Flight Over the Colorado Rockies
THE morning of October 11, 1940, broke bright and clear, the mountains clear cut and sharp with their white mantle of snow contrasting against the deep blue of the sky. This was the morning for which we had waited two weeks. Just after sunrise, Carl Melzer and I arrived at the airport ready to mount in the sky to follow the backbone of the Rockies through Colorado by air. The trip had been planned for some time by Melzer, and I was invited to go along. The object was to photograph Colorado Rockies from the Wyoming line to New Mexico along the Continental Divide and also to include all the 50 peaks of the state above 14,000 ft.
Climbing in the Cessna plane with Roland Graves at the controls, we took off at 6.30 and laid a N. W. course from the airport directly towards Longs Peak which we passed in half an hour. We continued on the same course over the Never Summer Range and across the great North Park Valley until we reached the intersection of the Continental Divide with the Wyoming line. The air was absolutely smooth and quiet without a flutter to the plane. Below us the peaks, powdered from timberline to the summits two days previously by the first snow of the season, cast long dark shadows across the intervening gorges and valleys, heightening by contrast their apparent depths against the sun tipped summits and upper slopes.
At the Wyoming line the mountains tapered down to rolling low timber covered hills. As the plane reversed direction and turned southward, they gradually rose until in 20 miles they reached an altitude of 12,200 ft. in Mt. Zirkel. An easy swing to the E. following the Divide along the southern end of North Park carried us back in to the Rocky Mountain National Park and again past Longs Peak which we could now photograph in full daylight. The sky was crystal clear without a single cloud in evidence and from our lofty perch, peaks and ranges as far distant as 150 miles were clearly seen.
Turning S. from Longs Peak we followed the Divide along the Front Range past the Arapahoe Peaks, then over Berthoud and Loveland Passes to Grays and Torreys Peaks. Here we digressed from the Divide to the E. a few miles in order to fly over Mts. Evans and Bierstadt which lie off the Divide.
Immediately after, we again swung to the W. and followed the Divide on down to Leadville swinging close to the many 14,000-ft. peaks which lie on either side of the Arkansas Valley between Leadville and Buena Vista. Laying a course directly by the summit of our highest Peak, 14,431 ft. Mt. Elbert we crossed the Divide over Independence Pass and headed for the colorful 14,000-ft. peaks of the Elk Mountains. The valleys below were very beautiful with their deep red soil covered with gold, for the aspen trees still had on most of their leaves with the rich autumn coloring. The high red sandstone Maroon Peaks, rose from this base of gold with precipitous slopes into the sky, their sides plentifully covered with snow like frostings on a chocolate cake.
Obtaining our pictures of this colorful region we again swung back to the Divide and followed the Collegiate Range all of whose peaks tower above 14,000 ft., until they faded down to the lower rolling peaks around Cochetopa Pass. From this point we turned north to the town of Gunnison to replenish our gas, and landed there at 10.30 having covered about half our trip in the four hours since leaving Denver.
A few minutes of leg stretching and taking on of nourishment in the form of coffee and doughnuts and we were ready for the air again. The sky was still cloudless and windless, but as we cut back to the Divide and headed for the rugged San Juan our plane commenced to pitch and jump with a consequent effect on our moving pictures. This was due to convection currents caused by the midday sun warming the S. sides of the peaks, the rising warm air currents creating a turbulence that tossed our ship around considerably so that we did not dare approach as close to the walls and summits of the mountains as we had in the morning. Needless to say in covering this very rugged section of the state I kept one eye on the instruments, because in event of engine failure there were very few spots in this whole area where a plane could be put down safely. Our good engine continued to function faithfully and smoothly. Despite our buffeting around all over the sky we carefully followed the Divide and also flew by all our 14,000-ft. peaks until we had covered the whole region and reached the lower peaks and New Mexico line at Cumbres Pass.
We had now accomplished one part of our objective, the following and filming of the Continental Divide and adjacent high mountains. There remained only the half dozen or so peaks of the Sangre de Cristos and solitary Pikes Peak to complete the filming of all our high peaks. With this in view we headed across the broad San Luis Valley towards the Sangre de Cristos, followed them north past the Crestones and continued on past Pikes to Denver where we landed about 3.30.
Thus ended a grand flight of 1100 miles in 8.5 hours with a pictorial record of the most interesting parts of the state along the Continental Divide, and all 50 of our highest peaks. Quite a contrast to the 90 days of travelling that it took Carl Melzer and his son Bobby to walk the divide on foot three years previously. We hope some day to fly over parts of the region again, possibly in reverse order so that we may have quieter air over the San Juans and perhaps bring back a steadier reel of pictures of that interesting region.