When pilot and aerial photographer John Scurlock asked if I was interested in joining him on a trip above the Canadian Rockies*, I couldn't believe my ears. I have spent countless hours of my life trekking through the mountains, but being above them is an indescribably amazing experience (as I've discovered on some aerial photography flights over the North Cascades with John). Having climbed in Canada on a few occasions (Bugaboos and Valhallas and Yoho NP), I definitely have the Canadian Rockies on my list of places to do some more exploration and climbing, so flying over them would be a great way to stoke my interest in these massive mountains. What an opportunity!
The weather is notoriously crappy as fall approaches the Rockies. So we figured we would take what we could get. As John said in one of his last emails before we left: "be flexible but nimble, take what the weather gives and don't get greedy." I figured if all we did was fly to some mountain town and spend a few days in the airport hangar listening to the pattering of rain on the roof, it would be worth the adventure. Seeing some mountains would be a bonus. A fresh dusting of snow to make them look even prettier....well, there I go getting greedy already.
In the end, even my greediest expectations couldn't have envisioned how spectacular this trip would be. The flying conditions were great, the mountains basked in the late summer light, and the trip in general was just so unique and epic that at times it was hard to believe that we were swooping at eye-level past snow-dusted monoliths of the remote Canadian Rockies*. And not just one or two, but hundreds. Over the course of a week and a total of 16 hours in the air, we traveled from Mt. Robson and the northern Rockies in Kakwa Provincial Park down along the west side of Jasper National Park, visiting the Tonquin Valley, the Hooker, Clemenceau, and Columbia Icefields, and then flew around the Valhallas, the Bugaboos, and Mt. Assiniboine. Try to do all that in a single climbing trip.
The following page has my trip notes, map overlays of our flights, and a selection of my favorite photographs. I am sure John will be putting some of his photos on his website as well: http://www.pbase.com/nolock.
Thanks John for this amazing opportunity. It's nice to have friends in high places!
For my Christmas presents this year, I made a 2012 calendar with selected photographs from this aerial photography adventure. Contact me at email@example.com if you are interested in ordering one or more.
Map, Stats, Itinerary, and Trip Notes
|Day 1 - Sept 19
- Flew from Concrete to Penticton (to clear customs) to Valemount. This took less than 2.5 hours of flying, which is utterly amazing when you compare that to how long it would take to drive.
- Aerial photography of Mt. Robson. As the crown jewel and highest and most prominent summit of the Canadian Rockies, Robson was the primary focus of our trip; so it was great to get some of our sought-after photographs only a few hours into our trip. And with evening light, banner cloud, and fresh dusting of snow to boot! Mt. Robson has been on my climbing radar for awhile (specifically the classic Grade IV Kain Face), and after this flight I was more than ever inspired to climb it. Summer 2012, Robson here I come....
- Camped overnight at Valemount airstrip. We made excellent use of the electric water heater in the pilot lounge.
Day 2 - Sept 20
- Woke up early to do some aerial photography of Mt. Robson in the morning light. This is the best time to photograph the North Face and upper Emperor Face, when they are lit pink in the early morning sun.
- The cloudless and calm weather was so pleasant that we flew 100 miles north to the northernmost peaks of the Canadian Rockies in Kakwa Provincial Park; here we concentrated our photography on Mt. Sir Alexander and Mt. Ida, an impressive pair of summits rising out of the valley higher than all surrounding peaks as far as the eye can see. Approaches to this area on foot are long, rugged, and without trails, so it was cool to be able to fly above these mountains on a whim.
- Spent the afternoon downloading and looking through photos at our outpost at the Valemount Airport, before loading up the plane and flying south from Valemount to Invermere.
- On the way to Invermere, we made several aerial photography detours along the west side of Jasper National Park, visiting first the Tonquin Valley and then the Hooker, Clemenceau, and Columbia Icefields, which have some of the highest summits of the Canadian Rockies lying along their edges. We focused on Mt. Hooker, Mt. Alberta, Mt. Columbia, and Tsar Mountain.
