Earlier in the morning, I took one of the flights through the “River of Clouds” as enumerated and shown in my prior post. The weather in Alpine was ahead of Jackson by two to three hours, so I figured these wispy, interesting clouds would make their way to the Tetons, and it would be time to photograph them with some texture. Watching the webcams in Grand Teton National Park, my scheme proved correct. The sun was out; and a variety of puffy clouds were forming and moving around the peaks and lower terrain.
I will say this: climbing around really tall clouds, amongst terrain, requires some planning. The clouds are moving, they are tall, air is moving as well, and there are mountains. I need to get over the clouds without going through them (no instruments), and get around the mountains without getting backed into a corner. It requires constant readjustment as well as some circling, as all of the pieces are in motion.
I came over the Teton Range itself (the range extends 30 or more miles, whereas the Grand Teton peaks are in the highest area). Cruising at 11,000 feet, I was west of the cloud formation, under a near overcast deck above me, and trying to avoid getting sucked into the lee side downdrafts over Jackson Hole. That part of the plan worked. I eventually made it around the clouds and up to 14,000 feet, staring down at Grand Teton (13,770’) with clouds forming off the summit and moving northeast.
Flying around in a clockwise circle, I saw the majestic peak from all angles, with a constant veil of clouds coming and going. The whole thing was beyond beautiful.
Eventually, fuel runs low, and its time to go home. As I got within 20 miles, I noticed that there appeared to be thunderstorms toward Alpine. Crap. Cumulus clouds were in the way, so it was hard to get a visual. Fighting a headwind, I pulled a radar refresh on the iPad, and the situation didn’t look good. Enormous cells timed to be on the doorstep of the airport right as I got there (they were nowhere in sight two hours before!). Getting within 10 miles, I couldn’t see much between the peaks and the cloud deck, and I was trying to cut right across the Snake River Range and its highest, roughest point to get home as quick as possible. Fuel was getting very low. Finally able to peak through a sliver, I could not make out the Caribou Range just 5 miles south of the airport, as it was lost in the massive precipitation shield. Concerned about stiff winds, I eyed up my fuel situation, which was now at about 25 minutes (headwinds were coming out of the storm), and decided to make a beeline for Jackson Hole Airport. It turns out it was a good call, as the winds were extremely nasty and the situation just would have been worse had I gone in.
The headwind turned into a tailwind, and I was able to make it in to Jackson Hole with the engine running, appreciative of the tower’s attention to my fuel situation and priority short approach and landing. I waited the storm out for 2 hours in the building (with the airplane nice and tied down, sipping coffee), and left after it blew over. The picture near the bottom is of the storm in a very weakened state.
There are two things about aviation that come to mind. First, “naivety is the mother of adventure,” as said by Rinker Buck, an author that flew an aircraft like mine across the country in the 1960s, and the fact that one of the best ways to learn in aviation is when things go wrong. That’s what backup plans are for.