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. 

Flight: Switzerland (VD, VS): In Memoriam

It was one year ago today that I took an illustrious flight from Sion to Saanen, Switzerland, then a three-hour flight around the block (Interlaken, Jungfrau, etc), and then went back to Sion, over the Pas de Cheville. I arrived home from what was at the time possibly the most incredible flight I had taken to find out that the inspiration for my aviation activities was entering hospice. My grandfather died 18 hours later.

Now, before one gets some presumption this is a weighty boo-hooey fusillade of grief and despair, fear not. If you’re a regular reader, then one should know that my prose eventually finds ways to connect the most transcendental, deep, poetic, spiritual, stirring, and profound experiences into cynicism on a regular basis.

It is interesting one year later that the weather was basically the same, the scenery just as gorgeous, and I found myself and the airplane within 40nm of the place it was a year ago. What better thing to do than go flying to mark the occasion?

That stirs a memory from the year 2007. My father had just been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, so I did the whole ceremonial drive to New York from North Carolina, you know, “normal” family stuff. It wasn’t the least bit awkward that most of the immediate family hates each other, but oh well, what is the abyss of death for, but to keep appearances?

One would presume that my grandfather would be shaken up at the prospect of his only son preceding him in death, so I stopped in for a visit. Well, there is that, and the fact that my grandfather was one of the few in the family that I liked, and my grandmother, prior to some apocalyptic zealot miswanderings, made one hell of an apple pie.

I arrived at his house, and there was the Bell 47 helicopter. Granted, I had heard of his new toy, but I hadn’t ridden in it. At age 76, he decided that a Super Cub was too boring (to fly and get a burger), so he got his helicopter license so that he could fly over the hill (and get a coffee). There the beast was, gleaming in the sun. Am I greeted by a morose, grief-stricken patriarch weighted down by the burden of the younger generation dying before the old?

“Get in.”
“Um, is this a good idea?”
“Yes, it’s a nice day to go flying. Here’s the passenger side.”
“Are you going to pre-flight this thing?”
“You get in on this side and put the seat belt on like the Cub.”

Right. So, tossing caution about the “pilot’s mental condition” aside, I hop in, contemplating my mortality.

After preflight checks are done (he actually used a checklist for the first time – I am not sure how that makes me feel), we ascended with alarming speed, reaching about 250 feet, before he settled into a hover, staring at a gauge. Then we began descending, for which he brought it into a hover over the runway. “So, what are we doing?” “The RPM is lower than it should be.” “Is that normal?” “Nope.”

That problem resolved itself on its own, so we rocketed thousands of feet into the sky in a contraption I did not know how to fly, piloted by an old man who is either the pinnacle of mental stability, or is about to crack. It was a ton of fun.

This begets a conversation about my grandfather’s perspective on death. Whenever a pilot that we knew of cratered their airplane into the ground and met their maker, he would with a resigned tone inform me, “Well, [X] cracked up.” I couldn’t tell if it was the inevitability of aviation, the inevitability of death in general, or if he thought that pilot was stupid. Some years later, when he was talking with a mutual acquaintance who wanted to fly his Bonanza from New York to a tight little grass strip where I kept the PA-11 in North Carolina, he started the conversation with, “Mark and Jay want to come and crash their Bonanza at your airfield.” I guess he thought deceased aviators were dumb.

Nibbling a bit further into the death concept, my mother informed me a long time ago of my father’s apparent mental derangement, at the behest of his “crazy parents.” So I am told, when my mother’s mother died in the 1980s, two days afterward, my father got all indignant and asked, “Um, why are you still crying?” “BECAUSE MY MOTHER DIED TWO DAYS AGO!” “So, why aren’t you over it yet?” Why she did not commit assault at that moment, I will never know. I was 6, so maybe she did….

Apparently, my grandparents have this “shit happens” view on death. Go to church, attend the funeral wearing black, act sad (or annoyed….or bored – hard to tell really), return home, and go back to work. If the person was a cherished friend, don’t talk about it. If it was someone the planet is better off without, don’t talk about it. My father was raised in this environment and took it so literally that he opened his mouth to argue the idea of grief (to which I was instructed it was pure lunacy, and as an adult, I prefer the grandparents’ view). I believe my grandfather had adequate social awareness to slither away from that kind of conflict.

I honestly think if it were possible to have a conversation with him about such banalities as “feelings” about his death, he’d probably look at me funny that any time was wasted on emotion about an event that was so inevitable and expected. I literally had a dream a few weeks ago, and he was in it. My first words were (flatly): “I thought you were dead.” His reply was a look on his face like I was dumb and: “Well, I’m here.”

