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Red Rocks / Las Vegas

October, 2017

RR Landscape2

I had skied and climbed with local adventurers Ron Vardanega and Charlie Downs for a few years now, and thought it might be fun to do a “guys” trip to rock climb at the famous Red Rocks area just outside of Vegas.

Charlie was in charge of the hotel and on the phone I thought he said he got a place at the Bunny Ranch.  I said, “Woah Charlie, I didn’t mean THAT kind of guys trip. ”  He repeated the name, Bonnie Springs Ranch, just outside Red Rocks and out of all the neon that is Las Vegas.  It was a fine place although they didn’t serve breakfast until 8:00 am which was frustrating.

We flew into North Las Vegas airport and I flew straight over Red Rocks first so we could all get a good view.

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Looking down at some of Red Rock, literally about 6 minutes from landing

Red Rocks is BIG, with massive walls, deep canyons and a reputation for “adventure climbing” with difficult descents.  So it was appropriate that we had an mini-epic on the first day.  My fault too.  I convinced Ron and Charlie we had time for one more climb, a 5.8 climb up “Panda Pillar” fairly deep in one of the canyons.  It was a scary lead as it hadn’t been climbed a lot and pieces were breaking off the sandstone as I climbed, with one section offering no places for protection. So I was a little slow. Then, when I got to the top of the pillar there were no fixed anchors (like bolts and metal rings) in order to get down easily.  We had to sacrifice webbing and carabiners as we setup rappels on trees and branches, finally getting to the bottom of the climb in the dark.  Then it was a thrash getting out of the canyon as we couldn’t quite stay on the trail in the dark.  Welcome to Red Rocks. We hadn’t been on the ground but for a few hours and we were scratched and bloody.  Sorry guys…


First creek

Panda Pillar. Click on the photo to enlarge it, then look for the rope and climber. I’m actually in the wrong crack, I’ll have to move over to the central crack an climb up the pillar to the top.  


The next day we did the classic, six pitch climb called Frogland and the following day visited the sport climbing area (one-pitch, all bolts) Calico Hills.

Ney frogland

Me on Frogland. Really fun climb!


Charlie top frogland

Charlie at the top of Frogland



Ron stem box

Ron about to do the cool tunneling grunt/move on Frogland


Charlie Calico

Charlie on a Calico Hills climb



Ron ney plane

Ron and Ney – heading back home




Flying North to the Sun – The Eclipse

September, 2017



Photo by Kai Kopitzke


After a hiatus on blogging, I’m back.  There are some fans of the blog that were worried about me, and I appreciate that some reached out to make sure I was OK.  Although not flying quite as much, I’m still out there and will be more active writing.  I have a little catching up to do too…

So – the eclipse.

If you have an airplane and the total eclipse of the sun is two hours flight away – what more excuse do you need?  In addition, my cousin and his wife, Fred and Jenny, live in Sunriver Oregon pretty darn close to the “line of totality” and graciously accepted my “invitation” for Betsy and my son to come stay with them.  Um – and the dogs.


Betsy volcano

Always fun flying north past the volcanos


Fred is active on the search and rescue team and he spoke of a traffic and potential search and rescue event that the area had never seen before.  Millions of people were expected to descend on the Bend/Redmond/Madras area in Central Oregon just east of the cascades and some were expected to try to climb Mt. Jefferson and other mountains to view the eclipse and potentially get into trouble.

So the SAR team set up a control center at the Sheriff’s station and were prepared for the worst.  Luckily it never came.  Forest fires had already closed off access to the mountains and the semi-apocalyptic warnings about crowds had apparently scared off some people so the traffic wasn’t too bad.

In fact, we had planned to just fly into Sunriver airport (just south of the line of totality), stay at Fred and Jenny’s and just climb a nearby cinder cone (mini-volcano) to view the 98% eclipse.  Luckily, that morning we happened to do more research and came to find out that 98% doesn’t do it.  Even a sliver of the sun destroys the magic of a total eclipse.  So we jumped into Jenny’s car and headed north to a hill north of Redmond.  (We could have made reservations and flown directly into Madras airport but I thought that may turn into a circus).



We have really smart dogs.  We told them DO NOT look at the sun during the eclipse!


The eclipse itself was spectacular – definitely an awe inspiring event. Its something like jumping out of a plane, visiting Burning Man, or standing in the middle of a place like Machu Picchu.  You just can’t adequately explain it – you have to experience it. It was awesome!


Group eclipse

Almost there!


We headed back to California that afternoon and I was a little nervous about air traffic as I knew there were likely many of us heading back home.  It is one of many times that I really have enjoyed the new ADS-B technology, as there were a couple of guys nearby and it was easy to avoid them.


Home traffic

Three of us heading home.


Thanks for friend and talented photographer/artist Kai Kopitzke for the use of his eclipse photos.  Kai had his own adventure backpacking into the Tetons with camera equipment to get these beautiful photos.


