Where Eagles Dare


The first thing that hits me is the silence. As Jacques Brun and his D140 Mousquetaire II disappear into the distance, it is suddenly very, very quiet. I look around. Then the full craziness and impact of my predicament hit me. And I start to feel very, very small.

Five minutes ago, I was happily ensconced in the left seat of a Jodel Mousquetaire, banking around some of the tallest peaks in Europe, taking in the beautiful summer sunshine reflecting off of gleaming-white glaciers with one of the most experienced and famous mountain flying instructor pilots in France. Flying in close proximity to jagged rock pinnacles dividing icefalls and glacial fields isn't something you want to do with just anybody, but Jacques has over 23,000 hours of flight time in and around these mountains.

And because we were in a plane equipped with retractable skis, and because the morning conditions were just so beautiful, Jacques offered to let me land on one of the glaciers. So far, so good. We checked the conditions, then came back around, skimming low above the glacial field until we gently intersected its rising slope. Jacques increased the power to keep us moving up the steepening slope and turned around to take off again.

Unfortunately, the ice gripped hold of the skis faster than we could offset. We ended up halfway through the turn, parallel to the bottom of the slope, but unable to get the plane to rotate the rest of the way downhill to take off again. Jacques leaned over and opened up my half of the canopy. "I need your help," he said over the noise of the running engine. "Go to the wingtip and push back as I add full power. That should rotate us. But once the plane turns, I don't have brakes, so I'm going to have to take off. Make your way down to the tracks down there ..." He gestured to some tracks further down the glacier, where the slope was shallower and the snow was in the sun. "... and I'll come back and pick you up there."

I DID think to grab a fleece jacket as I nodded and climbed out of the plane. But focused on the needs of the mission, I didn't take anything else. I climbed gingerly off the Mousquetaire's low wing and made my way carefully around the down-slope wing until I was at the front edge of the wingtip. The ice was thick this morning, I noted as I kicked two toe-holds through the crusty surface to give me some traction to push against.

I leaned into the wing as Jacques ran up the engine, and the plane started to shift. I ducked under the wing as it pivoted sharply toward me, then turned in time to see Jacques lifting off and heading out toward the lower end of the glacier.

I watched the plane get small in the distance, the sound of its retreating engine quickly swallowed by the vast, uninhabited silence of the glacier and its surrounding mountain peaks. And there I was. Standing in the midst of all that majestic snow, rock and ice.


Eleven thousand feet and miles away from civilization.

Oh, yeah. And in my running shoes and shorts, because I hadn't exactly planned on doing any glacier hiking this morning.

It all seemed amusingly surreal until I took a step downhill. My foot slid out from under me, and I only barely managed to catch myself. This ice was serious, and I didn't have the Gore-Tex pants, gaiters, mountain boots, crampons and ice axe I'd used to navigate these conditions just two days earlier on the Dassault Mont Blanc expedition. Getting down to that track in the sun was going to be a lot harder than it looked. For a minute, I considered simply sliding down the glacier on my tail end. But then I considered the impact of rough, uneven ice scraping along bare legs and thought better of it. No, I was going to have to walk.

Using the technique I'd acquired just days before, I lifted one foot and jammed my heel through the ice to make a heel hold, shifted all my weight down to that foot, and then rammed my other heel into the ice a few inches further down the slope. Ten minutes later, I was breathing hard, drenched in sweat, and was still only partway down the slope. But as I stopped to catch my breath, I surveyed the sparkling snow of the Glacier du Tour and the jagged peaks of Petite and Grande Fourche behind me, and wished I'd at least had the presence of mind to grab my camera on the way out of the plane. It WAS, after all, a staggeringly beautiful scene.

Fortunately, Jacques recognized that I could use some help, climbed out of the plane (now returned to the glacier) and used his mountain boots to chip a stairway of sorts for me the rest of the way. So a few minutes later, we were back in the Mousquetaire and on our way again.

We banked around to the right and did a touch and go on another section of the glacier, waving at some nearby mountain climbers along the way. Jacques then headed straight for a wall of jagged rock peaks. Or so it seemed. I mean, there WAS a little notch in the ridge, but surely he didn't plan to ... oh, good lord, was he really going to ... pass through it??!! Nearby rock gave way so abruptly to a vast abyss of altitude that my stomach almost dropped as dramatically as the landscape beneath us. I think I even gasped with surprise. And, okay, a little bit of glee. Again, not something you want to do with just anybody, but no mere roller coaster gives a thrill ride like that!