Beneath Villars. Early fall tones showing up in low altitude deciduous trees.

Below Pas de Cheville, eastbound.

Up the valley in Leukerbad. A tad of fall color immersed in Swiss Alps glory.

Exiting Leukerbad. Larch trees beginning to change color at timberline. 

Forest fire burn scar erupting in autumnal color, Rhône Valley, eastern Valais.

This is pure heaven. Larch trees in color with a bit of a glacier in the distance! Amen.

I flew up a ridiculous box canyon and this is the view on the way out. There were very old buildings accessible only on foot on these hillsides.

Above Brig. Glacier across the way, with larch trees below. The last time I saw something like this was the 49th parallel in northern Montana.

Aletschgletscher with fall color. Life is now complete.

Simplon Pass, Swiss side. Flying here had the subtlety and serenity of riding a bronco. It was breezy.

A friend saw a photo like this as noted it looked like “Little Colorado.” If one swaps the larches for aspens, this is a scene one might expect in the Elk Mountains of Colorado.

Interestingly, I have a fall photo of the western side of the Black Mountains of North Carolina, the tallest ridge in the eastern half of the United States, that looks a lot like this, albeit somewhat less severe. Colors and tones were similar. That was five years ago.

Some lonely larch trees in the center. Approaching Pas de Cheville, westbound.

Now on the other side. I took some photos of this terrain a year ago. How things change yet how they stay the same.

Book #19: Mountain Texture: The Pyrenees from the Sky

Since almost four years have passed since arriving in Europe, and prior to this book, 11% of my books were on European subjects, I decided to change the editorial workflow and shove some current content into the pipeline while I continue to chip away at remaining subjects from the USA.

This my third texture book and second Pyrenees book. Texture is interesting, as it is something that I collect, almost universally unexpectedly, while on a flight taking what are otherwise landscape images. That is how ‘Field of Dreams’ and ‘American Texture’ images were acquired. With my newest release, I had a chance to narrow down geographic focus, while retaining the same criteria for texture images. That affords an opportunity to furnish knowledge of the essence of the Pyrenees region, while still producing a book that looks like a tour of an art gallery.

I made some tweaks to layout and flow compared to prior books, resulting in my highest image count yet, organized in some different and interesting ways. It is available on Amazon.com and various Amazon sites in Europe.

 

 

Flight: Switzerland (BE, VD, UR, VS): Oberland, Andermatt, Münster, Interlaken

I find it interesting how consistently ignorant expectation differs from reality. In this case, I stumbled across a small airport in Münster, Switzerland, and because it was in such a deep valley, so high up (4,354 feet), and only open June to August, it must have been the pinnacle of backwoodsness and difficulty.

Since it’s a PPR field (“prior permission required”), I called the aerodrome manager, got referred to his deputy, and had some cautious inquiries into what kind of pilot I was. Since I have a clearly American accent (and potentially since they are “deep in the Valais” – who knows), there was some suspicion until I said I’d be coming from Saanen (3,304’, surrounded by towering terrain). “Coming from Saanen? Ok, you can come here.”

I decided to head over the Oberland without heading straight for the glaciers, at least initially. I squeezed beneath Mönch, then into a “cathedral” of glaciers under Ischmeer, east along vertical ridges, over the Aare River valley, then the Sustenpass, south to Andermatt, then west to Furkapass and then Grimselpass, before heading down the Goms Valley where I had to hold for gliders, skimming steep terrain in a tight valley then making an unimpressive landing.

After powering down, the scene was something to behold. Fresh temperatures, dry air, illustrious sky tones, an alpine meadow, and a bunch of Swiss Germans dutifully attending to various tasks (except for one guy for which we chatted for 30 minutes). I walked over to the Rhône River, which ran along the field, and watched the turquoise water rush beneath. It was interesting to stand on a bridge and gaze to the distance, where the Rhône Glacier proudly stood, the source of the Rhône River, just a few kilometers away.

In a nutshell, it was a Swiss Cerdanya. Colors, tones, weather, altitude, rural solitude – it was the same thing just further north, and a much tighter valley. Ironically, the feelings I had when it was this gnarly unknown were so very different than when I landed there; I saw less menace and more beauty, though that is usually what happens.

I went back to base via the Grimselpass, Aare River valley, over Interlaken, then into the Oberland with a very large smile on my face.

