Flight: Switzerland: August Snow

Why would I write about August snow, in late October?

There is something to be said that it substantially hadn’t really snowed since this mysterious August event, a product of an extended Swiss Indian summer that defies one’s normal expectations of what one thinks when they hear the word “alpine.” Then there is the matter that, as I write this right now, snow levels are roughly at 2000m in the Alps with a cold rain down here where mere mortals live. Back in Spain, it is expected to have light accumulations below 1000m, which by all definitions is early. So, on one hand, we have an interesting August snowfall down below 3000m, a strange total lack of anything wintry until practically November, and then a bit of an unusual early Spanish snowfall all the way to the valley floor.

European weather continues to confuse, as it sits there doing nothing exciting for weeks to months, and then the atmosphere splashes an unexpected phase of moisture at seeming random. And when it does spurt something out of the sky, it does it without any fanfare. Clouds ooze in. The temperature slowly slides down. Something begins to gently fall out of the sky. All aforementioned factors incrementally intensify, and I find myself writing about something I deem unusual, though it has been building up at a snail’s pace. In North America, a significant weather change is preceded by apocalyptic wind, angry thunderstorms, some sort of vicious something, and then the atmosphere rages physical matter out of the sky that lands on the ground, which gets Instagrammed as though it never happened before, with a quippy self-serving hashtag accompanying such meteorological ephemera.

In the case of the flight in question, I was hiking the day before at about 1200m, and it was 45 F/ 7 C outside, in August, with a cold rain. I knew enough about the feel and smell of such rain to deduce that it was snowing higher up (this reality confirmed in Colorado, Wyoming, and Spain). The next morning, I could see snow on the north side of the Massif du Chablais, so I saddled up the symbolic steed of economic inequality to chase it before it melted under summer sun.

Just exiting Class D controlled airspace. I love Switzerland.

Bietschhorn. Note light snow on the north side of the ridge.

Bietschhorn again.

August snow. Tyfelsgrat in the center, Breithorn to the left.

Beichgletscher.

Äbeni Flue (3.962m / 12,998′) & Äbeni Flue-Firn. Ie, glaciergasm.

Jungfrau! (4.158m / 13,641′). I am now officially satisfied with how high I am flying.

Gletscherhorn (3.983m / 13,067′), with a light dusting of snow on top of glaciers and ice caps. Amen.

Eiger. (3.967m / 13,015′)

Mönch (4.107m / 13,474′).

I have no clue what this is. It is big and precipitous, though.

Fietschergletscher.

Aletschgletscher. This is half of it, from one mile above it. Its the largest glacier in Europe.

Some glaciers. 

Gspaltenhorn in the foreground. One can see the roughly 3000m snow line clearly.

Doldenhorn (3.643m / 11,952′). Now we’re getting down into low country….

Canton of Bern in the foreground, Canton of Valais over the ridge with light snow. Bietschhorn on the right horizon (flight path en route to high terrain).

Bernese Oberland. While it looks like gentle knolls from up here, if taken in isolation these highlands would be considered noteworthy.

Bernese Alps with Plaine-Morte Gletscher in the background. August snow is clearly visible next to green grass below.

Arpelistock (3.305m / 10,843′), among other things.

Snowfall melting in afternoon sun. 

Les Diablerets.

Col du Pas de Cheville.

I think this is the Grand Muveran.

Roc Champion

Mt Blanc, sneering at me after I already spent my fuel chasing other things. She shall have to wait until another day.

Grand Chavalard above, Rhône River below.

 

 

 

 

 

Flights: Switzerland, France, Italy: Demystifying the Upper Atmosphere

It’s not like I haven’t been here before with the Cub. When I was a student pilot, I took the airplane to 7,500 feet, came home, and told my parents about it proudly. My father’s response was, “DON’T EVER DO THAT AGAIN!” My reply to his little tantrum was to take it to 14,000 feet the next time I went flying. There I was, overhead my grandfather’s airstrip at 1,280’ elevation in upstate New York, above incoming airliner traffic to Buffalo, with no radio, looking north of Toronto Canada 75 miles away. I was 16.

