Flight: ID, MT: Day 2 of 2: Glaciers of Montana

After completing the bulk of my work, it was time to fly home. I looked forward to a relatively simple flight from Kalispell to the Crazy Mountains in Montana, then direct to home. As I looked at the weather and where I was, I realized that I should just get the glaciers of the Absaroka Mountains while I was at it, then swing up the rest of the Yellowstone River, and be done with it. It just seemed that anytime I fantasized about coming up this way, I would just avoid it and not do it. No time like the present!

The Bob Marshall Wilderness was a real treat. Smoke was rolling in from the west, and it was funneling over one crest into the next range in odd ways, effectively painting a visual of wind currents that normally cannot be seen. Otherwise, the Wilderness Area was forlorn and lonesome, with no range to call Flight Service on the radio and not a single road to be found.

The Crazy Mountains are an odd set of terrain, a clump of glaciated peaks that open to the prairie on all sides, which just seems to be an unnatural mix. After that photo shoot, I pushed through a headwind as I headed to the Absarokas and Beartooth Mountains, containing the highest peaks in Montana.

Yet again, it was a test of will, as the terrain was harsh as can be and lacking entirely in civilization and access roads. Winds were strong through here, which is quite normal, as Yellowstone and the Snake River Plain funnel winds from the SW to this range, and then gravity pulls them into the Montana Prairie with a fury. Terrain elevation was up to 12,800’ above sea level.

After completing the glacier photographs, my fuel situation was a bit, shall we say, low, and I needed to decide where to go. I popped Gardiner, MT into my iPad: 58 nautical miles with a 30-knot headwind. Forget that. Big Timber, MT looked promising, though 37 nm away. Woltermann Memorial, in the middle of nowhere, was the closest. I began to go in that direction until I saw on the facility directory that one has to call someone upon landing and wait an indeterminate amount of time until somebody bothers to show up. So I diverted to Big Timber.

Of course, once I get to the point where Woltermann is no longer an option, the headwinds kick up. Over the mountains, it was a tailwind in this direction. Down low, and it’s a howling headwind! I got shafted in both directions! Sigh….

As I got within range, I called the airport Unicom as automated weather was out. “Oh, its 10 to 15 knots down the runway.” Perfect! On final approach, the windsock was 90 degree crosswind, sticking straight out, with the airplane cocked 30 degrees to the right to fly straight. I have been through this before. I added power, flew 20 feet above the ground, came around some buildings, landed in a field off the runway into the wind, and taxied to the fuel area. After “the Nebraska incident,” I have learned one must take control of prairie wind. It’s relentless and merciless.

As I went West, the winds calmed down quite a bit, and I flew up the Paradise Valley of Montana into Yellowstone. I hoped to make Jackson for fuel. Weather observations indicated howling wind out of the SW all along the Snake River Plain, in Idaho, west over Yellowstone Lake, and light south in Jackson. Reality? 30-knot southerly wind in central Yellowstone. I could risk landing in Grand Teton National Park with no fuel, or divert to West Yellowstone, Montana. I opted to divert.

Winds were 10 knots gusting 16 knots down the runway at WYS when I took off at Big Timber. Now per automated weather, they were 16 knots gusting 26 knots, ranging from 10 to 50 degree crosswind! What the hell? I called Unicom to inquire about landing in a sagebrush field, and they had “no information” as to the condition of the field. I landed on a diagonal among the sagebrush at the approach end of the airport, taxied on to the runway, and pulled off the first taxiway area.

The flight home was slow, due to headwinds, and when I rounded the bend at Pine Creek Pass, Idaho, wind was a few knots behind me. At this point, I was literally feeling uneasy in the stomach, after 17 hours of straight glacier, high wind, and high mountain peak flying. Enough was enough, the brain can only handle so much! Alpine automated weather was inoperative, and I got a wind report from a fellow pilot: calm. It was almost insulting that the last two landings were in a hurricane, though I must say, it was a fine landing when the brain is veritable mush. Its ironic that I fooled myself into thinking that today would be easy.