Just south of Schronried. The Oberland in brilliant summer glory.

Spillgerte

North of Männliflue.

Oeschinensee, from above Kandersteg.

Eiger, Mönch, and the Jungfrau, playing hard to get from behind Sulegg.

Jungfrau.

Waterfall protruding from Ischmeer.

Big rock.

Aare River valley.

Wendenstöcke. Reminds me of Cadí-Moixeró in Spain a bit.

Stucklistock, now in the Canton of Uri for the first time.

Up the valley from Hospental.

Galenstock.

Goms Valley, holding for gliders. The mountain behind me is very close, making it quite tight. In 1419 Berne sent troops to smash early forerunners to the Republik Der Sieben Zenden, a power base that grew away from the church and sprang from medieval peasantry. Somewhere to the left of the image, the Zendens gave the Berners a beatdown, so they burned everything while retreating to Grimselpass. Then everyone got together and worked out a deal. 600 years later, and people come for tourism, fondue, and skiing! I am skipping over centuries of intrigue in between….

Goms Valley, with the Rhône River below and Rhône Glacier on the horizon.

Climbing out from Münster.

Approaching Grimselpass.

Flying over Grimselpass.

The other side.

Blattenstock. I’d gladly build a house in the trees on the summit, if it was allowed.

Looking left toward the Eiger. I came from right to left in front of those rocks earlier in the day.

Interlaken Ost with Brienzersee below.

Almost back to base. Zweisimmen airport in center left. 

Gstaad.

Flight: Switzerland (BE, VD, VS), Italy: First Snow in the Alps

I interrupt my regular blogging procrastination to post something current. It snowed roughly down to 7,000 feet over the weekend. I dutifully raced to the airport on the first flyable day and chased it like I usually do every year.

There is something intriguing and almost spiritual about the “first snow.” In the Alps, there really is no such thing as a “first snow” as any rainstorm of consequence will leave hints of snow at 4000m/13,100’ during the course of the summer. As last year proves, an August snow can descend as low as 9,000 feet. For some reason, July and August snow, even in the high Rockies and Pyrenees, while it can happen, just doesn’t count as the “first” snow, the harbinger of coming winter; rather, it’s a delightful anomaly endemic to high mountain existence.

I have begun filming some of my flights, including this one. The process began years ago and was a complete pain in the rear. A spinning propeller is not received well on digital recordings. Airframe vibration turns the whole thing into literal jello on camera, as CMOS sensor recording order mixed with getting wiggled produces deleterious effects. Someone suggested I get recordings in the event a film is done some day, which while I understood the reasoning, I was sardonically skeptical. I had to admit, though, that I am in the air in quite rugged and unusual places. What harm could it do to have some good quality film? It may be that years from now I’ll wonder why I didn’t bother to record some.

That set off an eleven-month saga of “rage against the machine” at my new and expensive camera…and mounts….and accessories…and more accessories…and software. I have to admit the product is special, though I have been greeted in the online world with counsel that I could shorten them accommodate limited attention spans and pay for additional cinematic effects and add-ons. I am unsure of the point, as they are free videos, and I believe the best I could get here is some sort of electronic badge from YouTube to increase my self-esteem. Never mind, I’d rather go flying.

Video first, then photos. Not sure how this will translate in e-mail blasts. 16 minutes HD.

Gummfluh. A little bit of snow on the right, and contrails from Swiss military jets above.

Col de Jable, with Alps leering over the ridge.

Slopes of the Wittenberghorn, a neat mixture of green grass and snow.

Above the clouds, looking toward Lenk and Turbach. 

Approaching the Bernese Alps.

Bernese Alps…what a surprise.

Geltengletscher (the parts that are white and smooth). This is why glacier photography is done mostly in summer, to distinguish permanent ice fixtures from snowflakes.

South of Sion, in the Valais. Snow levels are higher here.

Large wall of rock with snow stuck on it. Beneath the Weisshorn.

Between Zinalrothorn and Obel Gaberhorn, with Dufourspitze on the horizon. Another lesson in why glaciers lack certain intrigue with snow on them. Kind of ironic, actually.

Matterhorn. It was too windy to fly around it, so I stayed on the upwind side and got bumped around.

West slope of the Matterhorn, looking over the ridge into Italy. I crossed over and got tossed around, so I came back.

More rock with snow on it. “Seen one, seen them all” so I have heard.

Weissmiess in the distance. A nice demonstration of snow levels as they melt upward during the day.

