At the end of the road - literally; in midwinter - is one of the last real outposts of the continental United States. This is a place where you can easily step away from modern convenience and within minutes be immersed in a snow covered paradise inside one of America's largest wilderness ecosystems. For those willing to make the long drive and work hard upon arrival, Cooke City, MT is an oasis of deep snow, easy access, and endless alpine terrain.
As aviators, Rebecca and I have been wanting to fly through the area so that we could have the airborne perspective that we love so much. Talking about flying into the Beartooths and actually doing it however are two very different animals; the terrain is unforgiving, the altitude is a very real glass ceiling, and the lack of options in an emergency would mean that you had better be the embodiment of Robert Baden-Powell's Scout Motto 'Be Prepared'. The cumulative objective hazard is such that I am willing to venture into these mountains by airplane in nothing less than the finest weather and then only in the early morning while the thermals are mild and the when the sun can provide many more hours of light than we have fuel aboard; even if that means waiting months for the opportunity to try and being willing to return to the airport at slightest hint of uncertainty welling within myself or my fellow cockpit crewmember - who is also my wife.
When wintertime tightened it's icy grip this November we decided to start critically watching the weather in hopes that we could have our flight occur sometime in December or January. After plenty of patience I decided that Christmas day looked good if the weather forecast was accurate. Ultimately the system that was on it's way through our area stalled and it snowed all day - a white Christmas! The morning after Christmas looked promising and we decided to pack up and head to the airport well before sunrise. Driving down I-90 it became increasingly apparent that the freezing fog was much worse than forecast. We decided to sit in a local cafe, drink coffee, and eat breakfast sandwiches. At 10:00a.m. I called it, our time window had closed with a thick blanket of ice fog still not allowing more than a quarter mile of visibility on the ground.
Sunday the 27th was sheer magic. We awoke at 5:15 and found a waning gibbous moon shining high overhead as harbinger through the crystal clear night sky that today was going to be our day. Winds aloft were forecast as calm, the combination of calm(aloft), clear skies, and recent snowfall during daylight hours is a rarity in these mountains. At the airport we found temperatures well below zero, our airplane however was nice and toasty, it lay nestled in it's hangar under an engine blanket, with it's engine block heater and cabin heater running all night long. With 50 pounds of hand selected survival equipment in the airplane, and 'dressed to egress' we cleared the prop and started the engine. After sufficient time to allow the oil temperature to rise into the green we were climbing skyward out of the now patchy fog and turning on course.
The Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center had been issuing high danger ratings and warnings on a near daily basis for the last two weeks due to a buried layer of weak snow that had created significant and widespread instability. Only a week prior a snowmobiler from North Dakota was caught and buried in an avalanche in Cooke. He succumbed, his two traveling partners were also buried, fortunately they were able to escape. With the hazards so real we decided to recon our route of flight for avalanches, hoping to report something vaulable to the GNFAC. We were astounded to find over 50 natural avalanches(meaning no indications of a human trigger) before we decided stop counting. Moreover, these avalanches did not seem to have any particular preference for slope angle, aspect, or locale and they ranged from the small to the quite large - as we observed on Mount Fox.
As we transited eastward high above Yellowstone National Park we increasingly knew that the wind forecast was accurate since the ride was smooth as glass, like a rowboat on a farm pond at dawn. Coming around the northeast corner of the park we were graced with the immense presence of Abiathar Peak's North Face which poses a formidable challenge for any climber wishing to stand atop it's 10,928 foot summit. While gazing from our small Cessna at Abiathar, Amphitheater, Baronette, and the larger mountains of the northeast horizon I was struck with an awareness that these mountains posess not just a physical presence but also a spirit of enduring vitality, perhaps even a soul.
After lingering above the valley between Silver Gate, MT and Cooke City we proceeded northward through the lonely wilds of the winter Beartooths. We paused briefly to snap some pictures of Daisy and Lulu passes which are the sites of many unfortunate avalanche related accidents and the location of one my first poor weather helicopter rides as a green and untested Wilderness EMT. To have had the photos from this Sunday on those early Search and Rescue calls would have been a massive advantage in positional awareness.
Northwestward we traveled across the massive Stillwater and Boulder River drainages into increasingly agreeable terrain, we were now crusing at an altitude of 12,500 feet after briefly reaching 13,700 feet. One thing that really impressed be about our 41 year old airplane is that at almost 14,000 feet above sea level we still had ample climb power available to us and we easily maintained level flight at a much reduced power setting. That's a testament to the capability of a well designed, lightweight, and painstakingly maintained airplane on a cold winter day. As we began our slow descent back to the valley floor the oxygen returned in force, my pulse returned to normal, and the special contentment (which only pilots know) returned ; that is lots of altitude below and reasonably flat ranchland ahead.
I am looking forward to my next trip into the Beartooths. They are my most beloved mountains and even if I never got to fly in them again I would still appreciate them on foot or ski, with fly rod or ice axe, just as I have in the past. These mountains are a national treasure and while they command an ungenerous respect for mere mortals they also deserve fair treatment and protection, so that future generations of Americans can continue to appreciate the freedoms that only a nation like our own can provide.