Lake effect clouds – Kalispell MT

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Morning fog – Kalispell
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Fog bank over Hungry Horse Reservoir with Glacier National Park in the background
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Hungry Horse Reservoir with smoky haze
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Flathead Range
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Bob Marshall Wilderness
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Continental Divide
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Flathead Range with larch trees
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Smoke blowing in
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Smoke funneling through the range with larch trees
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30 miles NW of Helena
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Canyon Ferry
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Montana Prairie
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Crazy Mountain foothills
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Crazy Mountains
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Absaroka Range
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Absaroka Range foothills
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More Absaroka Range
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Beartooth Mountains – Yellowstone in the upper right.
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Leaving the Beartooth Mountains
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Ranching operations in the Yellowstone River valley west of Big Timber MT
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Paradise Valley, MT – Maybe they were on to something with the name.
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Madison River WY – Yellowstone
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Mammoth Hot Springs – Yellowstone
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Harvested field – Snake River Plain, Idaho
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Flight: ID, MT: Day 1 of 2: Glaciers of Montana

If you actually read my blog post prose, instead of just looking at the [stunning, inspiring, modern day Ansell Adams] pretty pictures, then you’d know that I ended the last post, on a Saturday night, with “There is no way I am going to Montana.” I was tired and worn out, with more insane flying under my belt than I had ever done in such a short period of time. That was Saturday night at 7PM.

Fast-forward to Sunday morning, 9AM, 14 hours later. I woke up, in our semi-furnished townhome we live in, opening my eyes to a classic nouveau style poster promoting Glacier National Park. “That’s it! I am doing it! I am going to Montana because this poster will flash in my head and haunt me if I don’t!” Tuesday morning, I took off for a two-day binge flight covering most of Montana.

One may ask why I feel the need to so such things. The reality is with aviation, there is no time like the present. Every single book project of mine has taken longer than expected. The airplane breaks, the weather is foul, the seasons don’t cooperate. It is just how it is, so if things work now, then it is probably the best time to do it. That, and a possibly record breaking El Niño is brewing, which means that Montana will be bone dry and warm all winter, culminating in being on fire probably for most of next year. That means that it might not be until 2017 that I could consider the project, and that is just plain unacceptable!

I must say, I was quite nervous about the whole thing. I would be flying over some seriously deranged terrain in Glacier National Park, with steep mountainsides with 4,000’ to 6,000’ near vertical terrain, wind, and complete wilderness. Engine loss would translate into an above timberline landing, and I would be in the habitat of grizzly bears, with no roads or cell reception. This is as serious as it gets.

I did hatch a brilliant plan. “Why not file a flight plan?” I mean seriously! I wrote them off as a stupid idea when I did the last one in 2010, largely because I could not make a radio call to edit arrival time, and royally irked Flight Service by calling in late to cancel the plan. Instead of remembering the affair as a conditional circumstance hinged on the lack of a radio, I just got pissy and decided flight plans were a ridiculous restriction.

The flight through Idaho into southwest Montana was actually a lot of fun. Skies were blue and clear, winds were light with a tailwind, and I got to see a section of the country heretofore never experienced. This part of Montana reminds me partially of Colorado, with tall mountains, yet partially of many other sections of the West, with dry sagebrush country in between.

The Swan Range contained my first glaciers, and it was evident that they used to be very large. Changing climate has severely receded them, though the terrain was still amazing, as glacier carved mountains are the severest kind around. I noticed some interesting trees that looked like pine trees, yet were yellow. Eventual closer inspection showed that they are Alpine Larch, a variety of pine that has needles that change color in the fall.

The Flathead Range was next, with more glaciers. Terrain had transformed into a moderated Pacific climate, with heavy tree cover, and raw wilderness to the east, where I skirted the border of the glaciers. Here, I found that the understory of the pine forests was filled with autumn color. Basically, ground cover and shrubs were in brilliant display.

