By GARRETT FISHER
Sometime around the year 2000 while I was a relatively new pilot, living as a teenager in rural Upstate New York, a studious friend of mine mentioned a new scientific study that put the concept of glacial regression into the popular mainstream.
As soon as 2030, the glaciers in Glacier National Park would be gone due to continuous melting.
I had no reason to think very deeply about the subject. I was young, had not been to Montana, and had laid eyes on a distant glacier only once on Mt. Rainier in Washington two years before. In reality, the thought remained in the back of my mind, from that day becoming an item on my personal to do list. I had to see them all before they disappeared.
Fast forward 15 years and I had moved to Wyoming, with the same Piper PA-11 that I had used to learn to fly in the late 1990s. It was a simple aircraft that my grandfather restored, finishing in 1996.
Equipped with an O-200 engine, he felt that I needed no additional conveniences, such as a radio, transponder, battery, alternator, starter, or anything more than minimum VFR instruments.
While I hadn’t set out to conquer all of the glaciers, it was a foregone conclusion that I would see what glaciers existed in Wyoming, as I would be there. It was less of a deliberation and more of a reality.
I had previously spent almost a year with the airplane based in Leadville, Colorado, a field elevation of 9,927’. I taught myself mountain flying by flying into the mountains and figuring out what to do once I got there.
Keeping things to nice days, I tested how the O-200 would handle in oxygen-starved air, and also learned how to find simple updrafts to climb to 15,000′, as the engine alone didn’t offer much power.
With these skills in hand and now in Wyoming, I approached the project as something I’d simply get around to and saw it as a foregone conclusion, at least as far as the Wyoming glaciers are concerned.
That was until two things happened.
First, I came to understand that Wyoming is a true wilderness whereas Colorado is more of a “retail wilderness,” where one most certainly can get into trouble, though access is better on the ground.
Secondly, I had a nagging concern about the largest glaciers in the Rockies, which were in the Wind River Range. It’s a pretty wide range, is extremely rugged, and has absolutely no forest service roads or other access points.
This fact was confirmed looking out the window from an airliner, a bit scared at what I saw. The project would be more complex than I thought.
The goal all along was to get the images when seasonal snow had melted, so I was in an initial holding pattern. I used that time to take a few preview flights into the Wind River Range, really in retrospect to get comfortable with it.
With a maximum peak at 13,809’, elevation and, therefore, wind dynamics were a tad bit less than Colorado, so as far as how the airplane saw things, nothing had changed.
I just needed to get used to nothing but cliffs and piles of bear-inhabited rocks as emergency landing locations, leaving quite a survival scenario should the worst happen. At the time, I had no radio and an old 121.5Mhz ELT.
I also took some flights around the Tetons. While they max out at 13,770’, vertical prominence exceeds anything I had seen in Colorado. Peak to valley elevation change was astounding, with spires of immense rock.
Late in the spring, it was all still covered in snow, yet maps indicated the presence of glaciers. It was impossible to confirm exactly what was beneath, though I learned enough to know that they would be glued to very serious terrain. My method of flying safely above high mountain peaks that I had employed in Colorado wouldn’t quite work here.
In the intervening months before the beginning of August, I progressively inched closer and closer to the summit of Grand Teton, coming to realize that the deadly winds we all fear are not there all the time.
In fact, Grand Teton was something of a gentle giant, as many times I had priceless experiences in 35 knot winds, without any turbulence, updrafts, or downdrafts, sailing above clouds around the majestic peak. Those skills were helpful in getting closer to high mountain ranges to look down into steep, shadowed areas where I might find glaciers lurking.
During the early summer, I installed a radio and a 406Mhz ELT, feeling a bit better about resources in the air in the event I needed them, though it was something of an experience to understand how little there is in the way of services when down in such wilderness terrain.
Nonetheless, with some new equipment, sample flights, and a healthy dose of research, I dove into the initial part of the Wyoming glaciers in early August 2015.
No sooner than I had completed seeing amazing glaciers in the Wind River and Teton Ranges of Wyoming did the entire West start on fire. For three weeks I sat in marginal VFR conditions, watching prime flying season and perfect glacier flying weather go by.
In the middle of this smoke-laden downtime, we had a combination of a nuisance and opportunity present itself, and plans were made to move to Germany, with the airplane, later in the year.
Now something that initially was just going to be about Wyoming grew to something larger. As there were still glaciers in the American Rockies in Colorado and Montana, why not get them all? Will I even be here before 2030, with the Cub, to finish it if I don’t get them this summer?
Thus, I began a marathon that was the busiest month of my flying career. For 65 hours I sat in the Cub in September 2015, 50 related to the glaciers. I flew to Colorado — and back — twice and made my way to the Absarokas and Big Horns of Wyoming.
On the way back, I said to myself, “I don’t think I can do Montana.”
Four days later, I was at the Canadian border in Glacier National Park for a two-day 17-hour flying binge, racing before late September snows while running from smoke incoming from the south.
I had gotten them all.
When I came to Wyoming, I thought I was a pretty amazing mountain pilot. I had, after all, flown all 58 mountain peaks exceeding 14,000′ (known as 14ers) in a Piper Cub beforehand, so I thought I knew all I needed to know.
As time went by, I discovered that I could get closer to the peaks, that I didn’t always need to be above them and, what was best, I could mix beautiful cloud formations in the right conditions.
Wind, something I avoided entirely in Colorado, was something that could be contended with, even in conditions that seemed impossible, as long as the weather system and terrain was understood.
Some of the things that are feared the most about mountain flying are not correct, yet I also found that it’s an accumulation of small things that can lead to rather large problems.
I also came to an important realization after arriving in Europe after completing the project. Sure, I like flying and exploring anywhere, but what I really like is mountain flying.
It didn’t take long before I ended up relocating to the Pyrenees, where the adventure continues.
“Glaciers of the Rockies” is available on Amazon for $25.
Garrett Fisher has published 16, books, 13 of which relate to aviation. He aimlessly wanders unforgiving jurisdictions in his Piper PA-11 while ranting about it on his blog at GarrettFisher.me.