Flight: Italy: Glaciers That Weren’t There

Skill and laziness apparently can conspire to create a strange form of inertia. As I may have alluded to, if there is one thing I do not get sick of, it is chasing glaciers. Given that “glacier season” for my kind of aerial photography is late summer, the time is now to engage in pursuit of these features, driven by the fact that glaciers are both declining and in motion, and that a lot can happen in a year. It would be foolish to have access to unexplored glaciers and elect to not pursue them. If 2020 is any indication that things can rapidly go to shit, then I don’t know what is.

I have a variety of projects that I track in my mind. The glaciers of the Pennine Alps is the next one (I have a book of the Bernese glaciers due out in days), mostly because I had the bulk of them already. The surface area of the region is large enough and filled with enough glaciers that the project is ambitious. Nonetheless, I believed I had one last flight, which was to explore the south-facing ridges on the Italian side of the Alps.

The flight would be long, consuming nearly an entire tank of fuel, climbing up and over two mountain ranges, dropping down the other side, snaking around a bunch of ridges, looking for glaciers beneath some of the largest peaks in the Alps, often with clouds on the south side. Accordingly, “laziness” set in as day after day, I couldn’t get a read if I would get clouded out upon arrival or not.  The other factor was that I wasn’t sure that any real glaciers were there. Satellite maps were unimpressive and flights up at 15,000 feet along the border showed an explosive overload on the Swiss side, with some piddling nonsense on the Italian side. At the same token, my accounting-influenced insistence that I “get them all” demanded that I check out what was there.

Finally, two factors lined up. The weather [sort of] cleared up, and I hadn’t gone flying in over a week. With the weather due to become crappy for 5 days, it was now or never to alleviate the hormonal pressure relieved only by flying a Cub.

After the tedium of getting where I wanted to go, I realized why I was disinclined to perform the flight: it is a lot of work. There are many ridges to explore, lots of tight mountain flying and, as I got closer to where some glaciers might be, I realized that the mountains are massive, with menacing clouds wedged against the glaciers. Winds were intriguing on top of it. As I was squeezing between clouds and mountain ridges, getting knocked around by mystery winds, I had to ask myself “Why do you ever get the idea that any of this is easy? This is a ton of work.”

At any rate, I was pleasantly surprised how large the glaciers were. Part of why I thought that there were none of any consequence pertains to the fact that, nearly 100% of the time, clouds have been hugging the Italian side of the Dufourspitze (15,203’ / 4,634m), while I was flying above them in a state of ecstasy at what was sticking out above. If I can’t see the glaciers, then they must not exist.

Thus, I present photographs of the “glaciers that weren’t there.”

The Italian side of the Pennine Alps. The scene looks similar to a flight in September 2015 to the Elk Mountains south of Aspen, Colorado.

Lac de Places de Moulin (yet it is in Italy). The glacier on the other end has already been photographed for the project, so proceeding to the right to see what I can find.

Sneaky glacial feature below. Too small to matter. 

Merda! That one is on the Italian side. Will have to come back another day as fuel does not permit getting close and finishing the job today.

Curious snow patch in the foreground, though not a glacier.

Mont Tabel Glacier & Chérillon Glacier. There might be more up in the clouds. Now we’re getting somewhere with terrain.

And that is the Matterhorn sticking up into the clouds. Flight altitude 10,500′, with the peak at 14,692′, well out of view. Suddenly this valley is much more menacing when down low in it.

Ghiacciaio de Valtournenche.

Glacier d’Aventine. I don’t know why my map software alternates between French and Italian.

Petit Glacier de Véraz. Ironic that it has “petit” in the name when it is really rather large.

Lysgletscher. Now in German…cute. So this is what was hiding behind the clouds….”piddling nonsense.”

Southeast of the Dufourspitze, down in the vertiginous clouded menace. Ghiacciaio Delle Piode Occidentale. Back to Italian. 11,100 feet.

Ghiacciaio Delle Piode. From the satellite map and from above, the foreground looks like the glacier is dead. Note that water is coming out from the bottom, which means that there is quite a bit of ice with rock on top of it.