- Stayed overnight with John's friends Hermann and Ursel in Invermere. My impression of "airplane camping" took a step up.
Day 3 - Sept 21
- Relaxed in Invermere enjoying the home-cooked meals, good conversation, an evening of card games, stuffed animals, and warm beds. My stomach appreciated the break from the air.
Day 4 - Sept 22
- We woke up to clouds obscuring the mountains above the valley, so we spent another day in Invermere with Hermann and Ursel. An unplanned rest day is never a bad thing when you have a giant squash stuck in a fence to marvel at, flight line overlays to make, and thousands of RAW photographs to process....
Day 5 - Sept 23
- Although clouds still hovered over the mountains around Invermere, a more positive forecast to the south and pending commitments back home encouraged us to continue to work our way southward. The plan was to stay in the hopping town of Nelson for the night. Seemed like the airplane was doing all of the legitimate camping.
- On our way to Nelson we had hoped to do some aerial photography of the nearby Bugaboos or Mt. Assiniboine, but unfortunately we had to settle for photographing clouds over where we guessed the spectacular summits to be. At least the clouds were pretty cool in themselves.
- Nelson was a good place to enjoy good coffee and formulate a photography plan as we watched the weather improve. I was anxious to fly around the nearby Valhalla Range, a group of granite spires that are a little smaller and lesser-known than the Bugaboos, but still pretty spectacular. I had climbed in the Valhallas on two separate occasions in the summer of 2009. So we flew up there. The golden evening light was spectacular, especially on the classic south ridge of Mt. Gimli. Aerial photography of the Valhallas turned out to be tricky. Not only is there not a lot of room to fly, but the compact group of spires creates localized turbulence. Fortunately we were able to make a few photo passes before we had to cut the flight short so I wouldn't make a mess in the plane. I came close....
- Perusing through our photographs that evening, we speculated how the ledged Valhalla monoliths would look under winter snowcover....
Day 6 - Sept 24
- When we woke up to a cloudless dawn, we decided to do one last photography flight before heading home. I had mentioned my disappointment in the obscured Bugaboos the previous day, so even though John had done some aerial photography of this area in the past, he graciously flew to the Bugaboos so I could photograph some of the spires I had climbed. It ended up being a memorable flight for both of us: for me, because it was utterly amazing to see the routes I had climbed from an aerial perspective; and for John because the flight had some of the largest ground speed differentials he had seen (flying one way we would be going 225mph, and then we would turn around and the ground speed reading would plummet to 75mph—meaning that, at minimum, the wind was howling around the Bugaboos at 75mph).
- Since it was close, we made a pass by Mt. Assiniboine before heading back to Nelson. Towering above its surroundings with its aesthetically symmetrical and pyramidal shape, Mt. Assiniboine is sometimes referred to as the Canadian Matterhorn. We made a few passes, but had to stay rather aloof because of the high winds. A memorable moment passed as we dipped into a 1000-1500 ft/min downdraft on the east side, fortunately swooping out of it before being dragged down too far.
- From Nelson, it was less than 2 hours of flying to Concrete. It was a bit of a bumpy ride, but my airsickness was manageable when John let me fly the plane. Also, had a brief landing midway to clear customs at Oroville. Somehow, telling the customs officer that we had been flying around the mountains just didn't seem adequately convey the amazing experiences of the last week.
