Book #20: Above the Summit: An Antique Airplane Conquers the 4000ers of the Alps

Well, here it is: the cherry on top. After six years of mountain flying in the Rockies, Appalachians, Pyrenees, and Alps, after $5000 of aircraft parts installed in 2015 to fly in Europe, planning specifically for Mt. Blanc, after shipping the airplane from Wyoming to Germany, here we are, having flown the list of the highest peaks in the Alps.

Eighty-two peaks can be found over 4000 meters in height (13,123’ to 15,774’) in the Alps, located in France, Italy, and Switzerland. Unlike their cousins in America, these peaks are covered not only by glaciers, literal ice caps can be found on some of these summits.

I must say I have come a long way since that day in early winter 2013, standing at Leadville, Colorado not too long after deciding to base the PA-11 there. I had only recently figured out how to get the engine to take off at such altitudes; getting to the height of a 14er (mountain over 14,000’ feet) was complicated enough. Yet, there I stood, staring at Mt. Elbert, the highest peak in Colorado, and I thought to myself: “It can’t be that hard to fly to them all.” Ha! It was quite an experience, both in this airplane and not knowing what the hell I was doing. That was my first aerial adventure book.

It wasn’t long before I was upside down (literally) in the Appalachians. Go figure. Winds can be dangerous there, too. Then back to chase glaciers in the Rockies. How I thought that was the pinnacle of achievement! Little did I know that those piddling snow fields just whet my appetite. The Pyrenees were a bit of a necessary breather, as just about everything I came to expect about European aviation was completely false, so I had a chance to thoroughly enjoy myself and regroup, while also happening to realize the place was filled with rotors and mountain waves. So much for planning…

And then the Alps came. In a way, it was anticlimactic. It should have been more dangerous, yet it seemed to be a relatively rational experience. Now why could that suddenly be? I would venture to guess it’s pretty simple: I had by then figured out what mountain flying was all about.

Honestly, in 2013 when I made that fateful decision to move to Colorado, I thought I would just live there happily ever after. Never in a million years did I expect this to happen.

 

Flights: Switzerland (BE, VD, VS): Glacier Hunting

Chronicles of Existential Dread: Volume XI: ‘Touching Heaven With One’s Hand’

On a flight in the last month, I happened to note a road to the Cabane Brunet, a refuge located near timberline, south of Verbier. It appeared that cars could actually drive that high, so I investigated online, and it looked open. There is an annoying reality in Europe that many farm and forest service roads exist, appear publicly accessible, are evident on Google Maps, and when one arrives, there is a sign indicating the public is not allowed. Stiff fines naturally await. I have found the best way to confirm the presence or lack of signs is to engage Google Street View, if it exists.

Nonetheless, I decided to drive there, and then take a hike to look at autumn larches. Since most of the elevation change was already achieved, it fit my personal philosophy to frolic in the woods, and maybe, just maybe, hike to the glacier.

Sure enough, I hiked to the Glacier de Corbassière. It was about 6 hours out and back, with a hefty elevation incline, precipitous trails, winds blowing at times to 100 km/h, and some light orographic precipitation coming off of Grand Combin, a massive peak straddling the Italian border. As I approached the glacier, it was evident there was no real trail to it, so I forged my own, stumbling over boulders, slippery rocks, and tumbling scree fields, left behind only in recent years as the glacier as receded.

Then I stood at the base of this massive ice feature, getting beaten by fierce winds. It was wonderful.

I texted some photos to some friends, and one wrote back, in Spanish, stating: “You touched heaven with your hand.” It’s a rough translation, as Spanish conveys emotion and philosophical sensuality far better than Anglo-Germanic languages, though the point is the same. It was a special moment.

“Touching heaven”






I felt appropriately euphoric as I limped back to the car after dark, aching from the beating I took overdoing it. As I drove down curvy mountain roads in the dark, I felt mentally cleansed as I normally do after these exposures, inclusive of an evening watching a movie, relishing my achievement.

Then I struggled to sleep that night, stewing over all sorts of mental machinations, derived of this hike.

People often refer to blissful surroundings as “heaven.” We use the term metaphorically, even though it has religious roots. Most of the time, myself included, when visiting a metaphorical heaven, people come back transfixed, overwhelmed by their experience, circumspect by its awe, with quotidian concerns subdued for favor of the transcendency just experienced. It makes sense to me, as I have experienced more doses than normal of this state of mind.