Lago Alpe del Cavalli with Lago Maggiore on the horizon. It can be frustrating that clouds frequently occlude the glaciers I am chasing when it is sunny elsewhere, but so be it.

Alpjergletscher drainage, just on the Swiss side, taken from Italy. This one is in the Lepontine Alps, another project for another year, though it can’t hurt to start collecting images.

The 500,000th Photograph

The concept of how many photographs I have taken is something that I hadn’t paid attention to. Up until recently, my images were sprawled in two Lightroom catalogs and 5 Aperture libraries. Once my Mac crashed and I installed 64-bit Catalina, adios Aperture, so it was time to move them all over. While I was in the middle of a process that ultimately took two months, I decided to completely reorganize the whole shebang and make some order out of it. With the pile in one Lightroom catalog, I could easily see how many images I had, which was something like 489,700. Well, half a million doesn’t seem that far off…

Sometime later, I had 400 to go before 500,000 and I decided to go hiking. In the most extreme cases, I will take 800 photos on a hike. Typically, it is something like 140. The plan was to hit 500,000 on a flight after this hike. Well, I had the inconvenient reality of “too much heaven” with a resplendent day of beautiful sky and color beyond what I could have imagined, so it was an 800-photograph hike. Just like that, I hit 500,000, with no special planning, pomp, fireworks, or glacial glory like I was planning.

Instead, the photograph was of a cow.

So, without further ado, I bring you the 500,000th photograph that I have taken:

While I would love if the matter was settled and done, there are so many facets as to what the “500,000th” image really is. For example, I have some duplicates in the catalog, though I have a giant crate of film images, and my iPhone shots are not included, so I decided that the 500,000th is the 500,000th, as the duplicates in the catalog are offset by those that are not.

But wait…there are 13 images on my desktop that absolutely refused to import from Aperture into Lightroom. Now what do I do? Well, I shall include the image found 13 later. Maybe this is the one:

Now this brings up a very complicated matter. Not too long after snapping a shot of this lovely bovine lady, she walked up to me as I was crouching. I am used to it, as cows seem to have this peculiar attraction to me and they all do the same thing: trot up kind of fast, sniff, and then want to be pet or lick my hand. This one was determined to get a piece of my irresistibleness, and as I had my right arm up holding the camera photographing her approach, she whipped out her enormous tongue and attempted to lick my armpit.

Yes, gross. Naturally repulsed, I attempted to stop this sordid episode of reverse bestiality, which, of all things, offended the cow. She decided to attempt to head butt me in response. I guess “no” does not mean “no” in these remote Swiss valleys.

That brings up a Swiss cultural issue in the Bernese hinterlands. I was talking to an airport operations guy, who mentioned that “each of these valleys has their own accent.” They are basically so hillbilly that there is a phrase in Swiss “German” (what they speak up here hardly qualifies as German in any context): “Your father is your sister.” I.e., straight out of the annals of West Virginia banjo-playing incestuous crooked family trees, the same weirdness happens up here. Which, if I am going to bring up West Virginia, I heard an episode of something like “yodeling” on the radio, and it was literally like fusing the worst of a West Virginia horror show with traditional Swiss yodeling. Amazing. Freakish. Irresistible. Terrifying. All at the same time.

I guess it should not surprise me if cultural stereotypes are so extreme as to the “Deliverance” nature of the place that the cows are in on the action too.

The rest of the hike was spectacular. It is hard to put into words the intensity of light and scenery that went on for a few hours. I kept going, long after I had wicked blisters, until the sun went down, keeping an eye over my shoulder for that cow…

While this little shed looks quaint, I was drenched in sweat and pissy by this point. I should have known that it was making me a salt lick (or unmentionably worse) for cows.

A Swiss pigsty. Scenic…but still a pigsty.

I became “goat Jesus” as they followed me into the wilderness.

The cows over here were in a spectacularly scenic area and they absolutely refused to pose. The best I got was a belch while chewing on grass.

Since we’re on the theme of bizarre mating rituals in dead end Swiss valleys, I shall note that, during a previous hike on the mountain on the horizon, I encountered a German lady that wished to engage in, ahem, “amorous activities.”