Back to the Bernese Alps, south side, with snow melting. It is not likely to last all the way to winter, as September sun is too strong. 

One thing I love about first snows is that mountain textures are extremely vivid. As winter progresses, these textures will be coated with meters of snow and lose detail of their texture. That can have its own beauty when it happens.

Case in point regarding texture. On the top of the image is the tongue of the Plaines Morte Glacier. Just 10 days prior, there was a roaring waterfall here, now shut off due to no glacier melt.

I flew to some of the highest peaks in the rear earlier in the flight. By now, I am absolutely freezing.

A waterfall with snow! Hallelujah!

In early snowfalls, rivers and streams show up as dark. Once they freeze, the texture is lost.

Below the clouds, in carb ice territory.

Flight: Switzerland (BE, VD, GE, VS), France: Lake Geneva

I stare at the this lake enough each day that it drives me nuts and I want to fly over it. An obstacle is the haze the lake creates, and a 6,000 to 8,000 foot tall ridge separating the Oberland from the lake, where one must then descend a mile, only to tour a beautiful lake that features no emergency landing zones in most places. I decided to get it over with and head all the way to Geneva and come back on the French side, which sneers at us visually on a repeated basis. It was rather pretty, an odd juxtaposition to glaciated towering peaks that sit not too far away. Literally within the scope of 90 minutes, a person could get off a ferry on this lake, drive a bit, and disembark a gondola just shy of 10,000′ and walk across a glacier.

Dent de Corjon (6,453′), before heading over the ridge.

Glion in the foreground, after having descended over 1000′. Note the haze over Lake Geneva, which is a microclimate.

Montreux. Working my way down.

Vineyards along the lake.

Pully, looking back toward from where I came.

Lausanne, the fourth largest city in Switzerland.

There’s something in the water…I just don’t know what it is. Off the shore of Saint-Prex.

I had heard Swiss banking was struggling, though I didn’t expect them to resort to 18th century piracy.

Crossing the lake to avoid Geneva’s control zone.

The dark side. La Motte, France.

Geneva. That is a 300 foot tall water fountain. Somewhere in this image lurks a giant particle accelerator.

Back to the dark side – Capite, France. Beginning the return toward Saanen.

Thonon-les-Bains, France. Evian water comes from up the hill to the right, out of the image.

Lugrin, France.

Suffice it to say that, should the engine have quit, I would have ended up somewhat moist.

Saint-Gingolph, the border between France (fore) and Switzerland (aft). Amazon has decided that they absolutely will not ship author proofs for my books to me in Switzerland, so I have to drive to the French post office here to pick them up. 

Silt from the Rhône emptying into Lake Geneva. 

Rhône River.

Rhône and Lake Geneva mixing.

About to turn base for runway 26, over Gstaad. Switzerland does not suck.

Flight: Switzerland (VD, BE, VS): Mixing the Alps With Clouds

Note: Abbreviations in parenthesis are the Swiss cantons overflown. In this case Vaud, Bern, and Valais.

There is an essence of Switzerland that I struggle to understand from the air. While one can fly from point to point in measurable and often small distances, it is not often the point itself but the altitude that defines the nature of the destination. To visit the famous village of Interlaken or to go the Jungfraujoch are separated by less than 10 miles in distance and roughly 12,000 feet in elevation. Interlaken is a temperate habitable climate zone, whereas the Jungfraujoch sits on an ice cap. Both are places that can be visited on the ground, with understandably varying complication. The situation in the air is similar.

Because the Cub is powered by a small engine, and fuel range is three hours at normal cruise, with even less if one is climbing at full power for most of it, when a destination in Switzerland is chosen, one must do some altitude planning, largely restricting the flight to the altitude of the destination in question.  If said locale is high up, then I am obligated to find something useful to do for 90+ minutes of climb and descent. If it is low and remains anywhere near terrain, then one must plan how to get there and work around obstructions.

The plan for this flight was something different. Since I am on the Oberland side this time, weather is usually more questionable, though terrain is more varied that Sion. Sion, where I was based for last year’s Swiss adventure, is in the Rhône valley, which runs east-west for most of its time in the Alps. That puts it in a different climate zone, which is more favorable, though otherwise sets the tone for each flight, by putting 9,000’ terrain north and south. Any flight of any reasonable objective involved climbing over that terrain.