What if someone literally ascended to heaven, albeit briefly, saw pure bliss, and then descended back to their suburban 70s split-level home, sat in their aged recliner chair, heard their wife make yet another comment about an oversized midsection, glanced over at their wife’s oversized midsection, reflected on the reality that sex isn’t what it used to be (if it exists at all), swallowed the last of the lukewarm and subpar beer, realized the sports team on television lost yet again, glanced at yardwork not completed, contemplated an underfunded 401k, and thought: “Screw this. I am going back to heaven.”

To me, it would make sense. If someone tasted heaven, he or she should stay there. Yet, when we visit national parks or other such blissful experiences, while we acknowledge more is desired, typically people are awash with some sort of glossy-eyed look of near drugged mental unhingement. Is it a coping mechanism at the dread of returning to a miserable routine? Is it pain and exhaustion from too many ski runs? Is it middle-of-the-curve stupidity? Or do people just expect that life has to suck and that transcendence is the domain of infrequent microdoses?

It is by no means a majority, though many memoirs and travelogues contain an undercurrent of people that are on the verge of cracking, or actually crack, realizing that they are not going back to their mundane lifestyle. I read one where a lady heard voices in her mind as she began tearing out every useless kitchen utensil that filled their oversized McMansion. She and her husband sold it all and took the kids around the world for two years. Or the stereotypical PhD that is a postal clerk in Alaska. Oh, the list goes on, and I idolize each one of them.

What’s the takeaway in my case? I’d really prefer to be living next to said glacier, instead of driving and hiking all day to it. In the meantime, I keep flying, tantalizing myself with a near pornographic rendition of such mountain bliss, always at the tip of the wing, always unable to be actually touched, always in motion, yet right in front of my face. “There has to be a way,” I tell myself, yet I am still trying to precisely figure it out. There is a yurt waiting in the mountains of Romania in the event I finally lose it in the process.

As for the photos, I took some very specific flights to various glaciers in the Bernese Alps in late summer, as part of a project for an upcoming book on them. The experience was fantastic and probably laid the foundation for my teeth to start itching and want to live next to a glacier.

These photos were taken on multiple flights.

On the sniff for glaciers…..Tierberggletscher.

Jegigletscher.

Äbeni Flue-Firn.

A glacier not worthy of a name, glued to the nearly vertical north slope of the Aletschhorn.

Peeking over the edge to look at the Beichgletscher.

Some ice glued to the Doldenhorn.

Obere Oeschinengletscher. Unsurprisingly, it is above the Oeschinensee. Supposedly, one of slabs of rock is moving at a rate of speed that indicates she’ll let loose, rockslide into the lake, and create a disaster. “Such is the Alps” is the view of the locals. I wonder what they will think about a massive tsunami coming at them….

Bottom of the Blüemlisalpgletscher. 

I think that is the Morgenhorngletscher in the back. One understands why I call this “glacier hunting.” Around each bend, one finds more glaciers lurking in places I did not expect.

Don’t forget to look down!

Südlicher Breitlouwenengletscher.

Rottalgletscher.

Giesengletscher, beneath the Jungfrau.

What I call “The Cathedral.” Ischmeer.

Obers Ischmeer und Finsteraarjoch with a bunch of feeder glaciers. If you’re tired, imagine flying them all.

Lauteraarsattel.

Somewhere northeast of Rosenhorn. I am not sure the name of the precise feature. It is a piddling dab of snow compared to massive cleaving rivers of ice below.

East side of Studerhorn. I wanted to sneak over to the other side, though it would have been silly.

So I snuck over to my right, the Finsteraarjoch. 

Obers Mönchsjoch. I didn’t see the helicopter flying, though I saw his shadow on the ice.

Mittaghorn.

The saddle west of Kranzberg, looking down on Rottalgletscher, above two cloud layers. Amen.

Getting frisky with the Beichgletscher, beneath the Breithorn. It was tight in here.

I reluctantly had to fly up the valley and see what was there. Too many damn glaciers.

Snapped a picture of this, barely taking a second to enjoy it. Upon further research, it is the west slope of the Aletschhorn, one of the peaks over 4000m in the Alps. 

Okay, this doesn’t qualify as “glacier hunting” as I already photographed it to death. It did happen to be on the way looking for other patches of ice that I might have missed. Aletschgletscher, largest in Europe. Yawn.

Another one not deserving of a name. It might be considered part of the Grienbärgligletscher, though I doubt it. Its beneath the Hienderstock.

Rottalgletscher hiding in the clouds. I like it. Makes it sexier.

Playing hard to get….Alright, enough glaciers for now.