Photo by Kai Kopitzke



Photo by Kai Kopitzke.  Wow.



My “I’m Alive” Flying to Alaska Adventure

September, 2016
Ney Brooks (Large)

Brooks Range

There is nothing like a serious health scare to make you think about the things you’ve done in your life and what you would still like to do.  It did remind me that I had, so far in my life, not flown my plane up to Alaska.  Heck, I have flown all around the west coast and even wrote a book about it, but not to Alaska.  If the diagnosis was bad I wouldn’t have all that much time and I’d take off and fly immediately north.

It turns out the health scare was just a scare but my wife Bets said, “you have a window of opportunity this summer – just go do it and get it off your list”.  So I ordered a satellite phone, expedited delivery.  I also scoured eBay and Craigs list for a used folding kayak and found one in Washington. I told the surprised sellers to keep it for me and I’d fly in and pick it up shortly.

I wanted to fly the coastal route up and within a few days a weather window was set to open on the coast of Canada and Alaska.  So in flurry of activity of packing and buying freeze-dried food, I flew away.  North.

Over the next month I’ll post my trip as it unfolded.  First a kayaking trip in Prince William Sound then a flight north to backpack in the Brooks Range above the Arctic Circle.

Next: Flying to Alaska, Day One


Flying To Alaska, Day One, Coastal Route

September, 2016

After a quick stop in Siskiyou airport for a 10:00 conference call (its kind of a working vacation) I flew up California, Oregon and through the Olympic mountains of Washington (a preview of the mountain flying to come) in order to pick up a used folding kayak I bought off of Craig’s List.  After handing over an envelope of cash and stuffing a big black 50 pound backpack into my plane, I refueled, activated my international flight plan and within minutes I was over Canadian airspace over a layer of clouds.

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My office for the morning with Mt. Shasta in the background

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Surprisingly symmetrical logging operation in Washington

I wanted to start out VFR under the ample ceiling of about 5,000 feet, but I knew the ceiling was lower later and I didn’t know how easy it would be to convert VFR to IFR in the air in Canada, so I just filed IFR and started on top straight away, above a layer flying at 10,000 then later 12,000.

Hours later, I heard the words, “Cross Annette at or above 6,000 feet, cleared for the Ketchikan RNAV Runway 11 Approach, contact Ketchikan Radio 20 miles out”.  No vectors to final, no gradual step downs.  Cleared for the approach, buddy, you are on your own.  Yee haw.

I dropped into the clouds while the cockpit became darker as drizzle, then rain hit the windscreen.  My new Avidyne 540 GPS took me through two 90 degree turns then on final the glide slope needle came alive to lead me down the final approach into Ketchican – through a fjord.  Man, I love the new (new for me) WAAS approaches!  I had installed a GPSS system and could have had the auto pilot fly the approach, but, well, I wanted to.  A dark shape loomed out my right window and with a glance I saw trees and rocks whizzing by, but shortly the bright approach lights at the end of the runway came into view.  Gear down, flaps down, and just like that, I’m in Alaska.

The instrument approach was exhilarating. A clear mind without distractions, being present in the moment with a singular focus on one thing.  Many people participate in sports or meditate to get this same feeling.  It was a great way to start the trip.

But then, 10 minutes later, the adrenaline was gone and I was sitting on the ramp in the rain in Ketchikan after a very long day of flying.  Exhausted.  I almost just slept in the plane but knew if the weather held I’ve have big day of flying the next day and I’d better get a good nights rest.  So I took the ferry over to town and got a room.


Plane Ketchican (Large)



Bald eagle (Large)

Welcome to Alaska!

Next: Alaska, Day Two


Flying to Alaska, Day Two, Flying the Inland Passage

September, 2016

LeConte Bay

It is over 600 miles up the coast to today’s destination, Valdez, and not many airplanes fly this route without two engines or floats as there are few beaches, few airports plus notoriously bad weather.  There is some added risk, and one reason I wanted to do this trip alone was so I could enjoy the trip without worrying about anyone but myself.  The forecasted good weather did hold out, and when the glaciers, mountains or inland bays beckoned for me to come and take a closer look, I did.

I didn’t fly wearing a lifejacket because the one I had would be very uncomfortable, but I did have it handy on the seat next to me.

Mountains (Large)

Somewhere near Glacier Bay / Mt. Fairweather

The forecasted weather at Valdez was supposed to be 3,000 overcast, which can still mean an exciting approach – one that ends at a waypoint in the bay, not at the airport next to a mountain.  Once you reach the waypoint (1,900 feet above the bay if I remember) then you can visually continue on to the airport and land if it is visual conditions, otherwise to missed.  I had enough fuel to get to Valdez, but with sightseeing and the fact there isn’t much near Valdez as an alternative, I stopped at Petersburg anyway for fuel so that I had about 40 gallons landing at Valdez.

mtn (Large)


The weather at Valdez ended up being clear so doing an approach or worrying about an alternative was a non-issue. In fact instead of flying the long way up the Prince William Sound I took a shortcut through some mountain passes, passing a float plane along the way.

