Flight: WY: Glaciers of Absarokas & Bighorns

After four days of flying to Colorado and back in a short period, I was inclined toward a break. Then the first snows hit the peaks on September 18th, and that set off a wave of panic. I was 95% done with photographing all of the glaciers of Wyoming and Colorado, needing just 3 more in northern Wyoming. Now the snows were coming, and the glaciers would get buried. So I set off on an ambitious flight plan that would take all day: north through Jackson Hole to the eastern Absarokas, east to the Bighorn Mountains, then southwest back home. The whole affair took 8 hours.

I figured I’d knock out a few birds with one stone. I needed to photograph the headwaters of the Yellowstone River (not actually in Yellowstone, ironically) as well as the eastern mountains of Yellowstone. That was easy enough, given that the first glacier I needed was not far from the two destinations I just described.

Wind. That is always another story. Things were quiet in Jackson Hole and even in the Absarokas so long as I was in the distant shadow of the northern Teton Range. The moment Yellowstone was to my west, an unholy fury let loose, creating a mix of clouds and wind over the highest reach of the Absarokas. It was interesting, to say the least, to wander around the clouds at 12,500’, avoiding smacking into the peaks, and also avoiding getting sucked into a veritable funnel on the east side of the range. There quite possibly would be no coming back – not in a mortality kind of way – just the inability to outclimb the downdrafts and get back to what I was trying to take pictures of.

Sure enough, I broke my groundspeed record at 13,500’ over Galena Glacier in the Absarokas: 150mph in a Piper Cub. Nuts. Granted, it is somewhat known that the eastern entrance to Yellowstone is a topographical funnel, shoving insane winds into Cody as they come down off the terrain and head into the Bighorn Basin. Well, today was no exception. 10mph winds in Jackson, and 60mph at altitude near Cody….unreal.

As I approached Cody, WY airport for fuel, I called automated weather a few times: “11 gusting 21 knots” was the answer every time. Hmmm… Cody is way too erratic for that. It also was 11G21kt observed during my morning flight briefing. Sigh…. This will be fun as usual.

The landing was a strange experience, as the winds were switching direction rapidly, with extreme speeds (windsock was horizontal). The airplane was basically pivoting off the tires on the ground until I could get it settled down and quit flying. The taxiing process was slow, as the gusts were so extreme that the wind was trying to get under the right wing and, well, tip the airplane right over. Thankfully I got through the fueling process in one piece and took off.

Insultingly, winds went calm in the desert 20 miles east of Cody. I am told that is normal.

The Bighorn Mountains were incredible. I had flown over them 15 months prior, though I had avoided Cloud Peak at that time, which is over 13,000’ in elevation with a glacier. It is unquestionably an uninhabited place, which is no good for engine loss (we have been through this lecture before). I must say, though, I was surprised by the severity of the terrain and its almost spiritual beauty.

The trip home took awhile. 200 miles of desert, headwinds, and terrain. Things were okay at first: no bumps, and gentle winds. When I rounded the bend at the Owl Creek Mountains, ground speed went to 40kts from 80kts. Fiddlesticks. 40 knot headwind at 2,000’ above the ground! With sunset approaching, limited fuel options, and at my 7th hour of flying, I just wanted everything to go exactly the way I wanted. Well, that was not happening!

As I suspected, once I cleared the pass at the northern end of the Wind River Range, groundspeed came up to 65 knots. The terrain over Dubois, WY is another funnel. There isn’t much one can do about it; though, I was happy the headwinds died down.

The rest of the flight was pleasant with some fall colors and nice terrain contrasts. As I flew past the Gros Ventre Range, I said to myself, in a moment of exhaustion: “There is no way in hell I am going to get the Montana glaciers. Its just too much.”

Snake River, Jackson Hole
IMG_0015 (15 of 1351)

Buffalo Fork Snake River
IMG_0067 (67 of 1351)

Absaroka Range
IMG_0078 (78 of 1351) IMG_0088 (88 of 1351)

There is a glacier hiding in here somewhere…. now if only I could find it.
IMG_0259 (259 of 1351)

Eastern boundary of Yellowstone, looking west.
IMG_0326 (326 of 1351)

Absarokas, looking east toward Bighorn Basin.
IMG_0603 (603 of 1351)

Doing 150mph ground speed while taking this photograph. 
IMG_0643 (643 of 1351)

Looking back at the topographical funnel coming out of Yellowstone into Cody.
IMG_0655 (655 of 1351)

To make matters worse, the funnel blows through this secondary one. The Cody airport is hiding on the other side of the funnel.
IMG_0675 (675 of 1351)

20 miles east of Cody. No wind. What an insult….. it *should* be windy here.
IMG_0682 (682 of 1351)

Water is clearly important. Bighorn Basin.
IMG_0694 (694 of 1351) IMG_0740 (740 of 1351)

Western ascent up the Bighorns.
IMG_0751 (751 of 1351)

Clearing timberline (roughly 10,000′). See that menacing terrain? Heading straight in there…..
IMG_0780 (780 of 1351)

Cruising altitude of 13,500’…. looking north.
IMG_0800 (800 of 1351)

Menacing terrain. A few glaciers hiding in there. 
IMG_0818 (818 of 1351)

Cloud Peak (13,167′), looking south.
IMG_0860 (860 of 1351)

Southern Big Horns. Only 230 miles to home now…..
IMG_0940 (940 of 1351)

Descending the western side of the range. Trees come back….
IMG_0955 (955 of 1351) IMG_0961 (961 of 1351)

Descending more and the trees are gone….
IMG_0973 (973 of 1351)
Wyoming is like a giant chia pet. Just add water and it gets all green and fuzzy.
IMG_1023 (1023 of 1351) IMG_1089 (1089 of 1351)

Bighorn Basin…
IMG_1119 (1119 of 1351)

Owl Creek Mountains
IMG_1137 (1137 of 1351)

Wind River Basin
IMG_1180 (1180 of 1351)

Doing 40 knots ground speed…..sigh…. I am getting a bit sick of this today.
IMG_1186 (1186 of 1351)

The audacity to add beauty to my misery!
IMG_1202 (1202 of 1351)

Northern Wind River Range. Up to 60 knots now!
IMG_1212 (1212 of 1351)

Green River
IMG_1267 (1267 of 1351)

Gros Ventre Range. There is no way I am doing that Montana project. Too ambitious and I am tired…
IMG_1312 (1312 of 1351)

Northern Wyoming Range
IMG_1336 (1336 of 1351)

Looking back toward where I went north 8 hours prior. Sigh, what a day!
IMG_1349 (1349 of 1351)

Pretty field in Bondurant, WY
IMG_6589 (83 of 87)