I landed at Glacier Park International, fueled, had lunch, and filed the flight plan. I was about to embark on the longest stretch over dangerous terrain I had ever done, and I had my reticence about the whole affair. As I took off, things weren’t so bad initially……until I got to the Lewis Range inside Glacier National Park. Those mountains were absolutely crazy, with rather stiff winds coming in from the west. Fortunately, position reports were working, so I was able to relay reports every 10 minutes to Flight Service, and also stay on the frequency in the event I need to alert them of a dreaded engine issue. I also decided that my maximum risk was a crash landing above timberline, where I would simply wait for rescue, instead of hiking into a bear cave. That was the risk, and it’s just how it was. It also helps that when I am transcended to near spiritual beauty, I tend to focus less on the potential of death.

I went south to north along the west side of the range and got pretty close to the terrain given the winds. The walls of rock were so severe that they were blocking a lot of the wind in certain areas. Instead of creating menacing vortices like the Colorado Rockies, these guys were making funnels and barriers, which was actually easier to manage.

I was glued to the iPad for the imaginary line that is the border with Canada. At 49 degrees north latitude, there is no distinguishing feature, just a sea of mountains with a line running through it. The fine is $5,000 for an unauthorized border crossing, and US Customs and Border Patrol is not known to be the nicest folks when it comes to airplanes, so I stayed 2 miles south of the border and turned east. Then my phone alerted me to a text “Welcome to Canada! Global data is $2.05/MB.” Shut it off! Shut it off!!!

With that little scare behind me, I passed along the US side of Waterton Lakes National Park, a really cool park in Alberta, Canada that I have fantasized about. Here I am seeing it from the air!

I turned south, scouring more glaciers and finding even crazier terrain, all up against the Montana prairie. It was truly a sight to behold. Finally, a few position reports later, and after having photographed the larger glaciers in the park, I wandered to the northern Flathead Range glaciers, then straight into Kalispell City Airport for fuel. One more flight to the Cabinet Mountains, and then I returned to Kalispell for the night, thankful that the hard work was over. There is nothing like the feeling of warming up having a glorious burger while flipping through my work for the day. I had finally done it! Glacier National Park in the Cub!

Big Hole Mountains, Idaho (I don’t see the big hole)

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Snake River Plain, Idaho
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Approaching Centennial Mountains (in Idaho, mountains are border with MT)
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Centennial Mountains (MT left, ID right)
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Red Rock Lakes with Gallatin Range in background
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Ruby Range, MT (the rest of the post is Montana, so I am not going to repeat myself)
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Northern end Ruby Range
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Tobacco Root Mountains
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Jefferson River
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Mining operations, north of Butte
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Tailings Pond, north of Butte
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Flint Creek Range
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Swan Range
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Flathead Range
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Flathead River
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Glacier Park International Airport takeoff (Delta Airlines and I keep meeting like this)
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Western end of Glacier National Park
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Watertown Lakes National Park, Canada (border runs from left bottom third to right upper third- you’re looking at Canadian Prairie!)
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Eastern Glacier NP (Montana Prairie on left horizon)
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This terrain is unbelievable…..
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Looking back at Glacier NP (smoke blowing in)….
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Northern Flathead Range, Hungry Horse Reservoir to the left
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Understory in full color
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They call Montana “Big Sky Country.” It would help if one could *see* the sky….
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Returning to Kalispell for the night!
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Flight: WY: Glaciers of Absarokas & Bighorns

After four days of flying to Colorado and back in a short period, I was inclined toward a break. Then the first snows hit the peaks on September 18th, and that set off a wave of panic. I was 95% done with photographing all of the glaciers of Wyoming and Colorado, needing just 3 more in northern Wyoming. Now the snows were coming, and the glaciers would get buried. So I set off on an ambitious flight plan that would take all day: north through Jackson Hole to the eastern Absarokas, east to the Bighorn Mountains, then southwest back home. The whole affair took 8 hours.

