreme is so long and powerful that one assumes it is the new normal. We had weeks of high 80s and 90s, and the one day, poof! highs in the 60s and 70s with rainy weather, which has been going on for over a week now (I am not complaining about the latest development). Thus, I went from long flights over expansive terrain to more localized flying, given the constraints on clouds over the mountains.
This particular post represents two flights. In each case, the clouds interacting with the terrain were like rivers of air, clearly visible as they flowed around and over large mountains. One day, the wind came from the east over the Salt River Range, and the clouds formed on the lee side, growing a few thousand feet higher than the peaks. On the second day, the clouds were like moving water, flowing around peaks, forming on the lee sides, and weaving their way through the valleys, on what looked like an interesting and long journey.
To give you a sneak preview of the next post, I followed some of these clouds as they journeyed around the 13,770’ peak of Grand Teton later in the same day. Stay tuned.
You could call this one “fun with a zoom lens.” The haze just keeps on going around here, and to my dismay, that is a rather normal summer thing. Eventually I figured out that haze is not a factor when photographing things 1,500’ to 2,000’ vertically below; thus, I decided to wander over to the Snake River Plain in Idaho and get some farm field photos.
The Snake River Plain has an interesting history. 2.1 million years ago, the Yellowstone hot spot showed up. It stays in one spot, and this section of the tectonic plate I am sitting on moves to the SW. So, after various super volcano eruptions smash the crap out of everything around the then existing Yellowstone hot spot, the plate moves on, carrying the flat land to the SW. This feature is a few hundred miles long, from Boise, ID to Yellowstone now. If you look at a terrain map of the Intermountain West, you’ll find most of the place has north-south mountain ranges, one after another. Well, except for the Snake River Plain. Yellowstone thankfully blew them to smithereens, opening the path for Pacific moisture to wander in and dump prolific amounts of snow on Alpine, WY.
The other thing it does is make flat land for agriculture. I must say, the fields were absolutely incredible. I eventually wandered over to the St. Anthony Sand Dunes, which are hundreds of feet high and sit next to verdant fields, a dystopian duality that makes for interesting photographs.
On the way home, I got some free lift courtesy of a light SW breeze against the Snake River Range, so I went down the spine of it, getting photos of the backside of the peaks, lit up by sunlight due to late time of day as well as being so close to June 21, where the sun sneaks to its farthest north point for the year.
Yes, there is a castle in Wyoming, a big castle. With features that remind me of German castle architecture, I got an email from Wyoming Lifestyle magazine about taking an aerial shot. Much to my chagrin, my zoom lens was out of service, so I had to do it with a wide-angle lens. With some improvised flying techniques, the job got done, and the photo landed in the magazine, which hit the stands recently. You can read the article about this crazy castle here (go to pages 8 & 9).
I took another flight when I got the zoom lens working and took a few more photos. These were done in the last 3 to 6 weeks, and I have held off posting out of deference for the images to make it into the magazine.
One-way flights usually result in a one way in the opposite direction. This was the case necessitating the flight from Livingston, MT back home. Prior to leaving, I took up another passenger, and we weaseled our way around the Boulder River in the Absaroka Range in Montana, getting surprisingly to 10,000 feet despite the heat and heavy load (winds mixing with mountains provided the lift). Given the complexity of this flight, I decided to make a path in Google Earth and show it on a map. The red flight was heading up to Montana (bottom to top), blue the flight into the Absarokas, and green the flight home (top to bottom). The dark green lines are Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park.
There is a bit of explanation involved in why the previous flight was so challenging with the heat and weight. As I previously described, heat makes airplanes perform terribly. The air is less dense; therefore the airplane has less air to generate lift. Altitude was enemy number two, starting at 6,600’, requiring a climb to 10,200’ altitude. Altitude affects flying in two ways. First, the engine produces 3% less power per 1,000’ of additional altitude. It has less air to intake. Thus, my 100HP engine became 80HP at takeoff, and 70HP at cruising altitude. 70HP battling full fuel and maximum occupant weight, while fighting temperatures that are about as hot as they get. In this situation, there are a few variables. The takeoff climb to altitude takes much, much longer. That results in a full power burn for a longer period, adding engine heat to air temperatures that are already quite warm. That translates into a limit of climbing. The engine cannot put out full power indefinitely as it will overheat. To compensate for altitude power loss, the mixture adjustment can be used to lean the fuel mixture. That increases power, though increases heat dramatically. When oil temps start getting near redline, then the mixture can be enriched, though that skims horsepower, as too much fuel is dumped into the cylinders, cooling them and also drowning peak power output. Wind is a wild card. It’s an enemy when blowing down; it’s a lifesaver when going up. In our case, we pretty much had none on the flight to Montana. Oh, and don’t forget fuel management. More fuel equals more available for a long climb, though it makes the airplane heavier and ironically requires more fuel to burn. Too little, and we can’t make the next airport.
So there you have it: the almost immeasurably confusing Rubik’s Cube of variables, constantly in motion, aggravated by max weight, high temps, and high altitude. At least the flight home would be done on one fuel tank, and I didn’t have a passenger. Upon arriving into Yellowstone, the unspoken variable materialized: thunderstorms. They were a possibility, and were not on radar as I left Montana. Now in the center of the park, I am as far as can be from an airport as I see the first lightning strike hit one of the peaks of the Absarokas. Cute. I can see the Tetons, so it looked like everything would be fine, except I couldn’t pull a radar update despite 3 bars of signal (who knew there are towers in the park?). After skimming through a few rain showers, I got through the park to sunny skies in Jackson Hole, only to have the radar finally come up and show that those little rain showers became big, angry thunderstorms in 20 minutes. Such is the nature of flying….
Absaroka Mountains, Montana