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.”

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. 

Château-d’Oex.

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.