To understand this flight, it becomes necessary to dial things back to last summer spent in Switzerland. I had a very specific list of things I wanted to fly to: the 82 peaks over 4,000 meters (13,123 feet) in the Alps, located in France, Italy, and Switzerland. I thought I had successfully completed the task, except when I went to work on writing the book, I noted that two were missing, and a third clump of peaks would be better suited with different photographs. How could I have come this far, photographed everything large I saw, and missed two? Well, I did that in Colorado back in 2014 when I chased the 58 fourteeners; I missed one and fortunately was able to get it before moving the airplane to North Carolina (it happened to be the closest one to the airport). The nefarious peaks in question in the Alps shared a characteristic of the lone peak of Colorado: They were some of the smallest on the list, thus appearing inconsequential when surrounded by their larger brethren.
I concocted the brilliant idea to get all three in one flight. The Aiguilles du Diable in France (4,074 meters/13,366 feet), Punta Giordani in Italy (4,046 meters/13,274 feet), and the Dürrenhorn in Switzerland (4,035 meters/13,238 feet). It should have been doable in theory, except there was this pernicious reality called an overcast over the Oberland. I figured it would be touch and go to get back to Saanen, so I planned on fueling in Sion if things delayed and that I’d sort it out if the overcast didn’t lessen as planned.
When I got to Gstaad Airport, there were plenty of airplanes flying around, including a PC-24 doing touch and goes. Given that it’s a VFR-only field, there must have been some egress out of the Oberland. I took off, planning to go west via Les Mosses, though there was a business jet up to something I wasn’t sure of, so I turned south over Gstaad, continuing to Gsteig, where a tiny hole in the overcast appeared. It was far too amorphous to climb through, so I continued west over the pass to Ormont-Dessus, then Leysin toward my escape to the sunny Rhône valley. From there it was a full power climb all the way to the Mont Blanc Massif, then eastbound past Grand Combin (4,314 meters/14,154 feet). Clouds were 40 percent coverage over the high peaks, requiring flying around them at 13,500 feet, with relatively clear skies elsewhere, meaning that they were orographic summer lift. I had originally hoped to blast straight to the Dürrenhorn from Saanen, except I now had to reverse the plan.
I came across the Matterhorn (4,478 meters/14,692 feet) in its illustrious cloud-forming glory, then had some angst that the Monte Rosa Massif appeared to be covered in clouds on the south side where Punta Giordani was hiding. It then occurred to me that there were clouds the other handful of times I swung by, and I probably didn’t notice this smaller peak because it was hidden. Thankfully, the clouds parted for a minute on the Italian side of the ridge, so I got my photo and moved on.
From there I went north back into Switzerland toward the Mischabel Group, in pursuit of the Dürrenhorn. Yet again clouds were billowing up, with Dom visible, though not Dürrenhorn below. Perhaps again the same thing happened? Well, no, upon recollection it was completely clear when I flew here last. The problem is the Dürrenhorn is not exciting compared to massive ice caps nearby.
I went over the ridge between two peaks shrouded in clouds, distracted a bit by the beauty of the scene, hoping I could come around the north side and swoop down to get the peak. Fortunately, the clouds were clear from the angle of the Nadelhorn, so after some fancy footwork around moving clouds, I got a shot and moved on.
Now that my errands were done, I had to figure out what I was going to do about getting back to base. I could see that the entire Oberland and Swiss Plateau were socked in from above, with no holes. I decided then that I’d burn off my excessive altitude by cruising west along the Bernese Alps and land at Sion. I requested permission to cross the TMA, which was granted, and then my ability to transmit stopped working.
I did the whole triple radio battery swap. No change. Tried other frequencies. No change. I could hear, just not speak. If I did the squawk 7600 routine, I’d be let into Sion, though likely not out until the radio was fixed. What a bother! I thought a bit about trying to make a go at Les Mosses and land at Saanen, where a radio was not needed. If the pass was open and no further problems developed, it would work, though that’s it, with no buffer for fuel. That was as dumb of an idea as it sounded, so I opted for Bex, a short grass strip which technically requires prior permission. I landed without incident and found that the radio problem was the mic connection dislodged lightly.
