Wings In the Winds
by Howard Eskildsen
It was the third of September and summer was drawing to a close. Charlie Love and I had finally gotten our schedules together for one last flight over Knife Point Glacier in Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains. He had been photographing and studying the northern part of the mountain range for the last few years. The summer’s snowmelt reveals the edges of the glacier, allowing him to measure the rate of glacial retreat over the past season. But time was running out. A storm was due later in the day that would hide the glacier once again under a snowy shroud for another season.
The Rock Springs dawn was mostly clear with a few high wispy clouds heralding the approaching storm. The sun was peeking above the horizon when we rolled out to the end of the runway. The coolness of the morning helped us get airborne despite the thin air at the 6700-foot airport elevation. We turned to the northwest, our destination over 100 miles away.
The forty-year-old Piper Clipper that carried us was from another era. It had a rag and tube frame that was light and strong, but the engine, rated at 108 horsepower at sea level, could only produce 90 horsepower at the airport elevation. By the time we reached the 11,000 feet needed to clear the glacial ridge, we would be lucky to be getting 60 horsepower. The plane could not climb higher under its own power.
We were climbing over the Great Divide Basin at 90 miles per hour when the south end of the Wind River Mountains came into view. There was a hint of a cloud bank far to the northwest near the other end of the range. From the ripples on the reservoirs below we knew the wind was coming from the southwest and heading perpendicular to the mountain ridgeline. There would be no further need to maintain the slower climbing speed. At the edge of the mountains the wind would deflect upward and the rising air would more than make up for the lost horsepower. I lowered the nose and coaxed 105 miles per hour out of the little craft. Our concern was no longer the high altitude’s thin air, but the approaching front looming larger each moment.
Below, we passed a section of the old Oregon Trail known as “the parting of the ways”. To the east was South Pass and just to the north lay the mountains. There was some mild turbulence and then we felt the airplane start to heave upward. “We found the elevator, Charlie.”
Surfing the wave of rising air along the edge of the mountains quickly brought us to altitude as the airspeed crept up to 120. It became obvious that the Tetons were taking a beating and the storm system was descending rapidly towards the north end of the Wind Rivers. We were still 30 minutes away from our destination. “We’re making good time,” I said, “but I don’t like the looks of where we’re headed. We may not be able to get to the glacier before the storm hits.”
Knife Point Glacier lies in a cirque against the eastern edge of the Continental Divide. Its meltwater drains eastward into the Wind River via the deep gorge of Bull Lake Creek. Our usual approach was from the west through Indian Pass. Fremont Peak flanked the pass at 13,700 feet to the north and Knife Point Mountain to the south. Gannet Peak, the highest point in Wyoming is about 20 miles further north. On the southern buttress of Fremont Peak, facing Indian Pass is a vertical snow filled crevice. Since it resembles an Anasazi spirit drawing with head and arms reaching to the heavens, we have always referred to it as the “snowy ghost.”
As we approached the pass, the sky was ominous. Gannet Peak was engulfed in gloom. I looked at the “snowy ghost” for a sign of his approval. There was none. The dark front of clouds above us sloped steeply towards the rising ridge of rocks. At the point of contact between earth and clouds a ghoulish glow followed the wind up over the peaks and then plunged down the other side. The hair on the back of my neck began to rise when I realized that I had witnessed this sight once before. Snow!
“We can make one, maybe two passes near the glacier and then we have to get out of here.” I told Charlie. As we crossed the divide, the updrafts tried to toss us into the clouds. With the nose down, the airspeed neared the redline, and I had to pull the power almost to idle in order to avoid overstressing the airframe.
“Why did you cut the power?”, Charlie asked.
“Just trying to keep the wings attached.”
He grinned quizzically, shrugged, and continued to take photographs as we approached the west edge of the glacier. The air became more turbulent and we turned back towards the column of rising air.
“I think we can make one more pass near the glacier.”
“Can we go directly over the glacier this time?” Charlie asked.
“Sure, but we might not make it back.”
During the first pass we had stayed in relatively safe air . But flying directly over the glacier would put us on the brink of the chaotic downdraft on the lee of the ridge. If it pushed us below the ridge into the cirque, the only possible way out would be through the granite gorge of Bull Lake Creek. It would be a turbulent trial for men and machine.
“Just a little further”, Charlie said, “and I’ll have what I need.”
The airplane began to shudder high over the heart of the glacier. Clicking his camera a few more times between jolts Charlie said, “I got it, let’s get out of here!” We were sinking fast, even with full throttle. Indian Pass had been 2000 feet below us but appeared to be rising rapidly.
“If we lose 500 more feet, we’ll have to do a 180 degree turn and head through the canyon,” I said through clinched teeth.
Time seemed to stand still as we closed the gap between us and the divide. Finally, the turbulent decent stopped. It seemed as if a giant hand was again pushing us toward the lowering clouds. “We made it, Charlie!”
The ridge passed barely 500 feet below as we skirted the base of the clouds. The jaws of the trap were quickly closing, but we were safely out and headed for home. I looked once more towards the “snowy ghost”, momentarily wondering what I might do next time I encountered these conditions. His face was hidden in a rage of clouds and snow. The message was clear. There would not be a next time!