A lonely larch.

A calf that thinks he is a wolf. It has been suggested that I write a book with cow photographs, for which I might do. My best seller is my horse book, not any of this subpar aerial photography nonsense that I mess with. I seem to be able to interact more peacefully with animals than humans (the sexual predator of a cow aside).

The Geltenhutte is in the shadowed valley, on the left. This area where I am hiking is a frequent descent path while returning to Saanen. It really puts it in perspective to hike around it and realize that the terrain is positively majestic.

Flights: Switzerland: Coitus Interruptus

Sometimes owning an airplane completely sucks. The short story is that it breaks in its all too famous 1930s technology kind of way, which means over two months of not flying while spending one hundred hours or more getting covered in grease, wanting to hurl tools (but cannot as the hangar is too nice and expensive), spending prodigious sums of additional money, spending prodigious sums of normal expenses (hangar, insurance, everything else), and trying to tell oneself that this whole rotten mess is some sort of “learning experience” that will somehow make my life better. Then an equally cynical pilot friend says something like, “It’s an expensive hobby,” which rubs salt in the wound even though I should be smart enough not to whine about the consequences of my own choice to tell myself that I love this kind of thing.

Then it comes time for the test flight. Wisdom from respected mechanics (at least the ones that write manifestos in aviation magazines) note that “the most dangerous flight is one after maintenance has been performed.” Not all pilots get this idea, as the view is that, since a professional looked it over and touched something, it must somehow be better. The fact is that an aircraft engine is a delicate equilibrium of mechanical parts with not a shred of computerized diagnostics or management. To fix one thing upsets this equilibrium, which requires hours of operating the aircraft while observing engine characteristics, such as magneto drop, roughness, power output, mixture adjustment requirements, color of exhaust residue, oil temperature, oil pressure, and the like. Or, we could just call it what it really is and bring in the witch doctor to do a voodoo ritual on it.

The single thing I am most neurotic about is if the engine will still run. I do not really fear loss of control, weather, windy landings, getting lost, and a host of other things that can go wrong, as those can be mitigated (or avoided) if one’s brain is operating. When the engine quits, there is a glide ratio measured against altitude and available earth (or water) below, and that is that.

After a few innocent yet potentially dangerous maintenance affairs (where something was caught before flying), I made a personal rule to require a test flight around the pattern, even in the event of an oil change. The idea is to land, check for leaks, and if more work was done, allow for an overnight cooldown cycle to check torque and allow the engine to communicate if something is amiss. The purpose is to isolate changes in this supernatural equilibrium under the cowling and increase safety.

Since this flight involved a cylinder change, I also really needed to run it hard to facilitate break in, so I decided to do climbing circles above the airport to be rather high up and fly around for an hour, the entire time in glide range of the airport. While I thought I would head up to 7,000 feet or so, I realized how much I had “missed breathing in the non-existent air” and I climbed to 11,500 feet, just to freeze in my shorts, while also seeing Mt. Blanc above the puffy clouds and increasing the radius for which I could glide to the field.

That exposed an interesting artistic paradigm, where I have never seen this area from this high up. Due to routines, habit, flight configuration, and fuel efficiency, there has never been a reason to fly two miles above the airport. I am usually beginning a descent from the glacier levels about 10 to 15 miles out, entering the foothills at summit level, working my way down to coordinated and visually efficient entry to the pattern, having enjoyed the mountains up close the entire way down.

I expected the view to be defiled with haze. I forgot something that I figured out in Wyoming. During summer, when haze is usually worse, midday light is a good time to cut most of it out of the image, if one wants a wide-angle landscape shot. Between midday light and midsummer solar angles, lighting and contrast can be quite special. To my surprise, it worked very well from two miles above.

The second flight, the next day, had more haze and was taken traditionally in the evening, which is my favorite repose of gentler light tones. It occurred to me that I usually would have thrown a bitch fit over the haze, except I figured out how to both mitigate it and embrace it to add some depth and mystique to the image. In any case, I suppose even a basic test flight where one loses his aeronautical virginity again can expose new artistic frontiers. And, like a mother in the process of birthing a child, snarling in rage at the man that “did this to her,” when the panting and heavy breathing is over, she cradles the child in a state of oxytocin-induced euphoria. When flying in circles, freezing cold two miles above the airport, wondering if the engine was going to explode, I forgot about the exsanguination of cash and marinated in a Zenlike bliss, happy as a lark.

