Great day with the family and friends, we are truly blessed.
Great day with the family and friends, we are truly blessed.
My best friend from college flew up to Alaska today with his wife and little girl so we loaded the 185 and headed for Halibut Cove. I don’t often take time off in the summer, but sometimes a chill pill is needed. This is our family cabin and my mom and dad are sharing the time with us which is awesome. We will be down here for a few days and then back to the normal routine with flying pictures.
This is one of several teams of mountaineers currently climbing in the Chugach Mountains near by. Most of these teams will be totally isolated in the extreme wilderness for 4 weeks. The only contact with civilization during this time is when I bring them groceries in my 1962 Super Cub. These climbers are with an organization called NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School). NOLS does an excellent job of training young people to be leaders while experiencing the rewards of the wilderness. These month long trips test the endurance of all those who participate and they are some of our favorite clients. I have done hundreds of flights for NOLS and I am always impressed by the goals they accomplish.
I took my dad out on the glacier this weekend. We landed up at 8500′ and it was still more than 40 degrees. It was an awesome day to be up on the snow. We landed above a huge 2000′ ice fall on a glacial shelf. Often the cold air makes up for the high altitude in terms of flight characteristics, and density altitude, but with 40 + temperatures the poor old bird was really feeling it. When we were done with the job on the glacier we said good-bye to the mountaineers and crawled into the cub. There was a little bit of wind blowing down glacier, plus we were pretty heavily loaded, in slushy snow at 8500′ elevation. The climbers reminded me that I only had a little bit of smooth snow before the huge crevasses trailed into a 2000′ vertical drop of broken snow and ice.
The Cub very slowly accelerated and after several hundred feet the tail came up and we began gaining speed. We lifted without a problem, and seconds later huge crevasses were passing just 15 feet below the skis. As I carefully accelerated and began bleeding off the flaps I allowed the Super Cub to loose a couple hundred feet as we came over the shelf because the terrain was falling away quickly and there was a bit of a downdraft with the falling air. After we had been airborne for about 2 minutes, a concerned voice came over the radio inquiring as to whether or not we were airborne. I laughed and said, “all was well” when the leader responded on the radio we heard a loud cheer from the team on the ground. My Dad and I busted out laughing not realizing the dramatic view the mountaineering team had experienced as we had disappeared toward the icefall with our skis still plowing slush as we doggishly accelerated down a one way slope. We got a good laugh over this, and then flew back to the house for hamburgers and steaks with the family.
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Look at those groceries! Kai can really eat.
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These guys had spent some time trying to get up Marcus Baker but the weather did not cooperate. We picked them up a couple of days ago after the storm had passed.
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.
The goal of this afternoon hike was to find a set of shed moose antlers. Our good friend Luke Denbleyker was able to join us for the search.
Matt married into a strange family.
This majestic valley is our front yard…
It’s that time of year again, perfect powder and long days. I am getting ready to head out of town on a job, but I am hoping to get some skiing in when I get back. The Chugach Mts have gotten some good snowfall in the past 10 days and things are looking up.
It’s not uncommon for Mike and I to make 15 trips onto the glacier before lunch. I took this picture at the 10,000′ elevation in the Chugach. We were hauling these mountaineers in so they could spend a couple weeks climbing various peaks in the area. You can see that they are probing the area for crevasses before they unrope and set up camp. I have pushed a 12′ probe into the snow until it disappeared, and never hit solid ground. The snow cover in some of these places is incredible.
It’s unnerving to drop of the first climbers when the clouds are hanging overhead like they are in this picture. The first trip onto the glacier with the first climber is always the heaviest because they must carry all the necessities to survive if weather prohibits us from returning. The first load always consists of client, sleeping bag, tent, gas, food, and personal gear. We NEVER separate a client from their sleeping bag. One of the reasons folks like flying with us is that we can operate as many as 3 Super Cubs at the same time and/or the Cessna 185 to expedite these larger groups.
I remember I could see the clouds drying up as they descended towards us at 50+ knots. Fortunately the wind was such that it was going over-head and missing us. The weather held until we got everyone in, but it never let us relax. Days like this are intense because it could have gone zero zero in less than 3 minutes, but all morning the monster just hovered overhead and watched. The weather changes really fast in Alaska, and is only amplified at an altitude of 10,000′. I took this picture in July.
You know, you would not be as handsome either after 3 weeks out on the glaciers. These guys had just walked up and over the Chugach mountain range, and this picture was taken in a really neat spot in the Chugach mountains not far from Valdez. I landed in the middle of the glacier and you can see that we are still very close to the vertical rock and ice. I have seen huge house sized chunks of ice laying half way down a snowy slope after breaking off and sliding. Mountaineers don’t usually set up camp right underneath an ice fall, so I certainly rely on them to pick a good safe location for me to land. In this picture none of us are on ropes because the entire area inside of their camp has been probed to determine that solid ice lay beneath the snow and not over top of a gaping crevasse. The short walk from the camp perimeter to the airplane is taken at my own risk. :o)
Strong winds and poor lighting are the two most common battles fought in a landing spot like this. In fact, I just remembered that the wind was blowing out of the South on this particular re-ration and I could not get over the pass to bring them the groceries. I was up at 8500′ and loaded with 350 lbs of food. The prevailing winds were smooth but firm. Under full power the airplane still could not out-power the down drafts over the pass so I headed down glacier several miles and came through an area that was slightly wider allowing a turn if the down draft mandated it. When those mountain pilot authors write about flying over ridges at a 45 degree angle they are not joking. I do this out of habit without even thinking about it, but I don’t think you should have to read about it. Flying straight at a ridge in windy conditions should give you the heeby-jeebies because it just feels and looks wrong. Flying in the mountains demands that you leave yourself numerous options because variables change fast. If you are going to lock yourself into one path ……. then you better be doggone sure it’s going to work.
These were some hardcore dudes. Mike and I dropped them off at 8500′ in the Chugach and they spent something like 18 days out here grabbing first descents and taking their chances kite skiing on the glacier. All three were heli-ski guides in Valdez during our winter, and then they move to South America for more winter. They said skiing the Mount Goode area was great, but that everything was bigger than they anticipated. The crevasses they skied around were large enough to swallow a house, and that tends to knock some of the edge off the carefree attitude. They did manage to ski Mt. Goode which is 10,610 feet tall. You can see the conditions were superb, but while they were there they got like five more feet, and this was in May.
These mountains can brew up some awesome weather and kite skiing seems to be growing in popularity. We dropped a guy off a couple years ago who kite skied the Tazlina glacier, which might be compared to canoeing Niagra Falls. He is still alive, but his kite is still out there … somewhere.