It was one of the most memorable flights I’ve ever had.  Fantastic.


glacier (Large)

Striped glacier 2 (Large)

Not really a glacier you want to land on.


Unloading kayaking gear at Valdez

Next: Alaska, Day Three

Flight to Alaska, Day Three, Columbia Glacier

September, 2016

Columbia iceberg (Large)

Today I got dropped off by a tour boat near Columbia glacier on a gravel bar, more than 50 miles from Valdez.  I spent about an hour assembling the used folding kayak I bought on the flight up to Alaska and I was really happy to learn it floats.  Especially since the tour boat was gone and the captain informed me that even though they list this kayaking trip on their website, I was the only one so far this year to do it.  I knew it would be a nice solo wilderness adventure, but I did expect more kayakers around.

In fact, part of the reason I wasn’t too concerned about grizzly bears is that I thought between the salmon and other kayakers there was plenty for them to eat.  Now I seem to be the only one on the menu under the human section.

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My just-assembled kayak after being dropped off. Now if I can fit four days of food and gear into it…

I discovered the kayak is a really nice little (small for a touring kayak) boat, which is good since it will be taking me four days in it to get back to Valdez.

kayak (Large)

My “new” Feathercraft Wisper Kayak

I paddled up to see the famous Columbia glacier icebergs (The Exxon Valdez went off course to miss one when it hit the reef).  The wind picks up and I was really hoping for a day or two to get used to the kayak before I’m really tested in it, but luckily it turns out to be quite stable.  I’m still careful to not take my hands off the paddle for quite a while so I’m ready to brace, and every now and then a wave crashes over the bow.  It finally calms down after an hour or two of blowing.

I should note that I’ve sea-kayaked before, otherwise this may seem a little crazy to think I could get dropped off 50 miles out with a new boat and jump in and paddle away for four days. Remember, my prognosis is that I’m going to live, not die, so I’m trying to stay relatively safe during this journey.

While playing among the icebergs I see in the distance a real, live Alaskan bush pilot land.  It takes me about 90 minutes to reach the spot but I climb out and hike up to see if I can see the airstrip.  It turns out the plane was right there behind a hill, and there is no airstrip, only a tidal gravel beach with some fairly big rocks visible.  I was impressed.

I find the pilot (from Palmer or Wasilla, I forget which)  and he is surprised to see me because he’s never met anyone there before.  We talk about the landing area and he confesses that it has been groomed by rolling off the large rocks in a certain area, and only he a few others know of it and most importantly, they know which landmarks to use to make sure you land at the right spot.

I’ve seen the YouTube videos of Super Cubs landing on boulder-ridden gravel bars, but I’m still impressed.

Bush plane columbia (Large)

I can’t believe I ding my props on a level gravel runway yet he can do this. I’m jealous.

High tide landing (Large)

High tide landing area. Rather, don’t land at high tide landing area. You can barely see the tire marks.

Next: Alaska, Day Four, I almost Die

Flying to Alaska, Day 4-5, Whoops, I Almost Die

August, 2016
Day four of my adventure I spend with peaceful, beautiful paddling in the Prince William Sound. Waterfalls, flowers, bald eagles, otters (but no bear sightings except footprints).
Waterfall (Large)
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Yes, Mosquitoes. Just have to remember the net when you try to eat or brush your teeth.

On day five I almost die.  Seriously.  You worry a little bit about a grizzly bear eating you, but not this.
I needed to camp near fresh water and unfortunately the only place I found to stop was near a steep creek.  The only two places to actually sleep was either on an obvious bear trail, which seemed like a bad idea, or on a high, flat rock. I was worried about maybe rolling off at night onto rocks or into a high tide but that isn’t what happened.  It rained.
So I zipped up the bivy sack (small one person bag/tent) I had purchased at REI for the trip.  I woke up later with a panicked feeling and very rapid shallow breaths.  Seriously suffocating.  Even groggy and mostly out of it, I knew I needed air and managed to get the zipper open.  That gave me immediate relief, but then I got sopping wet from the heavy rain for the rest of the night.
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Stupid Bivy Sack (Outdoor Research Helium).

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I even noticed the warning, but assumed if I read it it would say not to let children crawl inside.

Really, they sell a bag with a full zipper that if you use it you die?  And if you don’t you can’t keep the rain out?  I acknowledge I didn’t fully read the tag (it didn’t come with directions), but I’m still stunned that there is a product like that.  In the photo you can see the head of the bivy sack, with the hoop that runs over your head to keep the fabric off your head.  I guess I was not paying attention to realize that there is no venting at all in the bag.

Otter bay (Large)

Sea Otter cruising by camp

Flowers snow (Large)

Flowers next a snow field

Next: Alaska Day Six, A Salmon Opener