There was a storm brewing on the other side of the mountains and the wind was temperamentally building. I was surprised when the report from the glacier was less than 10 knots, but optimistically assumed we were experiencing a lull before the storm. I also knew that if they did not get their groceries today, it might be several days before conditions allowed another trip. I quickly loaded the plane and headed for the 10,000′ level. It was obvious that the wind was blowing at altitude because the clouds were passing by the peaks at a tremendous rate and conditions were changing rapidly. The clouds were looming over the landing site and it was becoming apparent that the line between do-able and dangerous was growing very thin.
The airflow affecting the cloud formation just overhead indicated winds in excess of 60 mph but where I was currently flying conditions remained … reasonable. I made one pass over the campsite and was disappointed when they explained on the aviation radio that the wind had picked up significantly in the past 20 minutes. The climbers had taken a 12 foot probe and tied a pair of pants onto the end of it and stuck it in the snow for a wind indicator. The pants looked like a thin silk flag as they stood straight out pointing away from the ominous cloud formation threatening to overtake us at any moment. This is not uncommon and can be viewed in the picture above as the air comes up and over the range it will actually hold in position for several hours, and then, all of a sudden unleash it’s furry.
I could feel the wind tugging on the control surfaces of the super cub yet I was reluctant to retreat because the air was relatively smooth. As I flew away from the camp a massive downdraft required full throttle to maintain a 500 foot per minute decent. This is where the game can get a little dicy because the Super Cub is no longer performing at its full potential because of the reduced airflow over the wings, and through the engine and propeller. 350 lbs of groceries and gear sat behind me in the seat and the 10,000′ elevation was making itself known. It does not take a rocket-scientist to realize that you have about 30 seconds to make a choice; either go home and don’t look back, or, if you’re comfortable, drive it in there. Circling overhead and talking about it is not always an option, because the longer you lolly-gag the longer you leave yourself exposed.
I was comfortable with landing because I had felt the wind and while it was powerful it was not turbulent, but I knew it was a one way trip. A go-around was absolutely out of the question because of the steepness of the terrain as well as the unstable air. I turned in towards the snow and ice and drove it into the ground under nearly full power with no flaps. It was an un-eventful landing and I quickly unloaded the gear and explained that I wanted to be airborne in 10 minutes –Usually we hang out and at least drink a cup of coffee.
I didn’t know if it was my imagination or if the clouds really were closer, but as soon as the Cub was unloaded and I looked around it seemed as though things were getting worse. The clouds were darker and the wind was stronger. Somebody had an anemometer and we held it into the Southerly wind. It quickly climbed through 10 then 15, 17, 22 mph….. that was all I needed to see, I walked away from the wind indicator and headed straight for the plane. I hollered to the course leader that I needed to be airborne immediately, because I had to take off with a tail wind. They grabbed all the garbage and backhaul they could and I was in my cub with the engine running in less than 2 minutes. I sat with the engine idling while I stared at the pair of pants whipping in the wind, I was waiting for a lull that never seemed to come. I had to take-off down hill because an up-hill, up-wind take-off was suicide in the rising terrain and massive downdrafts at the base of the nearest mountain. I waited, and waited but the wind never relented. I eventually poured the cobbs to it and started down the glacier with 25+ mph of wind blowing on my tail. At 10,000′, in fresh snow, with a half loaded Super Cub, and a 25 mph tailwind it took me almost 2000′ to get airborne.
There is nothing like that feeling of your airplane breaking ground as the wings finally build enough lift to fly … it is a beautiful thing. I spoke with this course a couple of weeks later and they said that within 15 minutes it was snowing and blowing so hard there was no way I could have landed and they did not a see a break in the weather for 3 more days. That’s one thing with the glacier work, you just never know what you are going to get.
*NOTE* I have no pictures of this event because of the circumstances, but the above photo is taken in the same area with a much milder system brewing on the horizon.