I have a whimsical illusion from my flight training days in New York that I apparently used to spend untold weeks flying every evening while the sun began to go down and the countryside was bathed in autumnal glory. While some autumn flights probably happened more than once, I know better than to think autumn near the Canadian border lasts that long. Usually it was one resplendent weekend with a maximum of two weeks that could count for anything spectacularly colorful, and that was that. Nonetheless, this mental image of putting the Cub away after a fall flight seared its way into my mind as something ideal.
It wasn’t until 2013, when we had moved to Summit County, Colorado, that I had a chance to revisit this idea. While the Cub had been stationed in North Carolina, nothing could seem to approach the glories of New York, despite the Blue Ridge and its apparently famous colors. I had expected a few aspen trees to show up elsewhere in the state of Colorado, and largely thought I had sworn off autumn in exchange for life in the Rockies.
That was until a fateful drive over a pass, where I was greeted with a colorful display of aspens that rivaled New York, and it was mid-September. I positively went on a tear, mostly on the ground, though also in the Cub, photographing what I saw and enjoying it greatly. Those flights in the Cub were challenging, as I had just positioned the airplane in the Rockies a month before and knew next to nothing about mountain flying. I was still able to get some iconic scenery of the Gore Range and parts of the areas around Summit county before autumn came to an abrupt end.
Since that autumn, I have fantasized about recreating its glories. For every single year since then, it hasn’t worked for varying reasons. 2014 I was able to get one flight with some color up in the Blue Ridge. 2015 I was in Wyoming, and while one would assume the West would explode with cottonwoods and aspens, even the locals complained how poor a year it was for color despite my persistent attempts to find it in Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. 2016 and 2017 I was able to see some color in the Pyrenees, though concentration is an issue in that neck of the woods, where autumnal displays tend to accent scenery as oppose to compose the subject. Ironically, the Pyrenees put on a blanket of flowers in the spring that exceed the colors of fall. 2018 I actually expected almost nothing, as the Alps consist of rocks, snow, ice, and pine trees. “Perhaps there is some color down near Zürich,” I thought to myself, and let it be. A death in the family happened just before the larches began to turn color (interrupting flying), and in my final Swiss flight before leaving, I was greeted with an explosive display of color that I won’t forget.
Which leads me to 2019. Armed with information about larch trees – pines that change color and drop their needles – coupled with last year’s display, I expected a northeastern style explosion of color if I could time it right. Therefore, I made room to attack with it an appropriate level of viciousness. Instead of a repeat of last year, where the entirety of larch trees change color all at once, this year they have varied greatly by geographic area and elevation, with progressive change as the season progresses. I got lots of flying in before the weather turned impossible, which I am told is also normal.
Apparently its low bushes which change one at time.
October and now some early color above Trieste, Switzerland. It is a famous turbulent wind funnel and it was living up to it on this flight.
I thought colors would improve around the bend. Not exactly, though I could add a glacier in. One can see larches which are lime tone set against normal evergreens, which remain dark green.
Beneath Grand Combin. Still just a tad of color.
Yet on the same flight, I finally find some orange pine trees. This is as Swiss as it gets: mountain waves, larches, snow, glaciers, and large peaks in one image.
Next flight and I am left wondering if I will find color. Above Leukerbad, Switzerland.
Apparently I will. Above Brig, Switzerland.
The valley to Zermatt.
Larches mixed with regular trees,
One larch in the sun. Zermatt, Switzerland. Flight hazard to worry about: cable car wires.
Just over the border into France at the Col du Forclaz.
Next flight. I did not imagine I would find a cloud layer mixed with larches. South of Nendaz, Switzerland.
This flight was the coup de grace. On the way to an overnight at St. Moritz. Approaching Passo della Novena. Normal pilots on a cross country would cruise at 10,000′ or more to stay above terrain. I wanted to see the trees, so I plotted a circuitous path weaving down various valleys.
South Tyrol, Italy – the section where German is spoken.
Reschen Pass. Austria on the other side. One apparent challenge at sunset in the Alps is sharp shadows, particularly when flying into the sun in a tight valley.
Don’t worry, I have another one. Morning climb out toward St. Moritz, on the way home.
If you made this far without giving up, my magnum opus has arrived, a book chronicling the pursuit of the 82 highest peaks of the Alps. “Above the Summit: An Antique Airplane Conquers the 4000ers of the Alps” is now available.