There is one thing about mountain flying that makes it feel surreal yet so unnatural to me: flying at an altitude below the peaks (and in some cases, thousands of feet lower than the peaks!). When you are hemmed in on both sides with mountains rising above you, your body tells you that something is not quite right. "Shouldn't we be above the land?!" Well, that's part of the beauty, excitement and potential danger of flying in the mountains.
There are added risks to flying in the mountains. Weather can be a lot more unpredictable. Unexpected clouds, high winds, turbulence, and downdrafts are just some of the surprises you might encounter when flying near or in mountainous terrain. This is where preparation, particularly picking a day with suitable weather, is so important. Weather forecasting models are quite impressive, but they don't always get it right; it's essential to understand the big picture yourself before flying in the mountains to limit the potential surprises you might face. What's going on with frontal systems? What are the winds doing? What changes are expected as the day progresses?
The other challenge with flying in the mountains is route selection. If there was an emergency, how do I get to safety and closer to help? This leads to the golden rule of flying in the mountains:
Always remain in a position where you can turn toward lowering terrain.
In other words, always have an escape route in mind and be ready to use it if you need to. I'd like to say I was pithy enough to invent this rule, but it's from the guy who wrote the book on flying in the mountains. Really. Mountain Flying Bible is a classic, must read for anyone flying in the mountains. It's not a short read, but well worth it.
When you do your homework and prepare to fly safely in the mountains, it is an experience unlike almost anything else. The cares of life fade away and you are submerged into the beauty all around you.
Here's a taste of mountain flying here in the Pacific Northwest. We recently took a flight out from Bend to the Olympic National Park just after a storm front passed. We were treated to many snow-covered peaks.
Volcanoes in a row: Mt Jefferson, Mt Hood, Mt Adams lined up.
Glaciers spilling off the top of Mt. Olympus.
Mt St Helens looking menacing with windblown dirt on the east rim.
Isolated thundercloud growing on top of Mt Adams at sunset.
What mountains would you like to see us fly around?