Gstaad Airport

Les Rodomonts

Château-d’Oex, from 11,000 feet.

Exchanging a greeting with Mt. Blanc.

Since I was so ridiculously high, I could fly to Lenk-Simmental, as when I left the glide range of Gstaad Airport, I was in glide range to Sankt Stephan.

Hills behind Château-d’Oex, with the Swiss Plateau and Jura Mountains behind. Those hills have summits of 7,000 to 8,000 feet. I climbed one once in an act of philosophical futility.

Vidamanette.

Rougemont, from Vidamanette.

Les Rodomonts again.

Gstaad Airport from one mile above. The standard circuit involves skimming the left edge of the pine clad hill.

The pine clad hill, entering the circuit.

Turning base for 26.

Turning final.

Next flight. This forest is on early climb out, named “Les Arses.” “Arse” is British for ass. I suppose it would demonstrate some sophistication if I mentioned that the forest is a microclimate where unusually hardened pines grow rather straight, making excellent wood that results in the fabrication of musical instruments. I like talking about the etymology of asses more.

Behind Rougemont. I must confess that I surprise myself with image quality.

A tad west of Les Diablerets, with Mt. Blanc on the horizon.

Geltenschuss.

While it looks like a “Bob Ross cabin,” it is actually a lift station for Swiss farmers to transit goods up and down. I have seen in other installations that basically a cart is moved up and down. I have yet to see hillbillies riding on the cart as it is probably verboten.

Wasserngrat.

An extraordinary rendition of Saanen.

Entering the circuit.

Turning final. Note “1867” on the roof of the building below. It is the specified place to turn base-to-final, so I know if I am ever caught in fog, the roof will point the way to the airport (or to the side of a hill, but I digress).

 

Flight: Switzerland (BE, VD, VS): Of Clouds and Humans

I recently decided that I have grown tired of perfect weather day images of the Alps. Images are repetitive and lack sufficient basic intrigue after the initial discovery period has worn off; thus, it became a fixation to chase the mountains while mired in poor weather. Part of it was artistic exploration and expression and another was the erotic appeal of apocalyptic flying. In short, it is conventional wisdom to avoid such things, though it doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

On this flight, there were rain showers on and off from the northwest, with marginal VFR ceilings over the Sarine River valley escaping the Alps. Conditions were overcast over the Swiss Plateau, Lake Geneva, and Rhône Valley and were forecast to rapidly improve in the next two hours. If the plan didn’t work, there were a few alternate airports available if I couldn’t make it back before closing time. It worked out, as demonstrated by my trail of photographic evidence and the fact that I have lived to write this blog post.

That lends to the matter of humans. Due to clouds and other phenomena, I was forced to fly at lower altitudes, near where people live, a task I haven’t done in a long time. I don’t know that I would say that it was particularly enjoyable (or miserable) in light of the human presence, though it is a periodic reminder that I am gravitating more and more to extremes of atmosphere and terrain that represent almost arctic levels of isolation, of which I have no complaint.

South of Château-d’Oex, looking toward Les Mosses.

Intyamon Valley, with Swiss Plateau on the horizon. Light rain showers in between.

Swiss Plateau, west of Bulle, with a few rain showers.

Approaching the Riviera.

Lake Geneva, évidemment. 

Rhône Valley…heading toward the horizon.

Forget the people….Grand Combin above the clouds. Like a breath of fresh air, even if that fresh air was trying to beat the crap out of my airplane.

Eastern end of Massif du Mont Blanc.

West of Martigny, with salacious clouds looming everywhere.

Mont Blanc, from Col du Forclaz. 

Beneath Dents du Midi, in a swirling wind shadow, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Still holding the shoe….Dents du Midi.

Riviera from a mile above. Heading toward those clouds and summits.

But not before looking back at the Rhône Valley, with weather clearing up as forecast.

