Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, February 26, 2013

There’s Something About Mountains

Far from menacing monsters, mountains can be your best friends

And yet, despite the high rocks' disapproving, ominous frowns, looking down on me from four-mile heights, there's a kind of beauty to these semi-vertical edifices. I suppose my real appreciation stems from having been raised in Alaska and New Mexico where mountains dominate practically every horizon, and to have subsequently lived around them most of my life.

I spent my teenage years in Anchorage, and I used to look north on those incredibly clear, bitingly cold, winter days and see the dramatic white dome of McKinley peeking over the horizon, shining in the sun from 170 miles away. Unlike the jagged blades of rock that form Everest and Annapurna, McKinley always seemed benign and friendly, a happy, rounded marshmallow of a mountain.

With the typical arrogance of youth, I used to think, "Perhaps I'll take a stroll up the side of it some afternoon," not knowing that Denali (the Indian name for it) is infamous in the climbing community for some of the worst weather conditions of any mountain.

Later, 2,500 miles south in Albuquerque, I lived hard by the peaks of Sandia, and still later in Southern California, I flew the length of the Owens Valley, staring up at Mount Whitney, marveling at the majesty of the jagged Sierra Nevada. There were times when the rising terrain fostered wild up- and downdrafts, and my love for tall rocks was tempered by gritted teeth and seat belts pulled as tight as I could get them.

Still, there was always the wonderful Sheepherder bread of Schat's Bakery in Bishop to look forward to. I used to fly my first airplane, a Globe Swift, 200 miles to Bishop just for their great bread, rather than a hamburger. It seemed worth it at the time. I hope Schat's is still there.

Some pilots regard mountains as the enemy. I've always considered them friends. Learn to read them, envision the wind flowing across them like water cascading over rocks in a stream, fly the appropriate slope and you may be able to appreciate free climb or tailwinds. High terrain can also serve as a buffer to help hold bad weather at higher elevation and provide room to fly underneath.

When the weather is good, mountains can serve as navigation beacons for hundreds of miles. McKinley stands like a sentinel practically in the middle of Alaska. When visibility is good, you can see the perpetually white mushroom peak from 200 miles away in all directions.


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