I figured I’d knock out a few birds with one stone. I needed to photograph the headwaters of the Yellowstone River (not actually in Yellowstone, ironically) as well as the eastern mountains of Yellowstone. That was easy enough, given that the first glacier I needed was not far from the two destinations I just described.

Wind. That is always another story. Things were quiet in Jackson Hole and even in the Absarokas so long as I was in the distant shadow of the northern Teton Range. The moment Yellowstone was to my west, an unholy fury let loose, creating a mix of clouds and wind over the highest reach of the Absarokas. It was interesting, to say the least, to wander around the clouds at 12,500’, avoiding smacking into the peaks, and also avoiding getting sucked into a veritable funnel on the east side of the range. There quite possibly would be no coming back – not in a mortality kind of way – just the inability to outclimb the downdrafts and get back to what I was trying to take pictures of.

Sure enough, I broke my groundspeed record at 13,500’ over Galena Glacier in the Absarokas: 150mph in a Piper Cub. Nuts. Granted, it is somewhat known that the eastern entrance to Yellowstone is a topographical funnel, shoving insane winds into Cody as they come down off the terrain and head into the Bighorn Basin. Well, today was no exception. 10mph winds in Jackson, and 60mph at altitude near Cody….unreal.

As I approached Cody, WY airport for fuel, I called automated weather a few times: “11 gusting 21 knots” was the answer every time. Hmmm… Cody is way too erratic for that. It also was 11G21kt observed during my morning flight briefing. Sigh…. This will be fun as usual.

The landing was a strange experience, as the winds were switching direction rapidly, with extreme speeds (windsock was horizontal). The airplane was basically pivoting off the tires on the ground until I could get it settled down and quit flying. The taxiing process was slow, as the gusts were so extreme that the wind was trying to get under the right wing and, well, tip the airplane right over. Thankfully I got through the fueling process in one piece and took off.

Insultingly, winds went calm in the desert 20 miles east of Cody. I am told that is normal.

The Bighorn Mountains were incredible. I had flown over them 15 months prior, though I had avoided Cloud Peak at that time, which is over 13,000’ in elevation with a glacier. It is unquestionably an uninhabited place, which is no good for engine loss (we have been through this lecture before). I must say, though, I was surprised by the severity of the terrain and its almost spiritual beauty.

The trip home took awhile. 200 miles of desert, headwinds, and terrain. Things were okay at first: no bumps, and gentle winds. When I rounded the bend at the Owl Creek Mountains, ground speed went to 40kts from 80kts. Fiddlesticks. 40 knot headwind at 2,000’ above the ground! With sunset approaching, limited fuel options, and at my 7th hour of flying, I just wanted everything to go exactly the way I wanted. Well, that was not happening!

As I suspected, once I cleared the pass at the northern end of the Wind River Range, groundspeed came up to 65 knots. The terrain over Dubois, WY is another funnel. There isn’t much one can do about it; though, I was happy the headwinds died down.

The rest of the flight was pleasant with some fall colors and nice terrain contrasts. As I flew past the Gros Ventre Range, I said to myself, in a moment of exhaustion: “There is no way in hell I am going to get the Montana glaciers. Its just too much.”

Snake River, Jackson Hole
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Buffalo Fork Snake River
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Absaroka Range
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There is a glacier hiding in here somewhere…. now if only I could find it.
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Eastern boundary of Yellowstone, looking west.
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Absarokas, looking east toward Bighorn Basin.
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Doing 150mph ground speed while taking this photograph. 
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Looking back at the topographical funnel coming out of Yellowstone into Cody.
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To make matters worse, the funnel blows through this secondary one. The Cody airport is hiding on the other side of the funnel.
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20 miles east of Cody. No wind. What an insult….. it *should* be windy here.
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Water is clearly important. Bighorn Basin.
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Western ascent up the Bighorns.
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Clearing timberline (roughly 10,000′). See that menacing terrain? Heading straight in there…..
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Cruising altitude of 13,500’…. looking north.
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Menacing terrain. A few glaciers hiding in there. 
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Cloud Peak (13,167′), looking south.
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Southern Big Horns. Only 230 miles to home now…..
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Descending the western side of the range. Trees come back….
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Descending more and the trees are gone….
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Wyoming is like a giant chia pet. Just add water and it gets all green and fuzzy.
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Bighorn Basin…
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Owl Creek Mountains
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Wind River Basin
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Doing 40 knots ground speed…..sigh…. I am getting a bit sick of this today.
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The audacity to add beauty to my misery!
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Northern Wind River Range. Up to 60 knots now!
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Green River
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Gros Ventre Range. There is no way I am doing that Montana project. Too ambitious and I am tired…
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Northern Wyoming Range
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Looking back toward where I went north 8 hours prior. Sigh, what a day!
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Pretty field in Bondurant, WY
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Flight: CO: Day 2 of 2: Flat Tops Wilderness, 737, Fall Color