On the other side of “those peaks.” Reflections on Lake Geneva viewable through the clouds.

Now we’re talking!

Les Mosses.

Spitzhorn. I climbed to the base of it a few weeks ago. Suffice it to say that one can find heaven on earth.

Saanetschpass. It made me want to fly over it, though I did not.

Left hand downwind for runway 08, just before turning a continuous base to final. Rather tight.

Podcast Interview: The Not So Straight and Level Podcast

I have had two people suggest that I launch a podcast and, so far, I have resisted such overtures of power, riches, and glory. When I listened to a number of episodes on Steve Johnson’s new podcast (from Supercub.org), The Not So Straight and Level Podcast, I decided this was the one where I would make my auditory debut, as he has a fairly straightforward way of celebrating the day-to-day honesty and fun of flying Cubs and Super Cubs. The episode is 90 minutes of my flying story, including tidbits from my youth with my grandfather as an influence, and a condensed version of the last five years of [I am at a lost for adjectives] international adventures with the PA-11. The podcast can be found here.

In interacting with people, I find that many, including some who know me very well, are not aware of other things I am up to on the site and elsewhere. For those that do not know, I blog monthly for AOPA. A history of my posts is under the Writings tab on the site, and here is a link to my recent coronavirus themed post: An Overdue Rant. To further complement hours of pleasure consuming my output while stuck at home during a pandemic, my first book was an “economics thriller” and that, somehow, led to an orgy of aerial photo books (I am not sure there is an explanation). Nonetheless, I have been inspired by the economic carnage caused by coronavirus such that I wrote a five article series revisiting one of my more significant articles in 2013, where I posited a notion of economic apocalypse. These articles are located under the Economics tab, at the top.

 

 

Book #23: Mountain Texture: Glaciers of the Alps

This one is the fourth in my “texture” series, where I narrow my focus to subjects that mostly lack a horizon and show some level of unexpected pattern. It is also interesting that its my most narrow subject in the texture line up, where I am selecting glacier surfaces in the Alps.

The coverage area includes Switzerland, Italy, and France, and contains quite a variety of activity on glaciers, ice caps, perennial snow fields, and their attendant moraines, tongues, and lakes. Glaciers are oddly dynamic in that they can move sometimes feet per day, with quite a variety of surface indications of what is happening below. Whether it’s the classic crevasse, avalanche activity, friction with mountainsides, the ubiquitous giant rock taking a ride down the glacier, or ribbons of rock and soil debris forming a “rings of Saturn” look to it, there is always something going on.

While this is texture specific, I do have a Bernese Alps Glacier book, of a scenic variety, in the pipeline.

One might ask why I would bother sending a blast announcing my book when our societies are collapsing, and I determined that there are certain advantages. First, many are stuck home with nothing else to do besides consume online-sold media and order things from Amazon. Second, for those who are suffering from a lack of toilet paper, any of my books poses a unique solution to this irrational yet ever present problem. Purchase the book, set it beside the toilet for reading, and as one consumes my illustrious writings, tear out the page and reserve it as a substitute for toilet paper. While it most certainly won’t have the softness of your normal brand, one could celebrate its exfoliating properties while lining my pockets with royalties.

 

 

Flight: Switzerland (BE, VS, VD): The Alps in the Dead of Winter

Chronicles of Existential Dread: Volume XII: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Dopamine

*As usual photos are at the bottom, despite the novella that accompanies them.

Since I was a teenager, it was evident that I had an attraction to deprivation as a form of pleasure, since I used to joke with my esoteric friends that our weekend juvenile outings were “Buddhist vacations.” We’d do something like climb a mountain without adequate camping gear (or food), spend the night freezing our asses off, descend in a stupor of deprivation, pull into a diner, binge out on coffee with steak and eggs, and be brought to the brink of orgasm by the sudden reversal from Soviet penal camp conditions to gastrological ecstasy. I thought the whole affair was a product of scholastic and employment repression and filed it away as one of the many silly things that filled my teen years.