That was particularly discouraging toward doing flights like I intended on this day. To climb to 10,000’ only to descend to 6,000’ to play around the base of the Jungfrau, then climb back up, and descend down to 1,582’ was both a bit silly and rather consumptive of fuel. Thus, it was not an event that took place last year. Since I am on the north side of the Alps, there is a lot of variety to see on the way, and things like this make more sense.

The problem, which I am still working on fully understanding, is the weather. While there is a nice orb of yellow sunshine on the forecast map, that holds true over various towns and airports. Merely a few miles from these valley destinations, Oberland elevations can shoot up to rather steep heights (valleys 1500’ to 3500’ – summits 7000’ to 8500’), which means that weather varies significantly over a short distance.

That was proven after takeoff. Clouds were forming off of ridges, and much denser toward the Bernese Alps. I found some gaps in Oberland terrain and weaseled my way around towering clouds, eventually getting above them as I worked along the ridge from west to east. It didn’t take long to make the determination that I would not be flying far beneath the Jungfrau. Whatever I did would require getting above the clouds, which I determined was fine in light of the fact that scenery was stunningly beautiful.

There was a moderate north breeze at altitude, which meant that clouds dried out on the south side of the first Alps ridge. That meant an escape path to Sion should it be necessary, though such winds did discourage wandering over to that side just for fun. Generally, there is a downslope component with rotors on the lee side, and it makes for a fight to get back.

Eventually, I got partially above the clouds at 11,500’, and finished the job at 13,000’ realizing how futile my scheme to fly far below the Jungfrau was. Clouds were much thicker over Grindelwald and Lauterbrunnen, though it was extremely photogenic at altitude. I chuckle to myself as I reflected on the fact I told my wife that “I won’t be flying over glaciers at 13,000 feet.”

Over Sankt Stephan in the Oberland. Generally just a summer day.

Not so summery ten miles away. 

Found a way above it, now along the ridge of the Bernese Alps.

I don’t know that this is “classic,” though it does show a lot of elements of weather over the Oberland and Alps. Oberland is left, with typical haze in summer. Alps are to the right, and cloud formations are sometimes mysterious in the middle.

A breeze forming clouds at 10,000 feet.

Untertalgletscher, or something like that, trying to hide in the clouds. Its a pleasant sight in summer.

Now up at 12,000 feet, having scratched the idea of flying down there and looking back up.

Mönch with clouds forming on the lee side. I have a large collection of images like this from mountains all over the place.

Jungfraujoch, the place one can take a train to, is hiding in the cloud in the center right.

Jungfrau. I suppose I technically did get to fly below it and look up.

Looking down through a cloud layer to a glacier.

Looking toward Grindelwald. Cloud coverage, as measured by percentage, is not overcast, though its enough to thwart flying at that altitude.

Somewhere west of Stechtelberg. I confess to a simmering fatigue trying to figure out which exact peak it is. It would help if it wasn’t surrounded by illustrious, visually titillating cloud formations.

There are so many interesting glacial formations in Switzerland that one could get dizzy and literally engage in reverse peristalsis looking at them all. 

Working my way down the ridge toward the airport.

Found a hole and dropped in. I can’t shake the feeling that I am getting flipped off by the hill in the photo.

Above Lenk ski area.

The next hill over. German is spoken where lighting is black and brooding. French is spoken on the horizon where it is sunny. Curious….

Le Rubli. Its not exactly directly above the airport, though it does hang menacingly over the pattern entry point.

Gummfluh. This is part of the Pre-Alps/Oberland and not actually the Alps. Go figure.

If I don’t land the thing voluntarily, it will eventually run out of fuel. 

Flight: Spain, France, Switzerland: Back to Switzerland

With some excitement, another summer will be spent in Switzerland, so the plane had to get flown there. I wrote my in-flight musings in greater depth on last month’s AOPA post, so I will spare the details here. As usual, I presume that there is a mythological blog reader that reads every single piece of content I produce on all outlets, and I dutifully put photos here that were not on the AOPA post, lest said disciple be annoyed by looking at the same image twice. I also put them here as the flight covered ground I mostly had not visited, and in the spirit of my blog map (with lots of push pins), I like to include things in new areas to increase the percentage of planet earth that I have covered on a map. Let’s not get into the fact that I do not update said push pins but twice a year (and even then, I have years of flights missing) or talk about the original premise behind said push pins and how it has failed to live up to the plan. What is human existence but a serious of contradictory anachronisms…

Climbing out over Cerdanya. There is a smoky inversion below and a rare second layer at the summit of Pic Carlit, which was Saharan dust. 

Les Angles, France with haze layer at the summits.