MAPS(click to enlarge)
Our aerial travels:
(using actual GPS data points from a portable GPS recorder set on a 2 second interval)
Example flight line from Mt. Robson flight:
(using actual GPS data points from a portable GPS recorder set on a 2 second interval)
(red markers represent photo locations)
(as numbered on map; aerial photography flight legs in black, traveling flight legs in grey)
• Sept 19
(i) Concrete-Penticton: 122mi, 50min
(ii) Penticton-Valemount: 242mi, 1h30min
(#1) Robson: 175mi, 1h20min
• Sept 20
(#2) Robson, Kakwa: 301mi, 2h
(#3) West side of Jasper NP (Valemount-Invermere): 400mi, 2h30min
• Sept 23
(#4) Clouds (Invermere-Nelson): 267mi, 2h15min
(#5) Mt. Gimli and Valhallas: 136mi, 1h
• Sept 24
(#6) Bugaboos, Mt. Assiniboine: 339mi, 2h45min
(iii) Nelson-Oroville: 114mi, 45min
(iv) Oroville-Concrete: 119mi, 50min
• Flight miles: 2,215 miles
• Flight hours: ~16 hours
• Total gas burned: ~419 L (111 gal)
• Price: $1.76-1.89/L ($6.65-7.14/gal)
• Total gas cost: $755
• Average gas mileage: ~20 mpg
• Typical flight speed: 100-200 mph
• Typical flight elev: 2,000-14,000 ft
AERIAL PHOTOGRAPHY OBJECTIVESMountains, elev.:
• Mt. Robson, BC: 12,989 ft
• Mt. Sir Alexander, Kakwa, BC: 10,745 ft
• Mt. Ida, Kakwa, BC: 10,499 ft
• Tonquin Valley, Jasper NP, BC/AB: 10,800+ ft
• Mt. Hooker, BC/AB: 10,784 ft
• Mt. Alberta, AB: 11,873 ft
• Mt. Columbia, BC/AB: 12,274 ft
• Tsar Mountain, BC: 11,211 ft
• Mt. Gimli, Valhallas, BC: 9,206 ft
• Bugaboo Spire, Bugaboos, BC: 10,512 ft
• South Howser Tower, Bugaboos, BC: 11,037 ft
• Mt. Assiniboine, BC/AB: 11,864 ft
TOWNS EN ROUTEPopulations:
(census data ranging from 2006-2009; also, many of these areas host thousands more people during peak tourist seasons)
• Concrete, WA (start/end): 705
• Penticton, BC (BC port of entry): 37,721
• Valemount, BC: 1,018
• Invermere, BC: 3,002
• Nelson, BC: 9,258
• Oroville, WA (WA port of entry): 1,686
||Aerial Photography Flight #1: |
Mt. Robson in fresh snow dusting and evening light
||Aerial Photography Flight #2: |
Mt. Robson and Kakwa Provincial Park in morning light
||Aerial Photography Flight #3: |
Canadian Rockies along the west side of Jasper National Park
||Aerial Photography Flight #4: |
||Aerial Photography Flight #5: |
Mt. Gimli and Valhallas in evening light
||Aerial Photography Flight #6: |
Bugaboos and Mt. Assiniboine in morning light
Aerial photography is a challenge. Careening past massive mountains in a tiny plane at speeds approaching 200mph, banking hard to get the wing out of the photo, all the while buffeted by gusts and fighting level horizon lines and air sickness, it's hard enough just to take a photo. Then there's the 1/4"-thick plexiglass to soften the image, collect bug splats, create glare, and reflect everything inside the cabin (Canon might like the free advertising of the ghost image of the camera's logo, but it doesn't make for the best photo). And, of course, there's also a plane to be flown.
(By the way, since I didn't put this elsewhere on the page, John's plane is a Van's RV-6 which he built himself over the course of several years. This little yellow two-seater has served him well, swooping by rugged summits, negotiating high winds, and flying countless miles over the mountainous terrain of the Cascades and Rockies. On this trip, I got to fly the plane during most of the en route portions since it greatly helped with my airsickness; I graciously let John do the take-offs and landings.)
Multitasking as both pilot and photographer, John has made aerial photography into a science. His consistently amazing photographs are a product of several years of problem-solving and experimentation with bank angle and flight velocity, exposure bracketing and shutter speed, aperture and ISO, camera orientation and lens hoods, black blankets and clothing choices. He has been very generous in sharing his hard-learned techniques with me. But as far as shooting photos and flying the plane at the same time, I will leave that to the expert!