For the flight back into the Oberland, it was evident Les Mosses was open, as well was the overcast in the process of clearing. Since I know little about the vagaries of poor weather in Switzerland, I wasn’t going to play with all the things that could go wrong in high, steep terrain with overcast. At any rate, after almost four hours of technically challenging, ice cold, unpredictable flying, I decided that the flight was a silly idea. Did I really need to hit them all up in one binge session? “There is no reason this needs to be difficult. The next flight I am going to make enjoyable, period.”
Is this idiot whining about flying in the Alps? No, just disapproving of my own unrealistic ambitions. The mere fact that I have flown to these peaks in the past doesn’t make them easy in the future.
I definitely lived up to my decision on the next flight five days later. Münster is a small field located high in the Goms Valley of eastern Valais (known as the “Texas of Switzerland”). It is open for June through August and is located at 4,400 feet in a deep valley. I contacted the airport manager, got permission (once I described my mountain experience), confirmed fuel, and set off.
Weather was uncharacteristically dry. There were almost no clouds or haze in the Oberland, which is unusual, with glorious blue skies. I had a rough idea of where I might go, though was only constrained by arriving at my destination before the fuel ran out. In flight, I saw that terrain on the northern edge of the Alps was completely clear, so I hung out at 7,700 feet and photographed major terrain from below, as I had hoped to do for last month’s post (and ended up above the clouds at 13,500 feet instead).
The flight was positively glorious.
I continued east over the Sustenpass, south to Andermatt, west to Furkapass, then down the Goms Valley, eventually to land at Münster once the glider traffic jam cleared up. Münster is practically heaven. Scenery was exquisite, with the sound of the turquoise rushing Rhône River alongside the airport, blue sky, remaining snow from last winter on a few peaks, and illustrious green trees and grass. If the airport was open year-round, I would have moved to that valley.
The airport manager asked where I was from, and when I said Upstate New York, he said he has relatives in Rochester. I pointed to the Cub and told him that “I soloed that airplane 45 minutes from Rochester.” Another pilot came over and we chatted for over 20 minutes. He did some training in Cubs in the Swiss military when he was young and was raving about how wonderful the airplane was. Some advice he was taught: “Make sure you come at a peak with the proper altitude in advance, as the airplane does not have the power to climb.”
He articulated his surprise that I showed up. “Who would imagine a Piper from America, here in Münster?” Well, I concur! I never imagined that this Piper would end up in the Valais, either.
I was going to head west and figure out a way to get over the Bernese Alps on the way back to Saanen. The problem was that there were a few orographic clouds, and wind was bumpy over the passes. I wasn’t sure about how to get over without getting beat up, so I decided on climb out to head over the Grimselpass. That was the right call as there was a fair amount of wind per the lakes at the pass, though no bumps. I then descended down to 1,000 feet agl over the Brienzersee, cruising right over Interlaken, then back into the Oberland for landing before the 8 p.m. deadline.
I had some time at the airport afterward, as I needed to change the oil and there were some aggravations to sort out, typical of being in a new place. That afforded a classic hour in evening light after a long day of flying. I was the happiest I have been since I can remember after a flight, rating it probably in the top ten of all time. I suppose the difference is merely perspective.
Oeschinensee (5,177 feet surface elevation). I am usually 6,000 feet or more above it after a Jungfrau binge.
Lauterbrunnen (below) with Mittelhorn, Schreckhorn, Eiger, Mönch, and the Jungfrau (left to right). Flight path was a bit right, straight ahead, then left beneath the peaks in the back.
Ischmeer, with Grosses Fiescherhorn (13,280 feet) in the rear. A bit of katabatic wind off the glacier, which is normal apparently when I get that close and they are that big. Still figuring that part out.
Ober Ischmeer. This was a very tight situation, even for a Cub. I could not discern my agl visually, as there were no trees, people, or buildings, so everything is subjective. Looking at Google Maps on terrain mode later, I figured out I was 500 feet above the glacier.