As the intervening years have marched toward middle-aged malaise, I have had sporadic bursts of what I call “death marches,” which are random battle cries to attack some moderate-sized piece of terrain, climbing it in a flurry of sweat, gasping for breath, sore muscles, and a brief moment of standing on the summit wondering why I bothered. I assumed that the process was a proxy for flying, as I was merely “going high up except on foot instead of in the plane.”

In recent years living in the mountains (versus traveling to them in periodic ejaculations of motivation), I noted a very specific correlation: if the airplane is down for maintenance or its too windy to fly, I will go mountain climbing. Again, this drove the point home that I was chasing hypoxia in the easiest way available, so I thought it was perversely a form of laziness.

Recently, the airplane has been out of service, a fusion of Germans in Germany being bureaucratic fascists and coronavirus ruining everything. What has resulted in the ensuing weeks of no flying has been a seeming hormonally induced fury of hiking, which grew into mountain climbing. While one may think that my aforementioned rantings are merely being proven, there is more to the story.

If I go on a hike that matches my [ironically ever improving] level of physical fitness, I feel refreshed relatively analogous to the effort involved. Call it “forest bathing” if you must…an hour in the woods and some stresses of the workday evaporate for a while, before coming back. Now, enter in precipitous ridges that sneer at me while caring for quotidian concerns such as going to the post office, and I decide I must conquer these peaks.

What happens is that I spend most of time self-punishing, picking a fight with the sky. Huffing and puffing as I climb thousands of feet, sweating and straining my corporal functionality, I wonder why I am doing it. And I press on. There is a summit to be had, and I keep going. Eventually I get there, usually just before sunset. I take my obligatory photos, relish my 10 minutes on top, and then try not to twist an ankle scurrying down before it gets dark, now sweaty and spent.

Compared to my gentle “forest baths,” I feel euphoric…for hours despite most of the experience having been difficult.

Since I have been doing this to myself for weeks on end trying to avoid a seemingly inevitable slide into insanity due to not flying, it occurred to me that my flights in the mountains differ little from these death marches.

If I go flying for 20 minutes around the patch in the evening, I feel good. It’s the right thing to do, though two hours later, it no longer offsets other negatives in life. Compare that to an aeronautical death march. Long cross-country flights come to mind, usually in the cold or heat, where I shiver in misery all day, or if summer, sweat like a pig (there is no such thing as moderate temperatures for a cross country flight). Covered in oil, exhaust fumes, and sweat, sunburned, dehydrated, and tired after flying all day in haze…. I have nothing but post-coital satisfaction for hours, relishing my “achievement’ which, by many measures, is nothing but self-punishment.

What is even better is a full three-hour flight at 15,000 feet in the dead of winter, battling vicious wind. Lacking cockpit heat, I freeze myself to death, while engaging in a mental workout taking thousands of pictures, thankful each time the prop kept spinning. It usually takes hours to warm up after landing, inclusive of having my cerebral functions come back online. Again, I report hours of ecstasy afterward, even though most of the flight was spent getting to or from the destination in mind while in supreme discomfort, much like my terrestrial death marches.

Many pilots I have encountered marvel at my endless wellspring of motivation to self-flagellate in a Cub, picking repeated fights with the sky in a compendium of characteristics that seems designed to ensure a constant stream of difficulty. One would think I could fly low and slow over farm fields like every other Cub driver and, well, it seems that isn’t an option. Despite being an artist at heart, it seems that I cannot process beauty unless there is some literal monastic turmoil associated with it.

So, I guess nothing has changed since my juvenile camping forays, and I doubt much will change going forward.

As for the photos in question, it occurred to me that I haven’t shown a “normal” blog post that demonstrates the Alps on a sunny day in midwinter. These are from a few months ago.

Climbing out of the Oberland with a moderate snowpack.

Approaching timberline above Lauenen. 

Crossing the Bernese Alps. Rinderhorn.

Hobärggletscher, with some big ass mountains behind it. One can understand why they are melting if so little snowpack is on them in winter. 

Beneath Dufourspitze.

Parrotspitze in the “saddle,” among many other 4000m peaks. 

Ridge with the “Breithorn” peaks (also over 4000m), with the Matterhorn in the rear right. If you’re quarantined at home, I might suggest my book on these peaks. 

