Through the Rocky Mountains
It was a fine,
sunny August afternoon as I touched down at a small Alberta
airport in the foothills of the Rockies. The temperature was
typically hot but a cool breeze came in from the west, the same
breeze that was my tailwind across the mountains rising sharply
just a few miles back. Departure from Kamloops, B.C. had been
under similar conditions earlier in the morning. A big
high-pressure system over Western Canada was stable, offering
good flying weather that pilots could not ignore. Final
destination that day was Edmonton.
Photo by Ken Barry
flying club facility, a couple of local pilots sat, enjoying the
early afternoon heat. Normal greetings were exchanged, and they
asked where I had flown in from. The conversation suddenly got
interesting to them when Kamloops was mentioned.
“We don’t go in
there as a rule” one stated, referring to the mountains. These
fellows were purely flatland flyers, not unlike many others I’ve
met on the prairies.
pilots who avoid congested Class C airspace, and those that
avoid mountains. They seem to attach a certain mystery to
mountain flying. And with good reason! There are uncounted
wrecks and plenty of aluminum sitting on the rocks of the
Rockies, unfortunate results of inexperience, bad weather, bad
decisions, and pilots getting lost. Living in close proximity to
them, undoubtedly the stories are talked about a lot around the
airports and flying clubs of the foothills.
I’d have to say
my own mountain-flying experience is quite extensive. I learned
from some of the best while working as a tow pilot launching
sailplanes. At my age, it’s probably been good decision making
(fear) rather than great skill that’s kept me out of trouble.
There have been times when it would have been a whole lot safer
to be on the ground than caught in some of the bad weather I’ve
pilots have asked what the best way through the Rockies would be
if flying from Alberta over into British Columbia. I always say
you can’t go wrong with the route westbound from Jasper to
Valemount, then south following the Thompson River through the
towns of Blue River, Clearwater, then Kamloops. When I was in my
teens, I lived in the Alberta town of Hinton, located on the
Yellowhead Highway between Edmonton and Jasper. Just 15 miles
from the first range in the Rocky Mountains and about 40 miles
from Jasper town site, the highway through there was familiar to
me. That was before becoming a pilot, and one reason the road
existed right through to British Columbia was because it was a
natural corridor. No point on that highway between Kamloops and
Edmonton is higher than 3,500 ft. ASL. And oddly enough, that
point is well outside the mountains, almost 40 miles east at a
site called Obed Lake. The land surrounding Obed is relatively
low foothills. Through the mountains, the average elevation of
the highway is between 1,200 and 1,700 ft. ASL.
when I obtained a private pilot license in B.C., I never though
twice about flying off to Edmonton or any other Alberta
destination. It just seemed natural to take a C-150 or 172
through that route. You don’t need to be higher than 4,000 ft,
which is usually below most weather in there.
Only once was I
caught by the weather, and that was at Blue River, where the
valley narrows down and a lot of cloud can plug things up. It
was late in the afternoon when I left Edson, Alberta for
Kamloops, B.C. with a planned fuel stop in Valemount. After
departing Valemount, it was suddenly darker than expected,
mainly because the overcast was thickening and getting lower at
the same time. Soon it was pelting rain, and I almost had to
turn back with just five miles left to get to Blue River.
However, flying just above the highway and because the area was
quite familiar, I was able to fly straight in to Blue River.
Relieved and happy to be on the ground, I stayed the night.
The downside of
that route is the unreliable weather forecasting. The mountains
throw off a lot of localized wind and cloud that just doesn’t
register with FSS predictions. Calling ahead to a helicopter
operator in Valemount gave me some good information one time.
Just getting a reliable report from someone on the ground was
helpful in a go or no-go decision. There is fuel available at
Valemount, but none in Blue River unless you have a jerry can,
can burn mogas and don’t mind a one-mile walk into town. If
you’re east bound, the next fuel can be bought at the
Hinton-Entrance strip, but call ahead and someone from the
flying club will meet you. Edson has fuel as well.
several other routes which VFR pilots can take to get across the
rocks. From Kamloops to points such as Red Deer means flying
much higher in spots, through Revelstoke, over the Rogers Pass
and into Golden. Most of the route is over the Trans Canada
Highway. But at Golden, you can leave the highway and fly north
through the valley of the Blackberry River. That little
departure from the security of a highway below, is a short hop
of only about 30 miles, and will bring the VFR pilot to the
Jasper-Banff highway at Saskatchewan River Crossing. The valley
is steep and quite narrow, but the floor is only around 2,000 to
3,000 feet ASL most of the way through. Several peaks and
glaciers rise to near 11,000 feet on both sides of that valley.
there, you’re in Alberta, and eventually you will exit the
mountains near Rocky Mountain House. For any mountain flying, it
is best in the early morning hours. Plan to get through before
the mid-day turbulence kicks up and usually you’re fine.
instructors who can offer specialized training for mountain
flying. It’s a good idea to be briefed on the basics of the
unique situations you can find yourself in when flying to
unfamiliar territory. Personally, I stay close to the VFR
routes, best over highways, and wait for good-weather days,
Maybe there were higher risks than I understood when I started
flying in the mountains. Most problems you will run in to
involve wind and weather. A good briefing and good judgment will
help to keep you out of trouble. The rewards include the
fantastic scenery viewed by very few privileged pilots and their