Flight: Switzerland (BE, VD): Illusions of Winter

One would think that it snows heavily around the holidays in the Alps. The reality is debatable. Last year during a visit, Gstaad was devoid of snow. This year, it has been plentiful quantities of rain. Dreaming of a white Christmas? You’ll have to find a high-altitude chalet and pay for it.

The flight on this post took place during an early season snowfall, where I was lulled into a belief that winter meant snow in the Alps (at least where humans are; the summits are loaded with it). From what I have read, it is the warmest December in Swiss history, with the single highest temperature in the entire month, in the entire country, recorded at 20.1C, on the north side of the Alps. What does this portend for the rest of the winter? I’d venture to guess that a continuation of the south side of the Alps getting slammed with precipitation, as it has occurred since autumn. Much like Spain, it could be anything from the rest of the winter finishing as warm and annoying, or it could rapidly switch and have weather systems attempt to asphyxiate inhabitants of alpine valleys with meters of snow. In 2018, winter in the Pyrenees went from bone dry, with nearly months of no snow even at the summits, to 76cm/2.5 feet of snow in one storm, down in the valley, which hadn’t happened in decades.

Saanen, on takeoff runway 08. 

Gstaad. I recently read an article about Christmas in Gstaad, written in 2015. It was obviously dated as it presented Harvey Weinstein frolicking on the promenade browsing English-language books as a good thing.

Horneggli ski area. 

Schonried center right. Gstaad Airport in the shadow center distance.

Wittenberghorn und Gummfluh.

Lauenen…under the clouds. Giferspitz above them.

Why not go from ‘VFR on top’ in the Alps to a hole in the clouds, where I can proceed up a snowy box canyon? Gsteig.

Amen. Nothing like a 5000′ wall of rock at the end of the valley. I rode a cable car up to the pass on the right with my wife over the summer. It was very steep and very high, and I attempted to alleviate her nervousness about our impending doom by noting that “if the cable snaps, we get a Bernese death certificate.” A British tourist crammed in the gondola found it eminently amusing.

Still Gsteig. Here Swiss rednecks and obscenely wealthy foreigners coexist in an oddly sustainable equilibrium. 

Gstaad Airport looking toward the canton of Vaud. 


L’Intyamon. Unceremoniously, the snow goes away due to temperatures. That is the rain layer. Seattle below, Colorado above. 

About to overfly Gstaad Airport to confirm wind. It favored 08, my first ever landing on that side. One has to have some balls to bring heavy metal into this airport. Terrain is rather steep on final approach, so much so that even if I slow the Cub to 48mph, ride the stall buffet skimming trees (it won’t actually stall due to vortex generators, though she’ll wiggle quite a bit), I still must do a slip to bring it down on the numbers, which are displaced quite a distance from the end of the runway. I suppose the proclivity of the Cub to not sink fast makes it seem challenging, as I watched a PC-24 land on 08 and the sink rate can easily match terrain below.

Book #21: Flying Yellowstone

Yellowstone was an editorial conundrum at the time I was flying it. The size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined, replete with a complex variety of subjects, it seemed too big for one book, yet if I ignored the magnitude of geothermal features that existed for favor of editorial curation and book size, then I was missing out. Eventually, I decided to split it in two, with the first book “Yellowstone’s Hot Springs: An Aviator’s Perspective” coming out in 2017 and now finally, “Flying Yellowstone.” The newest release features two sections on geothermal features, with the rest covering the vast array that exists in the rest of the park, much of it accessible only by foot. In my continuing assumption that readers are faithful disciples that a) read absolutely everything I write and b) would notice that I may have duplicated content, all images in “Flying Yellowstone” are unique and did not appear in the hot springs book.

As I have more Swiss and Spanish content to release in the coming years, I realized that I will be bringing books to market on American, Iberian, and Alpine subjects simultaneously. While it may be esoteric, I find it interesting and demonstrative of my inability to estimate the workload involved in producing a photography book. It’s also the nature of this crazy story that I didn’t see coming.

Flight: Switzerland (VD, VS), France: Lake Geneva Inversion and Pre-Alps

While I had not heard of such a thing prior to visiting Europe, nor do I hear much about it from sources other than my ramblings, inversions are apparently relatively common on this continent. Part of it likely has to do with somewhat placid maritime weather, whereas the bigger contributor is terrain. California and its famous fog is the closest North American equivalent to terrain and inbound western moisture.

For those who have been reading the blog for years, it is noted that I used to rant quite a bit about it in Spain, then grew to appreciate the beauty of the inversion, so long as it was down below and not defiling my day-to-day life. In the inhabited sections of the Alps and terrain beneath, inversions abound, so much so that it is a common pollution consideration, as air gets trapped and contaminants pile up. British people regularly get tricked by it, with stories of Londoners wishing to “move to the mountains where the air is clear” to escape London’s own diesel-infused winter inversion. They come to Chamonix, France, and then discover that their child’s asthma is now worse, because the air simply gets trapped in such deep valleys.

To me, it is odd. I am so used to strong storm systems with abundant energy blowing entire air masses out to sea, whether it was NY, NC, WY, or CO, it seemed to be that when terrain created fog or orographic lift, it did it in a way that did not trap the air mass. I suppose the alternation between dry Canadian air and moist Gulf or Atlantic sources is the key. A cold front out of the north in Europe, while it can be drier, often brings cool, moist air instead of warm, moist air. Cold, dry air from Russia is not common in Western Europe, so there you have it.

Now how does this fit into flying? There is a persistent inversion over Lake Geneva in winter. In the autumn, it merely sneers at me, demonstrating that clearer air is above, whereas humid defilement sits below. In 2018, it sent me on a rampage, though in 2019 I got smarter and figured out there is a thing called “webcams” and I can discern the top of the layer and either fly or drive above it.

This flight punctured the inversion, went over Lake Geneva, around the Chablais Alps, into the French Pre-Alps northwest of Portes du Soleil for the first time, and came back to the airport via Col du Forclaz.

Skank layer over the Rhône Valley.

Haze now turning into clouds against the Chablais Alps.

Where the magic happens….

Its VFR on top!

From where I came. Technically there were a few holes behind me. Should the engine have quit, I could dive through them and then have about 3,000′ under the cloud deck before landing either in the lake or in an otherwise inhospitable location. 

Island in the sky. Above Evian, France, which probably means you’re looking at the source of its famous bottled water.

Looking up the valley toward Morzine and Mt. Blanc on the horizon. This is the same inversion layer, except no clouds. “Clear mountain air” that ensnares British people looking for a better life.

Pre-Alps looking back toward Lake Geneva, with the Jura Mountains on the horizon. An excellent example of how these inversions work.

Mt. Blanc in the distance again.

Above Oëx, France.

Above Sallanches, France, with Mt. Blanc in the background.

Lac d’Emosson, Switzerland.

Descending down into the skank layer.