Glacier de Moiry in the Valais.

North of Col de Pillon….returning to the Oberland. Lake Geneva on the center horizon.

Gummfluh.

Flight: Italy, France: Finding Virginity at 13,166 Feet

I have devoted some thought bandwidth to the concept behind the “spark” that fires in the mind, where I get an idea to go flying. That spark is derived of something: a change in weather, lighting, the fact I haven’t gone flying in three days, or something specific that I want to go and see. While it is a curiosity how that spark can maintain traction until the flight in question, there is a sub-theme that arises. Namely, how often do I devise a scheme to go flying to see something specific, and end up with something else?

I’d say it happens at least 50% of the time. I decided this time to head toward Mt. Blanc, as I hadn’t been there yet in mid-winter. It was a day virtually devoid of upper level winds, which while that can lower workload, it also makes it hard to get above the summit, which is a great reverse segue to my original idea: to photograph some of the aiguilles in France from directly overhead. It was something I hadn’t done yet, and it would make for an interesting subject, as the last time I had done it to my satisfaction was over Grand Teton in Wyoming.

I only ended up looking straight down upon the Aiguille du Dru. Dent du Géant showed some interesting promise. “Giant’s Tooth” in French, it looks like a reverse canine tooth, except it towers to 13,166 feet in elevation, with a remarkable vertical prominence. This is another peak I seemed to keep my distance from historically, likely to do with upper level wind in turmoil. At any rate, when I got close, I saw a person standing on the summit.

Or so I thought.

As I circled around, taking zoom photos, I was awed at the prospect of someone standing on the peak in mid-winter, taking in a remarkable view of the Aosta Valley of Italy below. After I returned home, I downloaded my photos and something looked off. First, the “person” was remarkably wide from the northern view. Second, there was no change in position whatsoever. Finally viewing my closest zooms, it was evident that it was a statue.

The question then becomes, who’s statue is it? Jesus was the first thing that came to mind, except a youth in Catholic-infused Upstate New York taught me enough about how the Virgin Mary is presented. I googled the summit, and responses in English were no help, though I found some results in French (a nod to French linguistic smugness and the fact that I am beginning to understand some of it). In 1904 two climbers dragged an aluminum statue of “the Virgin” (identity not disclosed but I think I know which one) to the summit. It has since then been struck by lightning enough times to melt the head part of the statue.

Above Glacier du Tour, France. Note the U shaped marks in the snow in the center and right. That is when airplanes land on the glacier, turn around, and take off. The snow “drifts” are 200 or more feet tall below.

I literally groaned with pleasure when I saw this image (a la Sean Connery in “Entrapment” when he gazes upon Catherine Zeta-Jones in tight leather pants). Aiguille du Chardonnet with Glacier d’Argentiere, France down below. What can I say….scandalous affairs are the norm in France.

Staring down the path of an avalanche. Shadowed foreground is France, avalanched chaos is Italy.

There is a reason things like “the north face” or “north slope” of terrain is foreboding: the sun doesn’t hit it. At any rate, this is the north side of Grandes Jorasses (13,806′). 

This is how I like to do Chamonix.

Mt. Blanc in black and white, my new website background image replacing a tired ground photo taken in August 2013 on the backside of Buffalo Mountain, Colorado.

Southwest slope of Mt. Blanc. Italy lurks in the background.

Mt. Blanc (15,774′). It was a tad chilly with very dry air and minimal wind for a change.

This image calls to mind a snarky remark from a friend from high school. When she learned of my move to Colorado some years ago, the [thinly-veiled jealous] reply was: “Did you move there because the mountains are pointy?” 

Massive drifts again.

And now, we get to the subject of the blog: virginity. This is “Dent du Géant, France” at 13,166′ elevation, with Italy in the background. Note the “person” on the left summit. From the north.

Wait a second….this looks a bit Catholic. From the west.

And “The Virgin.” View from the east.