Commitments sound great when they are made; they are egregious when manifested in reality. I had this brilliant plan to take a reporter from the Vail Daily up in the airplane. The problem was, the airspace closed at 9:45AM at Eagle, CO, for the entire day, for an airshow. Forget my plan of a relaxing 4-hour flight home. I was up at 6:00AM, which I really despise. Shower. Pack. Hotel breakfast. Flight planning. Maniac Polish shuttle driver. Pre-flight in the cold. Wait for 40 minutes for the reporter. Start up. Warm up. Get takeoff slot with the tower (complex, due to surge of pre airshow traffic). Around the pattern. Land. Boot the reporter. Get slot again. Get the hell out.

I finally cleared the beehive of activity 10 nautical miles NW of the airport, and settled into a cruise about 15 minutes later, after climbing to 11,500’ to cross the Flat Tops Wilderness. At 9:15AM, I was clear of obstructions, and was back in my element again: exploring. I had never been to this part of the state of Colorado: not on the ground nor in the air. The Wilderness Area is the first terrain of that height, and it “bites” a lot of the incoming Pacific moisture from the atmosphere. The trees were tall and healthy, with spacious meadows, a sign of lots of cold and precipitation.

Eventually the terrain descends about 7,000’ down to 4,500’, which means things get dry. Its amazing how fast it happens, and dry it became. After an hour of flight from Eagle, I was back in “familiar” territory: the desert scrublands of NW Colorado that give way to the same thing in Wyoming.

Rock Springs was the fuel destination, exactly halfway back home. As I was taxiing, I saw a large jet sitting on the tarmac, all by its lonesome self. “Hmmm….” I thought. “That’s unusual. A 737 just sitting there unattended.” After fueling, I started up and taxied toward the huge airplane, driven by curiosity. Nothing on the radio. Sunshield in the cockpit window. Red covers over pitot system intakes. Turbines not spinning. Devilish grin! I taxied up real close, spun the plane around, and shut the engine down. I got out, pushed the PA-11 as close as I could to the Boeing 737, and did a photo shoot. That’s a first. It was privately operated, and was not an airliner. If it was an airliner, there is a 20% chance I would be in a jail cell right now, 20% chance the airline would think its cool, and 60% chance of nothing happening. Such is American aviation.

Rock Springs to home was uneventful, except for the orgy of color that showed up in an aspen grove, just 30 hours after flying through earlier, which turned out quite pretty. The rest of the flight was uneventful, and a welcome sense of achievement.

Flat Tops Wilderness
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Flat Tops giving way to dry area in NW section of state.
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Yampa River, west of Craig CO
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Boeing 737 with Piper PA-11
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Subtle fall colors showing up in riverbed. NW of Big Piney, WY
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Aspen grove in eastern Wyoming Range foothills
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Crossing Wyoming Range down in the terrain (too lazy to bother to climb)
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Flight: CO: Day 1 of 2: Rocky Mountain National Park, Sawatch Range

So I am a bit backlogged on the blog posts. I took this flight about one month ago after the grocery run to Idaho Falls. As I made very clear in my prior flight to Colorado, I needed to get back to the state to photograph two things: the glaciers in the Front Range and the 14ers in the Sawatch Range. One thing I learned was that a “mostly sunny” forecast meant nothing. I needed solid high pressure, end of story.