I laughed out loud, and Jacques smiled. "Fun, no?" he said.

Fun, oui !

Welcome to the Megève Aero Club and the pinnacle of mountain flying in France. Megève is a charming Alpine town that was put on the map by the Baroness de Rothschild in 1916, when she decided to build a world-class ski resort there. The Mont D'Arbois Palace Hotel she had built in 1921 still stands, although I stayed at the Chalet St. Georges, which has the same sumptuously comfortable Alpine décor and to-die-for French cuisine but is in the center of town. A better holiday ski destination, in fact, would be hard to find.

I'm not sure exactly how and why this particular village became the center of Alpine aviation. But in 1967, the town opened the Megève mountain "Altiport" just beneath the Les Aiguilles Croches mountain ridge, which looms only one mile and 3,400 feet above the 4,800-foot-high airport, making Megève's 600-meter runway a "one-way-in, one-way-out" strip. I'm told that Megève was the very first mountain airport in France, and it's become the center of mountain flying training in the country.

There are two mountain flying certifications in France (wheels and skis), and at least one is required in order to rent an airplane out of the aero clubs that are the mainstay of general aviation in the country. Each certificate takes about 12 hours of instruction. The airplane of choice for this training -- and flying -- is Jodel D140 Mousquetaire II -- a four-seat, low-wing airplane that was reportedly designed specifically for mountain flying in the late 1950s. In fact, the 50th anniversary of the airplane's first flight (July 4, 1958) was three days after my flight out of Megève.

The Mousquetaire (as in the three famous French rogue heroes, not the Disney club with Annette Funicello) is powered by a Lycoming O-360, 180 hp engine and is notable not only for its distinctive cranked wing, responsiveness and stability, but also for being able to carry almost its own weight in useful load. Jacques Brun said he preferred it to even a Cessna 185 for Alpine flying. And for my part, I found the Mousquetaire extremely easy to fly, with harmonized controls, steady response, and a reassuring ability to leap off the ground, even at altitude.

But the best part of flying out of Megève isn't the airplane you get to fly. It's where that airplane takes you. I asked Jacques if he ever got tired of flying around this little section of the French Alps. Twenty-three-thousand hours is a long time to do anything, after all. He just smiled and shook his head.

"No," he said, in a way that conveyed that if more explanation were necessary, I would never understand.

A couple of days earlier, I'd sat in a Chamonix café looking up at Mont Blanc's imposing peak and pondered why people were so driven to take on the daunting challenge and guaranteed discomfort of climbing it. And among the many complex reasons of personal challenge, learning, sensual life experience, a drive for achievement and exhilaration, the conquering of fear and the pushing of limits, it occurred to me that part of the answer was undoubtedly just to see the view from the top. And that desire, at least, I have the ability to fulfill without crampons, ice axe, and all that goes with that.

The Dassault team members who made it to the summit of Mont Blanc came down exhilarated with their accomplishment, as they well should have been. But when they gushed, "We could see all the way into Switzerland and Italy from the peak!" I couldn't help but think, "Wow. That's terrific. But ... I don't need to climb a mountain to be able to do that." Which made me realize, once again, how very lucky a person I am to have flying in my life.

Of course, having now spent some time amidst the icy heights of the Mont Blanc range, I have to say that the view from the slopes really is different than anything a person can experience by air. And all the other reasons for taking on that kind of challenge still stand. On the other hand, as Jacques and I banked around peaks, coasted up and down one glacier after another, and sailed effortlessly over ridgelines that I'd so recently struggled to ascend, I decided there was also something to be said for the aerial view, and not just because it's a whole lot more comfortable.

It's because the view from the air gives a kind of perspective that even the summit of Mont Blanc can't provide. Not to mention an ability to take in far more along the way than when you're forced to concentrate solely on your next toe-hold in the ice. Except, of course, on those rare occasions when your flying ends up leaving you smack dab in the middle of a glacier, where your next toe-hold in the ice suddenly becomes very relevant, indeed.

But maybe that just means that my time in Megève gave me the ultimate Alpine experience. I flew up to the summits, and then got to spend some time immersed in the beauty and challenge of the world there before being whisked away again, back down to a gourmet Alpine picnic luncheon with good Rothschild wine. I thought back to Jacques' comment. Maybe, after 23,000 hours or so, I'd get tired of that kind of day and life. But then again ... maybe I wouldn't.


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