Book #22: The 300 Hour Summer: Flying the Rockies in a Piper Cub

I am quite proud of my latest release, as its my first non-fiction work about flying. The story starts at the coast of North Carolina in early 2015, proceeds west as I nearly kill myself [twice] trying to get to Wyoming in late winter in the Cub, includes over 300 hours of flying in one long summer around the West, and culminates with the inexplicable decision to move to Europe. A first for me, there are no photos…just 31 chapters of my illustrious prose describing what my grandfather once barked as “TOO MUCH FLYING!” For the time being, it is available on Kindle for $5. At some point, I will prepare a significantly more expensive version in print which will include pretty pictures, though be prepared to wait awhile for it.

I am surprised it took four years to write it, as the written word comes naturally without any struggle. Then I added up that, during the period I was writing this text, I put together nine aerial photography books that cover the flights mentioned (with yet more to come), while wandering around Europe pushing myself to the brink of cracking. In any case, there is something very, very special in my heart for Wyoming. Even though I was there less than a year, it still feels like “home” in a way that is hard to explain. Maybe its something endearing about the land, low population density, wild game of the likes of the Serengeti, or decent and down to earth people that loved the outdoors. The American West is, if anything, its own genre of travelogue. The open road….

If you’re a subscriber to Amazon Prime or Kindle Unlimited, then the book can be obtained for free, with the added divinity that Amazon still sends me cash.

Flight: Switzerland (BE, VD, VS): Under a Muted Sky

It is evident that my standard photography day is one with as sunny of a sky as possible. While I continue to surprise myself with the errant beauty of sky texture as it unpredictably presents itself, instinct takes over, and I am back at it looking for blue sky. Every now and then, I decide to toss personal convention to the wind and go up for a “classic” flight with muted overcast tones.

I held onto this “classic” idea for a while until it occurred to me that its patently false. There is nothing “classic” about it, at least when it comes to aviation, mountains, and photography. How many times have I gone for this pseudo-traditional flight in the mountains with muted tones, beckoning the reflective aura of Bach’s cantatas?

In Colorado, it never happened. I was afraid of my own shadow in the mountains, so I kept to sunny days (except for that one day with some thunderstorms, but whatever – they don’t make for good lighting). It happened a time or two in Wyoming, though I lacked as much winter flying as I would have liked. Spain? I believe I had a chance 3 or 4 times to see a muted overcast sky with snow beneath. Usually clouds were orographic or part of an inversion.

So that lends to the question…how the hell did I come up with this “classic” idea?

Western New York….the place where I was squeezed through the vagina at birth and took my initial flight lessons in the Cub. If one is unfortunate enough to visit while the weather is foul (most of the time), then an observant individual would note that the sun disappears for practically half the year. A relatively classic cycle of weather is as follows: storm system, cold front, brisk northwest wind, lake effect clouds behind it (no sun), maybe a bit of sun after lake effect abates, then a warm or occluded front preceding the next storm. It was in this precise window that winds would tend to be calm, pressure would begin to lower, skies would filter in mid-to-high clouds, and the air took on a certain stillness. No longer was it lashing rain, lashing wind from Canada, angry splashes of snow. Instead, it was a serene, reflective moment before the weather would go to shit again, and I tended to like it.

I have many positive memories of flying the Cub in this kind of weather, as it was either this weather cycle (warm front) or a tiny window of sun where I could fly. Then it was back to a mud pit of a short-field, crosswind grass strip where, as a new pilot, I couldn’t handle 30mph sideways winds which were common.

In circumstances out of New York, I am surprised how rare it is to get a moisturized, calm overcast sky in advance of a low pressure system that mimics these pleasant memories.

Bernese Alps.

“Sector blindness” is a reality in circumstances such as this. It is where a pilot does not notice the difference between snow and a cloud and crashes into the mountain turning it into a “story of fire and ice.”

The foothills in tranquil tones. I had to desaturate the blues out of the trees, which was something quite normal in the Northeast of the USA. On a cloudy day, treeless hills in winter would appear blue.

Looking into the Valais.

Humans on a glacier.

Early sunset tones with Mt. Blanc on the horizon.

Airplanes on a glacier. Why don’t you do that with the Cub? I was quoted $35,000 for skis for the Cub, and $30,000 for the ski rating. To quote a British individual, “They can stick their skis where the sun doesn’t shine.”