Lady MacDonald, Canmore, Alberta, 2001
2004 Note: This was the last heli ride up, we've been hiking a ton and having some amazing flights this season. There's a new trail up Lady Mac that makes the hike much more pleasant, most people can get up there in about two hours going easy, or 1:20 with a lighter bag and a lot of caffeine.
Lady "Mac" rises for a 1000 metres directly north of Canmore. It's a popular hike, and one of our best local flying sites. I've hiked up it a few times in the evening to fly, but never really had epic conditions. This morning I was chained to my desk, manacles clanking, when the phone rang: "Hey, we've got a chopper, want to fly?" For $40, the two-hour hike was suddenly a 10 minute chopper ride away... The desk was abandoned faster than yesterday's pizza crust.
The Lad Mac launch..
There's a helipad on the east ridge of Lady Mac, part of a failed teahouse boondoggle that reportedly cost a fair number of locals big cash when it failed. While the teahouse is a mess of rotting expensive lumber, the helipad remains, and it's a nice one. It seems sort of like cheating to take a chopper to launch; I've taken to pairing my gear down to a bare minimum for hiking in the Rockies, flying in a super-light Scorched Earth harness so I don't have to carry much up, but it's still a grunt. So I roast in hell for riding in choppers, I'm comfortable with it, at least more comfortable than walking up the hill with a big old bag. Alpine helicopters will take you to launch if you can find a load of pilots, usually four or more. We flew up in an "A Star," which has about 850 horsepower, a lot more than the Jet Rangers and Long Rangers I've flown in.
It was definitely cool to swoop into launch in a chopper, I couldn't help but grin. Launch was under about six inches of snow thanks to all the lousy, cold weather we've had for the last week. I'd been starting to lose my marbles watching snow fall in July, the blue skies and cus looked beyond good. And to think I could have sat at the desk for the rest of the day...
Cathy and John McIsac, two of the more active local pilots, launched first. Since the launch faces more or less west, it wasn't really working much when we first got there at noon. Cathy had a nice ridge soaring flight and then things slowed down and John got stuffed into the LZ relatively quickly, it just wasn't working. Frank Kernik (spelling probably not even close), the fourth in our crew, launched and valiantly scratched down into depths of Cougar Creek, the first major drainage east of launch, before finally giving up. The wind crossed up, so I ended up waiting a while before the launch face heated and good cycles started coming in. Immediately off launch I caught a nice 300 up and was soon over the tops of the peaks. After all the rain, snow and general weather misery of the last few weeks, I was beyond happy to be up on the air with cumulus clouds everywhere. The air was really turbulent; a valley wind had picked up from the east, while there was a reasonable west aloft. The sheer was fairly healthy; I took a few major whacks remembering that I wasn't flying a tandem anymore, but the Rocket recovers really well and I started flying actively instead of acting like a sack o'lard.
The wind was quite variable, which is typical for big ranges. There's usually a predominant flow aloft and in the valley, but between those two limits things can often change quite radically in just a mile or two. I kept feeling like I was lee, even though you can't be lee everywhere. I think my mind was used to flatland air, which is generally more organized than mountain air. I initially flew toward Banff National Park, sinking until I was down below treeline, but then hooked an absolute boomer that take me to base. I could see Assiniboine to the southwest, and all the rest of the snowy Rockies spread out to the west and north. I couldn't help but just grin; a lot of my flying in the last few years has been in quest of records, comps or other exterior stuff, this was just totally good flying. There's no point to this story, it was just one hell of a good feeling to get way high above big, snowy peaks in the sun. I flew toward Calgary to the southeast for a bit, getting to check out the crags in Cougar Creek, scope some new ones on Grotto Mountain that looked really promising for future climbing, then headed out onto the flats by Yamnuska, another big crag I'd spent a lot of time climbing on this season. Base on the flats was a good 3000 feet below what it was in the mountains; on my first glide out onto the flats, I arrived at the first cloud about 1000 feet over it. Lift on the flats wasn't working like it had been in the mountains, I think the ground was still too soaked from all the rain to be kicking; the same kind of amorphous cus were popping that I'd seen on similar days last month in Texas, so I didn't get too bent when I couldn't get anywhere near base. Evenually the easterly plains winds proved too much to keep driving southeast to Calgary, so I boated around in front of Yam, then ran back in the low-altitude easterlies to the town of Exshaw, where I ran into a flock of about 50-75 white birds. They weren't hawks, weren't geese, they looked more like seagulls or something, but it was cool to thermal a few circles right in the middle of their gaggle before they blew me off. I ended up flyingabout 20K back toward Canmore, where I got drilled by the valley venturi and went through some healthy trash before landing beside the highway in Exshaw. As I spew all this down tonight I'm sunburned and just happy to have finally had a really good flight in the Rockies after two weeks of unbelievably lousy weather. Flying here is definitely different than the flats of TX, it's a much rarer experience and something to be treasured when it's really on. Come check it out!
Looking toward Yamnuska and the plains from about 3,000 feet above Grotto Mountain. You can see the big flat-based cus over the mountains, but the cus on the flats were the typical rounded clouds you get when the ground is saturated.