Perhaps that moment could have been highly instructive as to how I ended up here a bit over 20 years later.

Anyhow, not too long after moving to Colorado, I took a flight in a snowstorm at 12,000 feet over Fremont Pass into Leadville, to move the airplane to the highest airport in North America at 9,927’ elevation. Two flights later, I was cruising around at my present altitude record: 16,300’, with a passenger.

Now, connect that to 300 hours of flying in the high country of Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Utah, to hundreds of hours in the Spanish and French Pyrenees, and I somehow got my undies in a bunch about flying in the Alps. Granted, Mt. Blanc exceeds the highest peak in Colorado by 1,400’, but it’s not like I haven’t gone higher.

There is the matter that I would be starting in Sion at 1,582’ instead of at 10,000’, though refer to my teenage miscreant misadventures, and clearly the airplane could do it, even though I hadn’t figured out the mixture control at the time, so the engine coughed and sputtered its way to 14,000’. I would eventually figure out on my first takeoff run at 5,400’ in Boulder, Colorado that the engine needs to be leaned at high altitude, as I was rotating for takeoff with a curiously partially operative engine. “Maybe if I pull this lever a bit.” [engine roars to life] “Simple enough. Rockies, here we come!”

Anyway, I digress. What is the point? My ass has gotten a bit bigger. You know, middle age (it’s all muscle, I swear). That has lent to a nagging suspicion that a quick jaunt to 16,000’ might be a bit more complex. It was with such a fear that I chose a hot day in late June in Spain to make a detailed record of how long it took to climb from 3,609’ to 16,000’. 56 minutes. And then somebody crashed a plane and I got distracted jumping in to help confirm the wreckage location (he survived), so that supplanted non-emotionalized data consideration (okay, okay, I am just convoluting the large ass thing).

56 minutes is from almost 4,000 feet, not 1,582’, and I have 3 hours of fuel. How would this work?

It didn’t help that an astonishing 28 people died in airplane crashes in the Alps in the week of my arrival to Switzerland, inclusive of another crash in the vicinity of Sion, while I was in the air (again). Nonetheless, if one wants to fly around mountain peaks, getting in and figuring it out is the most expedient way. As the pictures will show, I was just being a wimp and its fine.

Climbout out from Sion, wondering how this all is going to work. Rhône River below.

At this moment, I was fairly certain I would end up above the clouds. Sembrancher lower right.

Pierre Avoi. 8113′ elevation. We’re getting a little somewhere.

Absolutely heading above the clouds.

In the Pyrenees, this would be impressive. Switzerland, its the warmup exercise.

Glacier du Gietro, Switzerland.

And Grand Combin (14,153′). At this moment, I decided I don’t give a crap and I am heading in…

…even if it involves some creative flying.

Grand Combin mixed with clouds.

Mont Vélan, with Italy lurking in the background. On this side of the line, they hoard cash. On the other, they spend it (and everyone else’s), threatening to take the Eurozone down with them. Its amazing what a mountain range will do to the development of culture over millennia.

Grand Combin again.

Glacier de Valsorey, Switzerland.

Some glacier in Switzerland, looking at Italy. At this point, I was somewhat starstruck with glaciers everywhere I looked.

Glacier d’Otemma, Switzerland.

Glacier du Mont Miné. By this point, I realized that whatever mental track I had of what glaciers existed was completely wrong, and there were far more than I recalled.

The Matterhorn (14,692′). Italy foreground, Switzerland background.

Why not get closer?

Dufourspitze, the highest peak in Switzerland (15,203′).

Ice cap on the Italian border. An ice cap differs from a glacier in that an ice cap is frozen to the bedrock, whereas a glacier moves as a river of ice.

Matterhorn again, from the north.

Glacier de Molry.

Col de la Dent Blanche.

A mountain range lurks in those raised clouds. The path back to the airport is in the hole to the center left.

Some good old cumulo-granite….

Circling down…

On final to Sion. Obviously all of that was senseless bluster and there is nothing complicated about it.