Well, not too long after the first run into the Centennial State, that very weather materialized. Comforted by the fact that the whole affair would be 900 miles of flying instead of 1400, I took off, heading SE over the Wyoming desert yet again.

The first issue was a sputter in the engine during climb out. It was a quick cough, so I assumed it was water in the fuel system. Cruising deep into the Salt River Range, it did it again. Unnerved at this point, I turned toward the only private land in the national forest deep in the range, which is a ranch and has a few fields near a road. Circling high above the ranch, I cycled through mixture controls, carburetor heat, tested each mag, and then determined it was still probably water in the fuel. I could go home, tear down the carburetor, find nothing, and then fly after that (days or weeks later), or keep troubleshooting. I circled up to a safe altitude to get over the Wyoming Range and headed east. The problem didn’t come back.

For the sake of my ass, I decided not to push it and therefore not aim for maximum flight intervals. I timed things to add one more fuel stop for the day and average 2 hours between stops. Rock Springs, WY was stop number one, then on to Steamboat Springs, CO. The real work was after Steamboat, as the glaciers are many, varied, over rough terrain, and had the windiest part of the whole deal. After getting that done, I enjoyably cruised southwest toward Buena Vista, CO for fuel.

After BV, I climbed as much as I could into the Sawatch Range 14ers. It took everything to find some updrafts, as I was on the lee side of the range, and this airplane is just not powered enough to overcome that kind of thing. Topping out at 13,500’ or so, I decided to go for a new look: up close and personal with the 14ers. The terrain was harsh, the turbulence strong, winds erratic, and photographs awesome. I would have never considered such a thing when I did my first Colorado book series.

Clearing the Sawatch Range, I was en route to Eagle, CO to spend the night. I had scheduled a business meeting there (who does such a thing?), which is a strange exercise in utilitarianism and artistic self-martyring. In between the Sawatch Range and Mount of the Holy Cross, I completed hotel arrangements (my wife kindly handles those via text in flight from home), and adjusted my meeting time, tidied up meeting with a Vail Daily reporter, photographed Mount of the Holy Cross, and then turned toward Eagle.

The highest winds at 15,000’ were 15 knots that day. When I called the automated weather on the radio in Eagle, which is at 7,000’ or so, winds were 90-degree crosswind, 16 knots gusting 21 knots. Here we go again. Unreal, as the forecast was 6 knots. I checked the runway diagram on the iPad and noted that the runway was 150’ wide. At that wind speed, I can land in the width of the runway. I got clearance from the tower to make a diagonal landing, and tried an idea I had: setting her down on the far end. It looked like the wind would be less, and it was. Phew! I pulled up to a stop at the Vail Valley Jet Center, which is always a cool experience, getting parked between a slew of expensive jets looking like a hobo and carrying bags of gear. Unquestionably, today was a complete success: lots of fun and great photos.

Wyoming Range
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Fall begins (Sept 11), eastern Wyoming Range foothills
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Ridge NW of Rock Springs, WY
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Terrain SE of Rock Springs WY
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Just north of CO border in Wyoming.
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Wild Horses, Wyoming
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Its appears they just left the combine in the field. NW Colorado
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Bear Ears Peak, CO
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Aspens NW of Steamboat Springs CO
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Steamboat Springs Ski Area, CO
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Rabbit Ears Pass
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Continental Divide near North Park
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Trail Ridge Rd, Rocky Mountain National Park
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Just east of Longs Peak
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Front Range Continental Divide near Berthoud Pass
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Lake on the south side of the East Wall (Arapahoe Basin parking lot in background)
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South Park
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Buffalo Peaks Wilderness
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Missouri Mountain (14,067′)
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Swirling winds on the face of Turquoise Lake – this is a visual of the crap I have to deal with in the air
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Mount of the Holy Cross (14,005′)
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