Mediterranean hills north of Carcassonne, France. Like last year, it was hot and hazy.

Somewhere east of Rodez.

South of Lacalm. Terrain is somewhat higher here, though nothing too terribly crazy. There are some extinct volcanoes that impact soil and other conditions.

Cantal Mountains on the horizon. The shallow “cone” at the center is the biggest former volcano, which is 2,000 feet higher than my flight altitude.

Aerodrome de Saint Flour. 

Somewhere northwest of Le Puy.

Loire River.

Ridge before descending into the Rhône valley.

High speed train line in the Rhône valley.

Chirens, with the Pre-Alps on the horizon.

Lac de Paladru.

Chambéry. I landed for fuel at a different airport than last time and it was still infernally hot and inconvenient.

Combe de la Lance. In the Pre-Alps. Flight path is the valley to the right.

Lac d’Annecy.

Mont Lachat de Châtillon. Terrain is starting to look like the Bernese Oberland, though its very much still France.

Pointe de Grande Combe. Still not “in the Alps” yet.

Mt Blanc, highest mountain in the Alps, visible from the Pre-Alps. This image is going to be in my upcoming book on the highest peaks of the Alps.

France left, Switzerland right.

Looking out the other window while crossing the border and terrain is a bit more frisky.

Culan, on the western edge of the Bernese Alps, Switzerland.

Lining up to enter the circuit for Gstaad Airport in the Bernese Oberland (again, not the Alps, technically).

Flight: Spain: Flying in an Inferno

I had considered skipping over this flight, owing to my blogging laziness. I have been very busy attacking the largest peaks, glaciers, box canyons, and high-altitude fields I can find, filling my life with climactic bliss and complication to levels not seen in a while. However, I still retain a mental fixation on the subject, so off we go.

Before I get into the specifics of the flight, I must preface with a bit of my views on hot weather. I may have alluded to my “displeasure” (read: scathing, venomous, raging disdain) for weather in excess of air-conditioned room temperature. I could write vivid, almost poetic literary philosophies, bathing a reader in every shred of wafting perspirant-soaked misery, though I will not. There is a curiosity I have encountered, that there are some on this planet that love heat and humidity and could spin poetry about every shred of misery experienced when temperatures drop below 21 C / 70 F. It takes all kinds to make the world turn, apparently.

This flight took place on the day of the pinnacle of the European heatwave that cooked France and Spain. Just two weeks prior, it had snowed down to 6,000 feet. Now, it was over 100 degrees at nearly 4000 feet elevation, blowing past the hottest temperatures we had experienced. When it gets that bad, something curious happens: I hope it goes to 120 degrees. If it is going to boil over, then go for the gold and reach for the stars. Can I cook my breakfast egg on the sidewalk? Will my car dashboard melt? Will my liver overheat and fail? Most important….will the plane fly without hurling an expensive and necessary metal piece through the crankcase?

I flew the PA-11 with a passenger in North Carolina on an all-time record high day of 104 F. She’s a little sluggish and flies fine. I flew once possibly into the mid-100s in western Kansas, risking heatstroke as I was flying all day. I had to soak my clothes in water, including extra t-shirts, and drape them on my legs while in flight. While outside air may be 105 F or so, the engine blows atrocious heat into the cockpit, to the point where I am ready to puke, even with the window open. Ghetto rigging a pile of wet clothes into a swamp cooler does the trick.

Sadly, I could only get to the airport when the temps dropped to 98 F. It was a bit…toasty… outside, though the plane performed fine. That got me thinking….what is the worst density altitude I have taken off from?

La Cerdanya, Spain: Elevation 3609’, 98F = density altitude 7100’
Jackson Hole, Wyoming: Elevation 6250’, 95F = density altitude 10100’
Leadville, Colorado: Elevation 9927’, 66F = density altitude 13000’

All in all, it wasn’t bad, in line with density altitude calculations. Saharan dust was gross looking. One might look at my photos and note that they are not bad, which I agree that the final product is fine, though it takes a lot of filters, angles, post-processing and algorithms to get to what is produced. Interestingly, color temperatures with the haze veer strongly to the warm, despite anti-haze algorithms typically cooling them in laughably excessive ways.

In the traffic pattern.

Puigcerdà in the distance.

Das. Haze is less as distance to the horizon is shorter due to mountains. That is one trick to work around haze….get closer to the subject.

On long final along the Riu Segre. Fields went from lime green to golden pretty quickly with the heat, though soil moisture was good due to previous rains (and snow).